Sneaking in the Systems Thinking

Several years ago I started my course with the Open University in Systems Thinking in Practice. At that time it was pretty much new, I was on the first cohort for the Systemic Inquiry module, and the second cohort for the Systems Tools for Strategic Thinking module. I understand that, several years later, the modules are a great success and in high demand. And rightly so.

I suspect that like a lot of my fellow students, I set off with zeal of a convert. I foresaw that I would be changing the lives of those around me with the new tools that I was learning about. Armed with the new insight that I was helping to reveal to everyone that I would be helping to drive things forward.

Instead, I learned to keep ST pretty much to myself, to use it quietly in the background. I had hoped that colleagues, dazzled by what I was able to reveal, would clamour to find out how I did it. From that point I could share what I had learned. Over time the world would become a significantly better place as we understood how to do the “right things”.

The course is well behind me now, and yes, I frequently use a lot of what I learned to help me in my daily life. I still add to my Systems Thinking armoury through my own efforts  but my hope of sharing this stuff for the better  remains unfulfilled.

Why is this?


In the past few months I have been working on a big, highly strategic project which became stuck for a short while. We were helped by a Gartner analyst, Jose Ruggero, who reviewed our efforts. Asking questions that often felt more like therapy than IT, he got to the core of our problems with our work: 

the changes we were trying to bring about were hard, and getting people to change harder still.

Jose pointed us at some work by Chip & Dan Heath, and suitably armed we set about making the change acceptable by appealing to emotion as well as the rational side of people, and by showing that the change had already started in a way that people were comfortable with.

We learned along the way, and we changed our approach. We knew we had to hit time and deliverable milestones, but we changed how we worked as we learned.

Recently I’ve been moved to help two other change projects, and suitably armed we’re progressing a bit quicker this time, but still I keep meeting “the old ways”.

Why do I mention this?

Change is largely about moving towards the unknown, or at least the less well known. This is an area where systemic inquiry can help so much, and yet the folks around me in these new projects keep insisting on the old ways. For example:

Q: Where is my project plan for delivering the change plan?
A: How can I plan a project when I don’t know what it is going to be?
I can come up with a set of activities to find out more, and then review that to create the next set of activities. The important thing is that  I manage this to keep us on track to deliver the outcome, in an agreed timescale, then I get to the right outcome.

In my head, I’m using soft systems, but outwardly I’m having to translate it to more established approaches. That translating is time consuming and energy sapping, but it gets the job done. People like the results, after all I keep being asked to do this, but they don’t seem to be interested in how they got them.

More than ever I believe we need to use Systems Thinking approaches more widely to address our changing world, and I remain hopeful. But I suspect its going to take a lot longer than I had expected and in the meantime it’s keep on with working hard to bridge our different worlds.


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