From John Atkinson. I get repeatedly asked about the difference between working with the ecosystem (or human system) and working with formal organisations. For me this is largely a perceptual difference and yet perception is a critical and deeply influential thing.
From John Atkinson. Cause and effect analysis is quite hard. The connection between our actions and their impact can sometimes be quite obscure. Events will be explained away according to the version of history that is prevalent in the organisation, the stories we always tell. Each organisation has these and they are more than familiar, peopled with heroes who saved us and fools whose decisions nearly wrecked us.
For me, as a systems thinker, I see group function as equivalent to a collective mind, the connections and relationships between people and their environment coming together to create a unique collective consciousness that makes sense of the each situation and from it derive appropriate actions. If you cannot reproduce these connections in a single brain, can you recreate them across a community?
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.
Understanding living systems can seem impossible. Working out how all the inter-dependencies and relationships work leads into a morass of aligned and conflicting theories and practices. Trying to make sense of how these could reasonably help in addressing workplace questions becomes even more confusing. Instead of making things better, looking at our worlds as living systems seems to make them ever more complicated and confusing. Where we thought we had certainty, we find ourself faced with differing perspectives and interpretations. Where we thought we had control, it seems to turn into an illusion and our influence appears therefore to fade. Having glimpsed this world we then feel caught between the more convincing reality it describes and the comfort of what we thought we knew. Navigating such a mess can be unsettling.
The world in which we live and work feels increasingly complex. We use phones, branded by Apple but made by a huge variety of different companies based in countries all over the world. Once on them we have the choice of so many things to do, so many ways to link with our world, through cameras, social networks, maps and even talking to people we can see on the far side of the world. There has never been access to so much data to inform the choices we make and yet the big decisions get no easier, perhaps paradoxically even harder to make. To get some things done it requires an interwoven mix of relationships between people, organisations and things to come together and produce the outcome we want. You may argue it was always thus, but the scale of complexity has grown at an ever expanding rate.
In a world that is chaotic and complex how does anything ever get done? What is it that means that despite the disorder, our world is stable and on many levels predictable. If complexity is one element of our ‘Big Five’ characteristics of how living systems behave, then emergence is linked closely with it.
How do we know anything? It seems a simple question doesn’t it? And yet as soon as you dwell on it for more than an instant it begins to open up the whole complex weave of how living systems work. For some it is an age old question, that touches on religion and consciousness. For others the field of ‘brain science’ that is now one of the most rapidly expanding areas of our knowledge offers new insights. Now we are able to map what is happening in our brains and bodies as we respond to stimuli.
Social networks have become an omnipresent element of modern life. We have become tied to our phones and tablets, keeping up with each ‘update’, ‘like’ and ‘friend request’. How many followers you have is in some circles a new measure of social standing. Isn’t it curious how an essential element of living systems, one of our ‘Big Five’ has become so allied with technology? At one level it is sort of inevitable. If our world is built on networks, then we will of course find them through our technology. The advances in our ability to engineer smart devices haven’t created a new phenomena, they have simply allowed a new expression of one of the fundamental characteristics of how we organise to become more visible and explicit.
The Big Five Live. John Atkinson at £NHSTform
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;
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.
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.
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.