Open Thinkering


TB872: System-determined problems

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 abstract image vividly represents the concept of a system-determined problem. It features a complex, dynamic composition with entangled lines and structured elements, symbolizing the rigidity and constraints within hierarchical organizations and governments. The use of vibrant colors and varied shapes illustrates the intricate and often perplexing nature of institutionalized systems that resist change. The absence of text in the image emphasizes the visual metaphor of entrenched practices and the perpetuation of existing problems through inflexible structures and practices.

There are so many things I’ve come across in this module so far that help me understand situations I’ve been in during my career. While I wish I’d known about ways to conceptualise these situations before I encountered them, I realise that it’s only after experiencing them that I’m able to make sense of them.

One example of this is a situation where problems are inherent to a system and the system itself perpetuates it. One could think of systemic racism, or the DWP costing a lot of money to, ultimately, make people poorer.

The concept of a system-determined problem is a means of framing situations when a problem-determined system fails to dissolve because it has become institutionalised and those within fail to be open to changing circumstances (through learning, reframing, new language, understandings and practices). Thus it can be said that the existing system is itself perpetuating the problem – it is a system-determined problem (though as I have said elsewhere it could be that it is the lack of a purposeful system that is the issue). In many cases the attempts to ‘solve the problem’ are a large part of the dynamic of perpetuating the system that gives rise to what we perceive as the problem. Hierarchical organisations and governments often perpetuate system-determined problems through their structures (e.g. silos) and practices in effect constraining change to first-order change. DAD is an example of the perpetuation of a system-determined problem.

Ison, R. and Blackmore, C. and the TB872 module team (2020) ‘Part 2: A systemic inquiry into systems thinking in practice’ TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at: (Accessed: 19 December 2023)

I could write a lot more, but I’m a little behind in this module due to my birthday and Christmas preparations. So I’ll leave it there and move on.

Image: DALL-E 3

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