We’re rational empathetic human beings, right?

We like to think we are but more often than not we fall into traps that prevent us from being rational and our empathy seems to float away. But why is being a rational, empathetic human being important in systems thinking? I didn’t coin the phrase, by the way. I came across it when reading a book by Joe Navarro www.jnforensics.com @navarrotells (Twitter) and I give full credit to him for the inspiration I gained from his writing and the way he shares his insights.

It struck a chord with me because I have done some intense work on systems change over the last few years. During this time, I have been supporting people to engage with systems thinking and systems thinking approaches. However, there was always something else in the room. Something more powerful. Something more relevant. Something I could not reach out and touch physically, but I felt it in terms of the energy vibration in the room. It was the connection of the people, bonding together through mutual trust and respect. It was embracing difference, vulnerability and a sense of self-worth. The more I connected with it, the more powerful it became. The dynamic felt different. It was warm and encompassing. I felt my heart rate slowing, my shoulders dropping and the muscles in my face relaxing.

It was a powerful experience but a one off, surely? Only, it wasn’t. It repeated itself every time. I came to realise that systems thinking approaches were useful, but certainly not everything. The more powerful energy in the room was the strength that was coming from within each and every one of us. It was the energy vibration that bonded us together.

When I read Joe Navarro’s work, I immediately thought, ‘This guy’s a systems thinker!’ I asked him if he had heard of systems thinking. He hadn’t. He said it was just about being a ‘rational, empathetic human’. Never before had such a simple phrase held so much meaning for me. It is easy, when you are embedded in systems thinking, to think that everything that might look or feel similar to the systems thinking you practice is systems thinking. Is it? Is the systems thinking label detrimental? Does it get in the way of the seemingly simple focus that we have been enacting in the work? It opened my eyes and brought a different dimension to the work. I thought back to every time I had worked in an effective team. It was when the people had a deep but relatively quiet inner confidence. They weren’t fighting a battle with their egos. They weren’t trying to be something they weren’t. They weren’t trying to be first or best or ‘the only one’. They were being confident, rational empathetic human beings, who dared to be vulnerable, nurtured each other and kept far removed from the traps of jealousy, criticalness and blame.

Why do we sweep things under the ‘systems thinking’ label? Is it the right thing to do? I don’t think so. What we have been working with is far simpler, yet deeper and somewhat more difficult in modern times. I am excited to see and feel where we go with it next.

Part of the Creating the Conditions for Change approach

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Optimising our energy using insights from the viable system model

(part of the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach by Pauline Roberts, Systems Practitioner)

We’re tired, aren’t we? All of us. Exhausted, some of us. We live our lives at a pace that barely gives us time to stop and think. Barely gives us time to consider our own health and wellness. Barely gives us time to contemplate saying, ‘no’. The work I have been doing in systems change exemplifies this. People are tired. Exhausted. They want and need rest. There is little work-life balance. 9-5 Monday to Friday has become excruciatingly punishing. Tempers are fraught. Mental health is suffering. People are tired. When we are in this state, our energy is depleted by even the simplest of daily tasks. Our cognitive abilities are muted, and our enthusiasm and motivations dulled.

Over the years I have worked with Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I have applied it in a wide range of complex situations and the insights it gives me into the world of work, and indeed our lives, are never ending. From his neurocybernetic model of an enterprise, management principles emerged. From my academic learning and application of these principles, insights into change and systems change emerged. Inquiring into the complex situations I was faced with by exploring boundaries and purposes as conceptual constructs became the norm. Considering the perceptions of the observers of the systems in which I was embedded and observing became the norm and my insights grew.

Where Stafford Beer highlights to us that manipulation of complexity should be the task of the manager, I contemplated, ‘But what are the tasks of the leader? The system leader? The system changer?’ It was deep in contemplation about this when the insights from the viable system and wider work by Stafford Beer and the work of Ross Ashby started to come to light. In our management systems if we need to attenuate complexity, what is it we have to attenuate (and amplify) for the people in the system? For them to work without becoming burnt-out?

Fear! We need to attenuate fear. And anxiety, stress, fatigue, panic, anger, jealousy, sadness, lack of confidence and our ability to tumble into imposter syndrome. Only when we attenuate the negative elements of these emotions and reactions will we have enough energy to be able to effectively manipulate the possibilities of the environment around us to our benefit. Of course, not all fear is bad. Not all anxiety is bad. Not all anger and jealousy is bad. But it does become bad for us if it is overwhelmingly caused by our working conditions and by those who we interact with on a daily basis, who are in the same stage of depleted energy as ourselves.

Using the viable system model in my work, I will routinely contemplate variety attenuation in terms of implementing things that co-ordinate the work, so that the people doing the work are supported better. I contemplate the resources required and the perverse performance indicators that might be in place. I contemplate how we might balance the variety equation in terms of dealing with demand. In addition, my Creating the Conditions for Change approach focuses on how we can attenuate the negative emotions and/or feeling of burn-out we may experience in the workplace and how we can amplify our positive energy, so that we can engage with the complex situations we are embedded in to a greater and more effective degree.

In my work with Creating the Conditions for Change there is a strong focus on increasing confidence and reducing fear. A focus on peer-to-peer support, collaborations, storytelling, reciprocation strategies and relationships. On networks, communities, honesty, openness, trust and vulnerability. On sharing and making meaning together. On coaching one another and learning together. On humanity, authenticity and integrity. On self-referencing and identity.

It is not just the working environment we need to optimise. It is ourselves and our own health and wellness. It is these conditions that support us, nurture us and enable us to embrace our own humanness, that we need to optimise. It is the kindness we seek and want to give to others that we need to optimise. Only then will we have amplified our energy levels to be able to have effective energy exchanges with others and with the environment around us.  We are a major part of our work ecosystems. The same principles I would apply to any other elements of the work are what I would apply to us. For me, those insights came from both systems thinking in general and very largely cybernetics and the work of people like Stafford Beer and Ross Ashby. They existed in a different time and in a different context, but the same principles apply, in my opinion.

The ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach is covered by UK Copyright. Please act with integrity and reference appropriately when quoting from this website

What is my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach all about?

Creating the Conditions for Change was a strong addition to my systems thinking approach, which I incorporated into my work in 2011. In 2019 I developed materials to help others use the same approach. The materials accompany a workshop describing the approach and where participants get to use it on a case study of a piece of work I actually did. The materials consist of a 20 page A4 booklet, a Systems Thinking Change Wheel infographic and a set of 120 action cards.

It is a set of principles about working on change, systems change, improvement and strategy. A summary of what my approach is about:

  • It is about purposefully observing – ourselves and the situations we engage with
  • It is about purposefully learning
  • It is about adapting over time

These three things are central to the approach and are embedded throughout. It is also about:

  • Dealing with complexity at the right place – not passing it around like a hot potato
  • The right people having autonomy to make decisions, within reasonable boundaries –a model of decision making
  • Distributing power and control – a different model of governance
  • Having the right balance of autonomy and control
  • Considering everyone as a leader – a different model of leadership
  • Recognising and purposefully working with awareness of purpose and identity
  • Bringing humanity back into the work
  • Using the gifts that everyone brings
  • Supporting people to take measured risks
  • Experimenting
  • Self awareness, vulnerability and allowing people to say ‘I don’t know’
  • Co-creating with others
  • Building collaborations and relationships – deliberately building in relationship enablers and interaction channels
  • Reciprocation – deliberate reciprocation strategies
  • Effectiveness, not just efficacy and efficiency
  • Monitoring, not just performance managing – monitoring for system health

It is all about

  • Building healthy work ecosystems
  • Creating the conditions for change at each level – an individual, a team, a service, an organisation, a place

It is NOT a productised model. It is a set of ideas, principles and questions that you can apply to a situation to help you to create the conditions for change for the moves you want to make next. It is heavily based on Stafford Beer’s viable system model and it a creative interpretation of that model but focussed on what humans actually do and what can bring humanity back into the work.

Please note that the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and reference extracts if you build on them or paraphrase them.

For further information about Creating the Conditions for Change, please contact: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Ready to adapt?

In my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach this area of focus is concerned with how you explore the interface between your system and the wider context, identify future emerging trends and bring that external information into the system and share it to help develop structures and practices that will be fit for the future.

An excerpt from my 2019 booklet tells us,

‘If you have decided that some change is necessary, in line with future trends and external requirements then work with operational managers to discuss those requirements. Plan together how the future of your system might work. Implement change in a way that does not disrupt the ability of the system to function now. This is where small scale prototyping can come into play, as you learn your way forward together.

At the same time, you might want to consider something called ‘structural couplings’- what is it in your environment that you interact with in such a way that you change it and it changes you? How are you co-evolving together? Are you? Do you need to? Do you need to stop co-evolving together? Think about the relationships, not the things and how might you work with that relationship to bring about positive change?

Form the relationships you need to with external agencies and make sure relationships, influence and partnerships are explicitly considered and are considered as important as any other element in the system. This is another place where you can build your reciprocation strategies, with outside organisations or other systems.

What skills or roles support this category: Be the trend spotter, the opportunity seeker, the strategist, the contextualiser, the risk taker and the enabler. Know your external environment, as much as you can, and do not get stuck in yesterday (unless that is potentially beneficial for you).’

Please note that the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach is covered by UK copyright. Please act with integrity and reference extracts if you build on them or paraphrase them.

For further information about Creating the Conditions for Change, please contact: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

Insights from the viable system model for developing my own system and ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’

I recently mentioned to a group of students that I used the viable system model to develop my own personal system, incorporating my own personal development. They asked me to show them what I did and this is the session that I ran for them. It is not a refined session but more of a talk through of what I did, why and what insights it gave me. I also describe how the insights from my work of 15+ years with the viable system model, and particularly the work on developing my own personal system, turned into the building blocks for my ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach to making change and supporting systems change.

You can watch the video of the session on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FXobE_5x9r8&t=10s

What does the ‘Creating the Conditions for Change’ approach do for you?

It is an approach helps you to organise for learning and adaptability and bring humanity back into your work ecosystem. It gives principles and ideas that open up options for you, so that you can structure, coordinate, communicate and make decisions in relation to your own context. It helps you to monitor for system health. It also takes into account the value proposition between different parts of your system and helps you orchestrate value between stakeholders.

It helps you to consider how you spot new trends and things you might need to respond to. How you bring that information into the organisation and prepare for the future. It helps you to consider alternative governance arrangements. It helps you to scale the approach by repeating it at different levels, from a single person up to a whole place and beyond.

What kinds of organisation is the approach applicable to? All organisations. I first developed this approach on a single individual. I then used it on teams, services, departments and to consider whole organisations. I have used it in private industry, public services, charities and voluntary groups. It is particularly useful for those working on systems change in a place. It helps you to consider the conditions for change that might enable and support systems change.

Copyrighted in 2019, after a number of years of use, my approach is built on my experiences of my work with Stafford Beer’s viable system model for 15 years. My work and approach is a creative interpretation of this model. As I applied the model in multiple contexts, I started to capture the things that people actually ‘did’ when the model worked well for them. Adding to it over the years has led to the development of this approach in an incremental way, based on my actual experiences.

New, updated, workshop materials were developed in 2019 so that I could share the approach with others more easily and they could use it themselves. There is now a supporting booklet and 120 action cards to help people apply this approach for themselves.

Can we buy the materials? I have sold them to people in the past, but the main distribution of my materials is via my workshops and my consultancy practices directly with organisations. It is always much better to set the context and work with people on how to use the materials, if they are to get the best out of them.

In 2022, a new updated booklet, infographic and actions cards will be the main kit for my consultancy practices and workshops.

If you are interested, please get in touch: pauline@systemspractitioner.com

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.

Delivery – it’s just about ‘getting it done’, isnt it?

No, I don’t think so. It can be so much more than that.

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. The way I work with it is to focus on what human beings actually do and I harness the potential of every person. The focus of this blog is delivery, or what those who know the viable system model call System 3.

Here is an extract from my booklet (this is a booklet that is given to attendees of my workshop, as part of the workshop kit):

‘This area of focus is about supporting the internal system to work effectively. We don’t just talk about resources and expected performance, though. We also aim to bring the humanity back into the work. One of the things we consider here is ensuring as many people as feasibly possible have been involved in decisions about how things will work and in setting goals, to prevent them feeling coerced. Remember that many people will also want their own professional values reflected in the work that they do. It is also important that once decisions have been made, you gain commitment to them.

Do not overload staff, though. They will never work at their best if they are in a state of frantic panic all day, every day. Aim for meaningful work for people. Make them feel good about themselves and make sure you consider their wellbeing. Trust your teams. Do not micro-manage. Remain hands off. Allow people to have their own peer to peer performance meetings. Let peers hold each other to account. Encourage them to share ideas to help the teams that are falling behind. Have a rolling host for the meetings, so no-one assumes ultimate power and/ or control. Give the teams the structure within which they can collaborate to enhance performance. Lead by example by demonstrating different behaviours and think about the language you use. Use language of encouragement that pushes people out of their comfort zone in a supportive way. Allow them to fail (within reason) and learn without embarrassment and punishment. Promote joint decision making throughout the system, so that effective prioritisation can occur. If you do have conflicts – and you are bound to have them – do not avoid them. Help people to use conflict creatively to listen to others’ points of view. Hold exploratory conversations, facilitate participation and listening.

Identify where there is confusion, conflict, disruption or chaos. These are not bad things but powerful indicators of places where you can intervene to make positive changes. They are opportunities. Do not complain about them, monopolise on them’.

The action cards

There are a number of action cards relating to this section. These are things we can do to enact this area of focus in reality. Here is an example of a few of them:

The skills required

My approach also outlines skills that are useful in enacting this section of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel. These are skills we could and should be advocating for and supporting in our organisations. Here is a taster of a few:

  • Coach
  • Supporter
  • Recruiter
  • Motivator
  • Prototyper
  • Trainer

Each section of my wheel goes through a similar format to the above. I outline important areas of focus and the questions we can ask ourselves about those areas. I go on, in the booklet, to talk about these key points, giving rationale for why they are important. My suggestions, which have been part of my copyrighted workshop kit for a number of years, have come from over 10 years of working with the viable system model in practice and the learning I have gained along the way. The key focus is on the development and support of each individual and harnessing their skills and talents to the full, encouraging them to work authentically and without fear.

The action cards tell us the things we can actually do, at each systemic level of our system (person, team, service, department, organisation, place) to enact the points mentioned.

Putting all six areas together gives a very powerful way of Creating the Conditions for Change in our working ecosystems. The focus is on what we can actually do to make a difference.

All materials are copyrighted and part of my consultancy and training kit. If you build on any of my ideas, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

Are you co-ordinating to bring about a paradigm shift?

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. The way I work with it is to focus on what human beings actually do and I aim to harness the potential of every person. The focus of this blog is co-ordination, or what those who know the viable system model call System 2.

Here is an extract from my booklet (this is a booklet that is given to attendees of my workshop, as part of the workshop kit)

‘Co-ordination is the vitally important, yet often-overlooked element of systems. It needs to be considered explicitly and not just expected to happen. I like to call it the ‘invisible glue’ – the things that hold everything together in a coherent way. This area of focus is about enabling feedback and information exchanges and effectively supporting interdependencies and interconnections. Ignore it at your peril! Get it right and it can significantly enhance your capacity and capability, often at very little or no cost. Do not under-estimate the value that getting this element right can bring.

One thing I have found to be extremely important in my work is something I have called ‘relationship-enablers’. These are the things you can put in place and/ or the mindset you can adopt that supports the dynamic connectedness in the system. The other extremely important thing here is what I call ‘interaction channels’ to enable collaboration. So, what are these things?

Relationship enablers are exactly how they sound. They are things that enable relationships. This can be as simple as a clause in a joint protocol that considers something from more than one point of view to something more elaborate, like a process for discussing and agreeing difficult decisions between a number of stakeholders. They are the things that give permission for the collaboration to occur. They can help to enable proactive dialogue, negotiation and agreements and enable relationships in the longer term.

Interaction channels might be mechanisms created to enable reflective conversations – do you ever have a joint meeting with another team/ department/ organisation specifically to reflect and learn from the work you do? Do you discuss problems and issues and seek to implement improvements together? Do you have a culture of positive challenge and learning? You can develop your internal structures so that people have enough freedom to enable collaborative working. Shadowing another team, for example, should not be seen as wasting time, but a valuable interaction channel and relationship enabler that can open up the support for ongoing collaboration and learning’.

The action cards

There are a number of action cards relating to this section. These are things we can do to enact this area of focus in reality. Here is an example of a few of them:

The skills required

My approach also outlines skills that are useful in enacting this section of my Systems Thinking Change Wheel. These are skills we could and should be advocating for and supporting in our organisations. Here is a taster of a few:

  • Storyteller
  • Information sharer
  • Facilitator
  • Relationship builder
  • Innovator
  • Networker
  • Enabler

Each section of my wheel goes through a similar format to the above. I outline important areas of focus and the questions we can ask ourselves about those areas. I go on, in the booklet, to talk about these key points, giving rationale for why they are important. My suggestions, which have been part of my copyrighted workshop kit for a number of years, have come from over 10 years of working with the viable system model in practice and the learning I have gained along the way. The key focus is on development and support of each individual and harnessing their skills and talents to the full, encouraging them to work authentically and without fear.

The action cards tell us the things we can actually do, at each systemic level of our system (person, team, service, department, organisation, place) to enact the points mentioned.

Putting all six areas together gives a very powerful way of Creating the Conditions for Change in our working ecosystems. The focus is on what we can actually do to make a difference.

All materials are copyrighted and part of my consultancy and training kit. If you build on any of my ideas, please act with integrity and reference them appropriately.

Creating the Conditions for Change – why monitoring, not measuring?

My approach is a creative interpretation of Stafford Beer’s viable system model. I have previously blogged about the importance I put on monitoring, or as those who know the viable system model, sub system 3*. The situations I work with are not always single organisations. More often than not, I work with situations that have input from many organisations. In these situations, my focus is on what I perceive to be ‘the system’ – a concept that I apply to the bounded situation I have identified.

From my booklet, in my Creating the Conditions for Change approach, I state that,

‘This area of focus is about monitoring your system, making it visible to itself and being able to see, understand and change the things that make the system work in a more innovative way. Traditionally, organisations use things like key performance indicators or operational targets. You might keep some element of those, or you may not be able to get rid of them completely. However, they are not the things that will tell you how healthy your system is. The trick here is to monitor the internal context for the advocated system characteristics and monitor for high quality’.

The monitoring I encourage has a specific focus. I do not only monitor to see how work activities are working. I monitor to see how healthy the work ecosystem is. Is there congruence between the system’s actual purposes and its vision? Is the system able to adapt, flex, pivot and respond to a changing environment quickly enough? Is new information being used as nourishment, rather than power? Is co-production happening as an ongoing process, rather than a one-off activity? Is the system able to reciprocate –  between people, between teams and  between organisations? Is the requirement for reciprocation written into any formal policies and is it actually happening? Are structures facilitating, rather than interfering?

I advocate for monitoring rather than measuring, initially. I take the meaning of monitoring to be that of observing. I take the meaning of measuring as assessing the importance or value of something. In my experience, it is when we jump to measuring that we do not engage fully enough in observation and, as a result, we can easily miss things. Measuring comes later for me. It comes when I gather together the information from other elements of the system also, and then consider importance and value.

A key skill that I advocate for here is that of the ‘system health check monitor’. It takes a skilled individual to be able to observe for system health.

Please note that materials are covered by copyright. Please act with integrity if you build on them and reference them appropriately.