Do you want to know what it’s REALLY like to be a systems practitioner?

I have just watched Manhunt on ITV player, for the third time. Yes, the third time. I was watching for something specific with each viewing. If you want to know what it is really like to be a systems practitioner, watch it and keep your eye on the main character, Colin Sutton.

Systems practitioners aren’t consultants who come into your organisation with fancy approaches and ‘sprints’. They aren’t the ones trying to wow you to get themselves more business. Systems practitioners are the ones who, on a daily basis, overcome every barrier that Colin Sutton’s character had to overcome in those two series, particularly the one about Levi Bellfield.

Systems practitioners zoom into every detail and check it out from a human perspective. Not from a ‘computer says’ perspective. They live it and breathe it. They step into the shoes of others and walk it. They see through the eyes of others as well as their own. They go through every aspect of a situation and fully experience it for themselves. They do not cut corners. They painstakingly explore and keep exploring when everyone else has given up. They zoom out and see the bigger picture. They are not deterred by a boundary drawn on a map. They say to themselves, ‘What would a human being do here?’ They experience it. They feel it. Every inch of it.

They have to get past the doubters. They hurdle the blockers and the sceptics. They allow them to have their say but never lose their own focus. Why? Because they work from the heart. From their mature instincts as well as the theories and approaches they know inside and out.

They stand up to game players. They call them out, no matter what the consequences for themselves. They have courage. Boat loads of courage. Why? Because they believe in what they are doing.

True systems thinkers don’t ‘do’ systems thinking. They live it. It is one of their habits.

Watching the series, the first time round, I was fascinated by the stories and there was something else I could not quite put my finger on. Watching second time round I could see it plain as day. I recognised the barriers, the hurdles, the doubters, the game players, the human errors, the reliance on processes that did not work. I also recognised that what worked was a thorough understanding of people and the ability to think in a way that was not clouded by the lack of resources, the poor procedures, the human imposed barriers and boundaries. It was steeped in empathy and common sense. Third time round, I watched again to confirm whether or not I had seen what I thought I had seen.

What I saw was very familiar. Being a systems practitioner is like fighting that fight, when you might be the only one on board at first. The one who dares to step forward and the one who remains determinedly focussed, no matter who tries to knock you off track. No matter who wants to give up. No matter who wants to take an easier road. Nothing deters your determination to do the right thing.

It is not an easy journey to choose and only those who have truly chosen it will fully understand these parallels.

Creating the Conditions for Change – the action cards

There are around 120 actions that go with my Creating the Conditions for Change approach. A note to those in the world of complexity, these actions are not ‘things you should do that will definitely make your system work better’. They are areas for consideration that can help you create the conditions for change that may support you in taking your identified next steps effectively.

The action cards are part of a copyrighted kit that I have used both for consultancy and in my Creating the Conditions for Change workshops for a number of years now.  They cover all sections of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel

Here are some examples from the kit:

Co-creating, considering self-organising/ self-referencing teams, peer to peer accountability and investigating and implementing change within the span of your autonomy

  • Explore, experiment, fail and learn using small-scale prototyping to enable a learning process
  • Make sure people know how to innovate if they want to
  • Consider purposes and how the world can be different because of you and your role
  • Align personal purposes with purposes of the wider system (where appropriate)
  • Connect through vulnerability and bring the humanity back into the work
  • Actively engage in reflective conversations to learn
  • Purposefully create reciprocation strategies with others

Co-ordinating, collaborating and supporting. Building communities, networks and collaborative relationships. Create internal system coherence.

  • Have open access to information (where relevant) and make sure information is nurturing, not being used for power
  • Understand and actively work with feedback loops
  • Ensure structures enable the ability to work collaboratively
  • Build in mechanisms to enable reflective conversations, positive challenge and learning
  • Implement relationship enablers and interaction channels
  • Use stories as benchmarks about how your system is working

Deliver – bargaining for resources and managing performance. Bringing humanity and balance back into working relationships. Making joint decisions and goal setting around resources, performance and goals

  • Instigate different models of power and control so that operational staff feel empowered to act
  • Support others to enable themselves
  • Aim for meaningful work and wellbeing for all
  • Help people to push outside of their comfort zone
  • Allow autonomy, within relevant boundaries
  • Do not fight power imbalances. Turn them into something else
  • Change the nature of relationships
  • Purposefully build strategies of reciprocation
  • Form a culture of honesty and trust
  • Instigate positively orientated peer to peer performance management  and share ideas with anyone falling behind
  • Appraise for sharing, collaboration, supporting others and forming relationships

Monitoring – conducting system health check. Monitoring for signs of effective system characteristics. Monitoring for congruence between the systems and its vision.

  • If the system is suffering, look too see if it is lacking information about itself
  • Monitor the system’s ability to reciprocate. Build reciprocation strategies into protocols and strategies
  • Monitor the ability to flex, change, pivot and adapt over time
  • Monitor for congruence between the actual purposes of the system and its proposed vision

Adapt – trend spotting and fitting with a changing environment. Enabling pivoting. Building external relationships and gathering intelligence about the environment

  • Understand and purposefully use structural couplings
  • Scan the environment for new models of doing and bring the relevant elements back into your system
  • Make explicit external relationships and strategies of reciprocation

Shifting power, creating new structures and identifying identity. Identifying elements of joint vision, meaning, identity, purposes and goals. Devolving accountability and allowing autonomy. Seeking to ensure the old paradigm does not hinder the new

  • Ensure a sense of curiosity and innovation is fostered throughout the system
  • Check if the system is achieving intended purposes
  • Ensuring sharing of knowledge is inherent in the system
  • Critique system boundaries
  • Ensure a strong and appropriate identity
  • Actively critique your structure to make sure it is designed to create the conditions for change
  • Ensure there are policies to allow people to empower themselves, collaborate and build relationships and learn from each other
  • Instigate different power structures
  • Ensure no selfish goals predominate

These and many others are part of the Creating the Conditions for Change suite of materials and my own personal approach.

All materials are covered by UK copyright. They should not be replicated in commercial approaches. If you use them, please act with integrity and reference appropriately.

Why I believe sub-system 3* monitoring, from the viable system model, should get more emphasis

System 3* monitoring

We tend to hear about system 3* as a monitoring system in viable systems. Done effectively by ad hoc audit and not part of the performance management process or communication. We rarely hear about its true power.

When developing my materials for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ suite a number of years ago, system 3* was an essential element of the work. My booklet urges people to monitor for effective system characteristics and also for congruence between how the system is truly working and how it says it is working.

Creating the conditions for change – Monitoring

Making the system work in a more innovative way, means we have to monitor different things. We are likely never to get rid of performance management and reporting and might always have to submit things like KPIs but system 3* is different. I encourage people to enact it by looking at how healthy the system is, monitoring the internal context for the advocated system characteristics and for the presence of happy and fulfilled people.

My booklet encourages people to check if internal structures are supporting or hindering the work, rather than interfering with it. I also encourage people to check if information is being used as a power tool, rather than nourishment.  To look to see if reciprocation is happening and that co-creation is happening across traditional boundaries.

I monitor to see how flexible processes and people are, whether they can adapt, pivot and make change in appropriate timescales. I monitor for the ability to ‘deep dive’ quickly if required. My accompanying action cards give options for all levels of the system from the individual to the multi organisation/ systems change levels.

My booklet also outlines skills that are useful to have in this kind of function. In particular, being a system health check monitor. It was examination of what system 3* monitoring could look like, over the course of 10+ years of using the viable system model in my work that prompted me to develop it quite far in my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ suite of materials and in my own systems thinking approach.

Creating the Conditions for Change – action cards with actions for monitoring functions

I am now heavily using system 3* monitoring in a piece of evaluation work, which has been ongoing for the last year and looking promising.

If you are interested in my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ materials, consultancy and training, please contact pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Please note that this text is from my copyrighted consultancy suite of materials and must be referenced appropriately if replicated. Please act with integrity if using any of my work.

‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ for public services and beyond – working at multiple levels of the system

I have been blogging over the years about the gradual development of my Creating the Conditions for Change kit for those in public services and beyond. My suite of materials, both workshop materials and consultancy materials have seen many iterations and are based on my work since 2007 with the viable system model, other systems thinking approaches and some of it is from my days of transformation and improvement before then.

The kit is multi-faceted, consisting of my approach to systemic inquiry, using a blended systems thinking approach (below)

Systemic Inquiry Using a Blended Systems Thinking Approach

and my application of the viable system model and other systems thinking. It includes a suite of materials to support identification of patterns of system behaviour that may be harming your team/ service/ department/ organisation/ cross organisation working (viable system model system archetypes).

I have also turned my work with the viable system model into a human focussed suite of materials, based on Creating the Conditions for Change at each fractal level of the system and bringing humanity back into the work by focussing on what we, as human beings, need and want to feel nourished in our working ecosystem. This work stemmed from me revisiting my viable system model work and realising that whenever it worked well was when I used it to ‘create the conditions for change’ for a happy, nurturing and effective working ecosystem.

My workshop materials consist of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel

Systems Thinking Change Wheel (from Creating the Conditions for Change)

The wheel gives us the areas of focus for each fractal later in the system. Sitting under the wheel is a booklet summarising how and why we need to Create the Conditions for Change, relating to each area of the wheel.

Creating the Conditions for Change booklet

The real power lies in the action cards, which accompany the booklet. There are around 120 actions that help you to consider what to put in place, at each level of the system to create a healthier, more human centred, work ecosystem. Learning, adaptability, and how we make change are central. Bringing humanity back into the work is a key element and exists both as an area of focus in the wheel and in the actions throughout. There is also a big focus on creating relationship enablers and developing interaction channels, again stemming from my work with the viable system model.

Creating the Conditions for Change action cards

Starting with the individual – how we can use insights from the viable system model to look at ourselves and our own development. In any situation, we need to look at ourselves as much as anyone else. The Creating the Conditions for change kit can be used on ourselves, at a personal level, to create our own learning system and support our development. It considers how can we become more self-referencing, embrace our autonomy and peer support each other. The action cards include suggestions for this and many other things.

At a team level – we apply the same thinking at a team level. The focus here is not just on your own team but forging relationships across teams. Sharing resources, re-imagining roles, how we communicate and make decisions differently are a key area of focus in the actions at this level. They seek not only to make the team effective but to support the learning and development of the individual, in line with their own professional identity and purposes.

At a service level – again, it is the same thinking here but with slightly different actions. Collaborating, seeing wider than your own service, promoting joint decision making and reviewing your system for signs of system ‘sickness’ come into play here, as well as many other actions. Collaborations at a service level, set the ethos of collaboration at the team level below.

At an organisational level – here we start thinking about deliberate reciprocation strategies and acknowledgement of the benefits of cross organisational working. These reciprocations strategies enable collaborations at a service level below.

Multi-organisational level – we have many actions relating to the level of multiple organisations working together. Not least, undertaking system health checks to expose whether policies, procedures, funding etc are helping or hindering and whether power and information is nurturing the system or harming it. Co-creating together, enabled by deliberate reciprocation strategies is key and link to the enablement of such reciprocation strategies at an organisational level below.

Systems change – we then flow into the area of system change and this is where it gets really interesting.

Exploring and Enabling Systems Change

What I have found in my work on systems change is that nurturing people and bolstering their confidence is a critical factor, as is harnessing the collective power of those at every level of the system. Co-creating, using small scale prototyping is something I have brough in from my days back in improvement, pre systems thinking. Specifically, from my days in pharmaceutical specials manufacturing.

The power in all of this is that insights are shared at multiple levels of the system. When we take action at multiple levels, concurrently, powerful change can come from something seemingly very small.

This kit and my approach is developing all of the time.  A new iteration with even more insights is underway….who knows where it will go next……

Services

Services are available in using this kit to help you understand your system, consultancy services, workshops and training in the approach and in systems thinking in general. The kit has been used in multiple contexts, both public and private sector.

For further information for your organisation contact: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Please note that all materials are copyrighted. If you build on them, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

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.

The games we play

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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.