Change starts….?

I had a conversation with an IT manager the other day and they were just starting a big new project to implement some shiny bit of kit to replace some old, less shiny bit of kit. I suggested their big new thing might benefit from someone thinking about the change management. “Absolutely” she said, “but we are not ready to start thinking about change yet”. After I had nearly choked on my coffee in surprise I said to her “so when will you start thinking about change?” 

Really, you couldn’t make it up. Change is not a bolt-on you add as an after thought. Change is before, during and after the “project”. Change doesn’t start anywhere because change never stops.


Systems Thinkers & Hip Hop be like…

It has come to my attention that Hip Hop and systems thinking has more parallels that you might at first think. On reviewing several hip hop phrases and lyrics I discovered a significant leaning towards systems thinking in the lingo of the rapper. Such that I may never look at Hip Hop or systems thinking in the same way again. Let me explain…

Here are some key phrases which show the level of systems thinking prevalent in Hip Hop culture:

  1.  “I got mad knowledge of self” (Us3)

This is a clear reference to the philosophical nature of true systems thinking. It is recognition of the role of the thinker in thinking about a situation and demonstrates critical self-awareness of the relational dynamic between a practitioner, methods/tools and a problem situation

2. “You better check yo’ self before you wreck yo’ self” (Ice Cube)

Here, Cube (1992) has identified the importance of double-loop learning as a systemic intervention to overcome destructive implications of single loop thinking. This shows a second order level of awareness common to many soft and critical systems approaches.

3. “You gotta…fight the powers that be” (Public Enemy)

Capturing the spirit of Seddon, D & Flav (1990) are articulating the Hip Hop equivalent of ‘Freedom from Command and Control’

    4. “In Da Club” (50 Cent)

Referencing the often specialist nature of systems thinking groups, Cent (2003) is identifying the club-like mentality of those in the know vs non-systems thinkers.

    5. “Droppin’ science” (Marley Marl)

Marl (1998) recognises the importance of using scientific data models to provide robust underpinning to systems thinking in order to bring together both multiple perspectives and complex interdependencies to support effective systemic thinking about complex situations.

    6. “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under” (Grandmaster Flash)

An early recognition of the existential angst of being a systems thinker in a world of command & control. Flash (1982) uses metaphor to reach out to other systems thinkers and highlight the mental anguish of being one of the only ones who can see things differently

7. “Haters gonna hate” Captain Chunk

This time a more recent reflection by Chunk (2013) on the ongoing challenges faced by systems thinkers. This suggests that over time, despite many attempts to enter the mainstream, systems thinking remains a minority interest, very much like Hip Hop.

    8. “I’m down with OPP*” (Naughty by Nature)

*Other Peoples Plans/Projects. In reference once again to the psychological turmoil of trying to be true to systems thinking approaches whilst operating in a command and control environment with all its plans and projects and what not.

 So there you have it. Proof that systems thinking and Hip Hop have coalesced and become one. And what’s more not only does Hip Hop show signs of systems thinking it works both ways.

Just ask Ol’ Dirty Ackoff, Snoop Doggy Deming or MC Seddon. As the famous system saying goes  “I got 94% of problems in business as systems driven and a b*tch ain’t one!”

(* Batch as in the classic batch vs flow debate. What did you think it meant?)


So props to my crew. I am going back to my crib to bust a cap. Word!

(Thanks for reading, my systems thinking chums. I am off to my study to think systemically about some problematic situations. Toodle-pip!)









POSIWID or is it?

As the name suggests I am a big fan of the POSIWID concept. It makes sense in a Forrest Gump kinda way (purpose is as purpose does). It is also a great way of understanding organisational failure, often driven by inappropriate performance management which drives behaviour towards one purpose when the stated organisational purpose is something quite different. You know, such as the classic call centre management guff around “we value our customers” and rather than actually measuring value provided to customers they measure how quickly staff finish calls – which is about operational efficiency and not customer value! #facepalm.

So here I am loving POSIWID and then I came across something different. I found another way of exploring purpose. This time as an emergent property of the relationship between the system and its environment. The concept of structural coupling is not new but it is worth further consideration…
Structural coupling is a term devised by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to explain the organisational processes that sustain living systems. It reflects the co-relationship of different organisms that emerges over time.   In short it is about how purpose evolves over time. 

To give a simple example:

My bike + me represents a system for a pleasurable commute by means of cycling from home to work each day

But one day it rains (I know, it happens!). The ride is less pleasurable but it is still a commute to work. Slightly different purpose.

Then another day I see Bikey McBikeface the local cycling hero going in the same direction so I decide to race him. Now my commute has a new dimension which includes cycling faster than Mr McBikeface, or at least trying to. Again a slightly different purpose.

Then another day I ride my bike to go to the shops rather than work. A different purpose altogether but the same core system elements. 

This is the coupling part of the relationship. The bit which determines changes to purpose through the relationship. 

The structural part suggests there are limits to those possible changes which are restricted due to the structure of my system. This means my bike + me will not suddenly by able to fly to work (although that would be cool) as that is not a capability of the system in its current form.

The point is that purpose evolves over time as a result of the interactions and exchanges with the surrounding environment. Therefore this suggests that the purpose of a system is not simply what it does right now but something which can and does adapt overtime in relation to context. 

This doesn’t make POSIWID wrong. It is simply insufficient for taking a more holistic view of purpose over time.  I am not going to change my name. But I will feel very insufficient for a few days.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Systems thinking just sounds so dull… Time for a rebrand

I was watching the excellent Parks and Recreation the other day, it was the episode where they rebranded water. It got me thinking….

This systems thinking malarkey is great and many of us systems thinking fans swear by it. But outside the clique it is quite misunderstood and few people get it. Maybe we secretly want to keep it way and maybe we enjoy the special sense of wisdom in thinking “if only they did systems thinking, they would realise how daft they really are”. Maybe, just maybe, systems thinking needs a makeover. Maybe systems thinking needs a funkier image and a better name. 

There I said it. I lit the touch paper and now I better stand back. ‘Wait’ you shout, ‘systems thinking is for thinking about systems and about systems for thinking, so what else could we call it?’. Well, good point, but it’s still a teensy bit insular. 

What does systems thinking help you do? How does it make a difference? In marketing terms what is its value proposition? Answers will vary. For me systems thinking does several key things:

  1. It opens your mind to different perspectives
  2. It deals with complexity and interdependencies over time
  3. It focuses on purpose and how purpose emerges
  4. It helps you consider the boundaries of your thinking and become aware of choices (intentional or otherwise)

Firstly, ‘perspective, complexity, purpose, boundary thinking’ is even worse as a title than systems thinking. Secondly whilst systems thinking can be all these things it does not have to be all at the same time. So, let’s just consider perspectives for a moment and hold off the other features for now. 

In the spirit of POSIWID, this thing formally known as systems thinking, helps us to understand the thinking in others, it can give some insight into their world view and it enables us to bring their perspectives into our designs for the things we do (I am so trying to avoid saying the S word). And who are our key stakeholders? Our service users, our patients, our students, our residents. In short our customers.

Ladies and gentleman I give you “customer thinking”: see the world from your customers point of view, align your purpose with the only ones who truly matter, deliver outstanding value with customer thinking at the heart of what you do.

What’s not to like?

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. This is exactly what I am going to try and do. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Metaphor, huh yeah, what is it good for?

Metaphor, huh yeah What is it good for?  Absolutely nothing, oh hoh oh

Metaphor huh yeah What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, say it again y’all

Metaphor, huh good God What is it good for? Absolutely nothing, listen to me…

Metaphor: a figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

Metaphor: a thinking trap that blinds us to complexity in the real world.

Take the example of war, it is loaded with metaphors. For some war is framed as a fairy tale with a cast of characters, good guys (the heroes) and bad guys (the villains). Other metaphors for war include war-as-a-game (a game to be won with a winner and a loser) or war–as-medicine (giving the enemy a dose of what’s good for them!)

Is it really that simple?

What these metaphors do is to simplify the complexity of war. They make it easier to package by the media and easier to accept by the public. They sanitise it by limiting your thinking. They also ignore the layers of complexity of real life. They remove the internal layers of war, the different people and perspectives involved across the complex stakeholder landscape. These metaphors reduce reality and frame it as a simple story.

Is there really a good and bad side to a war? The atrocities committed in Iraq suggest not. Is there really a winner and a loser? The ongoing struggles suggest not.

Metaphors hide complexity. Metaphors create a cosy reality that allows us to accept the unacceptable without question.

Try this little experiment…

Find a situation where you and someone else have different perspectives, a work project or political allegiances could be good examples. First consider from your perspective a suitable metaphor for the project and what you are trying to achieve. Next ask them to identify a metaphor that they believe represents the project and what they are trying to achieve on it. Then compare and contrast the differences and similarities between how you both perceive the same project.

This should reveal some interesting differences. I did this once on a project with two other people. One saw the project as a stage production (being watched my senior management) the other saw it as a journey of discovery (a trek into the unknown). This revealed a powerful insight into what they considered important and also what they didn’t see.

These metaphors underpinned how they behaved, what they saw as important and what they chose to dismiss as unimportant. A truly useful insight into perspectives. Even though they didn’t realise they were there. This exercise also enable the project team to reconcile these different perspective and find a common metaphor to agree on.

So on your next group venture challenge yourself about any hidden metaphors you have. Ask questions of others to gain insight into their metaphors. Bring them to light and work with them. Consider how metaphors can constrain thinking, especially when the stakes are high.

Oh, metaphor, I despise    ‘Cause it means destruction of innocent lives 

What is Systems Thinking?

I was recently asked by a clever colleague to explain systems thinking. An easy question you might think as I have an ‘ology in systems thinking. However this clever colleague has written books on systems thinking and I was in an interview….

This was one of those situations where you can’t spend too long thinking of a witty and erudite response, a time when there is a need to provide the ‘right’ answer based on what you think they want to hear and this was not the opportunity for a healthy discussion (shame). So I quoted back to him what he had written and I hoped that counted for something.

What I really wanted was a meaningful conversation.

Later that day this got me thinking about systems thinking and reflecting on what it means to me. I have boiled it down to some simple components. This time in my own words, after deliberation and with a view for debate.


For me systems thinking is all about context. It is about considering things in context and realising that the same thing can have different contextual meaning to different people in different circumstances. A simple example: the pond in my garden is an ornamental feature of beauty to me, it is a habitat to the fish that live in it and it is a source of lunch to the neighbour’s cat. It is still the same pond. What systems thinking teaches me is the importance of recognising the nature of context in any situation and being sensitive to it.

Some writers talk about perspectives, other reference worldviews and others talk about traditions. Context brings these together and emphasizes the subjectivity of experience and thinking.



Systems thinking is a humbling pursuit. Being a systems thinker is a constant reminder that mine is not the only opinion that counts and that I may not always be right. This is perhaps one of the reasons why systems thinking is not always popular with certain types of senior manager. Systems thinking grounds me and forces me to consider other contexts. This keeps me humble and keeps my mind open.



There are those who recommend systems thinking as a tool for managing through complexity. I do not subscribe to systems thinking as something you do on occasion. Systems thinking is not something you do, it is something you become. Systems thinking is an enlightenment, it is a way of being.

Before I sound like some crazy weirdo, what I mean is that systems thinking is not a tap you turn on or off. It is who you are because thinking defines how you perceive the world. Once you learn to think in terms of systems you see systems everywhere.



Like Dirk Gently, the Douglas Adams’ famous holistic detective I see interconnectedness everywhere.  I think in terms of patterns not lines. I can’t help myself and boy does that cause trouble when dealing with colleagues who love their ‘left to right planning’.


Just a few thoughts, more to follow another day….

Systems thinking > Vanguard

I love John Seddon and what he stands for. I particularly like those videos of a cartoon Seddon having a good old moan about non-systemsy people. I think the Vanguard Method is a fabulous way for service organisations to focus on  transforming themselves to be better. 

When you ask many people who claim to be systems thinkers what they mean by systems thinking is Vanguard.  Now don’t get me wrong Vanguard is about systems and thinking and thinking about systems. However it is not the only systems thinking approach and neither is it my favourite (shock horror).  

In the big wide world of systems thinking there some fantastic approaches that have nothing to do with Vanguard but are brilliant for systems thinking and thinking systemically. I couldn’t possibly do them all justice in one short blog, so consider this just a name check. Go forth and Google them. Or better still go to a library and read about them in a book. Or even better still find a good university and study them.

So here goes, not a complete list, at all but some other approaches to systems thinking and some key systems thinkers in brackets worthy of further exploration:

  • Viable Systems Model (Stafford Beer)
  • Systems Dynamics (Donella Meadows)
  • Soft Systems Methodology (Peter Checkland)
  • Appreciative Systems (Geoffrey Vickers)
  • Social Learning Systems (Etienne Wenger)
  • Cybernetics
  • Systems Failure Method

The list goes on. This is just some of what I have had the pleasure to learn about. The list will continue to evolve and grow. Some of these approaches and people might not be as well known or as prevalent on social media but they deserve an occasional mention. So go on find out some more. Be curious…..

RAG – I prefer Awesome, Awkward and Awful

In business land you can’t escape the RAG. The RAG is everywhere, telling all who see it about the status of this and the progress of that. Love it or loathe the RAG is here to stay.

So I say embrace it, make it better and have fun with it. 

Rather than boring old red, amber and green why not have something a bit more entertaining, a bit more motivating and a bit more cool. 

Ladies and gentlemen I give to you my triple A rating: awesome, awkward and awful. 

Would like your project to be green or awesome? If things are bad don’t hide it with a colour, say what you see and call it awful. And if progress is in danger then do as my teenage daughter would do and call it awkward. 

Imagine the delight on your senior manager’s face when you present your next status report. Go on, you know it make sense.

Like a boss…

I don’t work in the military. I am not a policeman. I work in an office.
So why do so many “senior managers” believe they are my commanding officer?

  • Please communicate with me not at me
  • Please ask not tell
  • Please treat me like a colleague not a sub-ordinate

And I will respect you like a boss…


Who manages change?

I am a change manager, that’s me, that is what my job description says I do.

So what is it I really do? I manage the change that someone, usually one of the top brass, wants to happen. They command and I manage others to follow to ensure control. That is the world of command and control.

Now being a systemsy type, a bit of a corporate rebel and a change radical (more on that another day) I am not a big fan of command and control. I prefer a systems approach to change.


But here’s the fun part you see change happens all the time, change is inevitable and for the most part it happens without my involvement at all. Systems self-govern, you don’t have to be a holocratic organisation to realise that systems protect themselves from bad interventions. What my senior chums don’t get is that change needs to flow with the system to work otherwise it is doomed.

By understanding the system I understand how change works. The change manages itself and my job is to dance with the system…