Our Practice

Introducing 'The Big Five'

The Living City

Understanding living systems can seem impossible. 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. Where we thought we had certainty, we find ourself faced with differing perspectives and interpretations. Where we thought we had control, it seems to turn into an illusion and our influence appears therefore to fade. Having glimpsed this world we then feel caught between the more convincing reality it describes and the comfort of what we thought we knew. Navigating such a mess can be unsettling.

So how do living systems work? What sense can you make of the world in front of you and how you might really work with it for the better?

With Myron Rogers, I’ve been exploring a set of characteristics of living systems that I’ve found helpful. They have guided me in making sense of the circumstances I find myself in and in designing approaches whereby people can work with a living system rather than in spite of it. What emerges is what we call ‘The Big Five’ characteristics;

These ‘Big Five’ characteristics all interact with each other and impact on each other. They don’t form a nice neat ‘five steps to systems nirvana’. If they did, they’d be wrong, contradicting the very beliefs that are at the core of our understanding of how living systems work. Instead, how they interact matters, the more you explore one, the more you understand it through the others.

You’d expect that if you believe in an inter-connected world yet it is reassuring that these work this way. What emerges for me are then questions, questions that need answering not in the philosophy or the theory but in our lived experience. Questions that help deepen our understanding of what we see going on around us. Questions that take you further into realising the irreducible uncertainty of living systems. Questions from which new ways of acting and thinking and working begin to emerge.

So although a linear format like a web browser leads us to post these in an order, you can dive in anywhere and follow it everywhere. Have an explore, see what makes sense to you, hold and play with the questions that arise for you.

© John Atkinson (2016)


The world in which we live and work feels increasingly complex. We use phones, branded by Apple but made by a huge variety of different companies based in countries all over the world. Once on them we have the choice of so many things to do, so many ways to link with our world, through cameras, social networks, maps and even talking to people we can see on the far side of the world. There has never been access to so much data to inform the choices we make and yet the big decisions get no easier, perhaps paradoxically even harder to make. To get some things done it requires an interwoven mix of relationships between people, organisations and things to come together and produce the outcome we want. You may argue it was always thus, but the scale of complexity has grown at an ever expanding rate.

In simpler times, the knowledge necessary for catching fish, growing crops or animal husbandry was of a scale that we could hold all that was necessary within ourselves. Cesar Hidalgo refers to the knowledge we can hold as a ‘personbyte’ of information. As our level of connectedness grows the knowledge necessary to work on complex tasks soon outgrows one personbyte and instead we now need to rely on the interactions between multiple parties, events and things to get stuff done.

If I want to eat fresh fish from the North Sea at my home in Central England then on the big scale we need not to have ‘over-fished’, so we rely on international treaties and agreements. Sea currents need to bring favourable nutrients. The weather must allow the trawler fleet to operate at sea. The fish must be brought to me by boat to the dockside, through distribution hubs and logistics truck fleets to a retailer who is supplied with electricity to run the refrigerators and tills. The retailer is staffed by people who can operate the technology and handle the stock. And they too like me need feeding. And so all the circumstances start to interact, people, weather, things, networks until the complexity is more than we can behold.

And yet, for all the complexity, this chaotic mess is stable. Stuff still keeps getting done. Chaos and complexity result in stability not anarchy. It is absolutely predictable that for the immediate future the supermarket chain will continue to stock fresh fish. And it is also absolutely unpredictable as to whether there will be fresh cod there at 5pm on Tuesday next week. Complexity allows us to make very accurate predictions about the pattern of things, whilst the detail can remain unknown. This variation in circumstances is one of the characteristics we find in living systems and it gives rise to some articular circumstances that are helpful to understand.

One of the characteristics of this variation is that our actions always have unintended consequences. The things we meant to happen usually do, and, other stuff happens too, as a result of how we and our actions connect in so many different ways. The discovery pf penicillin was an unintended consequence: when Fleming left the petri dish uncleaned in the lab he was not trying to make his discovery. So unintended consequences can be good or bad, predictable or surprising. Which of these they are depends on our point of view. One thing that we can say however, is that it is this variation that is the source of adaptation. This is how living systems evolve in symbiotic relationship with their environment.

Another characteristic is that cause and effect can become quite distant in both time and space. Our love of high tech gadgets demands ever better batteries, smaller, more powerful and with longer life to keep our big bright screens working. This demand for better battery functionality drives a need for extraction of rare-earth metals from the few places in the world where they can be readily accessed at scale, usually through large open cast mines. Demand in one place drives environmental impact in another, that over time can spread and be felt far more widely. We can berate the Chinese for not mining in a more sustainable manner, yet our insatiable demand keeps driving the system.

Our usual response to problems is to provide solutions. What can be done to fix the issue? Yet complex problems may not have solutions. You can maybe make them better or worse, but they remain unresolved and stubbornly recalcitrant. So we add another expert solution and before we know it we are entangled in a mesh of treaties, agreements, standards, protocols and laws that all build upon each other to simply create more and more unintended consequences, forever distant in time and space. Expert solutions cannot resolve complex problems. they can make them better, they can also store up problems for years to come.

So if we recognise that our organisations are complex living systems themselves, it says that many of our management tools will have distinct downsides as well as any benefits. It says that our standard processes of management, to divide things into discrete business units, departments, responsibilities and accountabilities have built into them the limitations to their success. If we are to build sustainable processes that improve our businesses and the environment in which they function we need to learn to work with complexity, not control it.

Donella Meadows described the challenge of working with a living system as working with ‘irreducible uncertainty’. As we understand the nature of complexity better we realise that our ability to exert control is much less than we think. That requires a shift in thinking from the desire to see everything planned, ‘flowed’ and managed to a mindset that enables growth, variation and adaptation. It means confronting our ego, challenging the sole power we afford to our intellect. For many that is a distinctly uncomfortable thing to do.

© John Atkinson (2016)


Have you ever watched a flock of starlings in the autumn twilight? They wheel this way and that making wonderful shapes in the evening sky. Almost as one body they sweep in and out, up and down, twisting and turning in what is known as a murmuration. How do they do this? There is no single guiding brain at the centre of the flock, calling the moves, barking out the orders. They don’t rehearse on the training pitch, evening after evening, until they can put on such a magnificent display.

In 1986, Craig Reynolds created an artificial life computer simulation that mimicked the behaviour of the birds in the murmuration. He called it ‘boids’, In essence, each ‘boid’ in the flock need only follow three simple rules to create the pattern. The first rule is about separation; boids must steer to avoid getting too close to other birds around them, thus constraining their ability to move. The next rule is about steering; they need to head towards the average direction of those around them. And finally, the last rule is about cohesion; boids need to head towards the centre of mass of the murmuration. From these three rules you can mimic a murmuration on your desktop. (There’s also a fun one you can find on ant colonies)! Reynold's work has supported the development of CGI and informs the use on un-manned vehicles. Behind this is one of our ‘Big Five’ characteristics of living systems, emergence.

Emergence is an often misunderstood term. People will use the phrase ‘it is emergent’ as a way of saying they hope something will appear. An emergent strategy is described as one that relies on intentions, actions and changing circumstances interacting to produce something that nobody could have predicted at the time. Well that sort of holds for me, yet the reality is deeper. For me, what emerges is the product of deep underlying rules of interaction. To this end it is not necessarily a chance occurrence. In fact it is these deep and underlying rules or principles that give rise to stable and predictable patterns of behaviour. What we see happening on the surface ‘emerges’ from deeper principles.

It follows then that if we want to instil change in a system, if we can change these underlying principles of interaction we can create fundamental, significant and lasting change. On one level this gives us great hope for how, for example, we might influence behaviour change at scale in order to shift markets in a commercial world, or shift patterns of service usage in a governmental setting.

On another it is inevitably more complex. First, simply changing the principles doesn’t tell you what new pattern of behaviour emerges. You know a new pattern will emerge as the living system makes sense of the new principle, but how it makes sense of that is much less predictable. Next, it is often very difficult to identify what the real organising principles are. They are almost certainly not our openly espoused values or internal written rule books that govern staff behaviour. These are surface presentations of something deeper. Getting to the underlying principles takes time and requires a capacity to hold a genuine and fundamental enquiry. Such capacity is often at odds with the day to day business of an organisational world. And then, it raises another yet harder question, how do you change an underlying principle?

Let me give a shallow but hopefully helpful example. In English public services since 2008, a pressure to reduce spending has existed. You might imagine that this results in the principle ‘save money’. What we actually see at play are some other principles, like ‘spend all of what you’ve got or we will reduce your budget’. This slightly deeper principle therefore results in the exact opposite of what is intended. It also means that people are less inclined to engage in collective endeavours that would reduce demand. Unless of course, someone gives them some more money to do that! So the underlying principle trumps the surface one. Of course this is fairly superficial, the real principles at play are much deeper, regarding what sort of society we really want to be and thus what maintains it as it is.

The important thing for anyone wishing to grow change in a living system is this; whatever change we try to make, if it doesn’t engage with the underlying principles at work, it will simply result in the system replicating another version of where we are now. Strategies, action plans and change programmes remain statements of intent rather than what will actually happen.

© John Atkinson (2016)

How do we know anything? It seems a simple question doesn’t it? And yet as soon as you dwell on it for more than an instant it begins to open up the whole complex weave of how living systems work. For some it is an age old question, that touches on religion and consciousness. For others the field of ‘brain science’ that is now one of the most rapidly expanding areas of our knowledge offers new insights. Now we are able to map what is happening in our brains and bodies as we respond to stimuli.

To ask how we become aware of what is happening in a living system is to enquire into the consciousness of that system. The system’s capacity to take intentional action is linked to its level of consciousness. Or to put it simply it is linked to what it knows about itself. Cognition is therefore a critical characteristic of a living system and forms one of our ‘Big Five’ characteristics.

If you ask a question of people in any human system, it could be a commercial system, a governmental system or a social system like a club or family, their answer to the question will depend on who they are and the nature of their connection with that system. If you ask the question ‘how does this system work?’ you can get some fascinatingly informative responses. If you ask an Apple employee how their system works, they might tell you about the stores, their production chain, the sales and marketing processes or maybe the employment conditions they work under. But what about the app developers, third party people who have no employment contract with Apple but are essential to making the company successful? And what of the users, you and me, people whose data grows the system and whose usage patterns are defined by the technology yet also define it. Assuming we can agree what the living system that is ‘Apple’ (as opposed to the listed company that is Apple) actually is, then where we sit in that complex web of relationships will determine what we see and what we know about how the system works.

As soon as a living system gains any level of scale, processing all these different perspectives becomes more than any single individual (and certainly any computer! can possibly manage. All of these perspective can be right from the vantage point of the person holding them, yet all are only partial (in both senses of the word) and can be in flat contradiction of each other. A cold analytic certainty is gone and what is left is irreducible uncertainty.

But although we cannot know anything as an absolute, that doesn't mean that we don’t know anything at all. In fact, and quite obviously, it is the opposite. Once we give up a polarising form of knowledge where we posit one end of a scale against another, we can start to explore the range and wealth of knowledge that is available to us. To do this requires us to seek a variety of perspectives from very different vantage points. It also requires us to have the capacity to hold those differences together in such a way that some new and more important meaning can emerge. Too often in large organisations that is too hard; there is no room for heretics who challenge existing orthodoxies. There is no space in reasonable dialogue for the local activists who reject the commercial advantages of building a new airport. When we stifle these voices rather than hold the difference, our quality of cognition necessarily drops.

And it is also more tricky than that. Our rational minds like to hold onto a viewpoint that we are objective observers of the world around us and that we me make true and impartial sense of what we see. In fact, this is not the case. Even when we see something, only around 20% of our processing is on the visual information. At the same time our brain is taking the input it ‘sees’ and comparing it with all similar versions it has retained from our experience to determine what the input means. Most of the sense making is internal and defined by the past. In other words, we do not know what we see, instead we see what we already know. Our carefully formed, beliefs, emotions and prejudices are determining how we view the external world around us much more than our calm detached objectivity. This is neither good nor bad, it is simply the nature of how living things make sense of the world around them.

This makes cognition in a living system a complex, emotional and collective process. To ‘know’ we are in a system, how it works and therefore begin to make choices as to how we might grow change within it is not easy. It requires us to be able to seek, value and make room for different perspectives to emerge. Yet to do so challenges the orthodoxy of that the system. Our frame of reference determines what we do and to do better, asks us to broaden the frame.

© John Atkinson (2016)


Social networks have become an omnipresent element of modern life. We have become tied to our phones and tablets, keeping up with each ‘update’, ‘like’ and ‘friend request’. How many followers you have is in some circles a new measure of social standing. Isn’t it curious how an essential element of living systems, one of our Big Five has become so allied with technology? At one level it is sort of inevitable. If our world is built on networks, then we will of course find them through our technology. The advances in our ability to engineer smart devices haven’t created a new phenomena, they have simply allowed a new expression of one of the fundamental characteristics of how we organise to become more visible and explicit.

I use a number of social media, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn to name but three. In my work in China I have found WeChat essential to connect to the real conversation about my work there. First, it allows me swift and easy translation, not unimportant when my mandarin is so limited. More importantly though it allows me access away from the formal conversation about my work to the informal network where people are making sense of it in their own context. This is one of the primary functions of networks. Through the networks in which we exist, we make sense of data, be that experience or emotion, and determine what is the appropriate way to respond in that setting. By tapping into the informal conversations about the work I am doing I learn what is working, what isn’t, the contextual factors I am touching and the key ones I am missing.

We all operate in multiple networks. I have found this never more obvious than when working with a key employer in a small town. If the manufacturing plant is where most people in the town gain their income, either directly as employees, indirectly as suppliers or maybe previously through their pensions, then this mixture of networks becomes visible in many ways. First and most obviously is the organisation chart network. This describes the supposed functioning of the plant with its bosses and production workers. It is a clumsy, poorly connected network that doesn’t really work that well. It relies on the other networks to really function. Pretty soon you see the family networks. Fathers and daughters may be working in the same plant but in different parts of the organisation chart. It is quite clear which network will be stronger there! And these family networks spread through the plant, through the organisation chart, by blood, by marriage, and on into the wider world outside of work. And then there may be more social alliances, football clubs that are supported, people who all went to the same school, bars where people drink or places where people fish together. And what of professional networks? The societies of engineers? The unions of machine shop workers? All of these are places in which the living system that is the manufacturing plant makes sense of its activity and determines how to respond to each change in its environment.

The immediate and close networks act to maintain the status quo. My small number of friends on Facebook are real friends. If I meet them in the flesh we will take time together, have a drink, tell some stories. Probably those stories are the same ones we have told for years together. We re-live past experiences that have formed a part of our identity, made us part of a group that has a bond together. If I am looking for change and breakthrough it rarely comes from this group. Instead it comes from much more tenuous connections. Of the hundreds of people that I connect to on Twitter or LinkedIn, most I know only slightly. I have with them, as Granovetter puts it, a weak tie. The strength of these weak ties is that they bring new information into the network. In my work in helping organisations change this is part of my value to them, I’m not part of the in-crowd, the tight social circle, and rarely get beyond the periphery. Instead I bring in new thoughts, experiences and meaning from other settings and help them interpret it in the light of their world view. This is the strength of weak ties in living networks, it is a trigger for adapting to new states.

Cesar Hidalgo at MIT tells us more about networks. He describes the limit of information that one individual can hold as a ‘personbyte’ of data. As tasks become more than very basic, the individual’s capacity to hold all the necessary data is soon outstripped and a network is needed. Networks therefore are containers of knowledge and know-how. They are how we maintain and spread the information necessary to get things done and the means of applying that information. It therefore follows that very complex tasks require well developed and maintained networks that store the vital knowledge and know-how. On a global economic scale, this is why certain complex industries only exist in very distinct geographies. At one stage, as part of my work on what it takes to lead a place, I read the vision statements for numerous English cities and counties. Each described themselves as the next Silicon Valley. Lacking the networks that created the real Silicon Valley, none of them have become one.

This also explains why models of change that rely on pilot and roll-out are so ineffectual. The knowledge and know-how about how to make the change work are retained in the network that created them, not in the technical solution that arises. You cannot roll-out a network. It is like picking up a jigsaw to move it to another table. Some clusters might stick together but mostly it breaks up, falls apart and you may even lose important pieces in the carpet! The result is a need for slow and sometimes painful re-building, even if we do now know what the picture is that we are trying to make.

So if we are to understand how we might grow change in a living system then an understanding of networks and how they work is critical. It is in the networks that knowledge and know-how are retained and sense is made. Unless we engage at this level, below the obvious, then the system keeps mitigating change and building it back into what it already knows. This takes time. Getting to find the real networks, connect with them, engage with the stories within which they hold the tacit knowledge of the system is at the heart of the art of change making. This never happens in formal sessions. It happens when you take the time to learn a system and connect to its natural rhythm and mood.

© John Atkinson (2016)

Self Organising

As an officer cadet at The Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, the thing I hated most was foot drill. Quite why we had to dress immaculately in order to rehearse moving in 18th Century battle formations on a parade ground was beyond me. It was also beyond most of the drill sergeants, but they knew it worked and they were good at it, so on we marched. What foot drill actually did was connect us into one cohesive body of men, all acting thinking and (on good days) flowing as one. It also connected us into the tradition and ritual of the British Army. We weren’t the best-equipped army in the world, but were fiercely proud of our history and traditions. That had counted for a lot during several centuries of ugly scrapes.

Large organisations don’t always pay as much attention to formally reinforcing ritual and tradition as the British Army does. Most no longer retain marching bands, wear uniforms, carry flags and repeat formal rituals and ceremonies. Yet these things pervade in the informal networks of large companies, in their language, working patterns and even buildings. Our identity is inevitably shaped by our history. The changes we have been through to arrive where we are now determine our form in the world. They also determine how we make sense of our environment and react to new situations.

This self referencing behaviour is one of our Big Five and is entirely consistent with a view of organisations as living things. Living things act to preserve their identity. Sometimes, preserving this identity may mean swiftly changing. But as evolutionary biologists, pointed out, when you disturb a living thing, it usually acts to remove the source of the disturbance. This works from single cellular organisms to eco-systems. The response to a perturbing stimulus is to attempt to absorb it and excrete the waste. This is bad news for change agents in organisations. It may explain why so often, an external agent who can afford to take the risk of being ‘killed’ by the organism is needed to carry through the change process. Leading change in organisations can result in much reduced chances of survival for an individual in an organisation, even when it is the CEO leading the change.

Because organisations are self referencing, they have a strong tendency to mitigate change. Sometimes this can be overt displays of power and strength. A union negotiating against new practices through calling on its members to withdraw their labour can be a raw and brutal process. More often it is much more subtle, certainly less confrontational, probably unconscious and therefore unintended. We’ve all seen processes where people are keen to join the change team but can’t quite make the time to attend all the meetings. They don’t really take the actions necessary to make things different and slowly, over time, the change effort runs into the sand. Most change processes, at best, end up recreating new and improved versions of what we already do. Few are truly transformational. Most transformation is driven by significant variation in the external environment that threatens an organisation’s identity.

So being self-referencing, the past is used to shape the present, holding us in existing patterns. These patterns may have grown up for good reason, yet they may no longer serve us well. This is particularly apparent in the financial services sector. Financial services companies are prone to rapid fluctuation in their environment. Money markets go rapidly up and down, crashing at repeated intervals. Financial services companies are also responsible for the crashes; being living systems they are in symbiotic relationship with the world around them. The money markets are as they are because of the way these companies behave. And these companies behave as they do because that’s how the money markets are. None the less, if you probe into the stories and beliefs that guide modern financial organisations, you will find their working practices shaped strongly by the dotcom crash of 1998 and the more recent crash in 2008. Even if the people working there weren’t around at those times, the culture pervades despite the comings and goings of individuals. It is reinforced by regulation, both internal and external.

So to grow change in a large organisation it is important to recognise the history by which the cultural practices of that organisation have formed. It is also vital to connect the organisation closely to its environment. If that connection is already strong and real then most likely, any change process is unlikely to add much. It says more about the ego of the instigator than the needs of the organisation, and is almost certainly doomed to bitter failure. By surfacing any contradiction between what the organisation (or people in it) say they do, and what is actually experienced and needed in the environment, the change maker helps the organisation find the imperative for change.

This is at the heart of the art. Change cannot be manufactured from a plan to be different. The desire to change must be formed in a discomfort that arises when the self-referencing identity of the organisation is challenged by the new found reality of their circumstances. This is not simply about providing new data. It has to be felt, probably deeply, and is often profoundly disturbing before it is enlightening.

© John Atkinson (2016)