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To the Heart of Living Systems

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The Big Five

John Atkinson’s #NHSTform Transcript

When I started to work with places, asking how their systems work, explicitly, you get something that looks like this, we have all seen them. This is your standard organisational chart. There are all sorts of assumptions about how things work, that are not necessarily helpful, they are limited things.Trying to run them as big organisational charts doesn’t work, it is a very mechanistic way of thinking. It has its roots in the industrial revolution where people sat on the end of a machine and serviced them to get a job done.

Introducing ‘The Big Five’

With Myron Rogers, I’ve been exploring a set of characteristics of living systems that I’ve found helpful. They have guided me in making sense of the circumstances I find myself in and in designing approaches whereby people can work with a living system rather than in spite of it. What emerges is what we call ‘The Big Five’ characteristics;

Complexity- The Big Five

Complex problems may not have solutions. You can maybe make them better or worse, but they remain unresolved and stubbornly recalcitrant. So we add another expert solution and before we know it we are entangled in a mesh of treaties, agreements, standards, protocols and laws that all build upon each other to simply create more and more unintended consequences, forever distant in time and space. Expert solutions cannot resolve complex problems. they can make them better, they can also store up problems for years to come.

Emergence- The Big Five

Simply changing the principles doesn’t tell you what new pattern of behaviour emerges. You know a new pattern will emerge as the living system makes sense of the new principle, but how it makes sense of that is much less predictable. Next, it is often very difficult to identify what the real organising principles are. They are almost certainly not our openly espoused values or internal written rule books that govern staff behaviour. These are surface presentations of something deeper.

Cognition- The Big Five

To ask how we become aware of what is happening in a living system is to enquire into the consciousness of that system. The system’s capacity to take intentional action is linked to its level of consciousness. Or to put it simply it is linked to what it knows about itself. Cognition is therefore a critical characteristic of a living system and forms one of our ‘Big Five’ characteristics.

Networks- The Big Five

The knowledge and know-how about how to make the change work are retained in the network that created them, not in the technical solution that arises. You cannot roll-out a network. It is like picking up a jigsaw to move it to another table. Some clusters might stick together but mostly it breaks up, falls apart and you may even lose important pieces in the carpet!

Self Organising- The Big Five

Our identity is inevitably shaped by our history. The changes we have been through to arrive where we are now determine our form in the world. They also determine how we make sense of our environment and react to new situations. This self referencing behaviour is one of our ‘Big Five’ and is entirely consistent with a view of organisations as living things.

Live on ‘The Big Five’

John Atkinson introducing The Big Five during his session on Whole Systems Change with NHS Transformathon. (Available from The Edge)

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