Open Thinkering


Month: November 2023

TB872: Learning contract and preparing for first assessment

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

The final thing I need to do before working on TMA01 (i.e. my first tutor-marked assignment) is to complete a learning contract. The things I’ve worked on so far build towards the assignment, so it’s like a coral reef, with my learning and understanding building up through accretion.

Screenshot of table entitled 'Focus for systemic change through my learning'
(tap to enlarge)

The above table is based on a template made available in the module resources section. It covers the elements of the PFMS heuristic, asking which of them I’m focused on. It’s a worthwhile thing to do, although oddly framed as a ‘learning contract’ (that framing seems to be a dead metaphor along the same lines as a ‘skills passport’)

The table is to be completed in the first instance by ranking your current priority (nil, low, medium, high) against the possible sites for change in the left-hand column. Do one entry per line and use a Y (yes) or N (no) to indicate your current priorities. You can make this framework more illuminating by adding short notes to key cells explaining your priorities.

When you have completed [the table] use it to make some preliminary notes about the sorts of changes you would like to see as a result of having studied the module.

As you can see by the way I’ve completed the table, I’m really interested in all of it. Although I’m not specifically doing this MSc (and therefore this module) for work, I do expect Systems Thinking to be an important part of the way I interact with clients and networks I’m part of, going forward.

I haven’t adapted the table as I don’t have any ‘reporting requirements’, such as justifying my organisation’s spend on my fees (as I’m self-funding it), nor do I have to prove/demonstrate the impact of my learning to my boss (as I don’t have one).

Part 1 of the module closes with a fantastic quotation from Stafford Beer, which I hadn’t come across before, so I’m going to share it here:

It is not the living, breathing human being who resists change in [their] very soul. The problem is that the institutions in which we humans have our stake resist change (…) The power has remained where it resided. (…) Every time we hear that a possible solution simply cannot be done, we may be sure on general scientific grounds that it can. Every time we hear that a solution is not economic, we ought to ask: “for whom?”- since it’s people, just people who will have to pay. Every time we hear that proposal will destroy society as we know it, we should have the courage to say: “Thank God, at last.” And whenever we hear that it will destroy our freedom we should be very cautious indeed. (…) This is the simplest method that the powerful have to cling to power: to convince people that any other concession of that power would be unsafe.”

Beer, S. (1974) Designing freedom. Toronto: CBC Learning Systems.

I won’t be sharing my TMA01 assessment submission, for obvious reasons, but given that it will be based on what I’ve already shared here, you’re not missing out! I have to do things like: update and comment on my trajectory diagram, assess my systems literacy, and share/explain the above learning contract. The main part of it (45%), however, is to use the PFMS heuristic to reflect upon and explain an example of my current or past practice.

Weeknote 47/2023

Hexagon pattern created using

It’s rare that I forget to write a weeknote; rarer still that I realise I haven’t written one, and then don’t bother even writing a few sentences. But that’s what happened last week.

After driving most of the journey to and from Manchester, predominantly in the pouring rain, last Sunday for the women’s derby game, I was knackered. And then on Monday I was straight into WAO work, and then MSc stuff. The latter has taken a lot of my time this week, I guess because I’m being extremely conscientious about my studies. To be honest, this is because I’m finding learning about Systems Thinking fascinating. You can tell because, at the time of writing, I’ve published 23 posts on the topic this month!

I’m ready for a break. I’ve always found October and November difficult, as the light wanes, the temperatures decrease, and people retreat into their houses. It’s become slightly easier as I’ve gained more control over my working patterns, but this time of year still batters me. Despite my best efforts, I get more migraines, find it more difficult to find the motivation to exercise daily, and am generally grumpier.

This year was particularly difficult as we moved house during half-term. Everyone was already tired going into that week, and the move, which we did ourselves by renting a van, took almost the full week, all told. When I write it down like that, it sounds ridiculous, as we were only moving around the corner. But… it did. We’re aiming to move again in early 2024 once we find a house to buy which meets our requirements. We’ll be getting people in to help, that’s for sure.

What the experience of moving has meant, though, is that we didn’t go on holiday — or even have a chance to recharge our batteries — over the half-term period. In fact, the experience had the opposite effect, and thanks to some amazing planning on my part, coincided with starting my MSc. Had I not enjoyed my studying so much, I would have already given up, as we’ve kicked off a couple of new projects at work as well.

So Hannah and I are going away tonight, just for one night, for dinner and to stay in a hotel in Newcastle, while the kids go to my parents’ house. We all need a proper holiday, but as I pointed out to them, their mother and I both work from home; even going to school is a change of scenery and vibe for the kids. That being said, ideally we’d go away on a sunny family holiday after Christmas. The place I’d like to take everyone, Yas Island in Abu Dhabi (which I’ve been to before with my dad and sister) is eye-wateringly expensive during the school holidays.

One small mercy is that I’ve only got a small bit of work left to do on Part 1 of my MSc module next week before handing in my assessment, and then heading to Vienna for ePIC 2023 the following week. We’ll then be into December, when it’s legitimate to get out the Christmas decorations and start eating mince pies. I almost need to go on a pre-emptive diet for the latter, as I am rather partial to them.

After ePIC, I’ll only have a week left at work for the year before taking three weeks off. I’m pretty sure my fellow WAO members and collaborators are doing likewise, so I’ll be able to turn my out of office on, guilt-free. That week before Christmas, I’ve got some walking booked in with Aaron and then Bryan, as well as dinner with my sister and her kids. Then, of course, it’s my birthday and into the big day itself.

So, as you can see, I’ve got it all planned out in my mind. What I’d really like to do is to find somewhere warm to go for five days or a week before the kids return to school on January 8th. Given that Newcastle airport is no longer an Easyjet hub (thanks, pandemic!), my aversion to flying Ryanair, and the cost of Emirates flights, that might prove difficult.

Being so busy with MSc stuff meant that I didn’t publish anything at Thought Shrapnel this past week. That’s a bit awkward, given that this morning’s newsletter was supposed to be the last one of the year. So, instead, I sent out some recommendations of other newsletters to follow. You can read it here.

I keep thinking that I should write Thought Shrapnel in ‘seasons’ as Dan Hon and some other people do. I’m not sure if that would work, though. The practice of publishing three posts a day based on the things I’m reading depends very much on me (a) reading three or more things outside of regular work stuff, and (b) prioritising writing about them over and above the other things I’ve got to do in my life.

What I find with Thought Shrapnel is that it’s all down to momentum. That is to say, it can be hard to get into a routine of publishing posts and the newsletter, but once I’m in that routine, it’s easier. But then, for whatever reason, if I fall out of it at the start of a week, it’s really hard to pick it back up again.

Well, this weeknote turned into even more of a stream-of-consciousness than usual. Now that it’s light, I’d better get out for a run and on with my day. Thanks for reading this far 👋

TB872: Situations of concern, systems of interest, and PQR statements

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

A DALL-E 3 created image representing the concept of a 'system of interest' within a broader 'situation of concern'. Each image employs abstract elements to symbolize the contrast between the specific, focused nature of a system of interest and the encompassing, general nature of the situation of concern. The designs use contrasting colors, shapes, and patterns to visually differentiate between the detailed, concentrated system of interest and the larger, more diffuse field of the situation of concern.

I’ve already pointed out in this module how difficult it can be when there are two words which are often used in a similar situation that look or sound the same. So, for example systemic (something that relates to, or affects, an entire system as a whole, rather than just its individual parts) and systematic (a process or method that is done according to a fixed plan or system).

Only slightly less confusing, until you get your head around it is the difference between a situation of concern and a system of interest. I thought the best way to illustrate it might be to come up with my own example, rather than use the one in the course materials. So let’s talk about football (soccer).

In the last decade, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) have become an increasingly large part of the professional game. This has had a huge impact on the sport: it’s changed the way matches are officiated, the way players interact with referees (and one another), and even affected how long spectators need to allow for getting home at the end of a game, as they often massively ‘overrun’.

Let’s imagine a football coach whose team has won promotion from the Championship (no VAR) to the Premier League (VAR). From pre-season training onwards, while VAR has always been part of the coach’s situation of concern, it’s now part of their system of interest. That is to say, whereas previously it might have only affected the sport that he coaches more generally, and perhaps the occasional cup game that the team he coaches plays in, now he needs to prepare for VAR being a factor in most matches.

That means the coach needs to understand the intricacies of VAR, choose and apply relevant frameworks (e.g. adapting team strategies), and make explicit choices and changes. This might even involve the recommendation of buying new players, or training in a different way. An example of the latter would be that if a game is likely to be more stop-start and players are likely to be out on the pitch for, say, 105 minutes instead of 90 minutes, then they should be prepared for this.

To summarise, then, the coach is a practitioner whose situation of concern (the world of football) has changed in a way directly related to their system of interest (the team they coach).

Thinking about module TB872 as a system of interest to me, as a practitioner, this brings us to the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) of thinkers like Peter Checkland. SSM is a useful methodology when dealing with situations where there are significant social, political, and other ‘human’ components. It does not assume that there is a single, objective ‘problem’ to be solved, but rather recognises that there are many different perceptions of problems. It therefore offers a structured approach to explore these differing perceptions among stakeholders.

We’re not going into too much detail around SSM right now, just looking at what are called PQR statements. These take the following format:

A system to do P (what) by Q (how) because of R (why).

As the course materials note, the simplest way of referring to the ‘change’ that occurs in us as practitioners because of our involvement in the TB872 as students is represented in this diagram:

Practitioner on the left wearing blue shirt and same practitioner now on the right wearing a purple shirt (to represent difference). In the middle is a box labelled 'The TB872 module' with arrows pointing from the practitioner on the left to the box, and then from the box to the practitioner as represente on the right.

The interesting thing, of course, is what’s in the box. Representing it using a PQR statement from my own perspective might yield:

A system to develop my systems literacy by helping me reflect and complete activities about Systems Thinking because of a need to improve my practice.

It’s a bit of a clunky statement, so the concise version is probably: “A system to develop my systems literacy through the use of reflective activities that help me improve my practice”.

Thinking about that ‘black box’, this is a brief and cursory overview of what’s inside it, from my point of view:

(tap to enlarge)

As the course materials state, everyone’s diagrams will be slightly different. I noticed that the module authors’ focused very much on the way that the module is organised rather than on the way it is experienced, for example. This is something I would go into a bit more, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m rushing to get this done on a weekend inbetween driving my kids between sporting activities and social engagements!

To conclude, then, the system of interest for me is shown above in the diagram I have drawn. This sits within a wider situation of concern, which could be thought of as being my whole MSc, or (given that I’ve already referred to my family) my life as a husband and parent. A systems diagram like this is to show in a visual way systematically desirable change from a particular point of view. I always find visual aids useful when talking to others and helping them explain a point of view, and so getting better at these will help my practice no end.

Top image: DALL-E 3