The four essential preconditions for system transformation

System transformation

I enjoy the work I am invited to help: the places I visit, the people I meet and the tasks I assist. After various projects I distill the lessons and insights*. I write up and publish my conclusions, in articles such as this one.

A couple of years ago I was thinking in the silence before a concert in a magnificent church building. I discovered FRE. Focus. Responsibility. Example. Three attributes for organisation success. That framework has guided much of my work since then.

A few months later, I was getting ready for the second day of a large event. I went for an early morning run along the main river of the capital city I was staying in. I was thinking...

I work helping systems improve. This support can be in my main sectors, be it fashion or conservation; education or health. Or it might be in the events I run, from team time outs to larger conferences; individual coaching to speaking. I am concerned with helping the smaller temporary systems, such as in a stakeholder workshop. I am also focused on improving the larger, well-funded and enduring systems, such as a fashion supply chain or a programme on bio-diversity.

After over 30 years helping in complex environments, I was thinking (and running). I identified four pre-requisites for system success. You might even imagine these as four bases to get a ‘home’ run. Four capabilities that are needed to be widespread in a system for progress to occur. Or you can consider them as a personal manifesto – highlighting the four personal disciplines leaders in all roles need for achievement. They can help us make different and better choices.

I summarise them as CHHH. That is curiosity, holistic (whole-sighted) attention, honesty and hope.

I have had positive comments on this framework from many people I know who are working hard for improvement from deep within the systems they are committed to.

Let’s unpack these four themes a little. Each helps progress.

Preconditions for transformation


Deepening curiosity helps us get beyond certainty and avoid hubris. There can be a pretence of motivation. There may be an interest in innovation in one’s own work, that is undermined by the failure to search out and copy what others are doing. In my decades of practice, I think low curiosity is the most striking and common observation – it limits progress, it leads to ‘reinvention of the wheel’ and the consequent waste.

Addressing a low ‘pull’, where colleagues are not all that bothered and not really interested in what others are doing is hard. Ways to fan the flames of interest maybe through protected study time and positive reinforcement, including awards for copying! Crucially, leaders need to model curiosity themselves – asking questions, showing they prize imitation as much as invention, avoiding routine pet answers, working in a spirit of humility and avoiding arrogance.

However, whilst curiosity gets us on the journey, it is only the 'first base'.


Once there is some curiosity, then finding ways to see the whole is important. But, looking beyond one’s own tribal allegiances can be a real challenge. Building empathy with ‘the other’ is difficult. Yet, this is critical if the system is to operate for the end user or end purpose, and not the ‘core group’ who have much to benefit from things as they are. Connection is personal, and takes time to develop and deepen. Spending time exploring WITOS (what is the other side) is key.


The ‘third base’ is concerned with enabling important discussions beyond positioning and spin – having critical conversations.

This is important for authentic attempts to make things better rather than cosy speaking that is stuck in the groove, repeating nice sounding platitudes. This might involve a risk – especially when systems have a habit of spewing out whistle-blowers as ‘troublemakers’. Prophets and Radicals (tempered or otherwise) need to be sought and valued. Curiosity and Holism helps to nurture the empathy necessary for honesty.


Finally, and maybe paradoxically given the tone of this piece so far, being positive is important. Burnout is a risk in system work seeking to improve organisations. It is easy to end up with no hope (or curiosity) for the system or even for oneself. Accepting critique, but looking beyond criticism and cynicism is the better route. Being personally buoyant in the face of all that needs to be done. Looking to encourage each other.

I find CHHH a useful diagnostic tool. It is also helpful as a personal frame of reference in the reviews in undertake and can even serve 'ground rules' for an event.

If systems are perfectly designed to deliver what they achieve, then the basic design rules need to be shifted. Might CHHH help?

Inertia and entropy are design flaws to be addressed. If something seems impossible, start small. Where does CHHH point you as you look to start or sustain the journey of improvement?

*I travel both near and far in my work. I study the organisations that I work with. I want to understand how they experience and engage with their operating environment. I am especially interested in how people work together, or not, to solve problems that require team effort.


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