The Open Systems Stuff

When clients ask “how do you know what to do”, we say that we draw from “Open Systems Stuff”. Here we unpack what that really means, and why this approach comes in handy.

An “Open System” is more like a living organism (person, team, organisation, community) that can grow and learn, than a fixed mechanism. It would be impossible to list all we draw from when we work with Open Systems, but this includes healthcare, cybernetics, systems theory, complexity science, psychology, group facilitation, consulting, coaching, family therapy and systems constellations.

For example working from a healthcare angle, we might ask what do you do with a patient whose system is in crisis? You put them in special measures or Intensive Care, where you stabilise their environment and monitor their process. Once they are stable you start to give them the water, food, air and exercise needed to build up their strength. This can inform how we work with a leadership team or a troubled organisation.

We have recently been asked by an audit firm how they might spot whether a school or local authority under austerity measures, is not just financially compliant, but fit for the future.

We do not have “the answer”, but we can offer the auditor five powerful questions, and a hint of what lies behind them. Taken together these give an idea of what an Open System is, and how (and how not) to make an intervention.

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Why does this approach come in handy?

The Open System view grasps how to bring the best performance from an institution. Clearly for an auditor this view can also uncover risks to future performance, beyond just the finances, or the compliance.

But our work is not to conduct audits, it is to support clients towards lasting change. We find lasting change never follows from formal recommendations in a report, nor from an inspiring speech, although those might useful starting points.

We send teams and insititutions on the path to change by creating special and repeated interactions between their different parts. Whether we are working with a bank, a hospital or a school, we bring people together to meet, and discover “how the system is right now”. The five questions can help them. Later we bring them back again for a second glance to find what else might be needed from them to move forwards.

Notice how this kind of intervention can strengthen an entity, so that it no longer needs the consultant.

By the way, this work involves putting in place feedback loops, as inspired by the field of cybernetics. Interestingly I found out today that the meaning of the word “cybernetics” is something like “governance”.