Tag Archives: Systems thinking

Strengths and Clean Language Workshops

https://www.flickr.com/photos/robinjakobsson/This article is part of a number of posts about a how I’m learning about tools to understand how I think. It doesn’t really fit into a an easy narrative, because it was an emergent process. Here goes.

Starting off

I learned about Clean Language in course TU811 from the Open University.. I read ‘From Contempt to Curiosity’ by Caitlin Walker, who produced the Clean Language elements of the Open University course. I was still unsure about using Clean Language with others.

A year later I saw a recommendation for Clifton Strengths Finder from Tobias Mayer.

Strengths Finder is a test that asks some questions online and give you your top 5 strengths, and explanations how they are used.

I took the test, read the results and moved on to learning about other things. Sounded cool, and great for understanding my skills, but that was it. This was about the same time as I did some clean language modelling of myself.

Two ways to Model

A few weeks later realised that these two models gave different perspectives on a similar thing. I don’t like understanding something with only one perspective. Two perspectives gets interesting. (see this post by me about needed more than one model). The Strengths Finder model already existed, and we get fitted to it with our top 5 strengths. Clean Language reveals our own models that explain things back to us.

Strengths Finder is not very emergent – categories already exist, but there are 30+ of them and they have good and bad traits, or balconies and basements in their language, so it is quite rich.

The models that emerge for Clean Language really are the individuals models, although group models are possible. They can also develop and change over time, reflecting how a person develops.

The combination is quite powerful.

Starting a group

I’ve spoken about systems at work with colleagues, and there are a number who I think ‘get it’ intuitively – I’ve got individuation as one of my strengthens, so maybe it’s unsurprising I can understand people who see things in a particular way.

(My strengths are Strategic, Ideation, Individualisation, Learner, Arranger. These probably explain a lot about my actions 🙂

I asked the next 8(ish) systems-y colleagues I saw in the staff kitchen if they would join me for a lunch hour to watch some videos and I’d talk about the two approaches. I think they all agreed to come. I have awesome work colleagues. Tomasz later noted I was asking people to do a peer review of the techniques, I may have used the phrase – “Help me see if this is boll$”*! or not…..”.

First Meeting, all positive

We started the first meeting by watching Caitlin Walkers Clean Language TED talk, and a great video kind of about strengths that I included it in this post about strengths .

And the next few weeks we met and talked. A few people dropped out for other commitments, and new people joined. We had a core group of about 6. We all took the Strengths Finder test, and talked about our strengths. We were surprised that what we saw as a weakness was a positive. Others got validation when they we’re really glad they had a particular strength. Ian noted that none of us had any top5 strengths in the “influencing” domain.

I think the biggest impact was had because all the strengths are totally positive. So we could see that our strengths and approaches were not the only ones, and actions of others that we had not understood, was their strengths applied to the problems they had. With their strengths and the problems they had to face their approach made sense. We began to have empathy with people we didn’t necessarily agree with.

We then tentatively and self-consciously tried some clean modelling. Sarah volunteered to talk about working at her best and I led the questions. It worked well, despite our lack of experience, and some non-clean questioning creeping in.

At each weekly session we either decided to do some clean modelling, or talked about insights we’d had, or things we’d thought about and usually ended up tying it back to our metaphor models, strengths or cognitive biased and traps.

We modelled how we work and learned at our best, how we used our strength finder strengths at our best, and for a month or so we modelled how we reacted to challenging situations, when our emotions can take over.

Talking about our monkeys

David introduced us to  Steve Peters model of the brain containing a chimp, a computer and a ‘human’ to begin with. This was of course someone else’s metaphor model, but we worked with it.

I did have some success extending this metaphor. I thought that normally there is a conductor who controls what I say and do. But in challenging situations my brain fogs up, and the ‘monkey’ can run in and start banging the drum without me seeing him in time. So I need to stop my brain fogging, as I can’t stop the monkey once he’s banging the drum.

Although this was not really clean modelling, some simple practical ideas about stopping ‘brain fog’ developed. Not surprisingly, enough sleep, preparation of material (ie facts!), understanding how other approach issues from reverse engineering their strengths from their actions all helped. I could write another post on this, and we  all got a lot from this.


During the sessions I also introduced some ideas from complex adaptive systems theory, and the viable systems model, helped by David in the group who’s also studied at the OU. The group became more competent in talking about work issues, and understanding decisions and outcomes. Often with a sense of “uh-oh” when we saw problems being ‘solved’ with strengths that were, from our perspective, not entirely suited. We referred to this ‘Not Safe for Work’. We’d created a safe space to talk about things that needed to stay in the room.

We’re still meeting every week, struggling to find time to devote to Clean Language modelling, and bringing our learning and experiences to the group.


Modelling, not measurement makes things happen


Tom DeMarco  wrote  that “you can’t control what you can’t measure.”measure

It depends what you mean by manage. Often management is to have the situation understood with metrics, and improved with targets. That was a neat trick of this argument. It’s “my way or the highway”, and if you’re not measuring, you’re not managing. A highway is pretty measurable though, distances, speed limits, number of cars per hour. So measurement is really useful, but maybe not for managing complicated things.

If you’re not Modelling, you’re not Managing

I believe that you can’t manage what you haven’t modelled. This is much harder than collecting numbers to compare to baselines, standards and SLAs. What modelling means is not always straightforward. Your understanding of an organisation is a model. If you have a incomplete model you cannot understand. Your metaphors about your organisation and your relationships affect how you understand and respond. They restrict how you understand and respond.


Calvin and his tiger have an incomplete model.


There are a few types of systems models, that provide different views. There are two I’m current interested in. Whole systems models, show how an organisation achieves its purpose. Some theory behind these models is the Viable Systems Model. Symbolic mental models reveal powerful insights into how people understand and act. Mental models using Clean Language, and use the language of metaphor reveal powerful understanding. I’ll be posting about how I use each of these in the future.

Are antifragile organisations possible?

noun_15977_ccAntifragility is an idea by Nassim Taleb, describing something that actually becomes stronger with stress. The most obvious things that are Antifragile are living organisms, such as people becoming stronger after experiening stressors at the gym. Other things can be robust, like a rock. Machines are fragile. Cars need maintenance as we use them, they do not usually get better, or more fit for their environment in use.

Some things need stress

Taleb suggests if we do not allow the stressors that make antifragile things stronger, we make it more likely that a big event will threaten the things existence. He uses examples of small forest fires preventing larger ones, and re phrases Nietzsche, changing “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” to “That which kills you, makes me stronger”. For example, failure of restaurants in a city make the restaurant population stronger. If restaurants were not allowed to fail, he suggests standards would fall to cafeteria levels, making the population unviable if compared to choices in another city.

Organisations are not Machines

I think this applies to our organisations in interesting ways. We often run our organisations as machines, seeking efficiencies, lowering risks, and seeing failure as something to be avoided, and covered up if possible. The average lifespan of an US company is 15 years.  Does the way we run companies misunderstand that, for long-term survival, they need to be antifragile?

The machine metaphor for organisations is seen in top down hierarchy and control. Often an organisation like this can only understand itself in terms this metaphor. Other metaphors are like a foreign language.

If you think of your organisation in inputs and outputs, single purpose, control, clockwork, standardisation and measurement you’re using machine metaphors.

What would an antifragile organisation look like?

There are other organisational metaphors and models based on antifragile systems. Language based on organic, cultural and transformational metaphors, and models based on viable systems are available.

Organic metaphors include environmental conditions, adaptation, life cycles, homeostasis, evolution, distributed control, mindsets, feedback, requisite variety and learning.

Thinking about larger organisations,  antifragility means the ability to learn and improve behaviour based on environment stressors. Parts of the organisation should be allowed to take  risks and fail to allow learning and improvement to occur. Organisations structure should allow learning from failure in any of the organisational units. Continuous small-scale risk and failure will avoid some big risks.

Note that this does not necessarily mean that the organisation will predict or survive a ‘black swan‘ event, but it will be better suited to a changing environment.

Many organisations managed on a machine metaphor have operational priorities focused on lean efficiency, essentially denying antifragility. Mistakes and failures may be punished and covered up, creating a fragile organisation that is wary of change, and exposed to more, not less risk. By focusing on the machine model and metaphor they are vulnerable to external events that will put them out of existence.

Anti-Patents. Paying people to stop having bad ideas.

noun_126204_ccI believe we create a lot of our own problems. Take the patent system. Someone has a great idea, and the culture is ‘develop that, patent it, live off the proceeds. Never work again!’. Brilliant. Encourage people capable of great ideas into putting effort into protecting them, when we could encourage them to have more ideas.

Here is an idea. How about we look at all the bad ideas out there, and pay those responsible to just stop thinking. That should create some space.

My answer: Yes to both.

I think I was first asked the question if I liked ‘looking the big picture’ or if I liked ‘understanding the details’ when I was at school. The purpose of this question was to filter responders into scientific subjects, that were often pushed strongly, like Maths, Science and Engineering, or subjects that were ‘not science’. Not reductionist, but more big picture perhaps. Answering questions that didn’t have just one answer.

I answered yes to both options. Can I look at the big picture and understand the details please? Apparently not, from my experience at least. I had to choose.

For various reasons I had a strong push towards science. I grew up in a northern steel town for one.

So I was steered towards science, and ending up a BSc Physics with Maths, and into IT. I think this is one of the worst decisions I’ve made. I often didn’t find the subjects easy, but I can apply myself until I understand something, so I was successful up to a point. But I’m in a hole I’d like to get out of.

I’m naturally inquisitive, but I’ve found that I ask questions like, ‘This is is cool, how can I use it to do good things‘ at the front of my mind, and not ‘can I take this apart to see how it works‘.

I started learning Systems Thinking a few months ago. One of the greatest things about this is I now know how I think, I have names for my approaches, and a language to discuss thinking. It’s allowed me to show my mental working, and has massively expanded my ability to think clearly, and communicate my ideas, including how I arrived at them. It only took 20 years of reductionism, that saw my interest in problems diminish as I tackled the same thing with a different name.

Back to the original question. Should an answer of ‘both’ allowed? Should holistic thinking be recognised as a mental skill including some specialist understanding? Are thinking skills being wasted, because there is no category for both, and education is either / or?

I’m learning to understand strategic big picture tools as a hobby. I’d like to make it part of my career. I’m still working that one out.