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Yesterday I had such fun.

I was invited to be part of the Open University’s Systems Groups launch of the four text books accompanying the Postgraduate Programme in Systems Thinking in Practice. The invitation came about a month ago when Ray Ison contacted me. It seemed like a great excuse to meet everyone so I said ‘yes’.

So train to London and then I met up with David and Anne, two other students that I have ‘met’ during the courses. This was the first time we had met in person – rather than in the virtual world of on-line forums and email. We spent the afternoon comparing notes and experiences – on being students and on being ‘fledgeling’ systems practitioners in our own workplaces.

Then we set off to the OU office in Camden. We got there 4.30ish even though the launch did not start until 6. But that gave us the opportunity to meet some of the authors of, and contributors to, the Systems thinking in practice programme all throughout the afternoon. It was better for me – because by the time I spoke – there were a number of friendly faces, rather than a set of complete strangers.

There seemed to be about 30 people there for the launch itself. Chris Blackmore kicked off with a welcome. She firstly introduced David Lane from London School of Economics who gave a talk on the context for systems thinking and practice. Dr Lane was involved in inputting the systems dynamics elements into the recent Munro review of child protection so it was interesting listening to him.

Then Ray Ison spoke about the programme and the books. We all applauded to welcome each book to the world.  Then all of a sudden he was introducing me. There I was – a newcomer on the block – speaking in front of some of the people who had played a role – directly or indirectly – in my development as a systems practitioner. It all seemed to go down very well and I had so many requests for my ‘speech’ that I’ve decided to include it below – in its raw and unedited form.

The other big event last night was the launch of a new book by Rosalind Armson called “Growing wings on the way: systems thinking for messy situations” (Triarchy press). It’s intended to be an introduction to the tools and techniques that can get you going with using systems thinking in situations where you don’t know what to do. It strips out the ‘academia’ that is in many systems books so makes it more attractive to practitioners. I bought a copy so I am looking forward to having a look at it.

Then there was a whole room discussion – the same topic that David, Anne and I had grappled with in the afternoon kept recurring – why is it that systems practice is so undervalued in our ‘mainstream’ practices, even though the context for it seems right to us, we still struggle with articulating and ‘marketing’ the skills and the underpinning theory to others.

Ceremonies over we all went to have a glass of wine, toasted the books and chatted informally. I then had a lovely meal out with Ray Ison and Rosalind Armson – thanks for that Ray.

So here goes with the ‘speech’ – my reflections on my experiences of a journey into systems practice – so far…..

Ray’s email to me said something along the lines of ‘frame your talk as a public verbal blog’ – although of course, it was a helpful invitation not an order. The idea seemed fine, I have written lots of blogs in the last 7 months – I kind of enjoy that gush of words on a topic that has grabbed my attention and then reading it back later to find out what I think.

But then – the other week – as I started putting fingers to keyboard, I realised it was much much harder to blog to order – on a particular topic and to a particular deadline – in fact, I realised that somehow I’d agreed to do yet another assignment.

I distracted myself with some research and found out that in their first presentations, 91 people registered on “Thinking strategically” and 107 on “Managing systemic change”. There were 19 of us who did both – a whole year back to back. I thought about how different we all are – all the different backgrounds that led us to that point. Needless to say, I felt stumped as to how I could reflect the experiences of everyone.

So I am going to stick to what I know – my story – in the hope that it can give you some insights into the experience of being a student of Systems thinking in practice.

My first exposure to ‘systems practice’ was actually back in about 1996. The King’s Fund piloted new ways of working in health at just three sites in the country. Newcastle was one of them. I was in a volunteer management role at the time – part of a ‘system’ of people involved in hospital discharge which was one of the topics of concern in the programme.

Although we all went around saying ‘whole systems working’ and experienced it as ‘different’ to the way we normally work, I never realised at the time that there was a whole discipline of theory and research behind it.

The other week, I tracked down the consultants that worked with us. Julian told me that they always struggled with how much theory to include in the work they did. They started off expecting everybody to be fired up about it but soon learned that lectures on autopoesis appealed to very few participants.  So it is hardly surprising, their later work looked theory-lite – at least from the outside.

It is only now when I look at their book ‘Working whole systems‘ that I see the foundation they were working on and recognise many of the names in the references.

The pilot finished and I changed job. But some sort of seed had been planted.

It was about ten years later, after I’d got my MBA, that I was browsing the Open University’s website one evening – it’s an odd pastime I know! – and came across the residential course “Experiencing Systems”. The Systems word rang enough of a bell for me to read the detail. I attended the residential in 2007 – its last ever presentation, I think – and finally made a conscious connection with the discipline of Systems.

The connection cast a new light on everything that had been before – the systemic aspects of my MBA and development management studies started falling into place. I was reading books and papers from the field but felt lost as to how to put it into practice – especially when those around me did not seem to have similar interests.

So when I saw the first indication that the OU were introducing the Postgraduate Programme, it felt as though it was being written for me. I could not bear the thought that others may do the courses when I hadn’t. In no time at all, I found myself signing up.

At one level describing the experience of studying is easy – I read a lot; I type; I underline; I highlight; I blog; I jot notes; I draw diagrams. I’m curious; I’m frustrated; I love it; I hate it; I never want to look at it again…. but then find myself coming back for more.

When you are engaged in these everyday activities alongside work and trying to have a family and social life, it is hard to appreciate what you are learning – not in the sense of new explicit knowledge – but in the sense of how you are changing.

I spent a year cocooned in books and assignments and somewhere along the line I emerged as something akin to a systems practitioner. It won’t come as a surprise to everyone here that the transformation was an emergent property of lots of different elements… including the four books that are being launched today.

It’s odd that, even though I ceremoniously gave those books space on my bookshelf at the end of April, they all seem to end up back in the lounge or on the bedside table from time to time. They obviously mean more to me than just texts I had to get through.

So one evening as I walked home from work, I started thinking about what each of them mean to me now…..

Systems Thinkers” makes me feel as if I have roots – a connection to the history of the community I identify with. I’ve known some of the names for years in the form of dutiful referencing – but the names have never come out of the Harvard brackets before. What I love about the book is that each chapter takes roughly the same time it takes to brew and drink a mug of tea – and at the end of that time curled on the sofa, I’ve connected with another person, history and context behind a now familiar body of ideas.

Systems Approaches” makes me feel determined and action-oriented. It’s not just about the whole approaches but you can pull out ideas and techniques and drip-feed them into work. Some bits I just remember, they’ve become part of my repertoire of ‘doing’. Other times, I’m looking back at the book to remind myself of the finer details.

Onto “Systems Practice” and I get a sense of Being – because it helped me, to get to know me. This book evoked most discussion on the course forum – it was hard. I have some social science in my background….but it still goes against the grain of my Westernised brain to be thinking from a post-modernist stance about psychology, philosophy, discourse, epistemology and institutional theory – not just learning about it but using that to challenge and change how I think and do.

Finally “Social Learning Systems” – that makes me feel connected as it helped me look to and appreciate those around me. Whilst I’ve always had a quest to learn, I’d never approached my daily working relationships with an understanding of the opportunity for social learning. Learning in formal training sessions – yes – but not an everyday process of interacting and reflecting together for the purpose of improving what we do.

The reason I started the courses was a personal and quite insular desire to be better at my work and know more about Systems. But somewhere along the line even that changed. There were a few lines of text in ‘Social learning systems’ that finally tripped the switch though I recognise I’d been primed by all that had gone before.

They are in the most recent chapter by Etienne Wenger – he talks about the fact that each of us has a unique trajectory through a landscape of practices – a trajectory that creates a unique point of view and a unique identity. That uniqueness is our gift to the world.

I realised I’d been learning all this systems stuff and then feeling disappointed that others around me hadn’t – suddenly this became my responsibility – my gift – I’m their bridge into systems practice.

This is not an easy role to take on. When you are a change agent working inside an organisation, it’s like a game of chess, you have to pick your moves, pick your timing and it seems that I too have to try and temper the theory.

People seem afraid of theory as they don’t recognise the practical possibilities it can bring – something an academically minded practitioner like me finds very odd. So what I do is similar to parents who work out creative ways to get vegetables into the diet of children because they know it is good for them!

From time to time, I wonder whether this covert approach is ethical or not…. But when someone gets it – has that ‘aha’ moment and becomes excited about what they can achieve …. you know the subterfuge is worth it.


9 Responses

  1. #1
    Arwen 

    Helen – great speech. Great example of Authenticity!! I do wish I could have seen you in action and we could have met up. Alas, will wait till you are passing one day through Rome. Warm wishes – Arwen

  2. #2
    Barbara Douglas 

    OK Helen, you’ve enthused! Being one of those people who can only manage a small amount of theory, from what you have written I thought the best way to get myself back into this was to get the Armson book! It’s ordered. All I need to do now is make the time to read it! Hopefully if we can continue to drip feed some of this into our day to day work, it will also start to stick! Barbara

  3. #3
    Helen 

    Hi Barbara
    That’s great news – do you feel like a beneficiary of my purposeful action or a victim? Just checking because of my ethical dilemma. You’ll like Rosie’s book, I had a flick through this evening – it’s easy to read and full of practical things to do.
    See you soon
    Helen

  4. #4
    Joe Weston 

    Hi Helen, What a great speech and as Arwen said, very authentic. Many of your reflections on your Systems experiences mirror my own. I agree that subterfuge seems like the only way as ‘new horizons of knowing, and thus doing seem essential if one is to build a discourse and praxis of hope.’ (Ison 2010) Warm regards, Joe

  5. #5
    Bridget 

    Helen
    So glad it went well and sorry I was not able to be there. However, at least your blog gave me an idea of how it went and I loved your presentation, particularly how you saw the four books fitting together and the sense of the journey you have been on. Also, hopefully there will be opportunities for us to meet up again…who knows maybe even in Rome!!!
    Bridget xx

  6. #6
    Russell 

    Enjoyed both the blog entry & the words you put in your speech. BUt as to the last para – there was me being pilloried for trying to be covert when all the time you were…. 🙂

  7. #7
    Helen 

    Hi Russell – who was doing the pilloring (is that a word)? I seem to remember us all chatting about the concepts of ‘guerilla warfare’; ‘covert’; Trojan mice; – interesting that these are all metaphors from war and/or spying. But I guess we could also call it systemically desirable and culturally feasible action! Let’s go for it.
    Helen

  8. #8
    Barbara Douglas 

    I think the honest answer is a bit of both! I think I would feel more of a beneficiary if I stopped for long enough to properly understand, absorb and apply. The difficulty is when I snatch at it, get some insight and inspiration, but then I don’t hold onto it for long enough to properly change my own practice, never mind try to influence anything that’s happening around me. So I am happy to be the ‘victim’ of repeated prodding and nudges! Hope that helps with the ethical dilemma!

  9. #9
    Julian 

    Greetings Helen
    Great speech, really made me want to read the four books.
    I started to think of your 1996 experience as a butterfly wing, but maybe it was the vegetarian option.

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