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The world through someone else’s eyes: systems thinking and connecting with the Clore Social Fellows

Earlier this week the Clore Leadership Fellows came together for their annual joint workshop with the Fellows from our sister charity the Clore Social Leadership. This year we looked at systems thinking. Jo Hunter reflects on the experience.

When I was growing up, my dad had a model for everything. When we were sad and frustrated, we had patterns that were stuck that we needed to move, when our friendships were going wrong we were working out where we were in the ‘I’m ok, you’re ok’ model, and then later when I was working he introduced the Kolb learning cycle to help me think through how my projects were going. Being his daughter, I simply always said ‘but Da-ad.. that’s not a model, that’s just how things ARE, that’s just LIFE,’ and failed to get into any real debate about it.

So when we started the session with Martin Sandbrook I was already full of a little bit of, ‘But isn’t this just what people DO? Isn’t this how people (especially women) think?’ But, in the spirit of Clore I entered into the session with enthusiasm. And I am glad I did.

Systems thinking is hard to pin down because of the nature of what it is. But Martin walked us through some of the core principles:
– It’s about seeing the world through someone else’s eyes
– It’s about giving up on being right
– It’s learning that there isn’t always one answer, or any answers. That being right isn’t paramount. As one friend of mine put it to me, ‘its about getting to maybe’
– It doesn’t need to be about either/or, it’s about both, and
– It’s about recognising how your world view and beliefs affect the way you see things

The ‘systems’ bit comes from the idea of recognising how everything is linked, how you can’t make decisions in a vacuum. We are all operating in a broader system and what we do affects others and what others do affects us.

We did a couple of exercises that helped illustrate this. We had each brought an object that somehow represented us and we had to discuss how and why, noticing (not judging) how we had come to our thoughts and realisations. We also took a problem we were having and used a system called Action Experiment to rethink it.

Action Experiment involves taking an issue and then using the following process to tackle it:

Framing (looking at the issue from all sides) – Aspiration (what do you want?) – Reflect (involves asking all the questions about where that aspirations is coming from) – One key question (working out what the real issue is) – Action (asking ‘how do I act in the world when I say…. Whatever the answer to the question might be) – Noticing/recording – Reflecting – Back to framing..

Obviously we didn’t get to the action bit, but it was useful to try out the first half. However, having been through at least 6 months of reflection, coaching and thinking round things differently, you could tell a lot of people were thinking ‘but isn’t this just what we do?’

By the end of the session it felt like there was a lot of wriggling – the room was hot and people wanted to chat and I think there was a bit of a sense of ‘we’ve been here before.’ And then Cordelia from the Social Leadership Programme put up her hand and asked the question lots of people wanted to ask, ‘but could you just explain, in your own words, what systems thinking actually is?’ He had, in the spirit of systems thinking, avoided pinning it down but reluctantly, Martin then agreed, and read us out this paragraph he had written:

“For me, ‘systems thinking’ is a way of being. It involves a way of seeing or interpreting the world through thought and feeling. It is an attitude of open-ness, of inquiry, of looking from many perspectives, inner and outer, of holding, or trying to hold, an awareness of my own beliefs and assumptions, of noticing my reaction to things, of understanding the world as an unfolding process where everything is in relation to everything else. It is an attitude of compassion and love, avoiding judgement, seeking to understand rather than be understood. It is an attitude that is always curious, always ready to learn and amend, realising that to truly know something or somebody, is probably never fully possible, that knowing comes in many forms and is often partial or incomplete, that learning is a subjective process involving a relationship between me and what I am seeking to know, which affects both me and the that which I am trying to understand. It means being prepared to let go of the need to be right, or the fear of uncertainty or the illusion of control.”


Because it was beautiful, and in its own way moving. And in that moment I was struck with how lucky I was to be in a room full of people for whom this comes naturally. How especially lucky I am to have a Dad that thinks like this anyway and brought us up to think like that too. To have had the space to explore this, to recognise this, to continue to develop it is a huge privilege. One which not everyone, not many people, have.

Meeting the Clore Social fellows was hugely valuable, and only reinforced this for me. It gave us a different take on what we were thinking and put so much of what we are doing into a broader context. The conversations in the room and at the pub were broad ranging and provoking. But it served to give me a taste to get further afield and do more. 

It is tempting to stick with people that endorse our world view, who make us feel comfortable. To ignore people we think are teaching us something we already know, or to run away from someone telling us they don’t agree with us. But if we really want to change the world we need to go beyond that. We need to challenge the way we think, and the way other people think. And models help us do that. Systems thinking has been used really successfully in the business world, where the need to stop always ‘being right,’ to the detriment of actually ‘doing right’ is palpable.

Systems thinking has become a bit of a craze. And maybe you already do this stuff. But if you do, count yourself lucky there are people out there teaching it to people who don’t. That way, we might make a difference.

Jo Hunter is a 2014-2015 Clore Theatre Fellow and Co-Founder of 64 Million Artists.

To find out more in-depth reading on Systems Thinking check out the links below:

Themes Alumni Journeys Qualities of Leadership