Context and service improvement: Why a systemic lens helps

Complex change
4th March 2015

Most of what’s written on the subject of service improvement tells us that what works in one setting is unlikely to work in another. At least not without some modification. Consideration of context is as important as programme design when facilitating change. 

Emotional intelligence enables the leader to humanise the connection between the goal for improvement and those implementing the changes. But sometimes the voice of the system can thwart even the most engaging of leaders. Ever experienced that? No matter what you do, the team just can’t move forward?

A Systemic Lens

Understanding how human systems function is useful when laying the foundations for improvement. My search for a better understanding of working with the system drew me to John Whittington’s Systemic Constellations approach. Based on Bert Hellinger’s work on family constellations, it translates well to an organisational context. After all, what are organisations but larger versions of the family unit?

While the conscious goal of the organisation is to deliver its business, the unconscious goal – if we take the Hellinger view – is to preserve the status quo. He identified three primary organising principles that form the basis of all human experience in systems. They offer a route into understanding the underlying dynamics that might emerge in the system where improvements are to be introduced. These are:

  • Time
  • Place
  • Exchange

These principles interrelate to maintain coherence and order within the system. Change, necessary for improvement, inevitably means violating any one of these principles.

The result? Unhelpful dynamics that create conflict and lock things down.

Playing Blind

We often don’t realise the part these principles have played till afterwards. Understanding the likely consequences of violating any one of them can help us to tune in and intervene to resolve things.

Of course not every problem can be predicted. That’s the nature of human systems. They’re unpredictable! But accepting ‘what is’ can remove some of the frustration people inevitably feel when they’re caught up in unhelpful dynamics. It allows the system to be heard and to right itself.

Here’s an illustration of violating the principle of ‘Time’.


Some years ago a colleague recruited a young woman to a middle manager post. Before the new manager arrived he was heard boasting about her credentials – how well qualified she was, how brilliant. Cringingly he did this in front of a group of middle managers who were to become her peers. Unwittingly he had set her up to fail.

The new manager was indeed efficient, brilliant and creative. With a delightful personality into the bargain. Her team loved her but her peers? Well, they were resentful and overly critical, claiming she just didn’t fit in. After an uncomfortable couple of years the young manager left, concluding it had been a disastrous move.

Would it have been different if she hadn’t been given such a build up? If he hadn’t undermined the time-served people already in the system?

Yes, I think it probably would. Unbeknown to her, the way she had been introduced to the system had created anti-bodies. The ill-judged actions of her manager undermined what had gone before, with bruising consequences.

Laying the foundations

Service improvements often involve the introduction of new roles, whether as project managers or new operational posts. So how can we minimise the likelihood of violating the principle of time when leading improvement? Here are my suggestions.

  • Acknowledge and give respect to who and what has gone before
  • Identify the strengths of the current situation and build on them
  • Respect and draw on the experience held by those longest in the system, even if they are not the most highly qualified
  • Focus on the environmental factors that make the changes necessary, rather than on the wrongness of the current situation (it was the right thing at some point!).

As Amanda Ridings recently observed:

…the seeds of what unfolds are so often in the beginnings…..”

When change is stuck this is certainly a good place to shine a light.

































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