Welcome

Understanding living systems can seem impenetrable. Working out how all the inter-dependencies and relationships work leads into a morass of aligned and conflicting theories and practices. Trying to make sense of how these could reasonably help in addressing workplace questions becomes even more confusing. Instead of making things better, looking at our worlds as living systems seems to make them ever more complicated and confusing. The theory seems self-evidently right yet it can make us feel at times powerless. 

Here at Heart of the Art we seek to explore the nature of living systems and how we may understand them. We look to make sense of the nature of things and how by understanding them better, we can be more effective in our work, our relationships, our lives. We offer you this site as a place where we share our own writing alongside articles and resources from others that we have found helpful or provocative. Please enjoy it and use it as you will, crediting the original authors in anything you share.

About us

John Atkinson is a designer, architect and catalyst for whole system change. He has instigated and led projects around the world in corporate and public settings that help people design approaches that will make fundamental change to their work and lives.

Emma Loftus is a researcher and writer, specialising in organisational learning and the human process of change. Emma was the researcher and co-writer of The Art of Change Making. Emma provides support to national and international programmes for change, across public and private sectors, including work with open innovation and systems leadership programme

heartoftheart
I’ve been harshly reminded in the past few days that change is, in fact, not a choice. That is, change will happen anyway, whether we like it or not. In some minuscule way, perhaps hateful way, it’s happening right now. When left to its own devices it can be the most charming and beguiling of evil dictators, making slicing chasms right before our eyes that we are powerless to stop. Or it can be the slyest, most cruel undercover agent, out to tip over our world, causing a wave so large we can only be swept along. Least it feels ...

Doing Change

heart of the art
By John Atkinson  The idea is increasingly being propagated that we live in a 'post truth' world. In this world, 'fake news' has supplanted genuine news and we can no longer believe the words of our rulers or the media that we see, hear or read. Implicit in the idea of a 'post truth' era is that this follows a 'truth' era. This would have been a mythical time when our leaders spread news to us that was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That mythical time appears to have passed me by. Perhaps others remember ...

Post Truth is Fake News

wicked problems
(From grounded.systems) This is a brief introduction to the notion of a wicked problem. It is based on the highly-cited paper by Rittel and Webber (1973). The following characterise wicked problems: There is no definitive formulation. In a sense, formulating a wicked problem is the problem There are no stopping rules. The process of intervening is also the same as understanding the nature of the problem – the intervention is “good enough” or the best that can be achieved within other limitations (e.g. of time, budget…) Interventions are not right or wrong, they can only be viewed as making things ...

Wicked Problems and Category Mistakes

heart of the art
The Dialogue model was developed by Bill Isaacs. The model asks that we  reconsider the ‘rules’ we use to manage our communication. Often the typical meeting room is full of people holding a series of conversations that come preloaded with hidden paradigms of belief, expectation and personal ambition. What this means is that the communication taking place is driven by a mixture of agendas, with everyone seeking to direct and steer the conversation in ways that withhold their point of view. This is limiting, as conversations become stalled, redirected and challenged and in these spaces creativity and exploration is unsafe ...

Dialogue- Isaacs

murmuration
A beautiful example of murmuration from @NatGeo Amazing  Must Watch What are the rules governing their behaviour? What can we learn about living systems and change? John Atkinson explores further in: The rules that limit us ...

Flight of the Starlings

acceptance
Acceptance -The action of consenting to receive or undertake something offered. -The process or fact of being received as adequate, valid, or suitable. -Agreement with or belief in an idea or explanation. -Willingness to tolerate a difficult situation.  (Oxford Dictionary The internet, and our social media feeds are full of wise words milled from philosophers and psychologists and the world’s most wise and humble of folks, quotes telling us that acceptance is the road to happiness, joy, self. And yet as I look at another picture of another artificial looking landscape, telling me that ‘happiness can exist only in acceptance’ ...

Acceptance

kantor 4 player model
The Four Player Model developed by David Kantor is at the core of the theory of structural dynamics. You can find out more at The Kantor Institute.   Kantor was originally a family therapist. During his work he began to realise that there are recurring patterns of language, behaviour and communication that lead to turbulence in families.  He realised that the same patterns existed in businesses and organisations.  Over the course of several years research working with other experts in the field, such as Senge, Schein and Argyris, Kantor became a leading expert in group dynamics, developing the Structural Dynamics Model (often ...

Kantor – 4 Player Model

ethics of leadership
When you consult to a system who is your client? How do you know if you are doing the right thing? What constitutes doing good here and who decides? These questions are often asked. By definition the situation is complex with multiple organisations and individuals with differing, sometimes over-lapping, sometimes competing interests all at play. What is happening is viewed through the lens of each participant’s position and history. This filters perceptions of what you should be doing, what is correct and what is needed. You cannot please everyone all the time. Some, may be all, will question what you ...

The ethics of systems leadership

Screen Shot 2017-02-26 at 14.08.51
By Myron Rogers Just over twenty years ago, Meg Wheatley and I were camped in a friend's cabin in Vermont as a blizzard raged outside.  We were there to begin writing what became A Simpler Way--a brief meditation on organizations as living systems.  The book was born from our years long deepening exploration into the implications of living systems theory for social systems.  If our organisations are not machines, but alive and subject to the same dynamics as all life, what would be possible?  How would we understand what we are seeing and experiencing in institutional life? What would we ...

Myron Rogers – Reflections on A Simpler Way

FullSizeRender
I have recently been struck by the parallels between two large organisations in the health sector. One is a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, the other is the NHS. There are many differences between them, one is a global organisation, the other UK-based. One is a significant commercial entity, the other a public sector body and the fifth largest employer in the world. Yet both have at least one remarkable thing in common; a system of inspection designed to provide reassurance seems to be limiting their effectiveness. In the 'Big Pharma', there is a never ending stream of inspections from public health ...

Does inspection harm you?

john atkinson
As an ex-soldier who served in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles' my Facebook timeline is full of outrage from former colleagues at the actions of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). The PSNI is going back through all cases of killings during the period, approaching soldiers seeking witnesses to events that occurred sometimes over 40 years ago. Soldiers naturally feel aggrieved at a perceived injustice. Many were just teenagers, put in an almost impossible situation. Centuries of tension and hatred between communities had boiled over into desperate violence and politicians needed a solution. The troops were sent in. It ...

Reconciliation and Forgiveness

IMG_4037
A personal reflection  Over the years of my life, through the different lifetimes that I have lived, freedom to me has been an ever changing obscurity, that as at times been elusive in its presence, and yet it’s absence un-noted or a silent drowning. Freedom to me has been a concept with soft edges that blur into the rigidity of the landscape. A dance of butterflies whose wings graze unknowingly against the barriers of the wind that holds them, just so, in place. And yet, freedom is my conscience, that I feel in degrees of just and purely knowing. A ...

The freedom of my lives

IMG_5364
Steiner (1861-1925) was an Austrian philosopher, playwright and artist, now regarded as a great social thinker of his time.  Best perhaps more widely known for his legacy of Steiner schools, often described as ‘schools where children do what they like’. Based on the principles of ‘Anthroposophy’, that is that a child’s creativity and spiritual, and moral development is equally as important as their intellectual growth. In fact, Steiner believed that these elements were inseparable: That we as human beings can only reach our potential when we are at harmony as a whole, when we are able to develop our own ...

The Philosophy of Freedom

john atkinson leadership
Is there a problem in your organisation? Are you a senior person in that organisation? Have you been there any length of time? If the answers are yes then you are part of the problem. There is a philosophy amongst senior leaders that if a problem is to be resolved then others have to be changed. As they look at their organisation they see where the discrepancies exist, where activity that should be cleanly resolved is causing issues, where things simply aren’t getting done. The quick and easy solution is that the people there aren’t good enough. They aren’t leading ...

Are you good enough to lead?

john atkinson
(By John Atkinson) ‘The Queen doesn’t issue bad kit’. These were the words of ‘Droz’, my Battery Sergeant-Major for the longest part of my Army service.  Droz had just run a marathon around the range road. He’d run it in army issue plimsolls and army issue green socks. Rolled down twice in the prescribed manner. His feet were in tatters, painful and bleeding, but tough bastard that he was, he’d finished regardless. Droz knew the Queen hadn’t personally selected his socks and plimsolls and he knew, probably better than anyone else at that moment in time, how inappropriate they were for ...

The Queen!

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-58-45
In the ingenious and quite frankly scary video below, The Backyard Scientist demonstrates how to burn images onto wood using a microwave transformer.  It's some kind of  Science and Art for sure. But what I find truly interesting is how the power of nature overrides it all. Nature takes over, as the fire and the wood together serve to reveal the essence of  fractals, the repeating patterns of nature.   Here, we see that despite or inspite of man's arrogance, creativity, interference, nature will at the end of the day be present, hidden or explicit in everything we do or ...

Wood Burning Fractals

screen-shot-2017-01-07-at-15-33-21
From Quartz When I watched the video below from Quartz, I, like you, was amazed, yet not surprised. I know very little about bees, but I know enough to know that they have a complex culture, governed by innate rules of behaviour, that are at times barbaric, at others nothing less then acts of pure altruism. I know that pretty much as soon as they say hello to the world the destiny of the bee in their community is already determined, by an instinct of judgement of genetics that decides who and what they will be.  When we think of ...

Smart Bees, like us

holsworthy_pool_1-jpg__800x450_q85_crop_subsampling-2
By Emma Loftus Swimming to me has become many things. It's an escape, a reason, a passion, an obsession, a fury. And on days like today swimming gives me space and quiet amidst the noise and chaos of my life. An opportunity to feel nothing but myself, my being.  As I become lost in the flow, the buzz of the world around me disappears, so that it becomes invisible. The shapes of the world become opaque, mere shadows that  dance on the edge of my consciousness.  And all I hear is the rhythm of my heart, gifting me this joy ...

and so I swim

img_9929
Here, in the video (and transcript) below, John Atkinson in conversation with Stacey Hale at Design4Emergence, discusses Complexity in Systems. Answering questions such as:  Any advice on keeping work in a complex ecosystem within manageable boundaries? True or false: “There are no best practices.” How do you put people at ease in a world obsessed with big data? You’re not saying to abandon strategy? Are you talking about designing an attractor? What do you say to a brand new consultant who wants to apply the Big Five of living systems to an organizational problem to create change? How much does it matter ...

John Atkinson on Complexity in Systems

img_0025
(By John Atkinson) I wrote a blog a few years ago called ‘Too big to succeed’ which captured some of my thoughts about scale and particularly the National Health Service in England. The NHS is the world’s fifth largest employer, third if you discount the affiliates and franchises involved with McDonalds and Walmart. I suggested that as organisations grow, their ‘surface area to volume ratio’ changes. In other words, they become more focused on the internal relationships and structures necessary to preserve their function (and thus identity) and less focused on their relationship with their environment. Preservation of identity becomes ...

Size does matter