The Only Constant for a Systemic Practitioner are the Principles of the Systemic Approach

From time to time it is important for those of us seeking to work systemically to go back to the roots of the tools and techniques that we use everyday. It is important because we can often get caught up in the belief that a particular tool or technique is the answer to all crowdsourcing or perspective participation needs we are dealing with to build probes for complex issues.

When a new person is working with me in a few systemic consultations they often get annoyed with me because I am using a tool or technique differently from the last time they saw it, “How can I learn these techniques,” they will say “if you keep changing all the time?” Another will ask at the end of a workshop “Can you write down how you structured that session, I’d like to use it some time?” My answer to the first is “I’m sorry, but I don’t know how I will shape a technique when the session starts because its course depends on what’s happening.” And to the second one my response is: “I can give you a generic description of how a session might be organised, but it is what is happening in the session that dictates the retrospective picture we have of the session.”

Every group, like every complex issue, is different. How you engage the group in systemic thinking practices about the issue of concern needs to be formulated uniquely for them from the general principles underpinning the approach. So it is a matter of asking questions, suggested by systemic principle, as to how you prepare for a session and then reasking them as the session proceeds. These questions can include:

  • What is the purpose the group has for addressing the issue; how do I get collaboration on an agreed version of the purpose?
  • What are the boundaries of their control over the purpose and how can I get the group to agree on and recognise those boundaries?
  • How can I facilitate the group to map the stakeholders in the issue and the relationship that each has, to the issue that affects the group’s purpose?
  • Has the untapped knowledge in the group, about the issue, been built up from numerous different experiences over time, or is it a dynamic learning situation they are currently in?
  • What will trigger a whole-of-group sense of owernship of the session’s output and what are the expectations of the output?

The source of these questions to ask (and many more) comes from first conceiving the issue ‘as if’ it is a system; it’s helpful to see the group participants as the learning subsystems of the organisation they are attached to. In systemic theory I refer to this phenomena as the Holon.

The Holon postulates that for every purpose designed to make an impact on its environment, the stakeholders associated with the purpose are continually learning about the effectiveness and efficiency of that impact. If that learning is collected into a single rich picture, then many insights about the issue/purpose will emerge. Such insights can be used to leverage ongoing improvement in achieving the purpose. Since the world in which a purpose is operating happens to be dynamic, the Holon is in a continual state of change. Working to improve the purpose’s performance is therefore a continuous one in which the tools and techniques may also need to be reshaped.

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