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! (http://www.legendsofhockey.net/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/SearchPlayer.jsp?player=12084)

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 information flows that enables 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.

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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. (https://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2017/feb/28/uk-government-cuts-parks-libraries-local-government-nhs-prisons)

The NHS, the world’s fifth largest employer was, and still is, being disrupted by endless reorganisations.(https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/jan/18/10-truths-about-britains-health-service).

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. (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

In 2016, the NHS was dealing with over 1 million patients every 36 hours (http://www.nhsconfed.org/resources/key-statistics-on-the-nhs)

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

 

The Blended Systems Thinking Approach – enhancing understanding to enable regenerative transformation

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Imagine if there was an approach to change and transformation that could take away the fear that managers have when they don’t know what improvements to make, where to start or how to get to where they need to be.

Imagine if there was an approach that allowed you to quickly and powerfully understand how your system works.

Imagine if there was a way to be more adaptable so your organisation thrives and survives  longer term.

There is such an approach. It exists in the form of the Blended Systems Thinking Approach  that I have developed over the last 10+ years of applying systems thinking to complex situations.

Traditional methods of working rarely seek to understand and work with complexity. Many organisations were designed in a time when being adaptable and flexible were not as important as they are today. Many organisations continue to use approaches that might have been useful to them in the past, but are of little use in complex situations. Approaches like Plan Do Check Act does not deal with complexity. Lean does not deal with complexity. Six sigma does not deal with complexity. So, we need a different approach to deal with the challenges of today.

My approach is a systems and complexity thinking approach that can be used for transformation and/ or change. It can be used to diagnose a situation to give a whole range of options for improvement, to design something from scratch or to transform a situation by understanding and shifting a range of perspectives, aligning values and perceived purposes and by helping organisations to build a co-created identity with their partners.

With this approach I do not seek to focus on ineffective long-term prediction and rigid planning. We all know that this is relatively pointless in complex situations. Instead, I help people to understand the complexity in which their situation sits and understand why things may not be working as  expected. My aim is to enable the adaptability and flexibility required for organisations to thrive and survive, on a long-term basis, in a complex, and sometimes rapidly changing, environment.

The approach

The main model used in my approach is the VIABLE SYSTEM MODEL, with other methods/ models/ concepts etc being added to the VSM approach, in appropriate places, to enhance the understanding of the complex situation. The process followed for each of the following three types of activity is different. However, they all draw upon the elements outlined in the approach, albeit in different ways or in different sequences. This approach can be used to:

  1. Diagnose – based on identifying the areas where you are not managing the complexity in your system, identifying how your system self-organises and regenerates and how adaptable you are.
  2. Design from scratch – focussing on the perceived or initial intended purpose of the system, based on the multiple perspectives of the stakeholders. Taking into account POSIWID (the purpose of the system is what it does) and aiming for sufficient adaptability to manage your complex situation. Designing for positive emergence, where possible.
  3. Transform – based on understanding and shifting perspectives, aligning values and perceived purposes and building a co-created identity. Building capacity by focussing on interconnections, interdependencies and interactions, enabling effective communication flows and aiming for sustainable management of complexity.

I have no rigidly fixed way of going from A to B with my approach, just a range of options that I might use, depending upon the situation I face. I encourage critical observation throughout and whilst I will draw upon various elements of my approach in a sequence that fits with a specific diagnosis, there are some things I always do first. For example, a boundary critique. The complexity of the environment is infinite, so the system must decide what it wants to focus on. A boundary critique defines the limits of what is to be taken as pertinent in the investigation, so it is beneficial to surface those judgements at the very beginning, if possible. This is why I always start with the boundary critique.  I use Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to assist me, which gives some really easy to follow questions to get me started. What I try to do is identify what selectivity is occurring and I question the practical and ethical elements of those judgements with stakeholders. CSH is great for this and worth getting to grips with. I interview people, talk to groups of stakeholders, have workshops and might use other techniques, such as questionnaires, to bring in as many perspectives as I can, without it getting too overwhelming. I try not to go ‘too big’, or it tends to become unmanageable. I then identify what kind of tensions, values, conflicts and expectations exist and work with the stakeholders to decide what is going to be inside and outside of the boundary.

The viable system model (VSM) addresses  how an organisation manages complexity. It looks to establish the necessary and sufficient structural preconditions for viability. It gives powerful insights around self-organisation and adaptive management. In public services, for example, it can help us move more towards a model of self-organised networks.

When we use the VSM it is important that we are also able to empower people. It is essential that any networks we create are able to build trust and understand how collaborative leadership works. Bottom up learning processes can help with this empowerment and this is an essence of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS), so I bring in some of the CAS thinking here, to ensure that those learning processes are considered and embedded.

All of this self-organisation, networks, bottom up learning etc pushes us towards models of working that require people to have new and different competencies to what might have worked in the past. Nowadays, we require a focus on autonomy, accountability, respect, trust, transparency and reciprocity. This is where I bring in the work of Gareth Morgan who clearly outlines the competencies required in a more complex working environment.

Of course, there are also multiple perspectives in our situations, particularly when working towards things like leadership of place in public services. To help me work effectively with these, I draw in some Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) which uses techniques like rich pictures to capture and communicate these perspectives in an unthreatening way and conceptual models to help me visually work with and communicate current or future concepts.

I also need to get a grip of the dynamics in a situation and the feedback loops between elements of the VSM. For this, I use some basic Systems Dynamics and in particular causal loop mapping. These diagrams can display a huge amount of complex information on one page that takes minutes to understand and yet would take numerous pages of complicated text to explain. The systems dynamics helps me to understand the structure that determines the behaviour over time of the situation I am looking at, so it is a valuable addition to my approach.

If I think it necessary, I will pull in a number of other approaches. One of which might be to explore the structural couplings in a situation. Structural couplings are things like the other organisations you might interact with in a mutually beneficial way, whilst still preserving your identity and viability; the recurrent interactions leading to structural congruence. So, it is not hard to imagine how investigating and understanding the structural couplings can enhance the value of the core viable system modelling approach.

I look for improvements that are both systemically desirable and culturally feasible. When it comes to making improvements, I use small scale prototyping to enable a more entrepreneurial approach and I aim for the ability to regenerate and survive on an ongoing basis.

It is important to add that I strongly advocate a facilitative and coaching style in my work. I do not work individually but I bring people, from all levels of an organisation, along for the ride with me. I try to teach as much about the thinking process as possible along the way as it is important to me that people can learn the skills for themselves. This type of change and transformation requires ongoing understanding and learning and I put as much effort into that (sometimes more) as I do in undertaking the actual diagnosis. I act as a facilitator of others’ learning. I do not use a traditional ‘problem’ ‘solution’ style of consulting. I work on the ground, and with all levels in the organisation, to facilitate learning in their context. My aim is to develop a working context that allows people to deal with complex situations so that the organisation becomes adaptable and can thrive and survive independently in the longer term.

There are a number of strengths to my approach:

  • It develops understanding in your context – it is a uniquely different way of thinking about and diagnosing your current situation;
  • It is widely applicable – from large organisations to small services;
  • It has rigour – it uses tried and tested methods, models and concepts;
  • It develops a wider range of co-created options for improvement;
  • It reduces how intimidating large complex situations are and enables you to work with them to diagnose why certain things keep happening or are getting worse

And it can bring a number of benefits, such as:

  • Giving your organisation the ability to adjust, modify and change, to take advantage of opportunities and cope with the consequences of shock or stress;
  • Helping you increase your capacity and capability by helping you to understand the underlying structures that drive behaviours and outcomes;
  • It develops a strong foundation for decision making to give benefits across the system;
  • It helps you to manage complexity to improve problematic situations and capitalise on opportunities

And some additional benefits:

  • It can help to identify and strengthen the voice of any marginalised groups, who currently do not have the voice or positive influence they might have;
  • It can explicitly identify the power dynamics, so that you can develop strategies for dealing with them;
  • It encourages stakeholders to drive the systemic change;
  • It can help to identify potential conflict situations;
  • Organisations/ teams who learn by evolution/ regeneration tend to create an environment of ongoing innovation;
  • It encourages a greater entrepreneurial mindset by helping you to identify opportunities to innovate;
  • It helps you to understand what is required to give energy to and scale up new ideas;
  • It encourages you to experiment and identifies that failure is temporary and, in some cases, a necessary pre-cursor to success;
  • It can give you a different response to conflict.

The Blended Systems Thinking Approach – enhancing understanding to enable regenerative change and transformation.

Are you riding the waves of change or drowning in the turbulent seas? What can we learn from Gareth Morgan?

‘Imagine a long, open Hawaiian beach. The surf is rolling in, and the waves are speckled with surfers and surf-boards. Some surfers are riding the waves with flowing determination. Others are flying high into the air and plunging deep into the foam. The image provides a metaphor for management in turbulent times. For like surfers, managers and their organisations have to ride on a sea of change that can twist and turn with all the power of the ocean.’ (Gareth Morgan, 1988)

What are you doing right now? Are you surfing, swimming or drowning? Are you surrounded by beautiful fish or man-eating sharks? Today, in public services, it is all too easy to feel like the surf is spinning you around, dragging you under and then crashing you against the rocks. But, back in 1988, Gareth Morgan gave us some great insights into the management competencies that would be required moving forward, to help us surf like a professional.

Morgan reminds us that, ‘many organisations and their managers drive toward the future while looking through the rear-view mirror. They manage in relation to events that have already occurred, rather than anticipate and confront the challenges of the future.’ He is clear in highlighting that organisations are becoming flatter and more decentralised. Self-organisation is occurring where autonomy is given to remote staff groups who are controlled from a distance.

With these changes comes the undeniable need to think and work differently. Possessing specific skills and abilities and combining technical, human and conceptual skills to create efficiency is no longer enough. To date, many organisations have tended to be successful because of very tight centralised control. Direct control can often feel like an attractive and comfortable way to manage. It suits those at the top who often can’t let go because their concept of being organised is linked to controlling and monitoring their constituent teams/ services. There is also some fear that the people at the bottom will not be driven to the same excellence in decision making as those at the top. But what can replace this direct control and how do people need to work to make it happen?

Moving forward, control will look more like management of relationships across a network, rather than management of discreet activities. ‘A network must be managed as a system of interdependent stakeholders, with collective identity and management philosophies that recognise the importance of mutual dependence and collaboration and a collective sense of accountability and control.’ ‘Collective identity’ itself will be a particular challenge, in my opinion. It is all too often that teams/ services/ organisations cling on to their identity for dear life and even after years of restructuring/ integrating/ changing, being dragged under the water over and over again, they still emerge flustered, gasping and adamantly refusing to let their old identity go.

Morgan tells us that, ‘Increasingly, the leadership process will become identified with an ability to mobilise the energies and commitments of people through the creation of shared values and shared understandings’. Development of operational skills will be only one part of the story. Developing attitudes, values and the mindset to allow teams to confront, understand and deal with forces inside and outside of the organisation will be the other side of the coin and the two must work in harmony together. Navigating the forthcoming waves with foresight and flexibility will be imperative to survival.

Management competencies will look and feel much different to those of today and will include:

  • Developing contextual competencies – building bridges and alliances, reframing problems to open up new possibilities, acting nationally and locally, developing a new approach to social responsibility;
  • Reading the environment – scanning and intelligence functions, forecasting, scenario planning and identifying major occurrences that could shape the future environment;
  • Proactive management – developing proactive mindsets, managing from the outside in (keeping in close contact with the evolving environment and enhancing capacity to rise to challenges and opportunities in an ongoing way) positioning and repositioning skills (the ability to manage tension between present and future so that you can position for the future whilst avoiding collapse in existing operations);
  • Promoting creativity, learning and innovation;
  • Skills of remote management (helicoptering, managing through an umbilical cord, promoting self-organisation, managing ambiguity and managing the balance between chaos and control);
  • Using I.T. to drive improvements;
  • Managing complexity (many things at once, transitions and multiple stakeholders)

The manager may no longer be able to function as a technical specialist who is also responsible for managing people, as is so often the case today. He or she will have to be become much more of an all-round generalist. Traditional supervisory roles are likely to disappear and the important competency may then lie in the ability to get employees enthused and fully absorbed with the new corporate philosophy, rather than to follow instructions in a mechanical way.

Innovation will be essential and with it comes the need to improve lateral interactions. Team managers will need to be able to:

  • Talk to and work with one another, embedding really successful interactions;
  • Develop a sense of common purpose;
  • Engage in effective conflict management and be able to read and handle hidden tensions;
  • Be a general resource to teams, a trouble shooter, a networker between self-organising teams, linking those teams to the wider organisation;
  • Take a more hands-off approach to management so that the initiative and control is passed to others;
  • Feel comfortable dealing with loosely structured situations and only intervene when necessary and in ways that empower;
  • Be aware of feedback systems that keep them informed without giving direct operational control.

In addition, organisations will need to adopt a risk taking ‘see if this works’ attitude, developing a supportive culture to experimentation. They will need to give parameters within which to operate, monitor on the basis of results and give teams the autonomy to operate quickly and flexibly to the changing environment. Planning can be bottom up, with management ensuring that plans fit with the organisation’s overarching vision. However, early warning systems should be built in to let managers know when intervention is required. Those mechanisms should seek to maintain the autonomy of the teams.

To deal with accountability, organisations and their managers should create systems of values, so employees can share and understand the mission and general parameters that guide action, rather than developing a set of rules as bureaucratic organisations do now. This, in itself, will require a mind-set shift from current day. Future managers will have to become as skilled in the art of empowerment as traditional managers are skilled in exercising direction and control.

Anticipating, communicating, sharing, inspiring, empowering, facilitating, networking, motivating are all words which are likely to become more and more common place in relation to management competencies.

As Morgan tells us,
‘You must have a remote type of management facility – the Europeans call it the helicopter principle – where you hover like a helicopter over the scene. If something goes wrong, you can come down and resolve it, but essentially you operate at a distance, and let the operation go.’

Which, I dare say, will be easier said than done for most organisations……

(Riding the waves of change, Gareth Morgan 1988)

The games we play

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Yes, that’s right, we play games. It isn’t all statistics and theories in this field! The first thing I like to do as a systems practitioner is to appeal to people’s human side. After all, it is people we are dealing with and it is usually them I am trying to help.

Many people in the Western world have a bias towards dogmatism. Therefore, I often find it a good idea to expose this, just so people believe it exists. I don’t mean embarrassing people or putting them on the spot, but showing that we are all very much alike and respond in a very similar way to the stimuli around us. It is easy to fall into our dogmatism “trap,” no matter how much we try to avoid it. So how do we break the habit? We play games, of course! Well, I do anyway; especially if I am delivering training courses. I don’t mean training courses particularly about systems thinking either. You can incorporate systems thinking into any kind of training.

For example, I was asked to deliver quality assurance training in an NHS organisation. Brilliant! What better opportunity. Ensuring quality means you have to have an understanding of the situation you are in and why any failures in quality might have happened. If you are steeped in dogmatism you will inevitably fall into the trap of attributing blame and potentially miss the real reason for the failure. So, I like to open up people’s minds and expose them to the concept of multiple perspectives. “What do you mean, multiple perspectives?” I hear you cry. Yes, multiple perspectives; they really do exist. Our own perspective of something is not necessarily a true reflection of the situation we are observing. It is merely our own view of that situation. The person next to us might very feasibly have a completely different perspective of exactly the same thing. To demonstrate the concept of multiple perspectives I use an exercise from The Systems Thinking Playbook by Linda Booth Sweeney and Dennis Meadows.

bookIt’s the one called, Circles in the Air. I have a lot of fun with it and delight in seeing people walking down the corridor days later with a pen in the air, trying to work out whether they are moving it clockwise or anticlockwise!

 

If you haven’t used this book before, I highly recommend it. There’s even a DVD with it to demonstrate the exercises. It’s quite easy to demonstrate how our brains make lightening quick associations, how we might perceive things differently from someone else and how we are easily guided into misconceptions by our past experiences.

I like to break down these barriers first and show people that we are all human and we all fall into the same traps. It helps to erode the stigma attached to “getting something wrong.” After all, you need humility to apply systems thinking. You have to be willing to challenge yourself. If you want people to come on board, you have to show them they are human and it’s ok to make mistakes. Only then might they be amenable to reviewing their current practice and taking on board new ways of thinking.

Moral of the story – play games, appeal to people’s human side and enjoy it. Applying systems thinking isn’t about being boring and stuffy. For me, it’s about infecting others with your systems thinking bug. And, once they have the bug, I’m pretty sure they won’t want to get rid of it.

Who is this website for?

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This website is not for the consultant level systems practitioner. It is for the beginner or anyone who might have heard of systems thinking, doesn’t know what it really is but would like to find out more. Also, people often learn about systems thinking but then have difficulty applying the concepts in the real world. This website is for those people. It intends to give practical examples and advice about how some of the tools and techniques used in systems thinking can be used in every-day situations. You do not have to aim to change the world with systems thinking! Nor do you have to be an expert or know everything about systems thinking to put some of its concepts into practice.

Systems thinking is used with primary school children in some countries. It is for people of all ages. If you are reading this then, yes, this website is for you.

What is a Systems Practitioner?

SmallLogo A systems practitioner is someone who is able to put systems concepts into action. This might be in their work, everyday personal life, or both. Systems practitioners often use systems ideas to investigate, evaluate, and make changes in complex situations. Some people think that systems practitioners “look at our systems.” To some degree we do. However, what we mainly do is to take the concepts of how a system works and apply them to situation so that we can work out what is happening in that situation and how we might improve or change it.

But what is a system? Well, a system can be defined as anything consisting of two or more parts which work together as a whole to give a property/ properties that do not exist in one of the parts alone.

For example, a car car  can be classed as a system. It consists of a number of parts which, together, give a mode of transport. Transport is the emergent property of the system. It emerges when all of the parts work together. Singularly the engine is not a mode of transport, nor are the wheels or the seats etc. Without the rest of the car they are not a mode of transport.

Systems have various properties. Here are a few of them:

  1. they have emergent properties (i.e. being a mode of transport is the emergent property of the car)
  2. they self-organise (i.e. they are dynamic, they change)
  3. they exhibit “feedback” (i.e. they consist of information flows or loops of causes and effects)

Systems practitioners tend to focus the connectedness between the component parts in a system. These parts can be: people, departments, services, organisations or sometimes whole societies. A system is however big or small you want it to be. Our intention is to understand the system, as a whole, so that we can predict its behaviour. We tend to do this because if we reduce the situation into smaller “bits” and tweak or change only one bit and not the others we will have more chance of failure. But, if we look at it as a whole then we usually have more chance of success. It is not an “ivory tower” academic discipline. It is very pragmatic and practical. Systems practitioners consider the impacts and unintended consequences of actions as well as the actions themselves.