This post is an overview of a talk by Tim James and Mike Haber at the SCIO open day in Manchester in October 2016. Pauline Roberts kindly made some great notes, and I’m using these notes as the basis of this post, and adding extra information and links.
At the talk in Manchester Mike and Tim gave an overview of some very powerful systems thinking work they have been doing in the workplace. Both have developed Systems Thinking groups in the workplace to share, support and learn from one another. Tim’s group is called Systems Thinkers Anonymous and Mike runs a strengths workshop. Both groups run for 1 hour per week over lunch time.
The origin of this talk was a SCiO development day. These are days where systems practitioners meet to discuss practical problems they are dealing with. At a recent London Development Day Tim and Mike realised they were both facilitating systems thinking groups at their workplace, and although the groups were very different they had a lot of similarities. Looking at the differences and similarities has been really interesting.
How Mike’s Group Started
Mike started by running the introduction to systems thinking workshop “Draw Toast” with 45 people, and follow up sessions exploring boundaries using football matches as an example helping people start to think systemically. This was an example of using a single systems ideas, boundaries in this case, to investigate a situation. Mike had spoke at SCiO on this previously, and has a set of cards for workshops planned.
After these two sessions Mike asked a small number of colleagues who had attended previous sessions to investigate Clifton Strength’s Finder and Clean Language to see if using both ideas at the same time would be useful.
This group has been meeting weekly for about 10 months, and has moved to discuss more approaches, but in a largely unstructured meetings, using a lean coffee ish format. People bring their own ideas and situations.
Tim’s Systems Thinkers Anonymous group developed alongside a blog to engage and help others. The blog at http://systemsthinkersanonymous.com/ has helped their learning and a wide audience has now been drawn in to share learning and encourage systems practice and systems thinking. Tim’s group is more structured, and looks at systems approaches from Burge Hughes Walsh Training and consultancy. There is a wide range of approaches and Tim’s blog discusses how the group has applied these to their problems. There is suggested work to do before each session, and a structure to the learning.
Tim’s blog is a great narrative of how the group has run, and has some great examples of applied Systems Thinking, including lots of diagramming techniques, Soft Systems Methodology, Rich Pictures, and guests including Jean Boulton talking about complexity
Whilst both groups are about drawing people into systems thinking, one is very structured and one is more organic. This demonstrated the versatility of how systems thinking can be shared at a grass roots level in organisations.
There was a discussion about “safety” of the groups, both as a protection from those who may challenge the legitimacy of the group, and the safe spaces for discussion that were created.
The branding of learning was helpful – both groups use freely available materials that helps give legitimacy and openness to the groups – the materials are available to anyone.
Mike started using Clean Language as a way to model how people feel and using Strengths Finder to understand how people work, and asked how the two pieces of information can support working relationships. The organic nature of the group allows emergence of topics for discussion that make people look at situations differently. The lack of agenda is its power. They are able to discuss things that would otherwise feel “unsafe” to talk about in the workplace. People are able to explore their own behaviour in a non-judgemental environment. Non Violent Communication was introduced as an amazing framework for doing this. He aims to explore Barry Oshry’s work next but the organic nature of the discussions will allow any topics prevail – whatever what people want to explore.
Tim has observed barriers being brought down and people feel they can talk about systems thinking in a way they never could before.
Tim noted there is a thirst for this kind of group due to the lack of training budgets in the NHS. Going into the systems thinking space is very different for those in the NHS. It is engaging and powerful and helps people look at the problems they are facing.
Do people think outside in or inside out? Are the groups on the outside, inside or are there some linear thinkers who are getting broader? And how this fits with the populations as a whole?
Tim – they have attracted people who would normally be attracted to the group. They have lost one or two but most have stayed.
Mike – similar to Tim, it’s people who are interested, but is quite rigorous calling out woolly thinking. There has been a definite shift towards practical systemic thinking in the group, and good practical examples of the use of the tools in work, and in other relationships.
Are the boundaries open?
Tim has taken in new members lately.
Mike – problems of scale as it is over lunch time. We definitely have a tight group, but are currently using the group to plan a series of three one hour workshops using Barry Oshhrys Power Systems framework.
Are either looking at a time when they can be an overt challenge to the organisation?
Tim- The blog – reflective text, way of engaging with other and also it can create autopoiesis – others could do the same if they wanted to.
Mike explained how people are starting to ask to be taught things about systems thinking there is an appetite for practical systems thinking, but it may need to be grass roots.
What do we get from the groups
What is emerging – fun! They are really enjoying their journey. There is a lot of work to set up a learning group but it is worth it. Whilst it isn’t for everyone most people are keen to support one another. Tim is doing project on public health, another on isolation (particularly for the elderly) and how to do commissioning for outcomes.
Shared ideas for Future Groups
Both groups meet weekly. If someone misses a meeting it’s a week until the next one, and there is a great benefit in running at the same time and day each week.
The content of each group is sourced from books, websites and videos, and is open to anyone. There is no secrecy about the tools we’re using. Having a open source of content is important.
The content the group discusses should reflect their interests, and if possible their issues.
Both groups we’re initiated by a person interested in a group forming, who was able to get people interested. There may be some work involved, but both groups now meet if the initiator is not there.
Each groups started with a completely different purpose. Tim’s group had a syllabus. Mikes started with one lunchtime meeting to look at a couple of techniques to see if they had merit – like a academic peer review. It continued and looked at other ideas because there was a interest to do so.
Neither group has official support or funding. Margaret Wheatleys “Proceed until apprehened” works here. The groups are authentic, and are not suspect to ‘fear of missing out’, or have members who are there because they need to be seen there. A downside is a lack of direct influence. This can also be an advantage, as people can simply behave differently, and explain why afterwards which can be powerful.
The groups are safe spaces where difficult conversations can be held. In the case of Mikes group, the group is quite tight. It would be hard for new members to join due to the shared language and understanding that the group has.
Any new group would need to be mindful of this, although it is not a negative in itself.