Flowers, Vegetables & Systems Practice

Two years ago I was about to embark on the first of two modules with the OU in Systems Practice. Whilst the two modules were in themselves interesting, the level of interaction with fellow students was quite astounding. Working on these courses as a distance learner can be a lonely existence yet the student forums for both the module work, and the coffee break chat, provided motivation and encouragement. It was very pleasing to be able to join many of those same students through a LinkedIn group and carry on those discussions when the modules were over.

One topic that is frequently revisited by the Systems Practice alumni is why the Systems Thinking approaches and practice are not being welcomed into many of the organisations that we work in.

Before I go any further, let me nail my colours to the mast on this topic: I embarked on this course of study because I felt it had a lot of benefit supporting what I do in my daily role, and it has delivered more than I expected, I am still learning and finding more to use every day. However, the systems thinking approaches are part of the tool kit, we still need governance, planning and the other components of management that introduce a level of rigour.

However our world is changing. It is becoming much more dynamic, and dare I say chaotic, as we see new organisational approaches such as: outsourcing, open innovation, and micro-organisation. I regularly see pieces exhorting us all to embrace “new” ideas such as “Design Thinking”, “Big Data” or “Social Networking at work”. All of these require news forms of management thinking in order that we survive & prosper in this new and rapidly changing environment. And yet the majority of senior figures seem to resolutely hold on to the older ways of management, eschewing any new ideas that could help.

And that is where a lot of the discussion amongst my fellow alumni has focused: just where & when will Systems Practice break through and become not only acceptable but substantive. Will, like our economy if Liam Halligan is to be believed, it be that when we are in dire straights, only then will there be an openness to any new ideas? Or is there so much inertia behind the methods employed by the large organisations & consultancies that these will continue to hold sway, not only where they do actually apply but in the areas where other approaches would be more suitable?

What has triggered these thoughts is a video at TED called Pam’s TED. How we can eat our landscapes in which Pam Warhurst describes how they changed the view of the people of Todmorden about green spaces through “propaganda gardening”.

Now, by highlighting this I’m not advocating that we go around massive business transformation by planting courgettes & sweet corn, but Pam does raise some interesting views that could be swiped (creatively of course) to apply more widely including to how we could get visibility and adoption of systems practice where it provides more value than existing methods.

So what is the systems practice equivalent of the green patch outside the railway station – something that is highly visible yet went uncared for before the “Todmorden Terrors” got to it, something that makes an impact on you as soon as you arrive at Todmorden. Watching the video I’m reminded of Captain Boycott of Yorkshire Airlines flying where he liked, at what height he liked. Pam talks about having no strategy and no permission, but just getting on with it anyway.

The Todmorden approach doesn’t hurt anyone, or take anything away from anyone and therefore is essentially benign. Yet it’s highly visible and people get a benefit. It’s also driven by unselfishness. And that’s what we have to do with getting systems practice made visible: find ways to use the approaches to provide benefits without hurting anyone. And that probably means doing the equivalent of working in the unwanted spaces at first. Here we go!

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