Through the lens of systems thinking

The clients and their situation

It is 6 months since I was introduced to my clients. They are a mixed group from various public services who work in the same city together. To my delight, people with lived experience are included in the group working to enable systems change. They have been through an interactive programme together, introducing them to systems change and giving them the space and time to build some community together. They have some knowledge of systems thinking and I think they are ready for the next steps.

Their situation is one that many in public services are up against every day – multiple organisations trying to work together but working to different, and often conflicting, targets. Silos abound. Everyone seems to know each another but there is an elephant in the room. They always exist, right? They just aren’t talked about. Every group has their elephant, sitting silently in the corner.

Multiple and conflicting perspectives fly around like a hundred fluttering butterflies bouncing around in the wind, only these butterflies have teeth and take a bite at each other every now and then. Everything is interconnected and interdependent in some way, and power struggles are extremely evident. Those with lived experience are vocal about how services don’t always work for them. They are the recipients of the outcomes of overburdening bureaucracy and it hurts. It is destructive and breaks trust between the organisations and people in the community. My impression is that the focus is on the transactional, although there are pockets of innovation and everyone is dedicated. They are just constrained by the erratic complex, uncertain and ambiguous situation of which they are a part.

I see opposites – working together but power drives them apart, pulling in the same direction but bureaucracy throwing obstacles in their way like giant felled trees blocking a road. Sharing but lacking social learning. Can this complex situation challenge itself enough to enable people with lived experience to be seen differently, supported differently in the community and included in decision making in different and better ways? They are on their way, of that I am sure and over the six months I have known them I have seen admirable efforts to overcome long standing obstacles and challenges.

Let us begin…

They are ready now, I believe. We gather in a small room, conduct our ‘check in’ and I start the day with an interactive exercise based on viable systems. It is calming and aimed at easing people into the day in a relaxed way.

     

 

 

It is then followed by an exercise to start and lift the energy – an experience of complexity and what things might be ‘invisible’ to us yet undeniably there when we are together in a complex situation.

 

Our focus is now on the complexities of the situation and the complications that people themselves bring. Each one of us has our own epistemology, mental models, frames of reference and tendencies towards reaction rather than reflection. Are we adaptive to situations? Do we co-operate and reciprocate? Do we really see multiple perspectives, understanding that each of us will interpret the situation differently? We like to think that we do but in reality, we often do not.

Contextual awareness

Using their current situation as our context, together we start our journey of exploration. I introduce the Systems Thinking Change Wheel and share six categories that we can focus on that can, in different and complimentary ways, help us to create the conditions for change. The categories are based on work I have done over the last 10+ years using cybernetics and systems thinking to work with and in complex situations. We look at:

  • How self-organising or self-referencing teams might operate, including a focus on peer to peer collaboration and how groups might instigate and implement change within the boundaries of their autonomy
  • How the group can co-ordinate, collaborate and support across individual, team and organisational boundaries. We discuss internal system coherence within organisations and across organisational boundaries. Importantly, we include building community and networks and how co-production might be more effective
  • We move on to considering what resources are available, including the collective resources of their own experiences, skills and talents. How might some joint decisions be made when goals and expected levels of performance might be different for each organisation? Importantly, we discuss how this might be achieved at the same time as bringing the humanity back into everyone’s work and having some balance to avoid burnout
  • Of course, every ‘system’ needs some kind of monitoring, but we don’t talk KPIs and targets. We talk about conducting health checks on the system instead – is there congruence between the behaviour of the system and its vision? Is there a joint vision? Should there be? Or should there just be some element of similarity joining everyone together?
  • We then explore adaptability and how the group might change quickly enough to match changes and differing needs in the environment. We consider whether they could adapt to a sudden and unexpected change in circumstances and as I write this, I expect the group will have found their answer to this during the pandemic
  • We know there will never be a fully joint vision of the future, but the group do know that they have an element of shared purpose. The trick is in identifying that and using it to their advantage. They aim for some element of shared learning and shared meaning making. Alongside this, we consider how devolved accountability might work and highlight where there are commonalities in their identity and whether they want to create a shared identity as a group

 

Learning, change and adaptability are key throughout and using the above we move on to exploring actions within each section that can be undertaken to identify where the group are currently strong and where they need to focus more efforts, how they might synthesise their insights and move forward to co-create their future together.

Making the invisible visible

Every day people swim around in a sea of complexity that is evident, yet partially invisible to them. Events are easily seen, but the system structures, behaviours and individual differences driving the events are less obvious. Their impacts are felt but somewhere beneath the surface there is a fuzziness. They feel the waves, and often the tsunami, and yet it can still come as a surprise.

In this session we made the invisible, visible. We exposed that which we take for granted. We exposed it in understandable ways. The water in which people were swimming around in suddenly had some colour. They could see it, which meant that they now have more chance of working successfully with it and to change it, where necessary.

They were surprised by how much the session showed them. My response to that – it was already there. They already knew it. I just helped them to see it and work with it in a constructive way that they could understand. And now? Well now it is their turn to help others see the water they are swimming around in and work with it to start co-creating a different future.

The Systems Thinking Change Wheel and Creating the Conditions for Change – available as on site support or workshops (social distancing guidance permitting)

This narrative us intentionally anonymised to maintain client confidentiality

Creating the conditions for change

At the moment we have some incredibly potent conditions that are enabling change to happen. Hard as it seems, some significant good could come out of our current experiences. That is, if we can recognise what the enabling factors are so that we can replicate the positive elements in times that are not so fraught.

When the time is right, I will continue to run my workshops on creating the conditions for change.

The approach I use in my workshops weaves together a number of systems thinking concepts and ideas, such as organisational cybernetics and social and technical aspects of a situation. It helps people consider how they might expand their multitude of responses to the complexity in which they exist in their working environments, enhancing their variety and adaptability to enable them to survive and thrive over time.

My approach considers concepts such as variety and self-regulation and seeks to enhance peoples decision-making capabilities. It helps people to consider how to work creatively within their boundaries of autonomy and control to enable better and more responsive problem solving and widen their range of responses to the complexity in which they are embedded.

It helps people to consider how groups can work together in an adaptable and flexible way, maintaining an appropriate balance of autonomy and spanning beyond the restricting boundaries of their work ‘function’.

It helps people to think beyond the confines of their organisation to consider how they might interact with others to develop social-systems with the ability to communicate, learn and grow, with a focus on enabling and developing relationships, developing channels of interactions and seeking to create the conditions for change.

 

 

Making the invisible visible

Making the invisible visible

Today my head is bursting, but not with thoughts of disaster………with hope. Yes, the virus is bad. Yes, the hoarding is bad. The fighting in the supermarket aisles is bad. People dying is truly tragic. But something else is happening. Can you see it? Can you feel it?

I got one of those ‘I’m happy to help you if you are sick’ messages through my door last night. It brought a tear to my eye. I have lived in my flat for over 10 years and this was from a person who lives 10 doors away, who I have never heard of, I have never spoken to, never even passed in the street and smiled at. The realisation of the kindness that was so near and yet so far away was overpowering. This morning, I opened up my twitter messages to the kindest message from someone I have done work with. A message of compassion, caring and empathy – ‘are you ok?’

People know I am an enthusiastic systems thinker. What they don’t know is that right now, when the media is throwing stories of doom and gloom at us and our stable internal world seems to be crumbling, I see a rainbow. Individuals are acting, communities are self-organising, support groups are developing. This isn’t just a hard time that will return to ‘normal’ one day. This is also a fundamental social shift, making visible the way we can reorganise, reconfigure and build new capacities and capabilities. Some of the responses that are emerging now are heart-warming.

When I do my systems thinking work, I focus on creating the conditions for change. Well, some of those conditions are here, right now, today. People are innovating, doing things they never thought they could. They are creating channels of interaction, forming new relationships in different ways. They are considering each other’s feelings, building trust with those around them. They are adapting quickly and finding their own flexibilities. On social media, people are sharing their vulnerabilities, bringing out into the open that which is often kept quiet, hidden inside, eating us up.

How things are interconnected and interdependent is being made visible to the masses and people are reciprocating with their strategies for coping and doing things differently. Ethics and values are centre stage. There’s no hiding anymore.

People are experimenting, failing, learning…experimenting again and most of all, they aren’t giving up. ‘Busyness’ is slowing down, enabling us to re-connect with our humanity. We are out of our comfort zones and that isn’t all bad.

And here is a question – do we dare to build the reflective mechanisms to capture and use this in a positive way to help us move into a new way of being? Can different models of power and control, that enable us to feel empowered to act be created from our insights from this situation? Can we re-frame our thinking to harness our current strategies of reciprocity with one another and use them as a positive force as we move forward.

That which a systems thinker sees is now right before everyone’s eyes. The invisible is becoming visible. We have a choice – lose it or harness these new patterns and relationships and develop a new web on influence that enables a fairer society for all.

My plea to those who are building supporting networks, helping neighbours, working with communities and those who are acting to generally keep spirits high – capture your stories. Capture your current ‘ways of doing’. Capture how you have developed your new relationships, how you have re-framed the situation, how you have adapted and changed and, when we have come through the worst, use those stories to show how the invisible became visible as the conditions for change were created. Use them to create they which we may have previously aspired to but never thought we could actually achieve.

Stay safe everyone.

#SystemsThinkingChangeWheel #Creatingtheconditionsforchange

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.

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