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 does 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.

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:

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.

What can a professional ice hockey player teach us about system change? Quite a lot, I believe!

I had the pleasure of listening to Curtis Brackenbury talk about his work on ‘Optimising Human Performance’ this week. No, he isn’t an academic or a systems practitioner, he is a professional ice hockey player and coach and yet he applies elements of NLP and viable system modelling to his training and coaching and what a result he gets! (

Rather than describing his methods in detail, I’m going to cut straight to what I, personally, saw in his work that resonated with me about applying the viable systems model, on the ground, for transformation or system change. This is what I call ‘the glue’, the stuff that makes it work and, sadly, the stuff that people often miss out and then wonder why they are not getting results.

Elements of the VSM that I saw in his work, with my own comments added underneath:

• The importance of effective and quick data sharing across the whole group and good general sharing mechanisms, to allow continual adjustment

  • this is a very important aspect of viable systems. Real time data sharing is one of the key enablers for a system to be viable. The quicker and more real time the data, the more chance you have of enabling continual adjustment and adaptability which are absolutely key, particularly for system change.

• Having a dynamic approach

  • Again, absolutely key to enabling an effective viable system. A dynamic approach supports ongoing adaptability and encourages change

• Have a number of contingencies in place and accept that things can’t be heavily planned

  • This is a key mindset for ongoing adaptability and regeneration. Heavy planning is not as important as being able to adapt

• Continual feedback and learning across the system

  • Between every element of the viable system model is a feedback loop. Understanding these feedback loops can be a key element of success. Also, If the system is not undertaking double or triple loop learning, then it is unlikely to be viable in the longer term.

• Have strong control mechanisms in place (i.e. coaches)

  • Having things in place that can bring the system back within its control limits is key for a viable system

• No so much focus on the ‘cogs’ but lots of focus on the regulation (particularly self-regulation)

  • Focussing on the interactions, rather than focussing on the ‘things’, is key to understanding how your system is working, particularly when enacting system change

• Measure in detail and understand the behavioural side of things

  • Part of the monitoring loop and links to self-organisation

• Looking at the athlete holistically within the systems in which they sit

  • As you would look at the system, the system in which it sits and the systems within in. i.e. the 3 levels of recursion you would work with, with a viable system model

• Train for deception – train to create it and train to read it

  • I think this is one of the most important things he said. If you train for deception you are telling you brain not to have a fixed way of doing things. Be prepared for anything, to go in any direction. Just like the speedy self-organisation sometimes required to respond to your environment in real time. This was an EXCELLENT piece of advice, encouraging exactly the right mindset to enable system change

• Look for people’s responses. Look for patterns

  • A true system thinker!

Aspects that I picked up in his talk that I think are essential to your leadership style when using systems thinking in practice (with my comments underneath):

• The importance of identity, culture and being part of something important

  • Absolutely yes. Identity is extremely important for a viable system. If you don’t know your identity and you can’t self-regulate then it is unlikely you will be able to engage in the self-organisation required to maintain viability. If you don’t feel like you are part of something important, you are in the wrong place!

• You have got to let go of the ego

  • This is absolutely spot on! Using systems thinking, if you don’t let go of your ego you will never break through the barriers to allow yourself to see what is happening in the situation. You will always have an ‘ego filter’ that tells you why something isn’t so. You have to be humble to use systems thinking or you will never challenge yourself and never become as adaptable as you need to be

• Identify the value added for the individual to highlight why they would do something

  • Absolutely! This is like ‘show, don’t tell’. You have to highlight what the value would be to the individual of using systems thinking or viable system modelling, not sell the thinking or the model per se, or you are wasting your time. Show the value, not the ‘thing’

• Respectful relationships are key

  • Obvious, really

• You need the courage to be vulnerable

  • This is absolutely key when using systems thinking and viable system modelling for transformation or system change. If you aren’t prepared to be vulnerable enough to go on a journey of discovery, then any attempts at applying different thinking will be a complete waste of time

• Do not get locked into one paradigm

  • Absolutely! And yet so very difficult. Many people do not understand that they are locked in a certain paradigm and awareness of this can be a key enabler in system change. It can alter mindsets and open up a whole new set of perspectives.

• You need observation of behaviours and a focus on continual self-regulation

  • Again, absolutely, yes! This links to the competencies that are required for managing complexity and managing in complexity. Gareth Morgan’s work on competencies required in complexity fits nicely here. If you don’t know his work, his book, ‘Riding the Waves of Change’ gives an excellent account of these competencies

• Embrace failure and embrace fatigue

  • Because of you don’t accept failure and fatigue you won’t have the grit required to deal with what viable system modelling exposes. You will definitely not be able to ‘put things right’, you will only be able to make things improve somewhat from where they are now. So, you need to be able to accept a degree of failure and this will, at times, leave you fatigued

• You must be aware yourself of what you are asking others to do – you need to know how they will experience something

  • Another thing that I think is KEY. I get a little tired of hero ‘leaders’ and consultants telling everyone to be hugely radical, when they have never done that or experienced that themselves. Sometimes, system change does not happen like that. In complexity, huge radical changes are sometimes not required. A number of smaller changes, at the same time, can often work better and be more sustainable, in my experience. My advice would be not to encourage everyone, in every situation, to be radical if you don’t know what you are asking them to do. At best it might cause lots of upset and at worst, it could lose them their jobs.

Some very key insights there, in my perspective. Thank you, Curtis, for a very interesting talk. I wish we could find more of this to share with the wider systems thinking community and with students. I think we have far too much regurgitation of the diagram of a model and far too little about practical application and especially the aspects relating to people and competencies and behaviours that are required to make it all work in practice.

Why the viable system model is perfect for exploring and understanding the complex world of public services


It was over a year ago that The Guardian informed us of ‘a warning from the Local Government Association (LGA) that councils will soon need to make deep cuts to essential services. This will include anything from road repairs, parks, children’s centres, waste collection, leisure centres and libraries.’ Yes, one year ago. At that time, a third of local authorities expected their parks to decline within three years, things like meals on wheels and debt advice centres had already disappeared and managers were being forced into ‘one or the other’ dilemmas. (

The NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer was, and still is, being disrupted by endless reorganisations.(

In 2016, health expenditure in the UK was 9.75 per cent of GDP. This compared to 17.21 per cent in the USA, 11.27 per cent in Germany, 10.98 per cent in France, 10.50 per cent in the Netherlands, 10.37 per cent in Denmark and 10.34 per cent in Canada. (

In 2016, the NHS was dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours (

Sobering, isn’t it? We were warned back then that public services required better management. But what? Where to start? And how?

What if there was a way to look at public services how we might look at large, interactive socio-ecological systems? What if there was a way to look at public services that would help us to consider their ongoing co-evolution within a complex environment?

Well, after using the viable system model and blending it with other systems thinking approaches for over 10 years in public services, I believe there is such a way and I think the idea is beautifully explained in the teachings from the book, ‘A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application’ by Angela Espinosa and Jon Walker.

Whilst it does not always explicitly mention public services in the book it isn’t hard to apply the thinking to the public services context.

The book talks about ‘open systems’ –  systems that are open to exchanges of energy and information with the environment with which they co-evolve. It tells us that, ‘all living systems are networks of smaller components, and the web of life as a whole is a multi-layered structure of living systems nestling within other living systems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2001, p6) which sounds somewhat like our public services to me. These ‘living systems’ may remain stable for certain periods of time but they do occasionally go through points of critical instability, where new forms of order might spontaneously emerge. This means that the ‘state’ of the system is not predictable and what is created may be dependent upon the systems structure and the path of development when new order emerges – Capra, 2008 (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p8). Again, this is sounding very familiar with my experiences of public services. These systems are otherwise known as a Complex Adaptive System. Espinosa and Walker explain that complex adaptive systems are open systems whose elements interact dynamically and nonlinearly. They exhibit unpredictable behaviours, are affected by positive and negative feedback loops and co-evolve with their environment. They demonstrate ‘path dependence’ i.e. they have a history, an emergent structure, they self-organise when they are far from equilibrium, or at the edge of chaos. As a result of self-organisation, these systems exhibit emergent properties. They have learning networks, which are able to co-operate to manage their resources and develop adaptive behaviours. This co-operation emerges in the course of reciprocation strategies, rather than evolving from some sort of central control. Now, again, that sounds to me a little like the direction of travel being encouraged in public service transformation. At the moment the central control still predominates but I can foresee a time where this might be less so.

But wait, those versed in management cybernetics (where the viable system model sits) might now be saying that whilst ‘cybernetics is about how systems regulate themselves, evolve and learn and its high spot is the question of how they organise themselves’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011, p11) aren’t they closed systems? A ‘closed system’ being one which has coherent, closed networks of relationships?’ So how can the VSM be useful in a situation that has the hallmarks of, and appears to be behaving somewhat like or moving towards, an open system?

This is where the writings of Espinosa and Walker explain the beautifully complimentary view of the complex adaptive system and viable system frameworks working in harmony together. Viable systems are open to energy and information and co-evolve with their environment. However, they are organisationally closed. Their organisational patterns and evolution are self-referential, self-organising and self-regulated. However, when we observe from a cybernetic perspective, we can consider the viable system model but then we can extend our understanding by considering its dynamic interaction with the environment in which it sits and therefore the viable system’s characteristics as a complex adaptive system. ‘The CAS and the VSM are complimentary frameworks that explain issues of complexity management (VSM) and complex evolving behaviours (CAS)’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011. P15).

So, for me, over time, the viable system model has been hugely eye-opening and one of the most powerful ways to expose understanding of how a complex situation is working. A viable system can be described as, ‘a system which is able to adapt and maintain an independent existence as it co-evolves with a changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13) It is always embedded in, and composed of, other viable systems.

Espinosa and Walker explain that Stafford Beer, the developer of the viable system model understood that, ‘the focus of VSM anlaysis is to observe the ability of the organisational system to handle the complexity of tasks required to fulfil its purpose in the context of a highly complex changing environment.’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011 p13)

Stafford Beer argues that for a system to be sustainable, proper structures need to be in place. These are neither centralised nor decentralised but have the right balance between the two and are capable of dealing with the complexity in their environment. He sees planning and policy based on government being the facilitator of radical change which emerges at a local level (Espinosa, Walker, 2011). Viable systems have adaptability and flexibility, awareness and self-reliance and have the capacity to innovate and induce change in other systems in pursuit of their own purpose.

Think about that for a moment………. If integrated teams, and other such teams, got this right, their reciprocation may form a structural coupling that allows all organisations involved to induce change in a complimentary way so that the purposes of the wider whole can be fulfilled. Espinosa and Walker tell us that sustainability is not about constancy but is about the ability of the living system to co-evolve with its environment. Could the right balance between centralised and decentralised structures and emergent local level change move us towards a more sustainable way of providing public services?

I think this is what we may already be seeing in some areas. But can these teams engage in the right kind of decision making that does not put anyone in a catastrophic domain? I’m not sure that we are there yet, with this one. That kind of decision making is different to what currently exists and may take a little more building of trustful relationships, different competencies and different ways of evaluating success across the whole of the network before it comes to fruition. Our idea of governance may well need to be different before governmental and non-governmental agencies can make effective decisions together. As Espinosa and Walker inform us, there currently may not even be a suitably acknowledged theory of governance to take account of the concept of sustainability. So, when public sector managers are troubled about how to enable this new world to ‘work’ isn’t it acceptable that, at the moment, they might not be 100% sure, as everyone tries to learn their way forward together?

The VSM, taking its inspiration from the natural world, helps us to identify structural factors which may constrain viability. It guides us through investigating how the system manages its interactions, identifying learning problems caused by communication issues that affect the system’s ability to deal with complexity, how our mental models affect what we observe and how to do a rapid, but very accurate, diagnosis of complex systems. It helps us to understand that empowerment enables the quick responses required for co-evolution and that our organisations are currently likely to be built for a much less complex world and their current structures are not adaptable or flexible enough for any kind of rapid response.

The VSM helps us to consider conflicts of interest and how to maintain stability, working towards collaboration rather than competition. It encourages us to understand that performance can be better together than if we were working in isolation. It supports us in understanding how joint management decisions, across a number of organisations, could activate a support network if one organisation becomes a risk to the cohesion of the whole. Of course, here is where we need a different kind of performance measurement and decision making, as we all know what it’s like when organisations have opposing performance indicators that encourage perverse behaviours of ‘self-preservation’ of the individual organisation.

The VSM helps us to bridge strategic criteria across different levels and consider effective bargains around financial, technological, physical and skill-based resources. This may, however, give some challenge to what are current ‘corporate norms.’ New ‘norms’ will need to develop over time. Questions we may well need to consider are:  What is the new context of the whole? What is the identity of the whole? What raft of creative and feasible strategies and policies are required to realise this new identity?

Espinosa and Walker are clear that sustainability will take cognitive, structural and political change. Policies will require a different focus around ‘deliberately building trust, understanding leadership in a collaborative context, building co-ordination mechanisms so that true collaboration can flourish and identifying critical measures for sustainability.’ We will need to observe and measure in as real-time as possible. Risk will need to be considered differently. We will need different information flows and we will need to make and assess decisions differently. Autonomy and empowerment will be critical to progress and we will need to be able to openly learn from mistakes, without fear of reprisal. We will require a new perspective of control that aims for a culture of respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity.

Seeing and enacting public services as a dynamic, adaptive, self-organising whole will no doubt be an enormous challenge. There is, however, as we have learned, a model of thinking that can help us to understand the emerging patterns of complex interactions. A systems thinking and complexity approach is exceptionally powerful and ‘the VSM is unprecedented in its power to diagnose and solve complex organisational problems’ (Espinosa and Walker, 2011).

Personally, I strongly believe that whilst you can use consultants to undertake a VSM diagnostic for you, the systems thinking and complexity way of understanding is far more powerful when it becomes part of your culture. In my opinion, the better use of specific systems thinking consultants is to use us to guide you through how to apply a systems thinking and complexity mindset. Use us as facilitators of a process of learning in your context. In my experience, this takes more than a one-off interaction. You may need our help and support over a period of time. But, we can help you to get started and we can guide you towards a way of considering your situation that will give powerful insights and help you and your partnerships to learn your way forward together.

Espinosa, A, Walker, J 2011 A Complexity Approach to Sustainability, theory and application. Imperial College Press