Week 19: Sam opens the door and shows us the way

Dear Systems Thinkers,

Guess what happened this week. That’s right, we didn’t do the Systemic Textual Analysis exercise.  I know, I know, it looks like we’re avoiding it intentionally.  We will do it, I promise.  Although actually, it won’t be next week as group member Sam is going to be talking to us about some work he’s been looking at involving a taking a systemic approach to challenges in public health.

So, what did we do this week.  Well, we have a pretty good excuse for not doing the Systemic Textual Analysis as it happens.  We had a very special guest who came to talk to us about the amazing work she’s been involved with.  Her name is Sam and she works for the MoD.  Over the past five years, she’s been deeply involved in rolling out a major programme within that organisation to develop its Systems Engineering/Thinking abilities.  Largely from an organisational and capability point of view.

Genuine trailblazers

I won’t go into details of the specifics of what they’ve been doing, but to say it’s impressive is an understatement.  I genuinely felt inspired.  For the team to have gained sponsorship at a high level for such a major programme is seriously impressive. They’ve been exploring how systemic approaches to understanding the problems and challenges they face as an organisation can be harnessed and embedded into all that they do.

The parallels between our organisations are substantial.  Both are large, hierarchical, command and control structured, public service organisations. Many of the challenges and issues Sam described facing on the journey of trying to develop and embed these capabilities totally resonated with me and the rest of the group.  It’s so impressive that they’ve persevered and continued to develop the credibility of these approaches.

Mix your methods

Sam describes herself as a “mixed-methods practitioner”.  She isn’t attached to any one tool, method or methodology, but picks up and uses whatever seems most appropriate for the given situation.  The two methodologies she finds the most useful in understanding and addressing complex organisational problems are Soft Systems Methodology and the VIable Systems Model.  I was pleased to hear this, as these are the two approaches I’ve identified as likely be most useful to us, so it was reassuring to hear her say that.

I’ve asked the group to give some feedback on the session, so you get more than just my perspective.  Here’s what I’ve had so far. I’ll add in more below when I receive it.

Matt’s Thoughts:

Some thoughts from me on a very enjoyable session:

  • It was helpful to look outside of our usual setting and see that some of the challenges are common to a similar public industry.
  • Sam gave a very reassuring pragmatic view on systems thinking around trying techniques and working out what works best for each situation and to pick the solution that fits. Think tool box rather than one dimension.
  • She also gave helpful advice about testing it on the right issues to help you and others gain understanding and confidence – don’t go straight at the most complex problem!
  • Some really good thoughts around having a taxonomy of terms and approaches to show what we mean in the phrases we use.
  • I really liked the description about seeking the ambiguity and not being afraid of it. Widening the problem also helps to widen the solutions!
Peter’s Thoughts:

“Approach (paraphrasing): 90% mindset change management, 10% tools/techniques.

Senior commitment: 5 years ring-fenced funding. How did they get this? What was it that made the decision maker commit?

(5 year comes across as a serious long-term commitment, but in MOD terms, this may not be considered long term – perhaps it is just my NHS-glasses)

Common sense realised: Focussing resource upstream to make better decisions, rather than applying systems thinking post decision – e.g Do we need a tank, rather than, how do we make a better tank.”

Ciao for now,

It was a brilliant session and I hope we’ll be staying in touch with Sam. She and her team have really blazed a trail and I just hope we can follow in their footsteps.  Further discussion is required!

OK, enjoy your weekend,

Tim

2 thoughts on “Week 19: Sam opens the door and shows us the way”

  1. Sounds like you had a great session with Sam, and I picked up some elements that resonate with my experience [of working in systems engineering]:
    -tool box / “mixed-methods practitioner”: spot on. Good to build up an armory of (mental) tools and techniques, and a meta-skill is gaining experience in how to apply individual (mental) tools and techniques to individual situations.
    -start small, but think big
    -taxonomy of terms: interestingly in systems engineering, one of the key initiatives an Chief Sys Eng should think about kicking off and maintaining is a taxonomy or glossary of terms. Aside: years ago I came across ISO 704, Guidelines for producing Terms and Definitions (or some such). Sounds real dry and geeky, but its actually very useful when you work in the ‘definitions’ territory. Most useful takeaway: any good definition arises from an underlying concept system…

    Last Friday I co-hosted (with two other Sys Eng/ Sys Thinkers) a workshop for a local region of a major public organisation not a million miles from here…very successful, and I’ll be giving Tim a heads-up on the (positive) outcomes from that when we meet later this month!

    1. Thanks Julian. Very helpful!

      I’ve now printed off ISO 704, and promise to read it.

      Looking forward to seeing you next weekend and hearing more about this health initiative you’re involved with.

      Tim

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