Creating the conditions to support learning about systems thinking

I often blog about my work on ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ in terms of how we nurture our working ecosystem to enable change to happen. This means change in ourselves also. I have been working for quite a number of years now on ways to help others on their journey into systems thinking and systems change. One thing I am sure of, is that giving someone a concept that they have never come across before and expecting them to understand it, just because you have explained it, is not going to get you very far.

In my opinion, systems thinking is an experiential journey. Only when you have been on the journey, often aided by someone shining a light into the dark corners and helping to unlock your own inner wisdom will things start to make sense. This often takes for the person to be along side you, to link the concept to what you are seeing in front of you and how you are feeling and experiencing it at the time. It can also come in the form of engaging and enlightening stories. Stories that are authentic, that demonstrate a deep engagement with a situation and highlight not just how a systems thinker understands things but how they feel and experience them also. These are the experiences that make things ‘real’. These are the things that people can relate to. These are the unwritten things that help people with understanding and are critical scaffolding for the learning journey.

We need to help people stand in the waterfall of the journey and let the whole experience wash over them, immersing them fully in it. Letting them feel the sting of the rapid flow and the gentle trickle closer to the edges. Helping them to experience the invigoration and the point at which it makes you feel cold. Helping them not to be scared but to step right in to the flow.

The conditions we create around the learner to enable them to experience systems thinking concepts allows them to enact a journey of learning with that concept that is different to being given a concept and told to apply it. The journey is stronger when it is experienced. My style of helping others to learn? Create the right conditions and take them on a journey. A journey of many emotions and feelings. An adventure of sorts. Who knows how it will end?

The enablers of systems thinking – their amazing power and why some may find them unpalatable

In my experiences of engaging with and applying systems thinking I have come to realise that it is what many call the ‘softer skills’ that have been some of the key enablers for change. When working closely with others and applying systems thinking in a situation, I deeply consider the people within it. My suggestions for points of intervention come from my wider explorations and within that, I don’t forget that it is people we are engaging with and those people crave social inclusion, belonging, nurturing and relationships. They have their own values, beliefs and identity. All of us, yes, all of us, crave to be socially connected in some way or another in my opinion. Exclusion hurts us as badly as physical pain. I’ve blogged about this before, after I read the book, ‘Social’ by Matthew D Lieberman. He explains that ‘when human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way as it responds to physical pain’. He tells us that, ‘we all inherit an attachment system that lasts a lifetime, which means we never get past the pain of social rejection just as we never get past the pain of hunger’.  Interesting isn’t it, that our ‘sensitivity to social rejection is so central to our well-being that our brains treat it like a painful event, whether the instance of social rejection matters or not’.

We are wired to be part of the gang, to have connections and to belong. Now, if that belonging in an organisation is dependent upon keeping your head down, keeping quiet about issues and not doing anything radical, it is my experience that the majority of people are likely to conform to his norm. They need the belonging and they need the work.

As systems practitioners, it is useful if we can help people to challenge conformity, stick their heads above the parapet and make bold or different moves. Take chances. Be risk takers and dare to fail. But what about the fear? The fear of social rejection as a result of standing out? How do we help people deal with this? Do we really know the extent of the ask we are making of people and do we equip them to deal with it in a way that avoids exclusion and the pain of becoming isolated from their peers if they adopt different approaches to their work and even to their own lives?

How do we, and can we, manipulate the working environment to allow the authentic people that work there to showcase their gifts, their personality, their talents and their plethora of ideas and visions. Them, with their powers of connection and excellent networking abilities. Them, with their co-operative partnerships. Them, in their true sense. Not a shadow form of themselves that they adopt so that they can ‘fit in’ and avoid the pain of social inclusion.

Now, when I crawled out of bed early this morning and set up my laptop, I never imagined I would feel so awake in such a short space of time. By ‘awake’ I mean revitalised, energised and inspired. You see, I recently had yet another very stimulating and energising conversation about bringing the humanity back into the workplace. About allowing people to be themselves. About harnessing their creativity and about really living and enjoying their days, not just existing. At the end of it, I was ever more convinced that creativity and truly being allowed to ‘be your authentic self’ are key enablers to effectively applying systems thinking. And so, when people discuss ‘the barriers to systems thinking’ I wonder if they really mean ‘the barriers to people being their true authentic selves’ and it not really being about the systems thinking models, methods, approaches per se.

I know a plethora of people who are system thinkers. I observe them remaining hidden like shiny gems embedded in a dull rock face. They are the diamonds. The jewels that remain hidden with heavy hearts, shrouded in the identity of an imposing ‘grey’ organisation, where ‘fitting is’ is the only thing that avoids the pain of social exclusion or even worse, dismissal.  The pain of social exclusion avoided, but the pain of unfulfillment written all over their faces. Their true values falling from their tree of life like discarded leaves from an autumn tree because they are at odds with the values of the organisation they serve. Joy and fulfilment seen as things to keep hidden, replaced with monotony and regime.

But we can build relationships, alliances, supportive networks and communities. We can nurture, support and motivate. We can co-operate and form partnerships. We can encourage those gems to pop out from the grey wall and dance and shine in all of their beauty. We can encourage and help others to believe in themselves again.

There is a danger here, of course, that sometimes, not always, but certainly sometimes, others don’t want those gems to shine. They don’t want to create the conditions of nurturing, sharing and encouraging individuals to exercise their gifts to the full. They prefer power and control. They like to keep people ‘in their place’ so that their own world doesn’t get rocked in any way. This is what stands in the way of systems thinking, in my experience. Not the language (that’s an easy cop out). Not the approaches (if you don’t understand them, find the people who do, so that they can help you. There are plenty of people out there). It isn’t the heavy texts (although they do exist) or the fact you can’t draw (basic diagrams are powerful and don’t have to be polished works of art). The biggest barriers I have seen are power and control. They seek to stamp out the nurturing enablers that allow people to think freely and openly. To share and discuss. To listen and understand. Systems thinking is powerful when it becomes embodied but what stands in its way are the ever-present issues of power and control. Particularly power cliques who merge together and become toxic hives of manipulation. These are the ones who can find the true enablers of systems thinking unpalatable, because it takes away their power, dilutes their control and encourages people around them to peep their heads out from the hierarchy and show off their talents. They tend to like the idea of systems thinking, but only if they are the only ones to be able to ‘do it’. We all know how destructive that can be. So, if you really want to apply systems thinking, give these enablers some thought. Then, self-reflect and ask yourself if you are the one protecting a power base? Are you the one controlling others? Are you the one preventing those around you from shining brighter? If so, it is never too late to change that and who knows, you might even like the results.

Is systems thinking a bit shallow, obvious and academic with no practical guidance?

At first it would be easy for a systems thinker to be a bit taken aback by this statement, offended even. But think about it, is it a bit obvious? And is it academic? I would have to say that my answer to this, at this point in time, is yes and no. Shallow? Well, I think that has a different answer, which I think is no. Here are my reasons:

We now live in a country where lies from Government are an everyday occurrence, racism is coming out to play and underdogs are seen as merely that. We are in a global arena where the 1% rule and others suffer from their greed, dominance and desire to control. Systems thinking, with its relationships, reciprocation, self-organisation, emergence and feedback seems almost like an alien concept to some. But it isn’t, is it? It is ‘natural’ and ‘obvious’. It is the essence of life and we can see it all around us in nature. So, why might it seem academic, with no practical guidance?

Well, think of it like this – Does your company have policies of reciprocation, with those you might traditionally see as competitors, which put the greater good of the ‘system’ first and the selfish needs of the organisations second? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you have internal organisational protocols that reward for cross organisation collaboration and sharing? In most cases, I doubt it. Do you monitor your organisation by considering the effectiveness of its systemic sensibilities and its ability to adapt in a changing environment? In most cases, I doubt it.  Mind numbing KPIs that drive perverse behaviours are far more attractive. They can be manipulated to read however you want your organisation to appear. Individuals can celebrate, gain promotion and the company can go to the top of the ratings chart. Do you allow teams the maximum feasible amount of autonomy, give them the authority to act and decide with them how you like decisions to be made and then let them work using their initiative and creativity? In most cases, I doubt it. Most managers love to control their subordinates, telling them what to do, holding them back from opportunity and killing their spirit, often to elevate their own status and standing in the organisation. Do you allocate resources to your departments with the intention of allowing people to make enough money to live on whilst also having a good work/ life balance? Or do you squeeze every drop of work out of them that you can, pay them as little as you can get away with and get rid of them at a drop of a hat when you want to make ‘savings’? Would you go to your Board meeting and tell your partners that you want to ‘create the conditions for change’ with others, rather than compete and be the best? You would be laughed out of the Boardroom in a lot of cases. It is not that there is no practical guidance. It is not that the concepts are inaccessible. It is that the practical guidance is not palatable and not in synch with our competitive, combative ways of doing business.

Our Western world has moulded us in such a way that what has become obvious to many is not collaboration but competition, not sharing but hoarding, not reciprocation but taking everything we can for ourselves. We are educated in ways that makes us consider things as independent subjects. Our politics teaches us that charlatan like behaviour wins. Many know this way is wrong and seek better ways. Through them, there is lots of practical guidance, but it isn’t what everyone wants to hear. This is even evident in the systems thinking community. There are often claims of collaboration and sharing and yet the reality boils down to competition and a need for control. To be seen as first, or more importantly not to be seen as being last.

But, is systems thinking ‘all that’? Is it the thing that will ‘save us’, make our world better and end misery on our planet? Make our organisations thrive and grow? Who knows if it can prevail over the dominant competitive control? Our democracy is for sale and our internal worlds are all individually constructed by algorithms and behaviour shifting manipulation. Can systems thinking prevail over this. Some say it can. Personally, I think all we can do is keep trying.

So, is it obvious? It should be but it has been lost somewhere along the way. Is it academic? Only if you are looking in the wrong places for inspiration and practical examples of implementation. There are lots out there. If you can’t see them, you aren’t looking. Is it shallow? I don’t think so because systems thinking includes humans and the nature of human behaviour is not shallow. We are the creators and destroyers of ourselves. We create the conditions around us that do not let systems thinking thrive. Why do we prefer competition and ‘winning’ over sharing and collaborating? Why do we prefer control over freedom? Why do we prefer to only see what we want to see, rather than the bigger picture? These are quite deep questions and are being debated and considered by systems thinkers and others across the globe.

In essence, I think the question is the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking ‘systems thinking is quite obvious, so why is it still in the world of the academic without it being practically implemented?’ It is only with this kind of question, rather than the ‘it’s great – no it isn’t’ debate that I think we might start to get some additional enlightenment.

Despite my own inner concerns, I continue to pursue what I believe to be good and right. What is true to human nature and what sets us free from the negativity and binding control. It’s a tough road to travel, but I haven’t been put off yet.

In the words of Margaret Wheatley (one of my favourite systems thinkers) ‘Belief is the place from which true change originates’. Maybe you have to believe it, to see it.

Zoom out from the service

Taking the System Thinking Change Wheel into a different context took me to an area of familiarity – the NHS. Leadership development is always on people’s lips and in their thoughts, it seems, at the moment.

For this session I used a case study example of something I have worked on to run a workshop. It was a complex NHS service that, like most, was interdependent with a number of other health and care organisations and services. Nothing is stand alone in the NHS. Just about everything is a complex web of interconnectivity and interdependence, including multiple organisations and a multitude of people and processes.

Knowing about systems thinking is one thing. Knowing enough about it to be able to work effectively with it, without having to spend a long time studying about it, is another. Clients usually want to jump straight in and get to grips with the complex situation they face.

I sometimes find that people’s default position in the NHS is to try and improve the processes in a service, rather than zooming out to see the wider picture and think about the wider system aswell. This means that options for change and improvement are limited and an easy way out is to blame staff for poor performance of the service. But there is another way to expose more about the situation, leading to a wider range of opportunities for change and improvement.

The workshop

We start the day by exploring the biggest challenges people have whilst trying to make change and we have some discussions around what makes systems viable. It is an interesting and enlightening session with lots of interactive exercises and moving around. Ideas are flowing and people are engaged.

Then, we move quickly into a case study – no time to lose. After a short run through of the case study the room is split into groups and each group is given a section of the Systems Thinking Change Wheel to consider. Without considering any actions at this time, each group are given a different set of questions about the situation to discuss. More information is available to help discussions along, but only if people request it. It helps those in the room think about what information they might need to understand why the situation is like it is.

Bringing all of the discussions together exposes a tangled web at many levels of organisation – an individual level, a team level, an organisational level and at a wider system level. The information in the room is rich and enlightening.

 

 

 

 

We move on to using the action cards – a different set for each group. They get going, identifying areas where there is strength in the situation – where things are going really well. Then, it is on to the areas that need more work. Finally, the groups are given tokens that represent resources – money, people, equipment, innovation, training etc. They are challenged to show where they would invest time/ effort/ money and why. Not surprisingly, this does not go on blaming staff or just telling the service to ‘do better’. They don’t know it, but they have just done quite a sophisticated diagnosis of the situation. The levels in the situation are easily visible, the imbalances creating havoc are visible and they have identified many areas for improvement.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The benefits

The groups discussed, supported each other, considered the wider picture, motivated each other, challenged, contextualised and shifted each other’s perspectives several times. It was a joy to watch.

Using insights that I brought from the actual situation I had worked on, we shared stories and feelings and insights. We looked at things from several angles and quite unbeknown to them, they were collectively ‘systems thinking’. They were also co-creating a potential way forward. The vibe was high energy and I even heard the words, ‘oh, this is fun’ at one point. We explored the balance between autonomy and control, empowerment, adaptability, trust, power and enabling structures.

We explored the role of managers, flexibility, pivoting and the balance between generalist and specialist roles.

There were a few shifts in thinking that day and an assuring buzz in the room. We were focussing on how to ‘Create the Conditions for Change’, rather than focussing on individual ‘do this’ ‘do that’ actions. Each situation requires actions that are contextually specific. The trick for me is to guide people in the right direction and then encourage them to decide on those context specific actions themselves. No ‘lift and shift’ answers here.

Creating the Conditions for Change Workshop – available face to face when distancing guidance permits and very soon to be available as an online session

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

Systems thinking little stories: Who killed the local chippy?

 

I drove past the local chippy tonight. I looked quite pitiful. Its blue neon light was shining bright but there was no-one inside. It was the same last night and the night before. In fact, it’s been like that for some time, even on weekends. The Friday tradition of a ‘chippy tea’ wasn’t hitting this little shop anymore.

I say anymore because at one time it was the busiest little chippy I had ever known. Every Friday it was packed, with the queue out of the door and down the street. During the week it was very much the same. But then it happened. The sad day came that the chippy was sold, and ‘they’ took over. I say ‘they’ because no-one knows their names. Not least because no-one goes there anymore. So, what happened?

I came to the city around 15 years ago. I knew no-one here and wasn’t familiar with the area at all. I did, however, find the local chippy. It was a hive of ‘busyness’ and chatter and laughing and connection. After only a few months I began to see the same people over and over again. We knew where each other worked, how we spent our leisure time and Sheila behind the counter knew every one of us. As soon as each one of us walked through the door we saw a smiling face and heard, ‘the usual?’ I don’t think she knew it, but she didn’t ‘work in a chippy’ she facilitated a community hub. She created a community with friendliness, familiarity and usually a huge dose of humour.

Purpose is important, you see. To the local community, the purpose of this little place wasn’t just to serve fish and chips but to provide a meeting place where familiar faces could say hello and have a brief chat whilst ordering our food. She crated it, she maintained it and facilitated it and the locals loved it.

When ‘they’ took over the front shop went silent. We saw Sheila being ordered around, told how to deal with the orders and chastised for her familiarity with the customers. They exerted their power and control, and little did they know it but they were soon to kill off their own business.

But where did they go wrong? Purpose! Purpose is where they went wrong. They didn’t understand the bigger picture. They didn’t understand the purpose that this little retail outlet held for the community. They didn’t understand the purpose that Sheila understood perfectly.

They thought they bought a chippy. What they did was failed to think wider than the four walls and the battered cod. They didn’t understand the purpose from their customers’ point of view. I don’t know where everyone goes now. I never see them. I don’t go there anymore and neither does everyone else it seems.

Think wider. Think purpose. Think other people’s point of view…..or you might just miss something vital.

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.

Training Courses Available

The following one-day training courses are now available

Both of these training courses require a minimum of 10 people, maximum 20. They are intended for groups of people who work together across a geographical place, and especially for those in public services.

Costs vary, depending upon number of delegates, location and provision of rooms and refreshments. Please get in touch if you are interested in running a session for your organisation/ group of colleagues.

Creating the conditions for change with systems and complexity thinking

Who is this training for?

This training if for anyone who is interested in creating the conditions for change using insights from systems and complexity thinking. It is particularly useful for front line teams and managers involved in system change.

What will I learn?

You will learn about the conditions that are required to make effective change in any situation. You will learn how to look at things from different perspectives, how viable systems work and what features are required in a system to enable system change.

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking?

No prior knowledge of systems thinking is required for this course. All concepts will be fully explained.

What will the format of the training be?

This is a highly interactive session using my Systems Thinking Change Wheel and action cards to understand system change. A case study will be used to apply the thinking to, and by prior arrangement, this can be a case study of the ‘place’ in which you work.

There will be some presentation whilst explaining concepts. However, the majority of the day will be group exercises and application of the thinking to the case study. You will identify where conditions might hinder system change and where effort can be injected to help create the conditions to enable system change.

Applying the viable system model

Who is this training for?

This training is for anyone who has an interest in applying the viable system model to a situation. You can be from any kind of work background, as long as you have an interest in the subject matter.

What will I learn?

You will learn the basics of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. You will learn about the five sub-systems of the model and what their functions are. You will also learn how to apply the model to a real-world situation, learning what to look for and how to spot areas for potential improvement in a situation, based on a diagnosis using the model

Do I need prior knowledge of systems thinking or the viable system model?

It does help if you have some knowledge of systems thinking but don’t worry if you don’t. Systems thinking is such a wide field that any key concepts etc will be explained throughout the session. It is important to do this because of the wide range of interpretations that exist.

What will the format of the training be?

There will be some element of presentation when explaining the model. The majority of the day, however, will be your practical application of the model to a given case study. You will undertake a diagnosis of a messy situation, using a number of ‘guides’ that you will be provided with to help you along. It will be a mixture of thinking about certain elements alone and in groups and you will be guided by the trainer throughout.

The case study will be a case study that the trainer has worked on. That way, she can share real insights as to how the model can be applied and what you can look for when trying to identify areas for improvement. It is a case study is from public services. This area has been chosen for its ‘messiness’ which gives opportunities to demonstrate areas for improvement in many places. You do not have to have experience of or a background in public services to understand the case study or undertake the diagnosis. In fact, it can sometimes help if you don’t know much about the situation in the case study.

Other bespoke systems thinking courses are available, which can be designed to meet your needs. Please get in contact to discuss your requirements.

pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Feedback from a previous course:

Why it’s better to be helpful than to ‘know’

This morning I was reminded by Algar Goredema-Braid of a great little video by Gene Bellinger, which you can find here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WKzdd63CdN0

There are some wise words in that video. You see, the cry I often hear from systems practitioners is, ‘but how do I get my organisation on board with systems thinking?’ and as Gene says, if you are asking this question, you have missed the point.

The talents of a skilled systems practitioner span much wider than the methods, models, tools, concepts of systems thinking. Some of the most talented systems thinkers I know have never been formally trained or educated in these areas, yet what they do know about is how to work with people.

One of the key skills of a systems practitioner is to guide people around to a systemic way of thinking without them ever having to learn the language or the concepts or the methods and models, in my opinion. Not everyone is going to be interested enough to do that, and we shouldn’t expect them to be.  Whether they are interested in learning the academics or not, we can still guide them towards a more systemic way of being, if that is in their interests.

Gene rightly points out, who wants to have things pointed out to them in a way that makes them feel stupid and then be told to think differently or sold a different way?

Listening, guiding, creating meaning, sharing, inquiring, sense-making and importantly – understanding relationships, how they work, why they don’t and what the implications of those relationships are is vital. When you move into this mode of using your systems thinking, this is when you become really skilled, I believe. Honour others’ perspectives (don’t criticise) and influence, use your skills to be helpful not ‘right’. The more you attempt to tell someone they are wrong, the further away you are likely to push them. If you really want change, then be helpful. Help others to make sense of their context and see things they might not have seen before but don’t sell to them. You’re a systems practitioner, not judge, jury and sales-person.

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.