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Where to Begin
Whole system working is not a 'toolkit' but we sometimes describe it as akin to 'mood music', like a tune in the back of your head. Once the mood music is playing it's a matter of finding opportunities of amplifying what's already there. 'Many perspectives', for example, could mean 'just one or two more than usual'. You might decide to design a meeting to explore purpose with someone from another organisation or another level in your own organisation. You might decide to design such a conversation into the induction process for newly appointed staff or to promote inter-agency shadowing or secondments or inter-professional training and audit which involves lay people.

If things are not going as you would like, rather than trying to control them in the usual ways can you find out what purpose is being served by the present behaviour? And find some way in which the people involved can get clear about what their purposes really are? When somebody new joins the organisation, listen to what people say when they explain the way things really get done around here. Listen to your own inner voice when you think about what underlies the behaviour you see around you.


The way an issue is described enables people to recognise whether it matters to them or not, and whether they can imagine doing something about it. Language is critical.

If we form questions around deficits we may exclude groups whose involvement is critical to new solutions, and so perpetuate shifting the blame. We attended one multiple stakeholder conference where the issue was 'what to do about youth crime?' There were many different people present but no young offenders, nor any other young people. The conference did not produce new energy to make a difference and young people continued to be seen as the problem.

This contrasts with a different approach where the original concern was teenage truancy from school but became 'how do we make this a good place to grow up in?' The latter question mobilised a very different 'system' which extended far beyond the formal education and policing networks. And re-articulating the problem in ways which tap into people's passion for something can release different forms of energy.


You are looking for people who are well-connected, in a variety of sorts of networks both formal and informal, in organisations and communities. You are looking for people who want to do something with you, not just to offer or seek advice. In our experience, they must be mixed in a number of ways:

  • different levels within an organisation and across organisations, chief executives and front-line staff; planners and operators; clients and managers. All are necessary and customers/ clients/service users/citizens are essential because their perspective is especially useful in helping the system recognising how it really works rather than how it thinks it works.
  • people who know how to connect and are interested in doing things differently, as well as those with formal power.
  • significant proportion of people with continuing relationships. It is tempting to think that if sufficient representatives of organisations are brought together for two days then somehow 'the system is in the room'. But if there is no commitment to future action then what you have is a sample of each kind, an ark, not a system. This shared future is essential for sustainable change in a system's behaviour.
  • Design

    You will be looking for a way of spending time together that allows you to explore a range of possibilities before focusing on a particular course of action. It will allow you all to participate and contribute stories from your personal experience. If the group gets to be more than about 12 this conversational way of working requires particular care and attention to the meeting design.

    In our experience methods which work successfully are designed to allow

  • everyone to participate as an individual, not a representative
  • everyone to work from experience
  • conversation as the unit of currency so attention to the detail of acoustics, tables and so on
  • trust, that local solutions will emerge
  • enough time
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