Friday 28 April 2023

A pause to reflect on Systems Thinking aka Dynamics Of and Between People Groups

The more I have learned about groups, teams, organisations, systems, group dynamics, games people play, culture, politics, constellations, physics and more, the more I realise there is even more to learn.

"system", "the game", "organisation", "culture", "politics", "group dynamics", "relationships" and more, are actually different words for more or less the same thing. And it is is a very big thing - a big area to explore and learn about. Interesting too, in my opinion! "leadership" and "teamwork" also fit into this space. Awareness is key.

Where to even begin? There are so many seemingly different schools of thought, and mastery, it’s pretty much dizzying and overwhelming. 
Quite honestly, the right answer seems to be - start wherever you are and keep learning. All of it is really useful in a myriad of ways you cannot predict until you have contemplated the new “angle” you’re looking from. This one really is, "the more the merrier"!

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands but seeing with new eyes." - Marcel Proust

In the Five Dimensions of Leadership (Development) Coaching framework (, “systems thinking” is the 3rd dimension. That encouraged me even more to commit to the 4.5 years of study, client hours, supervision hours and thesis. Little did I know at the start that I was going to be taught about systems using my underdeveloped intuition. But I don’t think developing intuition is enough - how do you convince colleagues or leaders that they should consider doing something else - "because my intuition told me so"?

I prefer to use the term “systems appreciation” rather than systems thinking, because not all of “systems” type stuff is in the rational domain of the mind. Some of it is in the emotive and intuitional domain too. We can’t see them, but we can feel them. Like standing inside a building and watching a tree outside moving like a crazy thing. We can’t see the wind blowing, but we can notice the effects of the blowing wind. So for me, “appreciation” encompasses it all.

So, here’s an unstructured set “golden nuggets" that I’ve learned along the way that shaped my thinking a lot, usually after some kind of attempt that did not quite go as I thought, planned or hoped it would. Reflect on them individually or collectively, and see what happens:
  • Always, always, return to the whole (imagined) picture of the organisation, the marketplace, the whole context of whatever you’re in. “this is for the greater good”
  • Paradoxes are excellent - find them and make them explicit. They are the keys to unlocking "stuff"
  • Optimising only one part of a system, often has unintended sub-optimal effects in other parts, resulting in a decline of the entire system’s performance
  • Bottlenecks! Find them! Do something about them! BUT always beware that if you solve one obvious bottleneck you might be exposing your system to far worse, far more costly issues or bottlenecks elsewhere. Imagine driving a car very slowly over speed bumps and potholes. Now imagine removing the first 10 meters of those bumps and holes … and driving the car much faster at the same old bumps and holes. The first drive is slow and annoying. The second drive destroys your car.
  • It is useful to start contemplating things at your own personal individual space, then expand to the group you’re in, department, organisation, industry, region and global context
  • Fix the system not the people: it’s easier, quicker, cheaper and a lot less disruptive
  • The system is always perfect - if you don’t like what it produces, the outcomes, the outputs, then change the system until you do
  • There is no system, there are just the invisible mindsets of the people who, when they come together, produce the system effects we can notice
  • Systemic causes of failure - carefully identify the root causes of failure that you detect. If they are systemic, change the system
  • Special causes of failure - carefully identify the root causes of failure that you detect. If they are special causes, do not change the system
  • Treating system causes of failure as if they are special cause, causes more failure
  • Treating special causes of failure as if they are systemic cause, causes more process, more policy, and ultimately more failure
  • To change systems, according to Dr Shewart, Plan-Do-Study-Adjust (the system) (
  • To change systems, according to Dr Shewart’s student, Dr Deming, Plan-Do-Check-Act (on the system) (
  • To change systems, according to Dr Cockburn and his Heart of Agile framework, Collaborate-Deliver-Reflect-Improve (
  • Causal modelling is useful, and is only really effective with a representative subset of the entire organisation as together they will form a miniature version of the organisation and the map that is produced will be helpful
  • It is the act of modelling, discussing, clarifying, checking and interacting that is the true benefit of causal modelling (or any mapping workshop, for that matter) - it builds a common language, a common understanding and thus is beneficial for building a team!)
  • Temporal pondering - think about the thing that is happening now, think about what was happening before that could have resulted in the thing happening now, and think about what would happen if you changed the thing in the future - how do all these changes/versions of the thing impact all the things it is connected to
  • Small changes sometimes (usually) have the best impacts - think about a bicycle rider, lots and lots of small adjustments are happening all the time to keep balance and momentum in sync and achieve intended outcomes
  • It’s easier to learn systems thinking with other people, than to learn it from a book. Just discussing it is learning it
  • You don’t need to be perfect at any of it, to get major benefits
  • An organisation redesign temporarily seems to affect system forces, but usually they reassert
  • Even changing a significant number of people involved in a organisation dynamic does not change the dynamic for very long
  • It takes WILL to change a system (all the qualities, stages and activities of WILL that is)
  • One person can change a system if they try hard enough, never give up, and are able to annoy everyone else enough. But as soon as they are not there, the original system re-asserts. (think of a mosquito in a room full of sleeping people)
  • Immersing people in simulation training of various systemic contexts outside of the normal BAU, that have the same basic backbone as their usual BAU, is far more effective in creating a change than random simulations that they can’t relate to or take learnings back to the office from.
  • Systems thinking requires reflecting often
  • - "The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization: Second edition” by Peter Senge
  • - "Seeing Systems” by Barry Oshry
  • - "Seeing the Forest for the Trees: A Manager's Guide to Applying Systems Thinking” by Dennis Sherwood
  • - “Ishmael” by Daniel Quinn
  • - "Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together” by William Isaacs, who studied under the real expert who could not fully translate the profound truth he had discovered to more normal talking: David Bohm - - "On Dialogue”
  • - "The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli - was an eye-opener, but do not blindly believe everything he advises on
  • 9 minute video: - "Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast” - Tom Wujec. Many deep implications!

And many more, but sadly time is up for now! The system calls...

Thursday 27 April 2023

A pause to reflect on Prioritisation aka Time Management

“Water flows in the direction of downhill”, means that we prefer to do the things we prefer - because we have skill and/or interest to do them.

I love these seemingly simple single word words like “prioritisation” which seem to mask several layers of what it means to be a human being. Even double word labels like "human being" is an over-simplification - we’re made of several energy sources, bacterias, organisms, viruses, cells, and much more - basically millions/billions/trillions of structures, relationships, dependencies, interfaces and communication paths between them, forming a cooperative that is not fully aware of itself. Ever really, really seen the back of your elbow, or your neck? Are you SURE it is really there?

Come on, try something - try get your heart to beat on your conscious demand. Unless you’re an extremely trained and practiced guru yogi, no one else really seems able to. Or try something simpler - hold your breath until you can’t. Something re-asserts. Something wants to live, and overrules your thought to hold your breath. Okay, so some people - usually young folks - hold their breath until they blackout, AND THEN that part that wants to live, forces breathing again. 

There really is something else going on out of reach of the conscious mind.

So now we’re ready to get into prioritisation.

How hard is it to pick a strategy to follow?
How hard is it to choose to turn left or right, when you just do not know?
Or to pick a candy in a candy store when you have not tried them all and can only buy 1?

Letting go of one or more options is incredibly hard - one of those might be “the one!” and you lost, you chose to lose, that option. That’s inviting anxiety, terror, worry, tension, unhappiness, confusion and a myriad other difficult emotions to carry. It’s vulnerability. What if you are wrong?

Of course … life carries on, and likely you will never find out that you were wrong. It’s also likely that you do find out AND there’s still time to change your mind. But according to the Principles of Persuasion - the principle of consistency, sticking to our previous decision basically, has a nasty subconscious way of not letting us change our minds, even to the detriment of ourselves sometimes. Awareness, self awareness, and awareness of as much as possible is really helpful!

So ultimately, in a competitive landscape, the ones choosing and moving, and learning, and being quicker, have more luck (luck == opportunity meets preparation) than those who are not choosing. It’s better to prioritise and know that you’re working on priority 1, then moving to priority 2 which becomes priority 1, than try to do 20 things all at once. For many reasons and many models and many simulations. Topics for  other posts perhaps.

There is no procrastination… there’s just choice which might be trapped. How would you know? You learn more about yourself, and you look at ways of self development to help you grow your self awareness. You make one decision, and take one small step in the direction of achieving the thing that is most important, not the easiest thing. Time management, is a reflection of what you actually believe is important.

Here’s a quick test of your self awareness (which is also a self development exercise, so reflect, take notes, and review again later for more reflections):

   Compare what you would do if you were a life-saving surgeon and two unconscious 40 year old men arrived in your emergency room. Both had exactly the same wound, the same prognosis to live or die if they received your life saving care or not. You need to begin immediately for one of these patients to live. Unfortunately whoever is not operated on will die.

How do you choose?
Now, consider: one of the men is the Siddhartha Gautama (aka) Buddhai and the other man is … Elon Musk.

These kinds of questions cause all sorts of known information to surface, and all sorts of beliefs too. Sometimes comfortable and sometimes not. But the more awareness you have of all of your inner world(s), the more you begin to truly understand prioritisation.

Notice what happens when you change the names to Elon Musk and Bill Gates (both at 40!!); Elon Musk and Neil Armstrong? Minnie Mouse or Mickey Mouse? (yes cartoons characters are real too!). And so on. As many names, genders, ages, people close to you, people far away from you. See what comes up for you as you consider these impossible choices. Many personal values, beliefs, attitudes, and more will come up the more you do this simple exercise.

A related aside:
Strategising and selecting strategy is the art of saying “No” to many options, to reduce scope, which reduces complexity essentially. This increases probability of success - as there are fewer variables you need to consider, to balance, to get to success.

Planning and committing is the art of turning the goals and constraints that result from strategy selection, into the art of the possible, which then increasingly becomes a new reality - the future.

Prioritisation is deciding which variables you’re going to work with now, and which you will work with later. The fewer variables it turns out, the easier it is to do this with much less anxiety and greater chances of success. Both complexity and psychological safety matter in this space, a lot!

In effect, explicit and strongly (enough) held boundaries between things, make more safety and less complexity possible, thus less stress and much more creativity can occur within those safe spaces. Boundaries == safety, safe to be together and try unknown things together. 

A smarter SMART for even better collaborative Objectives (including OKRs)

My favourite coaching tools: SMART Acronym Another Update