Dream big with Stéphane Baillie-Gee

Dream big with Stéphane Baillie-Gee

(#16 of our Together-Ensemble series)

In this session which took place on 11 February 2021, we addressed the questions of systems thinking and complex management theory.


Stephane Baillie-Gee is a consultant for International Public Organizations and the private sector (China, Irak, Africa, Europe). Systems, multicultural environment (China-Western), Team and Individual coaching, Team building, Values, Innovation, Behavioral time management, Difficult situations, Copywriting…Former New York-based journalist, transatlantic ocean sailing and racing, publication manager for the international publications of the Paris stock exchange and author of two books on windsurfing andarchaeological shipwreck diver.

To complement this video, I am sharing here the outcomes from a separate training session on “applying systems thinking” with Stéphane Baillie-Gee.

  • Why system thinking: System thinking could help us be quicker and not be blocked by problems. There is a newer generation growing up in our organisations. “We cannot solve the problems with the same thinking we had when creating them” (Einstein). Definitely a need to deal with constant panic and havoc. Why we did not follow the predictive “Limits of growth” report and why it proved to be embarrassingly wrong. Because we are in a vicious cycle (as opposed to a virtuous one) – lots of it around.
  • Examples of black boxes: Black boxes are normally complex systems. COVID-19 is an example of a black box: we try to solve one problem and create an even bigger one. Hospitals and experts asking we go back to lockdown and then government comes back from discussion with no such changes, today they are discussing the same and we will see what comes out of the black box. Climate transition and what young people want to see and what comes out is not what the demonstrators are asking for. Obviously there are competing interests and there is a disconnect between what people are asking for and what governing bodies produce. This is not sustainable. People know but they do not act. How do we make knowledge actionable? Links up to sustainable education. How we know education needs to change but things do not change. No education reform. Parents do not support the change when it comes to them. “Change is ok but not for me, in fact it’s best for others”. “Not now but later”. When we have duplications with other ecosystems. Examples: reorganisations, cabinets, inter-service consultations, climate change. Not giving feedback due to lack of confidence. COVID measures achieving the wrong results. Rules one way, reality a different way. Tax breaks for housing increasing prices. We identified the EU Green Deal as coming from a black box – no clear indication of where this dramatic change in policy mindset is coming from. Upbringing of a child. Punishing for a deed, which is “the wrong to do”. This can lead to “improving” of the behaviour BUT also to hiding better the “mischief”. What happens in the “black box” aka child’s head? Perceptions and our heads are black boxes. Difference in priorities. Politics and self-serving forgets who we are working for – citizens, students, helping people…How environment actions often have unintended consequences because of the changes of behaviours they imply, e.g. when taxes are introduced. Why we are not thinking properly. Defensiveness. Fear of the future and unknowns. Challenge of holding the complexity. Not used to losing control.. We do not know how to listen properly, patterns of selective hearing. Obsession of “doing it my way”. Staying in my biased bubble/life path/”own little system”. Lack of awareness, not seeing the big picture. Too many distractions from various self-imposed limits that have no bases and they reduce our thinking. We do not ask enough questions, or not the right questions because we think we cannot do things. Fears of losing control and unwillingness to share power “as long as don’t know what’s out of the box I am in charge and I maintain stability…and my world is definitely purple- no questions asked!”. The fear and the politically correctness. Silo thinking and breaking them. Bias to change the own mindset. Both information overload. Lack of interconnectiveness of work streams. “This is the way it has always been“. Time pressure might prevent to think properly. Not being used to call into question many things prevents to think properly. Your point of departure may be wrong and you do not realise. This impairment to call into question things may come from the education or institutional background, cultural setting or family environment. On top of that, when you try to go further to your limits and call into question facts, you face another problem: you are not used to “resistance”. The personal presumption that your voice will not be heard because you are not important/high up enough in the system. This often hampers critical thinking. We are too busy fixing problems and don’t take time to think. (and we are frustrated by this. Our auto pilot (although this is a natural way of saving energy). Our biases.
  • Ways out: Having black boxes requires testing and to go out of the box to do so. There is no other way that to co-create the system needed. It’s hard because it means giving stakeholders impact and it means sharing power. Everyone can decide to invert this vicious circle. Every actor in the “new” system can feel empowered to act. Leader Servants. Surfing the wave. “If you test a fish on how well it can climb a tree, it will fail” (Einstein). Our different strengths [Superpowers] through working together can provide a stronger solution. Measure the complexity of a system. Mindful awareness = letting go. From eGo to eCo. Co-creation seems a mot-du-jour, but we seem to be really struggling on how to make it work. Seems entrenched mind-set is in the way. Something to do with “it has to go worse before it gets better”? An element that can significantly improve our thinking is diversity. Have conversations that make sense with a great variety of people (or even machines). Experience showed that being challenged and going outside our field of expertise (talking with different areas of expertise) results are better. Communication and diversity are key. Do we welcome ideas about how we could solve this crisis in the Institutions? And do we have a place to share them? We need to embrace the opportunity to change things in crisis (story of the chinese farmer).


70 colleagues had registered for this session; of whom 50 attended the recorded discussion and 40 took part in the workshop.

  • Why rethinking the System: How the problems we face as a society grow exponentially in contradiction to the solutions that are developed at a much slower rate if at all sometimes, information overload etc. What if the problem is not with our processes but with our common dream? We need new concepts beyond “growth” or “degrowth” to measure progress that take into account the whole “ecosystem”. Extrinsic versus intrinsic value. Appearance of disruptive organisation, novel ways of working and parallel bubbles are challenging for the existing system. What are we hanging onto because we are after stability and safety? Emergence of discontinuities ups and downs but then we reach a tipping point. Emerging systems are more likely to be more aligned with new needs and what our hearts may feel, so are therefore positive. Overload of information, disruptive events, we have always had disruptive events, but is it different now. In a way yes, because the pace of change is faster. In Europe we have not had threatening events at continental level since World War II, but now our whole way of life seems to be under threat. We need to find a system that supports the basic needs of society, which are not virtual! Dysfunctional systems: fail to connect to reality. Gap in experiences of people. Fear. The perception that coping with new problems is becoming increasingly difficult and that there is need for a disproportionate amount of efforts to address these problems. Dehumanisation A sense of fatigue and disillusion. Perception of disconnection – from the governance in particular. Low level of trust in the institution and its adaptability. Organisations whereby information is gathered to allow decision making from the ‘top’ in a vertical mode is meaningless. Institutionalisation of competition and individualism. When competition, individualism and the requirement to adapt to the menace of black swans and catastrophes is institutionalised
  • How the system is evolving anyway: Dysfunctional system is not aware that it is dysfunctional; the emerging system is struggling to make itself heard. From lost sense of reality to islands of creativity I think that COVID19 is pushing for real, not so gradual, changes. This is a good opportunity. Radical niche innovations face uphill struggles against existing energy, agro-food and mobility systems, which are stabilised by the alignments between technologies, policies, user patterns, infrastructures and cultural discourses (Figure 1), that were created in previous decades. Elements of existing systems are reproduced, maintained and incrementally improved by incumbent actors, such as firms, engineers, users, policymakers and special-interest groups. The perceptions and actions of these social groups are shaped by entrenched shared rules and institutions, called socio-technical regimes (Geels, 2004;Fuenfschilling and Truffer, 2014). Innovation in existing systems and regimes is mostly incremental and path-dependent because of various lock-in mechanisms (Klitkou et al., 2015). The reality is that you have to be creative and useful despite your organisation. We are indeed changing … look at our presence on social media for example and colleagues on LinkedIn, which before was very low-key. We want to network with people outside, learn from them, apply the state of the art and possibly build partnerships. I think we have to dare to criticise the Commission or the EU institutions in general while stating clearly that it’s our own view. For example, I’m active on Twitter privately. Should I retweet negative tweets from the Ombudsman or the Court of Auditors. I think I should, also as way to show the outside world that there are critical thinkers too.
  • Benefits: Trigger mindset change. Improve symmetry. We can question how we do things. Ideally, procedures are there for the sake of fairness. Organisations should become stronger (not weaker) when their processes are stressed or challenged. Dysfunctional: “how” should never prevail on what a system does, just improve. Abundance, hope and joy and creativity instead of fear. Declining=entropy increases, raising=entropy decreases. Being able to be authentic. Make the institutions more human. Eg: payment terms for recovery orders since Covid: 90 days instead of 45. Austerity. The HR strategy project of HR. Good balance between private and professional lives. Not being in the rat race anymore. We should not have to endorse nonsense. Communicate with words that reach the heart. We have to be able to be in tune with our own values. Reach a state of coherence.
  • Strategies to change the system: Radical innovations tend to emerge in small niches at the periphery of existing systems, through the pioneering activities of entrepreneurs, start-ups, activists or other relative outsiders (Van de Poel, 2000; Schot and Geels, 2008). Emerging systems: solidarity/joy/hope/innovation/abundance of ideas. The concept of servant leadership. Serendipity. Meaningful conversations (the Art of Hosting).. We need to look for ways to foster the dream or power at the level of any societal structure that we are part of, could be our neighbour community, our unit at work, the parents’ association at our children’s school…Where motivations should come from? Open the institutions to new ideas, Institutions are not always creative and need contributions from outside. It is not easy to assess what is really making a positive impact at global level. Work more with foresights, increase collaboration and policy-making. We cannot ignore that simplicity in a solution is a plus, sometimes a must. Give more power to the young generations. Question the procedures in place. They can be changed. Don’t forget that we are also a political organisation, and we are not really performance driven. In almost all processes and projects there are scheduled “lessons learnt” or “feedback”, which are the opportunity to look back and think how things may be improved at all levels. How could we enhance these processes so that the opportunity they offer is not wasted? However, we need a ‘green’ economy and systems …Be the example. Europe’s fundamental values are not materialistic. In liberal societies, a multiplicity of values is cherished. The European heritage is much richer than material consumption. The fundamental values of the EU are human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law, and they cannot be reduced to or substituted by an increase in GDP. If there are limits to economic growth and to the current trajectory (i.e. ‘ plan A’ ), plan B to achieve sustainability is to innovate lifestyles, communities and societies that consume less and yet are attractive to everybody and not only individuals with an environmental, spiritual or ideological interest. While the planet is finite in its biophysical sense, infinite growth in human existential values, such as beauty, love, and kindness, as well as in ethics, may be possible. Society is currently experiencing limits to growth because it is locked into defining growth in terms of economic activities and material consumption. The imperative of economic growth is culturally, politically and institutionally ingrained. Revisit the dream. Get back to thinking about what our dream is and do everything we can to attain it. We typically have many dreams when we are children, but then keeping them as our compass or motivation force when we become an adult is challenging, because reality comes in the way. It should not stop us. Connect to our hearts. To connect to the dream, we need to remember two World Wars and remember how tragic it must be to find so many people horrifically killed around you, to fight in the trenches, to send people to concentration camps and more … We need to remind young people about these atrocities. Like the values – they also need to be revisited regularly as we saw in a previous session. Increase listening and develop communication. Hear “what is the system saying?”. Listen to your own thoughts. Healthy communication which fosters critical thinking. Are we feeling overwhelmed because we have this practice to generate too much information in the system? And because of that, we do not listen to what’s happening outside.. and that should inform us about what is emerging – and what we need to focus on more at the moment. The power of communities. Instead of rigidifying keep small communities flexible (also within big organisations). What are the belief systems that we are hanging to (not the procedures). Modern organisations should be small enough to be agile.

Related links:

Si Network (systemsinnovation.network)

| Stephane Baillie-Gee

My next article will be a report of our session “Dream big for Europe with David Gurteen”, another inspiring session, in which we discussed trust and the power of conversations.

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