Open Thinkering


Month: December 2023

Weeknote 52/2023

Well here it is, the end of the year! I’m publishing this early Sunday afternoon from Ulverston, birthplace of Stan Laurel. I’d like to go to the Laurel and Hardy museum; the rest of my family would not. Instead, we walked up a hill and back down again.

Team Belshaw is having a short holiday over New Year for several reasons. The first is the weird way that the schools in Northumberland decided to break for Christmas. The last day was Friday 22nd December, meaning they don’t go back until January 8th. As my daughter pointed out, once Christmas is over, “you don’t really want to watch Christmas films any more”. So this holiday helps break up the long period between Christmas and going back to school.

The second, related, reason is that our kids do a lot of sport. Those activities don’t run over the festive period, which means that they just sit and eat a lot of chocolate and play Fortnite. So this is an attempt to get them out and about.

Third, we wanted to go somewhere warm, but didn’t start thinking about going away until we moved house at the start of November. By then, prices to temporarily escape this isosceles triangle of wind and racism were sky high. So instead we’re going somewhere closer to home.

This was the first Christmas we spent at my parents house since Brexit. That’s somewhat of a dramatic way of putting it, as although my dad and I did fall out a bit, the main reason we haven’t been there for Christmas is because we usually go down to Devon. Last Christmas we stayed home because it was going to be our last one in that house.

My mother’s cooking, including catering for me now as the only vegetarian, was impressive. She used to eat less meat, and my son used to be vegetarian until earlier this year. My influence, it would seem, is waning.

I woke up on Wednesday, the day after Boxing Day, feeling rough. This was unsurprising, as my wife and son had felt a bit ill over Christmas. We all did Covid tests, and then re-tested once we realised the first tests weren’t in date. But it must have been some other kind of lurgy.

Usually, I try to get back to exercise as soon as possible after being ill. I’ve come to realise, though, that this actually prolongs the ‘long tail’ of any infection. So although I feel like I could run (and certainly want to!) I’m still more tired than usual and my lungs don’t feel quite right. So I’m giving myself a full week to recover.

This week I did stuff I’d rather not have done. The first was move away from Substack for my Thought Shrapnel newsletter, as I explained here.

The second was studying while ill. As I’ve explained before, my MSc doesn’t stop over Christmas, so I had to keep. It’s interesting stuff, but is rather have had a rest.

I published the following posts relating to my MSc in Systems Thinking this

I’m not doing any studying while on holiday in the Lake District, so when I get back I’ll have to spend Wednesday to Friday catching up again.

Being ill, moving newsletter, and forcing myself to study has meant little time for other things I’d usually do at this time of the year. One of these is an end-of-year collage made from each issue of The Guardian Weekly. You can see last year’s here. I haven’t done a roundup here of the year on this blog, but I did publish the Best of Thought Shrapnel 2023.

This coming week sees the slow restart of our kids’ activities, including an important game for our daughter. I’m going to get back to the gym and running. I’ll be back to work work on Monday 8th January.

Happy New Year to one and all when it arrives!

Photograph of the Hoad Monument near Ulverston taken by me this morning.

TB872: Making choices about situations and systems

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.

This image illustrates the concept of setting boundaries in systems thinking. It portrays an individual making choices and connections within a vast, intricate network, emphasizing the depth and complexity of systems interactions. The network is multi-layered and complex, symbolizing the careful consideration required in defining system boundaries.

My last post was about the difference between situations and systems, and about moving from having a systemic sensibility, through to having a form of systems literacy, and then on to systems thinking in practice (STiP) capability. It was a reflection on Systems Practice: How to Act by Ray Ison.

This post picks up where that one left off by discussing Chapter 3. One of the first things to note is that STiP practitioners need to decide a boundary for the system that they create from any given situation. Ison points out that we need to be careful when doing so, and note that:

  1. We are always in situations, never outside them
  2. We have choices that can be made about how we see and relate to situations
  3. There are implications which follow from the choices we make

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. p.39. Available at:

The reading in this chapter comes from Dick Morris, a former Open University (OU) colleague of Ison’s. I want to pull out a quotation from it that I thought was interesting:

When thinking in terms of systems, we have at least partially to move away from our usual manner of thinking, which has been heavily influenced by the generally science-based model that has characterised European thought, particularly during the last century. Such thinking in science and its partner, technology, has produced enormous strides in our material well-being, but we also recognised that it has also brought some problems. A key feature of classical science has been to work under carefully controlled experimental conditions, looking in detail at one factor at a time. The success of this approach has unintentionally encouraged a widespread popular belief that we can isolate a single cause for any observed event.

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p. 40

The examples that Morris gives range from blaming food additives for children’s poor behaviour through to fewer police ‘on the beat’ leading to increased crime rates. I thought this was worth pausing to discuss, especially when coupled with the quotation from John Shotter (1993) that Ison included in a footnote in Chapter 2, and which I also quoted in my last post:

Why do we fell that our language works primarily by us using it accurately to represent and refer to things and states of affairs in the circumstances surrounding us, rather than by using it to influence each other’s and our own behaviour?

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p. 25

I haven’t time to explore this fully here, so I will just park (for now) the thought that conspiracy theories are a non-scientific way of thinking about the world that nevertheless attempt to ‘explain the phenomena’. By reconceptualising language as “a system to influence others” rather than “a system to accurate describe the world” might we be able to do a better job of working together to improve our world?

As we discovered in Chapter 2, Ison is not a fan of definitions but there is a definition of a ‘system’ in the reading within Chapter 3. Dick Morris (Ison, ibid. p.41) uses one from the OU’s Technology Faculty, which defines a system as:

  • A collection of entities
  • That are seen by someone
  • As interacting together
  • To do something

This means that a system is not an indivisible entity, but that it has parts or components and these components interact with one another to cause change. The difficult thing is drawing a boundary and deciding which components to include in a system. For example, is a farm a system to produce food? to produce a profit? to maintain a particular landscape?

We can’t solve all of the problems of the world in one go, and indeed setting a boundary so that the system is too large is self-defeating. As Morris says, “Choosing an inappropriate boundary, and with it, inappropriate criteria, can be misleading” (Ison, ibid. p.43). He gives the example of using animals for food production which, as a vegetarian, I don’t endorse and so won’t repeat here. I don’t think that murdering animals because it might be in some way “sustainable” can be justified.

One thing that is worth quoting from Morris is why STiP practitioners tend to use diagrams (my emphasis):

In order to share our visions, and to debate futures, we need to have some way of explaining what we regard as the system of interest and its key features. We need to have some model of the system which is necessarily simpler than the whole, complex situation itself, but shows what we think are the important aspects. It may be possible to do this in words, but often it is much quicker and more powerful to use some sort of diagram. Words have to flow in a sequential manner to make sense, and one of the features of most systems is that the interactions between entities are often recursive, that is they form loops, where A may affect B, which in turn affects C, but C can also affect A. In such a situation, a diagram can literally be ‘worth a thousand words’!

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p.43

Two examples of diagrammatic forms that can be useful in this regard are given by Morris as Systems Maps (the first example below) and Multiple-cause (or ‘Causal Loop’) diagrams (the second example):

Two examples of useful diagrams for STiP practitioners: one Systems Map and one Multiple Cause (or 'Causal Loop')

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p.44

As we can see, both diagrams tell us much more about a given system, and more quickly, than a page of text could do.

At this point, I want to share a brief anecdote as it will help me reflect on the difference between a situation and a system, and the importance of knowing where to place a boundary. I’m a member of the Green Party, although not currently a very active one. I emailed the Green’s candidate in the upcoming North East Mayoral elections recently asking them to come in behind Jamie Driscoll, who is running as an independent after being kicked out of the Labour party for being too closely aligned with Jeremy Corbyn.

I’m not going to share the details of my emails with the Green candidate, especially as they asked me not to, but suffice to say that they seemed much more interested in the technical details of candidacy and party politics than me. The emails to party members reflect this. While this is perhaps understandable, if we look at language as a way of influencing other people’s behaviour, they’re not doing a particularly good job.

It’s not quite the language of systems, and perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the latest post by Jamie Driscoll on his website talks of there being “no template” for what he’s doing and that “nobody knows” what the future holds:

There’s no template for running a successful combined authority. Devolution is just a vehicle, you need the right driver. My goal was always to build a zero-carbon, zero-poverty, North East, with thriving modern industries and richer communities. We’re making real progress. And we’ve done this without borrowing money or putting a penny on your council tax bills. People of ordinary means already pay enough tax.


So what does the future hold? The truth is nobody knows. So, instead of making predictions I’ll make a resolution. To finish the job I started in 2019.

It’s time to finish the job I started…. (26 December 2023) Jamie Driscoll, North of Tyne Mayor. Available at: (Accessed: 30 December 2023).

I guess my point is that to make change we have to embrace uncertainty, and act based on values.

As a segue back to Chapter 3, I’ll just note that one of Driscoll’s key pledges is around a “fully integrated public transport [system] under public control” (Driscoll, 2023). Here, the word ‘system’, as is relatively normal in everyday usage, is a thing as opposed to a process.

A constraint to thinking about ‘system’ as an entity and a process is caused by the word ‘system’ being a noun — a noun implies something you can see, touch or discover, but in contemporary systems practice more attention can be paid to the process of ‘formulating’ a ‘system’ as part of an inquiry process in particular situations.

Ison, R. (2017). Ibid. p.47.

In other words, a system is an epistemological device used to engage with a situation, rather than having any ontological status. As he goes on to say (Ison, ibid. p.54) “contemporary systems practice is concerned with overcoming the limitations of the word ‘system’.” Hence, I suppose, Ison’s use of terms like ‘system of interest’ or ‘a system to x’.

Top image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Systems, situations, and systemic praxis

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.

11 years ago I gave a TEDx talk on digital literacies. Around the 12 minute mark, I mentioned that it’s useful to consider literacies as developing in terms of ‘progressive encoding’ rather than ‘sequential encoding’. This is a bit of a geeky analogy from the early days of internet when images could take a while to download.

In other words, as the slide below shows, the development of literacies happens by progressively adding detail to our understanding. It is not best developed through a course where (to use a gaming analogy) a ‘fog of war’ prevents you from knowing what comes next.

Slide showing two images of Hokusai's famous 'Great Wave' print. In the first, which is accompanied by a cross indicating it is incorrect, only the top of the wave can be seen. The rest has not been loaded.

In the second, the image has a check mark ('tick') next to it showing that it is correct. It is blurry, as it is loading 'progressively' - i.e. adding more detail as the image loads.

I mention this as at the start of Chapter 2 of Systems Practice: How to Act by Ray Ison, he talks about how people move from having a systemic sensibility, through to having a form of systems literacy, and then on to systems thinking in practice (STiP) capability. I see this spectrum as being similar to the holistic approach I was advocating for in that TEDx talk.

Engaging with Systems is perhaps like learning a new language — I could refer to it as learning ‘systems talking’, where ‘talking’ involves thinking and doing, i.e. practice. It is the sort of learning that can challenge our sense of identity. It is as if ‘systems talk’ is ‘talk that undermines the boundaries between our categories of things in the world, [and thus] undermines “us,” the stability of the kinds of beings we take ourselves to be.’

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. pp.19-20. Available at:

If systems thinking is like learning a new language, then it can be challenging to talk using a new vocabulary and grammar to people who do not understand it. Ison gives words to something I’ve come up against in my work; it can seem ‘reasonable’ to want evidence and examples and proof but… the world doesn’t work like that?

Those who do not think systemically usually require explanations of what ‘it’ is and justification or evidence that ‘it works’ or that there is a ‘value proposition’ for engaging with it. There is also a tendency to require explanations of effectiveness in causal terms of the form: ‘using systems thinking can cause X to happen’ i.e., using a framework of linear causality in which a systemic view is lost because one cannot understand circularity by making it linear.

Ison, R. ibid. p.20.

I totally get having a ‘theory of change’ and working backwards from a desired future state. But to require evidence that a new approach will work, or that one that has worked elsewhere will work in a different context, is to essentially ask us to get out a crystal ball. As Ison notes, it’s an attempt to turn something holistic and systemic into something which is linear and systematic.

One of the things that a background in Philosophy allows you to do, I think, is to be more comfortable with ambiguity. Or it may be simply that my own studies have led to me being interested in, and therefore more comfortable with it. Either way, Ison believe ‘abandoning certainty’ to be a good way to provide the conditions to start thinking and acting systemically (Ison, ibid. p.21). He also talks about being ‘open to your circumstances’ which I’ve discussed elsewhere as cultivating a larger serendipity surface.

The interesting thing here is that, while the world (and especially the corporate world) is set up to remove emotion from our working environments as much as possible, abandoning certainty and being open to your circumstances requires an emotional response. To use a flamboyant metaphor: instead of trying to reduce us to a monochrome grey, it allows us to interact with one another’s rainbow colours.

I have a lot in common with what I’ve read of Ison’s work. For example, he refuses to give a definition of systems thinking or systems practice. In my doctoral thesis and subsequent ebook, I did likewise, calling for people to come up with their own definitions based on eight essential elements of digital literacies I identified.

In my experience definitions are constraining because (1) they are abstractions and thus a limited one dimensional snapshot of a complicated dynamic and (2) we do not appreciate how definitions blind us to what we do when we employ a definition.

Ison, R. ibid. p.22.

As a Pragmatist, I’m not so against definitions as Ison seems to be, as I think they can be ‘useful in the way of belief’ for a community of inquirers. In fact, I’d argue that the discussion that leads to the definition is what’s important. The trouble comes when a definition becomes what Richard Rorty would call a ‘dead metaphor’, no longer doing any work. That’s why we need to continually return to and reassess our assumptions, using the Sigmoid Curve.

To relate another concept of Ison’s to my own work, in a footnote on p.25 he quotes John Shotter (1993) as saying “why do we fell that our language works primarily by us using it accurately to represent and refer to things and states of affairs in the circumstances surrounding us, rather than by using it to influence each other’s and our own behaviour?” I see this as similar to my discussion of voodoo categorisation based on the work of Clay Shirky. We create a model that (we believe to) perfectly represent the world, says Shirky, then manipulate the model and are surprised when the world does not change as a result.

I don’t often read books in any way other than from start to finish, but Ison, as the author of this book, has instructed us to read this one in a bit of a topsy-turvy way. For example, I’ve already read Chapter 9, 10, and 13, and now I’m on Chapter 2.

As a result, I’ve come across concepts and phrases for which I haven’t had a clear definition. I was therefore pleased, to come across this explanation of the link between systems thinking and practice:

The terms systems thinking and systems practice are different ways of being in the same situation. This can be understood as a recursive dynamic much like the relationship between the chicken and egg — they are linked recursively and bring each other forth — speaking metaphorically they can be seen as mirror images of each other. Understood as a recursive dynamic systems thinking and practice can also be described as systems praxis — theory informed practical action.

Ison, R. ibid. p.30.

Doing systems thinking with systems practice is a bit like spending time coming up with a privacy policy and then not acting in a way which would be in accordance with it. In other words, it’s useful, but it’s not praxis; it makes little difference to the world.

Finally, as I come to the end of Chapter 2, what is the difference between a ‘situation’ and a ‘system’?

A situation is the context in which things happen. A real-world setting such as an office, or a family household, or a natural habitat. Situations are usually complex, messy, and characterised by both uncertainty and multiple perspectives. For example, the boss has a different perspective to the cleaner; the parent has a different perspective to the child; the biologist has a different perspective to the economist. Situations are the starting point for any STiP process.

A system, on the other hand, is a construct, a mental model used to make sense of some aspects of a situation. It’s an abstract representation which helps us understand the situation’s dynamics, for example by identifying patterns, structures, and behaviours that might not be immediately apparent. For example, a system might be a company’s project management system, or a family’s meal planning system (including recipes, shopping lists, cooking rota, budgets, etc.), or a wildlife monitoring and management system (including methods for tracking animal populations, habitats, the impact of human activities, conservation strategies, etc.)

So the situation represents the broader context with all its complexities and dynamics, while the system represents a more focused, structured approach to understanding and managing specific aspects of that situation.