The viable system model, relationship enablers and creating the conditions for change

‘There are 2 groups of people – those who want to fight with each other about who is right academically and those who just want help to translate the academics into practical application. Until we can all learn to talk to one another in a helpful way then we are never going to move forward, even if we want to use the methods. If the academics come at us with their harsh academic arguments, we just can’t handle that because that’s not part of our world and if we can’t get across to them our challenges and how we need help, without being put off by their harsh arguments, then we are never going to be able to transform the good stuff into something useable.’

These were the words spoken to me back in 2015 by the Chief Executive of a Clinical Commissioning Group. A year later I left their organisation to set up my own venture and as you will see, I never forgot her wise words.

I have a lot of successes in my work. People are often impressed by the quality and insights I can give, and my ambition has always been focussed on helping others to experience the real power of systems thinking. To that end, I have spent the last couple of years going back over my work and really challenging myself about, ‘what I do when I do what I do’ – a phrase used in the Open University systems thinking courses that makes you seriously reflect not just on what you are doing, but how you are actually doing it. I wanted to take what I was learning and pass that on to others and I wanted to give them something outside of the academics and textbook models and methods to work with.

I have captured my learning in my Systems Thinking Change Wheel, and a set of 100 action cards that underpin each section of the wheel, to give people insights into creating the conditions to support change and as I have found, this is particularly useful for system change.

Those who know me know that I use something called the Viable System Model (VSM) a lot. I don’t use it in it’s first order hard systems thinking way, though. I use it in a more qualitative way, which for me makes it much more versatile. The trouble is, when people see anything about the VSM they quickly turn the other way due to its complex diagram and over burdening academic narrative. In addition, some VSM lovers shudder whenever anyone tries to make its insights accessible to the masses. So what I’ve done is not regurgitated the VSM, but taken my learning from using it and translated that into something useable for people who may never have come across it before, but still deserve to have the insights from using it made accessible to them.

One of the most powerful learnings I have taken from my work is that where some would say exchanges of information are critical, I have found relationship to be even more critical. Importantly I realised that throughout all of my work I was building in ‘relationship enablers’ at every point. In many cases, the information people needed, contrary to popular belief, was there. The issue was that there was no relationship in place that gave the incentive for the information to be understood, acted upon and the outcomes fed back into the system to enable change/ improvement. I have many years of examples of building in relationship enablers and linking this to my other work with the VSM and other systems thinking I have developed a set of actions that sit under the sections of the wheel to help people create the conditions for change. Many of my other insights are captured in the cards and I am now using these to run workshops to help those wanting to apply systems thinking to their complex situations and particularly to enable system change. It isn’t the sections of the wheel that are the powerful thing, it is the WAY you enact them (‘it aint what you do, it’s the way that you do it’). This is critical and my action cards and my workshops go through a process of helping people to see the difference between what they do now and doing something that might sound very similar but enacting it in a way that might give very different results.

Please note that the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and associated text does not fall under the creative commons licence for this website, but is separately protected by UK Copyright.

NB: workshops can be run for min 10 people, max 20-25. If you are interested, please get in touch.

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Creating the conditions for System change

Change isn’t all about going in and ‘doing something’ to someone and then leaving them to it. To be effective, it is a whole lot more than that. Building the conditions for change is as important as the change itself. But, what do I mean by that? Well, you can ‘diagnose’ a situation and discover what is not working so well. There are many different approaches for doing that, all of which might uncover similar things about the situation. But there’s another piece of work required and that is helping people to build the conditions that will allow changes to be made not just now, as you need them at this point in time, but on an ongoing basis, in a co-evolutionary way. One off change often doesn’t ‘stick’. You might get a financial saving, economies of flow and organisation but unless you have created the right conditions for the thinking that crated the change to flourish on an ongoing basis, your ‘win’ may be short and sharp and it is likely that the situation will, at some point, rebound right back to where it started.

Some of my work lately is around ‘system change’ and for system change is it important to create the conditions for change. In my newly developed training, I take people through the following questions:

  • How might you engage in peer to peer collaborations?
  • How might you instigate and implement change yourself, within the span of your autonomy;
  • How can you strengthen community, develop networks, collaborate and work together with people outside of your own team on an ongoing basis (particularly bringing in the voice of lived experience);
  • How can you contribute to internal system coherence;
  • How can you bring humanity and balance back into the work;
  • How do you make joint decisions, decide upon joint goals and decide what level of performance is reasonable;
  • How do you ensure effective system characteristics;
  • How do you ensure congruence between the system and its vision;
  • How do you build external relationships and gather intelligence about the world around you;
  • How do you ‘pivot’ and change quickly enough;
  • And how do you get that joint vision, meaning, purpose and identity?

These are some starting questions I use to help those who are trying to create the conditions for System change. I use my Systems Thinking Change Wheel to highlight and explore these questions and then bring in a set of Action Cards to help people take the thinking and make it into a reality. I don’t ‘do to’ people, I help them think about the situation themselves, create their own meaning, identity and purposes and then work with them by supporting them to start developing the conditions that are required. It isn’t an easy journey or a quick one. You need to be in it for the long haul and that is why it is important that you engage in systems and complexity thinking for yourself. No one can do it for you, even if they lead you to believe they can.

Creating the conditions for change using systems and complexity thinking. Spoiler alert….it’s down to you! (with other people’s help to get you started and occasionally to keep you on the right track).

If you are interested in a training session (as a group) then please do get in touch