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.

So how do living systems work? What sense can you make of the world in front of you and how you might really work with it for the better?

 

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;

 

These ‘Big Five’ characteristics all interact with each other and impact on each other. They don’t form a nice neat ‘five steps to systems nirvana’. If they did, they’d be wrong, contradicting the very beliefs that are at the core of our understanding of how living systems work. Instead, how they interact matters, the more you explore one, the more you understand it through the others.

You’d expect that if you believe in an inter-connected world yet it is reassuring that these work this way. What emerges for me are then questions, questions that need answering not in the philosophy or the theory but in our lived experience. Questions that help deepen our understanding of what we see going on around us. Questions that take you further into realising the irreducible uncertainty of living systems. Questions from which new ways of acting and thinking and working begin to emerge.

So although a linear format like a web browser leads us to post these in an order, you can dive in anywhere and follow it everywhere. Have an explore, see what makes sense to you, hold and play with the questions that arise for you.

'The Big Five' were also the subject of my talk for NHSTransformathon:

© John Atkinson (2016)


The Big Five