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Whole System Working is a radical way of thinking about change in complex situations; a combination of theory and practical methods of working across boundaries.

Whole system working' helps people make organisational connections that enable them to find sustainable local solutions to local concerns. These connections are with both people and ideas.

At its simplest level, whole system working is a way of thinking about and designing meetings that help people to express their different experiences,

to identify possibilities for action and to commit to change. At a more profound level, it is an approach to organisational development that views groups of people who come together around a shared purpose as living systems. It recognises that the way in which living systems adapt and evolve is determined by the way interconnected parts relate to each other, as well as the way the individual parts behave.

From the parts to the whole

Complex social issues such as urban regeneration, homelessness, underachievement in schools or long-term unemployment are influenced by the actions of many individuals, groups and organisations. They are beyond the ability of any one agency or individual to 'fix'. In trying to tackle them the tendency is to break them into actionable parts. Yet despite the hard work of policy-makers and good people 'on the ground', many of these problems refuse to go away. They keep coming round again and again. We reasoned that it might be more fruitful to think of them as issues for an interconnected system to tackle together. We chose to shift our attention from parts onto the whole and thus to the connections between parts - how things fit together. This awareness means having to have a picture or model of what systems are like.

Organisations as living systems

Metaphors provide useful ways of thinking about organisations and how they work. We have used metaphors derived from living systems which lead us to think of individuals, teams, departments and organisations as purposeful entities linked in a web of interdependence. We think they can interact intelligently, autonomously and through a process of constantly adapting to each other. They are not limited to behaving in ways predetermined by a designer, planner or chief executive.

Meetings for different purposes

So often meetings are seen as time-wasting and frustrating. Drawing on the metaphor of living systems we have explored ways of thinking about and designing meetings that are different from those traditionally used for decision-making. Whole system meetings may be large or small. They are designed to enable people to recognise shared purpose in what they do, and to make connections and explore possibilities for action. Sometimes large numbers of people assemble to work together and we call these occasions 'Whole System Events'. These are not isolated events but highly visible moments in a much larger process. They enable lots of people to become aware of being part of a wider system. Working Whole Systems is an approach not a single methodology. We have identified 9 principles, or characteristics, of the approach which describe it in more detail.

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