Heart of the Art

To the Heart of Living Systems



Leon Festinger-A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Now over 60 years old, Festinger’s work still generates subtle, non-obvious predictions about persistence and change in attitudes and beliefs.

The Self Organising System (animation)

What are the characteristics of a complex self-organising system that make it creative?
What can we learn from this about human creativity, both individual and collaborative?

A video on Emergence

A video introducing emergence

The Power of Networks (An Animation)

An animation on the power of networks.

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)

Computational Complexity and Popsicles

Wicked problems such as climate change, poverty, and geopolitical instability, tend to be ill-defined, multifaceted, and complex such that solving one aspect of the problem may create new, worse problems. Thus, trying to engineer solutions to such problems is exacerbated by our inability to measure overall improvement.

John Skvoretz: Complexity Theory and Models for Social Networks

A resource on complexity and networks

John Atkinson on Whole Systems Change #NHSTform

Missed John Atkinson on NHS Transformathon ? Or want to watch again? Here it is…
Exploring how change really happens in human systems and why so many of the models, methods and mindsets we rely on don’t always deliver the results we are seeking. By considering how our current models have arisen and then comparing them with alternatives, John Atkinson and guests will identify opportunities to adapt our approaches. This will challenge traditional views on ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ change in order to allow us to think about how we can foster change across the whole system.

Cesar Hidalgo: Why Information Grows

Our cities are such pockets where information grows, but they are not all the same. For every Silicon Valley, Tokyo, and London, there are dozens of places with underdeveloped economies. Why does the US economy outstrip Brazil’s, and Brazil’s that of Chad? Why did the technology corridor along Boston’s Route 128 languish while Silicon Valley blossomed? In each case, the key is how people, companies, and the networks they form process information

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