Spacious systems: the kaleidoscope effect

Learn how to see. Realise that everything connects to everything else.“ Leonardo da Vinci

I have very vivid memories as a child of turning a kaleidoscope to see the amazing different patterns it produced. I also remember experimenting with marble painting, which involved dripping different coloured inks into water, moving the tray of water and seeing what different patterns, shapes and systems emerged from the simple movement of disturbing the equilibrium. We would then take an imprint of it on paper before going on to create more. We would spend hours doing it, marvelling at the different results and systems created on the paper. Fractals are everywhere, and as Leonardo Da Vinci so wisely tells us above, we really should learn how to see these patterns and this reality. This skill is so topical, particularly in today’s world of complex problems – from global climate change to working together on a daily basis. We spend so much time thinking and working in our bubbles – be it a team, silo, site, or family – that this construct is cutting off diversity and soul from outside these system boundaries.

I like to use the human body as an analogy for fractals. I remember the first time I learnt about the muscles and how they work in symbiotic pairs, or the neural labyrinth of miracles that is our brain and how everything is essentially connected to everything else. This creates a ‘dynamic’, and systems are just that: ‘dynamic’, constantly evolving and adapting. They are forever interacting as new connections and give rise to new subsystems. The analogy of systems in the human body is a rich seam to mine: they are to be found in neural circuits, in the lungs – you draw them when you study biology and the respiratory network of bronchi and bronchioles – or in the complex and extensive network of blood capillaries, showing us that we too are part of a bigger, wider system.

‘Inside out’: internal systems

Noticing patterns is key to understanding systems, particularly your own, and the different elements, interconnections and behaviours within them. The old Sufi story of the elephant and the blind inhabitants of the city of Ghor teaches us the simple lesson (but one that we often ignore) of the danger of only perceiving one part of a system and limiting ourselves to that definition. A system cannot be fully understood only by what you know. It is also about what you don’t know and the other elements that create the diversity of the system. We need to intentionally take our blinkers off and understand the ‘grey’ areas or the areas we don’t always see. The elephant is a metaphor for our struggle to see, accept and act on our patterns, and also for the collective struggle in organisational systems to see the bigger picture and step away from ‘what we know’ and ‘what has worked to date’. Donella Meadows tells us that: “You think that because you understand ‘one’ that you must therefore understand ‘two’ because one and one make two. But you forget that you must also understand ‘and’.” 

There is always more to a complex situation than linear thinking can give you, and we need the mental space to be able to work well and feel on top of both work and life. This is no different on the collective level, as nothing clogs systems up more than too much information, on top of different processes, and understanding these processes in different siloed elements of the system. Space seems to be a rare commodity in today’s world, but spaciousness in your mind is something you can intentionally create when you allow the pauses in work to be true moments of enquiry, stillness and rest.

Recently we were sharing in our community of practice around an equity issue and intentionally looking at different perspectives and ways it could be construed, misconstrued and managed. One colleague offered us a more serene, compassionate and human-centred way of thinking about the question: How would a Buddhist monk react? How can we extend the same grace and compassion? The result of thinking outside our own patterns and adding different elements to the picture changed the outcomes dramatically. We were creating the space to put the grace back into curiosity. I often talk about humble curiosity, but here I like to think of gracious curiosity – questioning from a place of compassion and abundance for more regenerative and constructive answers. Regenerative in the sense that if you answer by also opening the door to opportunity and perspective, you create the requisite distance to take a step back from your automatic response and reflex actions. This disables a reaction of shame and enables a constructive and productive exchange. Building relationships with yourself and your soul to understand your patterns and operationalise a ‘safe’ inner space for your conversations on the ‘inner game’ are key to stepping into this new paradigm of mental spaciousness, where the connection is soulful, not soul-crushing.

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Understanding human network dynamics is about understanding the relationships at play and how they interconnect. It is very similar to neural networks in that as you add nodes and different pathways, the dynamics change, and a new network idea emerges (animation). Barry Oshrey tells us that as humans we are all faced with

–      relational blindness, locking ourselves into a ‘them vs. us’ situation, which is unproductive and inhibits partnership and sharing

–      a blind reflex where we act from our bubble without seeing the system

–      our own beliefs system that limits our options and creates a sense of false certainty for our brains, which provides immediate respite

–      the ability and need to tell stories, including self-serving stories, that have no evidence outside of our internal system.

‘Outside in’: external systems

Organisations are also systems, made up of complicated processes and based on linear thinking that leads to an ordered approach to cause and effect. This thinking governs how most of us think about systems, and indeed the relationships within human systems. When upset, even the most accomplished of systems thinkers automatically reasons that when you did that, it made me feel this. Such constant tension between ordered and unordered, predictable and unpredictable, linear and complex is always at play in organisational systems. There are patterns to be seen and the system memory perpetuates these patterns, which can stifle innovation and well-being in the struggle to maintain the status quo. Stepping back from the system and looking holistically at the different elements, and the role you play both individually and collectively, can create a kaleidoscope pattern that looks very different.

There are also the more informal systems dynamics, which I like to call the ‘voices’ of the system. Everyone has a voice in their system, but do we hear these voices, and how can they be heard and acted upon? This is one of the major challenges when trying to create an environment in which we feel safe, can work together healthily and intentionally strive for innovation.

So what skills do we need to create these more spacious and soulful environments? We hear a lot these days about upskilling for digital – data analytics, data science, robotics, AI, coding – but there is a human element to upskilling that is key to creating the culture and leadership necessary for digital to add its full value to a business. We need to treat softer skills in the same way, and just as we upskill for coding and data, we should be intentionally upskilling for soft skills too. We must add dedicated training looking at the different, more human-centred skills needed to enable human collaboration, to enhance what digital can automate and enable. Upskilling for more purposeful and soulful leadership is key to creating workplaces where people and innovation can thrive.

Being courageously competent, challenging the status quo and leaning into your deepest convictions, even if it doesn’t please people, is important to role-model the understanding of Donella Meadow’s ‘and’. So too is pausing and getting comfortable with silence. Often, what I call ‘the soulful gap’ is about the magic of silence, yet it is consciously and unconsciously filled by operations and daily life.

Busy leaders’ intention may be to be courageous and empathetic, but really, they don’t have time, either internally or externally, to create and hold the space for people to feel safe enough to bring their real discussion points and thoughts to the table. The stillness of that kaleidoscope moment reminds me of ‘slow-mo’ videos on a smartphone. I often hear from my clients, particularly holistic systems thinkers, that they can see a system or situation holistically if they step back and look. Understanding systems dynamics really reminds me of the feeling of watching a video back in slow motion. I film this type of video a lot with my son as he jumps through hoops in parks and other such simple things, and it is a very powerful lens to slow down your own system and think about the shared space you are in. This can make the difference between a soulful and a soul-crushing experience. 

As a leader, curiosity is the key to constantly questioning and enquiring into your role in the system and how you are leading. You don’t have to have read all the books or be able to question all the different theories, research and models to be good at navigating this landscape – a lot of it is innate and built on lived experiences. Models help us name and frame and give us a different lens, but simply ‘learning’ a model won’t make it happen. It will, however, help you understand the theory behind good leadership and what high performing teams define as ‘their’ model of collaboration and performance.

It is all very akin to corporate buzzwords. In fact, when playing ‘corporate bingo’ with said buzzwords, it is shocking to me that I get so many right first time, almost without thinking. The reflex patterns and recognition are there, but it is only when the fun subsides and we delve into what we actually mean that we see how multi-layered and fragmented our understanding is as a collective (team, group, community, organisation). The real understanding comes from going under the waterline and understanding what resides there too. People don’t fake burn out, they fake being ok, and this is an important point to understand when dealing with how to balance and scale the equilibrium between empathy and operational results.

Psychological safety doesn’t mean that there is an absence of threat and challenge, but rather a presence of connection: with ourselves, our team and our organisational system. How connected are you currently at each of these levels? What would the impact be of reflecting on this for you and your organisation? We need to create a systems dynamic where people can recognise their patterns and the patterns of the system to interact differently, work across silos and collaborate across team boundaries. This in turn shifts their sense of identity in the system towards co-operation as well as competition. Jardena London and I discussed in our recent podcast (listen here) what makes a soulful organisation and how leaders can act to intentionally create this environment.

Scaling and operationalising people-centred transformation requires deeply curious, humble and emotionally literate organisations that have a collective identity and the know-how to evolve and adapt. Holding tension to step out of the comfortable but sometimes soul-crushing status quo and leaning into the connection of safe spaces is a key skill for leaders of the future.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems. 

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple PodcastSpotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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