Understanding living systems can seem impenetrable. 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. The theory seems self-evidently right yet it can make us feel at times powerless. 

Here at Heart of the Art we seek to explore the nature of living systems and how we may understand them. We look to make sense of the nature of things and how by understanding them better, we can be more effective in our work, our relationships, our lives. We offer you this site as a place where we share our own writing alongside articles and resources from others that we have found helpful or provocative. Please enjoy it and use it as you will, crediting the original authors in anything you share.

About us

John Atkinson is a designer, architect and catalyst for whole system change. He has instigated and led projects around the world in corporate and public settings that help people design approaches that will make fundamental change to their work and lives.

Emma Loftus is a researcher and writer, specialising in organisational learning and the human process of change. Emma was the researcher and co-writer of The Art of Change Making. Emma provides support to national and international programmes for change, across public and private sectors, including work with open innovation and systems leadership programme

heart of the art
Globalism has been created in the growth of the corporation. As local enterprises, founded and worked by local people grew they lost their local roots. Where once the firm was family owned, with generations following each other into the same enterprise, as owners or workers, now it is owned, financed and controlled globally. We no longer know our bosses, they ply their trade in far away cities, in other countries. Connection is distant, even vestigial. We are managed by process and procedure and have become servants to them. Our work is to fulfil a role with little allegiance from the ...

The Local Corporation

heart of the art
From Avery Robinson at Conscious Cities  Living in a city can be very expensive. At the forefront of this cost is rent (or homeownership).  According to a 2013-2014 English Housing Survey, London tenants paid almost 50% of their net income just for rent. This staggeringly high number is not unique to London. Furthermore, this figure fails to take into account other basic needs—utilities, food, and transportation—which can take another significant piece away from that net income before. This is of course before one can even consider paying off debt, contributing to savings, personal expenses, raising a family, and even buying ...

Is a Smart City a Healthy City?

heart of the art
‘Smart City’ is the big noise. Rapid technological advancement has opened up a whole range of opportunities for city managers to increase their capacity to do what they’re paid to, manage their cities. A battery of smart sensors, vastly increased computing power, the internet of things (IoT), artificial intelligence and machine learning all combine to transform our cities into some wonderful utopian dream. Cars that navigate themselves to free car parking spaces (and then park themselves) drastically reduce traffic congestion and so increase air quality and productivity. Waste collection is no longer tied to the scheduled collection rounds, recycling becomes ...

Getting beyond the Buzzword

heart of the art
At last the silent years of women (and men) having to accept that sexual harassment and physical invasion of our bodies is, I hope, drawing to an end.  The Weinstein situation is enabling the development of a space in public and private arenas where it’s ok to speak out and say ‘me too’. But there’s some debate around what’s serious enough to voice and report and name: Do we only name unwanted advances? Forceful intimacy? Rape? Is a touch on a knee simply part of life? Is workplace innuendo and sexual bullying just part of where we work? And to ...

Naming Harassment

Human beings have been shaping their landscapes since forever, and now is no different. In our brilliance (and there is no denying the amazingness of our development- even if we may disagree on the morals of its impact), we have built beautiful and ugly projections of our want and need, and imposed them on our landscapes. Awe-inspiring constructions that evolve, and sometimes, painfully destroy our understanding of place and our measure of humanness.  The Smart City is no different. Smart Cities are hailed to be the ethnographical and geographical change of current times. Promoted as the means to change not ...

Bringing life to the Smart City

Celine Schillinger
Here, Celine Schillinger, shares her experiences at Courage Camp. Developing the vocabulary of courage we share below. Exploring the nature of courage and our understanding of it, and how we can be courageous across our lives and in our leadership. A thoroughly engaging and enjoyable read... Vocabulary of courage As Courage Camp goes on, I catch words or expressions heard from the group. Each brings a different dimension to our understanding of courage: Acceptance: We aim to be accepted by whatever group we want to belong to. “What is the rejection I'm afraid of?” Coeur (Heart): : The English word ‘courage’ ...

What happened at Courage Camp

I’ve been harshly reminded in the past few days that change is, in fact, not a choice. That is, change will happen anyway, whether we like it or not. In some minuscule way, perhaps hateful way, it’s happening right now. When left to its own devices it can be the most charming and beguiling of evil dictators, making slicing chasms right before our eyes that we are powerless to stop. Or it can be the slyest, most cruel undercover agent, out to tip over our world, causing a wave so large we can only be swept along. Least it feels ...

Doing Change

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By John Atkinson  The idea is increasingly being propagated that we live in a 'post truth' world. In this world, 'fake news' has supplanted genuine news and we can no longer believe the words of our rulers or the media that we see, hear or read. Implicit in the idea of a 'post truth' era is that this follows a 'truth' era. This would have been a mythical time when our leaders spread news to us that was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That mythical time appears to have passed me by. Perhaps others remember ...

Post Truth is Fake News

wicked problems
(From grounded.systems) This is a brief introduction to the notion of a wicked problem. It is based on the highly-cited paper by Rittel and Webber (1973). The following characterise wicked problems: There is no definitive formulation. In a sense, formulating a wicked problem is the problem There are no stopping rules. The process of intervening is also the same as understanding the nature of the problem – the intervention is “good enough” or the best that can be achieved within other limitations (e.g. of time, budget…) Interventions are not right or wrong, they can only be viewed as making things ...

Wicked Problems and Category Mistakes

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The Dialogue model was developed by Bill Isaacs. The model asks that we  reconsider the ‘rules’ we use to manage our communication. Often the typical meeting room is full of people holding a series of conversations that come preloaded with hidden paradigms of belief, expectation and personal ambition. What this means is that the communication taking place is driven by a mixture of agendas, with everyone seeking to direct and steer the conversation in ways that withhold their point of view. This is limiting, as conversations become stalled, redirected and challenged and in these spaces creativity and exploration is unsafe ...

Dialogue- Isaacs

A beautiful example of murmuration from @NatGeo Amazing  Must Watch What are the rules governing their behaviour? What can we learn about living systems and change? John Atkinson explores further in: The rules that limit us ...

Flight of the Starlings

Acceptance -The action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered. -The process or fact of being received as adequate, valid, or suitable. -Agreement with or belief in an idea or explanation. -Willingness to tolerate a difficult situation.  (Oxford Dictionary The internet, and our social media feeds are full of wise words milled from philosophers and psychologists and the world’s most wise and humble of folks, quotes telling us that acceptance is the road to happiness, joy, self. And yet as I look at another picture of another artificial looking landscape, telling me that ‘happiness can exist only in acceptance’ ...


kantor 4 player model
The Four Player Model developed by David Kantor is at the core of the theory of structural dynamics. You can find out more at The Kantor Institute.   Kantor was originally a family therapist. During his work he began to realise that there are recurring patterns of language, behaviour and communication that lead to turbulence in families.  He realised that the same patterns existed in businesses and organisations.  Over the course of several years research working with other experts in the field, such as Senge, Schein and Argyris, Kantor became a leading expert in group dynamics, developing the Structural Dynamics Model (often ...

Kantor – 4 Player Model

ethics of leadership
When you consult to a system who is your client? How do you know if you are doing the right thing? What constitutes doing good here and who decides? These questions are often asked. By definition the situation is complex with multiple organisations and individuals with differing, sometimes over-lapping, sometimes competing interests all at play. What is happening is viewed through the lens of each participant’s position and history. This filters perceptions of what you should be doing, what is correct and what is needed. You cannot please everyone all the time. Some, may be all, will question what you ...

The ethics of systems leadership

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By Myron Rogers Just over twenty years ago, Meg Wheatley and I were camped in a friend's cabin in Vermont as a blizzard raged outside.  We were there to begin writing what became A Simpler Way--a brief meditation on organizations as living systems.  The book was born from our years long deepening exploration into the implications of living systems theory for social systems.  If our organisations are not machines, but alive and subject to the same dynamics as all life, what would be possible?  How would we understand what we are seeing and experiencing in institutional life? What would we ...

Myron Rogers – Reflections on A Simpler Way

I have recently been struck by the parallels between two large organisations in the health sector. One is a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, the other is the NHS. There are many differences between them, one is a global organisation, the other UK-based. One is a significant commercial entity, the other a public sector body and the fifth largest employer in the world. Yet both have at least one remarkable thing in common; a system of inspection designed to provide reassurance seems to be limiting their effectiveness. In the 'Big Pharma', there is a never ending stream of inspections from public health ...

Does inspection harm you?

john atkinson
As an ex-soldier who served in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles' my Facebook timeline is full of outrage from former colleagues at the actions of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The PSNI is going back through all cases of killings during the period, approaching soldiers seeking witnesses to events that occurred sometimes over 40 years ago. Soldiers naturally feel aggrieved at a perceived injustice. Many were just teenagers, put in an almost impossible situation. Centuries of tension and hatred between communities had boiled over into desperate violence and politicians needed a solution. The troops were sent in. It ...

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

A personal reflection  Over the years of my life, through the different lifetimes that I have lived, freedom to me has been an ever changing obscurity, that as at times been elusive in its presence, and yet it’s absence un-noted or a silent drowning. Freedom to me has been a concept with soft edges that blur into the rigidity of the landscape. A dance of butterflies whose wings graze unknowingly against the barriers of the wind that holds them, just so, in place. And yet, freedom is my conscience, that I feel in degrees of just and purely knowing. A ...

The freedom of my lives