Home Publications Consultancy Research Contacts


Main Page
Common Questions
Where to Begin
The principles of Whole System Working and our experience of what they mean in practice.

(Whole system working is designed to help people make connections that enable them to find sustainable solutions to complex organisational problems. These connections are with both people and ideas.)

Whole system working is an approach not a single methodology. We have identified 9 principles, or characteristics, of the approach. We use the traditional device of a wheel to allow us to keep an awareness of the whole

set of ideas while giving attention to the component parts.

Priciples Diagram.
Web of Connections and Communication Meaning Participation Patterns of Order Trusting Local Resourcefulness System That Knows Itself Passion Here and Now Many Perspectives

This is the nearest we get to devising a sort of algorithm to describe the overall approach. Each aspect is important, but none is sufficient on its own. Bringing together people with many perspectives but not shared commitment, for example, may end up as a shouting match. Encouraging people to follow their passion without a sense of shared meaning may lead to just performance and posture.

To find out more about the characteristics of whole system working, click whichever you find most intriguing on the wheel above.


  • All living systems exist to maintain their own identity.
  • In human systems, people are purposeful. Human systems come together around shared purpose and meaning.In human systems, people are purposeful. Human systems come together around shared purpose and meaning.
  • Whole system working brings to the surface and makes available shared purpose and meaning.
  • System that knows itself

  • A living system knows itself in its environment. It acts to conserve its identity.
  • If human systems know something of themselves as a whole within their environment, they have new opportunities.
  • Whole system working is an approach that enables people to recognise some of the human systems to which they belong by virtue of their commitment to shared purpose.
  • Many Perspectives

  • In a living system each element has its own identity which contributes to the identity of the whole. These identities, separate and overlapping, provide the variety and redundancy necessary for adaptation. They provide a range of choices and reduce the risk of catastrophic failure.
  • If a human system is similar, the presence of many perspectives is an essential resource. By contrast the search for one correct perspective reduces the capacity to adapt.
  • The challenge of whole system working is to find processes which exploit different ways of seeing things and make them available for use.
  • Participation

  • In a living system one of the responsibilities of every element is to fulfil its own function.
  • If a human system is similar each individual or group is responsible for playing its part directly. This can’t be done for them or on their behalf. Each part is necessary.
  • Whole system working requires the direct participation of those involved.
  • Web of connections and communication

  • In living systems the elements are responsible for contributing to the function of other elements as well as fulfilling their own function. There is a web of connections and the behaviour of the elements is coordinated by the communication that flows through feedback loops in the web.
  • If a human system is similar, it too has within it the capacity to adapt and change, and need not depend on external design and control.
  • Whole system working reveals and supports networks of connections and the communications that sustain them.
  • Trusting local resourcefulness

  • A living system with its environment has the capacity to adapt.
  • If a human system is similar, the parts are linked in a web of connections and communication. Each part is responsible not only for their own function, they are responsible for contributing to the functioning of other parts and thus to the whole.
  • Whole system working is an approach that trusts that local people, groups and organisations can be sufficiently resourceful to adapt appropriately without the need for external design.
  • Passion

  • A living system constantly requires energy to maintain itself (homeostasis) or to change.
  • If a human system is similar it too uses energy to stay the same as well as to change.
  • Whole system working is an approach that releases energy. Money, time and communication are commonly recognised as ‘fuel’. What is commonly forgotten as a source of energy is people’s passions.
  • Here and now

  • A living system operates in the ‘here and now’ through many simultaneous interactions and processes.
  • If a human system is similar it too operates through multiple simultaneous processes. It can look messy and wasteful in contrast to planned, sequential processes.
  • Whole system working is an approach that gives people enough time and space to work ‘here and now’ to establish shared purpose and meaning and to become aware of their identity as a system. This enables them to act at other times and places, whether individually or together, in ways that naturally support the shared purpose.
  • Patterns of order

  • Living systems are highly complex, yet stable patterns of order emerge without recourse to external design and control. They emerge from the repeated application of a few simple rules.
  • If human systems are similar, coherent patterns of order arise from a few principles that guide behaviour. People can choose to change the guiding principles.
  • Whole system working is an approach that uncovers these self-ordering principles.
  • Home Publications Consultancy Research Contacts