NUMBER 1097 • 30 NOVEMBER •systems thinking
Systems thinking requires the ability to see both the “wood and the trees” at the same moment, or another way of saying this is that systems thinking requires the ability to view system events through a close-up lens and through a wide-angle lens simultaneously. In application, this means the ability to understand the aggressive behaviour of the 13-year-old girl described earlier while at the same time, understanding team dynamics. And at the same time understanding how the “structure” affects and is affected by the team and how the “structure” affects and is affected by the wider organisation, and how all of these impact upon the 13-year-old girl and how the 13-year-old girl impacts upon ... and so on.
In addition to the aforementioned we found Richardson’s (2003, pp. 104 – 112) framework of systemic biases helpful. These are now listed, and we expand them to show how we understand these.
- First bias. When people act, they are normally tying to do something good. This perspective is referred to as “positive connotation”. Seeing the positive in another’s actions is better than being critical and judgemental, and adds momentum rather than resistance to change efforts.
- Second bias. The observer is in the observed. Richardson (2003, p. 106) points out that “one of the effects of holding this bias is that it helps us not to assume that we can fully know another and to treat our perspectives as partial truths or stories which in turn leaves room for other truths and perspectives to emerge”. We take from her work that once we engage with a system, we become part of a new even if temporary system and that our own actions and inactions are part of this new and forming reality.
- Third bias. The only person you can change is yourself. When we try too hard to change another person or system, our efforts can lead to resistance. Richardson (2003, p. 107) tantalisingly asserts that “if you want to create change you have to sometimes stop being on the side of change”. As consultants we have learned not to push or persuade; rather, our mental posture is one of curiosity and helping the change process by helping people to think through the implications of the status quo, which, sometimes as the example at the start of this article illustrates, can be chaos and crisis.
- Fourth bias. When working with one part of a system hold the other parts in mind. Our approach to this work has confirmed for us that it is essential to expand continually the context beyond the initial point of entry into the system until there is a real sense that all significant actors in the systems are within the frame of reference. It is not essential for them all to meet at the same time – but as consultants it is essential that we have contact with all systems elements and that each in turn knows and understands that our work together is in this systems context.
- Fifth bias. Be irreverent. Essentially, this is to do with challenging assumptions and beliefs, our own as much as others. It might mean with respectful curiosity asking another person, maybe a care worker or a manager, “what would be the result if you stopped believing that a particular child is violent”. We have seen this several times in relation to children described as violent. Certainly, they can be intimidating and can behave with aggression but have never actually hit anyone.
- Sixth bias. Every perspective has value. An example will provide illustration. While working with a staff team we asked them whether they believed that acting, as a role model for adolescents in group care was an important part of the job of a residential social worker. They agreed and all positioned themselves tightly around the answer “yes” that was written on the floor and well away from the “no” answer. The next question was “If the young people were here now and if we asked them about what sort of role models they see in the team on a day-by-day basis, what would they say?”. There was stunned silence followed by honest reflection of the fact that the team did not always display desirable role models at all. Adding the children’s perspective even though they were not there enabled the formation of a systemic connection.
- Seventh bias. Language is not neutral. We identify strongly with Richardson (2003) on this point. She rightly states that language conveys meaning; words are used to tell a story that defines and describes people and situations in certain ways. The question is “why this particular way and with what effect?”. We agree with Richardson when she points out that in residential child care the most obvious example is the daily handover meeting between shifts. How information is “handed over”, how meaning is construed, can have profound implications for all concerned – not least as Richardson reminds us (2003, p. 113) “for the characters in the story” (i.e. the children and their families).
JOHNNIE GIBSON, MARCELLA LEONARD AND MENA WILSON
Gibson, J., Leonard, M., & Wilson M. (2004) Changing Residential Child Care: A Systems Approach to Consultation Training and Development. In Child Care in Practice. Vol. 10 (4). pp. 352 – 352.