Blended systems thinking approach – diagnosis and design for regenerative transformation and change

Gosh, I didn’t realise how long it was since I’d done a blog post. I’ve been busy, head down, working but a lazy Christmas Eve has allowed me some time to start updating my blended systems thinking approach. Without giving away all of my commercial ‘secrets’ here is my basic outlined approach so far. As ever it’s a work in progress, changes often as I learn new things and the diagram is not as I want it to be just yet….having a think about that one.

This approach has been developed over my 10+ years of using systems thinking and pulling together all of the things that consistently work well for me. As ever, though, each situation is different and my approach differs depending on the situation and context in which I am working.

Diagnose – based on identifying imbalances in variety, identifying how a system self-organises and regenerates and how adaptable the system is to change.

Design from scratch – focussing on the perceived purpose of the system, based on the multiple perspectives of the stakeholders. Taking into account POSIWID and aiming for sufficient adaptability to manage entropy and emergence. Designing for positive emergence where possible.

Transform – based on shifting perspective, aligning values and perceived purposes and building a co-created identity. Building capacity by focussing on interconnections and interactions, enabling effective communication flows and aiming for requisite variety.

My Approach

Identify the system in focus and undertake context exploration

  • SSM – (rich picture, CATWOE, root definition, system map etc)
  • Multiple perspectives and motivations
  • Local rationality and ‘rules of the game’
  • Complexity drivers – internal and external
  • Multiple causes
  • Culture, identity and values
  • Work with 3 levels of recursion (the level of your system, the systems within it and the wider system of which it is a part

Identify the intended purpose of the system in focus as defined by the stakeholders and undertake a boundary critique

  • Boundary critique (at 3 levels of recursion if possible) is KEY to the first stages of the diagnosis. ** this stage should be done at he start of the diagnosis and NOT missed out**
  • Remember POSIWID

Understand the dynamics of the system (systems dynamics)

  • Identify the structure (stocks, flows, outflows and feedback) which determines behaviour over time
  • Understand connections underlying motivations and behaviour – For example – is there a focus on imposed targets? What kind of culture does it indicate if there is (i.e. a fear culture?) Is one member of staff imposing views upon others?
  • Identify the dominating feedback loop – what is the most important thing that is most limiting?
  • History of the system – what is the system’s long-term behaviour?
  • Consider feedback loops in terms of the VSM (every interconnection is a complexity equation and a feedback loop

Consider system statics and dynamics in terms of viability (viable system model)

  • VSM diagnostic
  • Variety imbalances – particularly identifying the critical imbalances
  • Pathological archetypes
  • System laws
  • Communication flows
  • Model of the system
  • Work out implications of the structural problems – do they match the symptoms or the problem. What insight do they provide for how an improvement can be designed?

 Undertake any further appropriate system diagnosis

  • Structural couplings
  • Otto Scharmer’s 3 enemies
  • Barry Oshry’s tops, middles & bottoms

Identify range of systemically desirable and culturally feasible options for improvement

  • Use MCA for prioritisation


  • Small scale prototyping
  • Prototype small scale packages of change based around capability for making change without too much disruption
  • Change slowly and incrementally by changing one thing at a time
  • Aim to enhance total system properties like growth, stability, diversity, resilience, diversity
  • Identify a small group who want to try out the change and let them try it out. Make changes, as and when, until what you are trying out works. Do not be afraid to fail and make changes often until you start to get the outcomes you require.

Review & Repeat

  • This should be a continuous process and stages are not meant to be chronological. They are intended to be done concurrently and each point chosen from, depending upon what the situation requires. However, it is always preferable to do the boundary critique at the beginning of the diagnostic approach
  • Work fluidly and iteratively
  • Let the inquiry guide you and take you where it needs to go


Ideas/ approaches etc that interweave throughout – to make the model work

  • Facilitative and coaching style
  • Clean language
  • Non-violent communication
  • Learning our way together by “infecting” others with the concepts and ways of systems thinking
  • Being aware that we are all trapped inside our own minds so:

o   use isomorphic framing i.e. explaining using a situation which is similar to the one people are facing to help them understand it (delivering the suggestion of something that corresponds to a specific issue they know about)

o   explain how people have rigid mindsets and are unable to visualise the whole system and particularly unable to visualise from the perspectives of others

  • Being aware of how we:

o   are easily tricked

o   make lightening quick assumptions

o   use unconscious filters to filter the multiple stimuli in our situation. Our filtering is guided by our bedrock of assumptions (causes stereotyping and inaccurate assumptions)

o   don’t take on board multiple perspectives

o   often only see what we already know and we ignore critical information because our filters and cognitive structures are so strong. (Diagramming can help to expose that which we don’t see).

o   select observable data at a speed that tends to make leaps in abstraction

  • Remember that once we are anchored at the bottom of the ladder of inference our most underdeveloped skill is our peripheral vision
  • Slowing down the situation (i.e. by diagramming it) so that we can study it
  • Aiming to get a more accurate picture of the whole to open up our peripheral vision
  • Considering social connections – remember that people are socially connected and if we make it so that they stand out they may become socially excluded.
  • Adding in design features that encourage others to reach out and interact with others

Practitioner behaviour and actions

  • Work in a current rationality informed way – so that you can start to shift the rationality as you move forward with the work;
  • Learn the politics and protocols of the environment. Learn how those who are succeeding are manoeuvring around the politics – this will help you work out the ‘rules of the game’;
  • Remember that stress changes our ability to think and a lot of people in the situations using systems thinking are in high stress situations. Therefore, seek to find out what is needed to help people really “think” about the situation (do they need space/ permission/ to be away from the management/ someone to listen?);
  • Consider in advance how people might have negative reactions to systems thinking and pre-develop a set of positive responses to those emotions, rather than reacting negatively, on the spot, which can cause you to lose the respect of those you are working with;
  • Recognise where people have emotional investment and take care in this area. Work out the reason for the emotional investment. Is it valid?
  • Work to increase your own requisite response to other people’s emotional reactions to systems thinking (remember to look at things from another person’s point of view; how powerful will systems thinking feel to them?);
  • Understand what your own go to reflexes are in relation to negative reactions about systems thinking and learn a new set of reflexes to deploy in the event of those negative reactions;
  • Interpret any strong emotions in the situation (including your own). Passion often means people care – go to the root of what they care about and try and maintain that throughout the change. Show emotional empathy to gain buy in;
  • People need some degree of emotional stability to make learning more effective – try to build this kind of environment as you go along;
  • Do not only look at needs and purposes but also look at local rationality. Then, tie this to the flows of influence you identify (if you can). This will help you to identify powerful points that can be changed/ influenced or that might be difficult to change. Identify your potential brick wall areas;
  • Find out what people are upset about first – as part of their rationality – find out what is driving the human behaviour in the situation as well as identifying the dysfunctional aspects of the system (maybe the two go hand in hand?);
  • Try and identify any unrecognised fundamental impediments in current thinking. Are people prisoners to any of their frames of reference?
  • Use interactive planning (i.e. the future is subject to creation. Let the stakeholders define the desirable future). The stakeholders are the designers. Bring the whole system into the discussions right from the beginning;
  • Use judgement and common sense to set the scope;
  • Identify the problem and follow a natural path of inquiry. As each question is answered, move onto the next question that arises. Work fluidly and iteratively, let what you are looking at and what you are being exposed to guide you. It sometime helps not to set an exact route through the inquiry, but to let the inquiry guide you;
  • Take a genuine interest in people;
  • Scrutinize your own thinking as you go along;
  • Sell the problem you solve, not the product you use;
  • Continue to use different ways of presenting the info as this keeps the brain alive and helps it to learn.

Overcome change blindness by ensuring change is explicitly noticeable – when you don’t expect the change you can totally miss it


Are you riding the waves of change or drowning in the turbulent seas? What can we learn from Gareth Morgan?

‘Imagine a long, open Hawaiian beach. The surf is rolling in, and the waves are speckled with surfers and surf-boards. Some surfers are riding the waves with flowing determination. Others are flying high into the air and plunging deep into the foam. The image provides a metaphor for management in turbulent times. For like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean.’ (Gareth Morgan, 1988)

What are you doing right now? Are you surfing, swimming or drowning? Are you surrounded by beautiful fish or man-eating sharks? Today, in public services, it is all too easy to feel like the surf is spinning you around, dragging you under and then crashing you against the rocks. But, back in 1988, Gareth Morgan gave us some great insights into the management competencies that would be required moving forward, to help us surf like a professional.

Morgan reminds us that, ‘many organisations and their managers drive toward the future while looking through the rear-view mirror. They manage in relation to events that have already occurred, rather than anticipate and confront the challenges of the future.’ He is clear in highlighting that organisations are becoming flatter and more decentralised. Self-organisation is occurring where autonomy is given to remote staff groups who are controlled from a distance.

With these changes comes the undeniable need to think and work differently. Possessing specific skills and abilities and combining technical, human and conceptual skills to create efficiency is no longer enough. To date, many organisations have tended to be successful because of very tight centralised control. Direct control can often feel like an attractive and comfortable way to manage. It suits those at the top who often can’t let go because their concept of being organised is linked to controlling and monitoring their constituent teams/ services. There is also some fear that the people at the bottom will not be driven to the same excellence in decision making as those at the top. But what can replace this direct control and how do people need to work to make it happen?

Moving forward, control will look more like management of relationships across a network, rather than management of discreet activities. ‘A network must be managed as a system of interdependent stakeholders, with collective identity and management philosophies that recognise the importance of mutual dependence and collaboration and a collective sense of accountability and control.’ ‘Collective identity’ itself will be a particular challenge, in my opinion. It is all too often that teams/ services/ organisations cling on to their identity for dear life and even after years of restructuring/ integrating/ changing, being dragged under the water over and over again, they still emerge flustered, gasping and adamantly refusing to let their old identity go.

Morgan tells us that, ‘Increasingly, the leadership process will become identified with an ability to mobilise the energies and commitments of people through the creation of shared values and shared understandings’. Development of operational skills will be only one part of the story. Developing attitudes, values and the mindset to allow teams to confront, understand and deal with forces inside and outside of the organisation will be the other side of the coin and the two must work in harmony together. Navigating the forthcoming waves with foresight and flexibility will be imperative to survival.

Management competencies will look and feel much different to those of today and will include:

  • Developing contextual competencies – building bridges and alliances, reframing problems to open up new possibilities, acting nationally and locally, developing a new approach to social responsibility;
  • Reading the environment – scanning and intelligence functions, forecasting, scenario planning and identifying major occurrences that could shape the future environment;
  • Proactive management – developing proactive mindsets, managing from the outside in (keeping in close contact with the evolving environment and enhancing capacity to rise to challenges and opportunities in an ongoing way) positioning and repositioning skills (the ability to manage tension between present and future so that you can position for the future whilst avoiding collapse in existing operations);
  • Promoting creativity, learning and innovation;
  • Skills of remote management (helicoptering, managing through an umbilical cord, promoting self-organisation, managing ambiguity and managing the balance between chaos and control);
  • Using I.T. to drive improvements;
  • Managing complexity (many things at once, transitions and multiple stakeholders)

The manager may no longer be able to function as a technical specialist who is also responsible for managing people, as is so often the case today. He or she will have to be become much more of an all-round generalist. Traditional supervisory roles are likely to disappear and the important competency may then lie in the ability to get employees enthused and fully absorbed with the new corporate philosophy, rather than to follow instructions in a mechanical way.

Innovation will be essential and with it comes the need to improve lateral interactions. Team managers will need to be able to:

  • Talk to and work with one another, embedding really successful interactions;
  • Develop a sense of common purpose;
  • Engage in effective conflict management and be able to read and handle hidden tensions;
  • Be a general resource to teams, a trouble shooter, a networker between self-organising teams, linking those teams to the wider organisation;
  • Take a more hands-off approach to management so that the initiative and control is passed to others;
  • Feel comfortable dealing with loosely structured situations and only intervene when necessary and in ways that empower;
  • Be aware of feedback systems that keep them informed without giving direct operational control.

In addition, organisations will need to adopt a risk taking ‘see if this works’ attitude, developing a supportive culture to experimentation. They will need to give parameters within which to operate, monitor on the basis of results and give teams the autonomy to operate quickly and flexibly to the changing environment. Planning can be bottom up, with management ensuring that plans fit with the organisation’s overarching vision. However, early warning systems should be built in to let managers know when intervention is required. Those mechanisms should seek to maintain the autonomy of the teams.

To deal with accountability, organisations and their managers should create systems of values, so employees can share and understand the mission and general parameters that guide action, rather than developing a set of rules as bureaucratic organisations do now. This, in itself, will require a mind-set shift from current day. Future managers will have to become as skilled in the art of empowerment as traditional managers are skilled in exercising direction and control.

Anticipating, communicating, sharing, inspiring, empowering, facilitating, networking, motivating are all words which are likely to become more and more common place in relation to management competencies.

As Morgan tells us,
‘You must have a remote type of management facility – the Europeans call it the helicopter principle – where you hover like a helicopter over the scene. If something goes wrong, you can come down and resolve it, but essentially you operate at a distance, and let the operation go.’

Which, I dare say, will be easier said than done for most organisations……

(Riding the waves of change, Gareth Morgan 1988)