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john atkinson the big five

Embrace Complexity- Don’t Suppress it

By John Atkinson. If we genuinely believe the world to be a complex place, we need to consciously embrace that complexity, not suppress it. Once we do this, we realise we cannot resolve our activity into standardised processes without forever generating unintended consequences to our actions. Recognising the world we live in as a complex environment doesn’t allow us to control it

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)

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.

Doomed to Failure

In a living system the clue is in the name. You have to ‘grow’ something. Something that infects the system and spreads through it such that each node or place in the system grows its own response. This means giving up control from the centre. Once the ideas start to spread and grow, your ability to control them is gone. The role of leadership shifts from the illusion of control to the holding of space.

Meaning and Murmuration

In our normal lives these rules may be quite evident or quite deeply hidden, even unconscious. What are the rules that allow us to weave our way along a crowded rush-hour pavement without repeated collisions and accidents? What is our response to people who don’t follow these rules?

The NHS is alive but rather unwell

The NHS is alive but rather unwell. Much great work is being done and we remain the envy of many. And also we are locked in a cycle of increasing pressure. To keep the NHS functioning, as those who are in it and use it currently believe it should, is exerting huge levels of stress.

Too Big To Succeed (Reflections on the NHS)

The NHS is the world’s fifth largest employer. It sits behind the US and Chinese defence forces, Walmart and McDonalds. This is often trumpeted as an achievement and is certainly used a symbol of status for its senior managers. But what if it is simply too big to succeed?

Rules That Limit Us (Emergence)

In our normal lives these rules may be quite evident or quite deeply hidden, even unconscious. What are the rules that allow us to weave our way along a crowded rush-hour pavement without repeated collisions and accidents? What is our response to people who don’t follow these rules?

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