Thinking of hiring a systems thinker but wondering what they actually do?

I am often asked what a systems thinker is and what they do in their work. Of course, there are many academic responses to this and systems practitioners (and others) can spend an inordinate amount of time debating the answer. Whilst this might be helpful to the academic advancement of systems thinking, it doesn’t really help people in organisations who just want to know, ‘If you come and work with me, what will you do and how will it help me?’

There is a huge breadth of differences in how systems practitioners work and the approaches they use. So much so, it is impossible to answer on behalf of everyone. However, I can tell you some of what I do in my work and what I might focus on (which will invariably change depending upon the context of the situation). No references to academics or academic text, just ‘plain speak’:

I look at the bigger picture

I don’t just look at one tiny area. I zoom out and look at your problematic situation and the context in which it sits and how they impact one another now and/or how they might impact one another in the future.

I ‘see systems’

I look at things as systems. This means that I do not jump to blaming staff for the problematic situation. Nor do I jump straight to reorganising, restructuring, outsourcing etc. Issues in problematic situations are usually systemic and I seek to understand why they are really happening before making any kind of recommendations or changes. This doesn’t mean taking a long time either. My approaches can help me make recommendations or changes very quickly sometimes.

I don’t look at problem/ solution per se

In complex situations there is no problem/ solution per se. There is only and improvement from where you are now. Yes, in improving the situation you may solve some kind of problem along the way, but I look at how I can help you to be adaptable so that you can deal with your own issues on an ongoing basis

I respect different views and perspectives

I use a number of techniques (like diagramming) to work with different perspectives in a non-threatening way. The diagrams might include visual metaphors that allow feelings to be displayed without entering into a “he said, she said” scenario. They are extremely powerful and can often reveal things that, until the point of drawing the diagram, have remained hidden.

I allow time to accommodate conflicting interests and help people work through their own understanding of the situation and that of others

This is a very under-rated exercise. It is extremely valuable. In my experience, people hate feeling that their interest in a situation is not as valuable as someone else’s interest. Just knowing that the person working with you and the other parties understand your point of view helps to dissolve barriers.

I explore organisational arrangements and governance and diagnose what is preventing the system from operating to its maximum effect

This is done via systems modelling. I use a very powerful diagnostic approach to explore your situation and work out why things aren’t working quite as you want them to be.

I examine the thinking behind some of the faulty decision making in the system

It’s easy to have faulty decision making without even realising it. All of us are guilty of it at some time or another. It might be that there hasn’t been enough information when making the decision or someone might have been given poor advice. If a decision hasn’t given the outcome that you wanted it to, I can often pick up in my diagnosis why this might have been the case.

I use methods, concepts, tools and techniques to examine and deal with complex, dynamic and diverse problematic situations

I don’t just ‘wing-it’ or do what someone else has told me to do. I have applied systems and complexity thinking to my work for over 10 years. I use a variety of approaches that have sound theory behind them and I have, at some time, ‘tested them out’. I do try new things also, to ensure that my approaches keep developing and my thinking is ‘fresh’.

I support you to manage the complexity and manage in the complexity and encourage adaptability as key to your system surviving

I look to see what makes your system breathe, what makes its heart beat, what conditions have to exist to enable it to live, what makes it die. I look at how your system interacts with the environment around it. I look at what interdependencies exist, or don’t exist but should or could. I look for the drivers of your complexity and I look for the energy levels in your system – are people and processes energised, frantic? Are they stressed, fearful or in despair? Or are they asleep, calm, laid back with not a care in the world? I don’t just consider, ‘What is this thing?’ I consider, ‘What does it do?’

I examine the potential consequences of different configurations of the wider system

This is another place where I use some systems modelling. I use a number of approaches, depending upon the context of the situation. These approaches help me to understand what configuration might be most useful to you and allow you to be more adaptable moving forward.

I support collective decision making

Particularly in complex situations a collective decision can mean you get buy-in right from the start. Not all decisions can be made collectively of course but I do try to avoid top down dictates. I believe in the expertise that exists in systems and can often be ‘hidden’. I like to tap into that and make sure it is utilised and people are recognised for it.

I share whatever I can to help you learn

I don’t believe in keeping my ways of working to myself. When I work with you I put as much effort into sharing as I do into doing any other aspect of the work. The more systems and complexity thinking I can ‘infect’ you with the better, in my opinion. I try not to use technical language and complex ways of describing things. I try and keep it as simple as possible so that you can use the learning yourselves and pass it on to others.

 

Systems thinkers can bring a very different perspective to your work. They can help you understand why something keeps happening over and over again and can help you find options for improvement that you might never have thought of.

Advertisements

The games we play

SmallLogo

Yes, that’s right, we play games. It isn’t all statistics and theories in this field! The first thing I like to do as a systems practitioner is to appeal to people’s human side. After all, it is people we are dealing with and it is usually them I am trying to help.

Many people in the Western world have a bias towards dogmatism. Therefore, I often find it a good idea to expose this, just so people believe it exists. I don’t mean embarrassing people or putting them on the spot, but showing that we are all very much alike and respond in a very similar way to the stimuli around us. It is easy to fall into our dogmatism “trap,” no matter how much we try to avoid it. So how do we break the habit? We play games, of course! Well, I do anyway; especially if I am delivering training courses. I don’t mean training courses particularly about systems thinking either. You can incorporate systems thinking into any kind of training.

For example, I was asked to deliver quality assurance training in an NHS organisation. Brilliant! What better opportunity. Ensuring quality means you have to have an understanding of the situation you are in and why any failures in quality might have happened. If you are steeped in dogmatism you will inevitably fall into the trap of attributing blame and potentially miss the real reason for the failure. So, I like to open up people’s minds and expose them to the concept of multiple perspectives. “What do you mean, multiple perspectives?” I hear you cry. Yes, multiple perspectives; they really do exist. Our own perspective of something is not necessarily a true reflection of the situation we are observing. It is merely our own view of that situation. The person next to us might very feasibly have a completely different perspective of exactly the same thing. To demonstrate the concept of multiple perspectives I use an exercise from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows.

bookIt’s the one called, Circles in the Air. I have a lot of fun with it and delight in seeing people walking down the corridor days later with a pen in the air, trying to work out whether they are moving it clockwise or anticlockwise!

 

If you haven’t used this book before, I highly recommend it. There’s even a DVD with it to demonstrate the exercises. It’s quite easy to demonstrate how our brains make lightening quick associations, how we might perceive things differently from someone else and how we are easily guided into misconceptions by our past experiences.

I like to break down these barriers first and show people that we are all human and we all fall into the same traps. It helps to erode the stigma attached to “getting something wrong.” After all, you need humility to apply systems thinking. You have to be willing to challenge yourself. If you want people to come on board, you have to show them they are human and it’s ok to make mistakes. Only then might they be amenable to reviewing their current practice and taking on board new ways of thinking.

Moral of the story – play games, appeal to people’s human side and enjoy it. Applying systems thinking isn’t about being boring and stuffy. For me, it’s about infecting others with your systems thinking bug. And, once they have the bug, I’m pretty sure they won’t want to get rid of it.

What is a Systems Practitioner?

SmallLogo A systems practitioner is someone who is able to put systems concepts into action. This might be in their work, everyday personal life, or both. Systems practitioners often use systems ideas to investigate, evaluate, and make changes in complex situations. Some people think that systems practitioners “look at our systems.” To some degree we do. However, what we mainly do is to take the concepts of how a system works and apply them to situation so that we can work out what is happening in that situation and how we might improve or change it.

But what is a system? Well, a system can be defined as anything consisting of two or more parts which work together as a whole to give a property/ properties that do not exist in one of the parts alone.

For example, a car car  can be classed as a system. It consists of a number of parts which, together, give a mode of transport. Transport is the emergent property of the system. It emerges when all of the parts work together. Singularly the engine is not a mode of transport, nor are the wheels or the seats etc. Without the rest of the car they are not a mode of transport.

Systems have various properties. Here are a few of them:

  1. they have emergent properties (i.e. being a mode of transport is the emergent property of the car)
  2. they self-organise (i.e. they are dynamic, they change)
  3. they exhibit “feedback” (i.e. they consist of information flows or loops of causes and effects)

Systems practitioners tend to focus the connectedness between the component parts in a system. These parts can be: people, departments, services, organisations or sometimes whole societies. A system is however big or small you want it to be. Our intention is to understand the system, as a whole, so that we can predict its behaviour. We tend to do this because if we reduce the situation into smaller “bits” and tweak or change only one bit and not the others we will have more chance of failure. But, if we look at it as a whole then we usually have more chance of success. It is not an “ivory tower” academic discipline. It is very pragmatic and practical. Systems practitioners consider the impacts and unintended consequences of actions as well as the actions themselves.