Open Thinkering


TB872: You can create a map from the territory, but you can’t create the territory from my map

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.

An intricate kaleidoscope pattern fills the image, with a rich tapestry of colors and shapes converging towards a central, harmonious mandala. Silhouettes of people are interwoven into the pattern, signifying the diverse collective contributing to the systemic whole in the realm of systems thinking.

The title of this post comes from the first footnote in Chapter 13 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act. His point is that “you can create the value from the happening, but you can’t create the happening from the value”. This is a subtly different concept to the usual way of saying this, i.e. “the map is not the territory”.

I found even just the first few paragraphs of this chapter really interesting. Ison talks about how ‘value’ has similar origins to ‘valiant’ (i.e. being strong or well) and is therefore historically a verb rather than a noun. This made me think of going into the Barclays skyscraper in Canary Wharf a few years ago and being confronted with huge words like EMPATHY and TRUST which were the ‘values’ (noun) that the bank had decided represented them.

Banks, like most large organisations, are hierarchical. As I mentioned in another of today’s posts, I’m not a very hierarchically-minded person, which is why I approved of Ison quoting He then quotes Gerard Fairtlough as saying (my emphasis):

Hierarchy will not easily withdraw. Understanding inventiveness, balance and bravery will be needed to shift it. But there is good reason to hope that it can be shifted. Vast energy presently goes into propping up hierarchy. Releasing this energy for constructive use will bring great and clearly recognizable benefits. It will allow organizations to emerge that are more effective for getting things done and much better places in which to work.

Fairtlough (2007) p.101, quoted in Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. p.316. London: Springer. Available at:

As someone who has worked remotely for over a decade, and is the founding member of a cooperative with a flat structure, I’d agree with Fairtlough’s analysis.

Chapter 13, the final chapter of Ison’s book, explores the transition from ‘being systemic’ to ‘doing Systems’. He considers the valuing of systems practice as being an emotion of hope for the future. This is different to the market-derived ‘value’ which economics places upon a situation. Although he doesn’t mention it in particular, this made me think about ‘carbon credits’ and the attempt to even try and solve the climate emergency through the logic and language of the market. This approach does not take into account the complexity of everything involved. In short, it is a systematic rather than a systemic approach.

Citing the work of Wadsworth (1991, pp.1-8), Ison challenges the view of evaluation as being something that an outside expert does. Instead, relating things back to values as a verb rather than a noun, he talks about how evaluation needs to be values-driven. After all, as Wadsworth says, “value is not inherent in what is being evaluated, but is ascribed by those observing it”. Systemic evaluation therefore becomes a branch of ethics (McCallister, 1980, p.280) as values are being used to judge practices.

The reading as part of Chapter 13 is from Mary Catherine Bateson, who passed away a couple of years ago. As the daughter of two systems thinkers, I enjoyed reading her book Composing a Life as an account of five women (including herself) and how they carved out a creative life for themselves. In this reading, which is based on a presentation to the American Society of Cybernetics, she talks about a consideration of the ‘whole’ as being a form of aesthetics. I was particularly struck by these lines:

There… is something like a template within the self, that makes possible the recognition of aesthetic order in the other. We reveal something about ourselves in judging something beautiful.

Groups, like organisms, are systemic, perhaps in ways more accessible to awareness than our individual systemic characteristics.

Bateson (2001), quoted in Ison, ibid.

This is in the same direction as the idea, popular in the first decade of this millennium, of the “wisdom of crowds” which could be seen as a systemic reaction against a systematic focus on biological determinism. Ison reflects that the reading demonstrates the tension between systems as ontologies (defining what exists) and systems as epistemologies (defining is known). Either way, it is not enough to merely be systemic, you have to ‘do Systems’ as well — i.e. act in the world, moving from being to doing. This is of particular importance if the value of systems thinking is ‘hope’ for the future.

Following on from this, and subtly different to the PFMS heuristic, Ison introduces Armson (2007)’s influence diagram of systems practice. There is the situation (S), the practitioner (P), the approaches the practitioner uses (F? M?) but also stakeholders, and a more holistic notion of the practitioner’s practice as related to their performance:

The image shows an influence diagram of systems practice. It illustrates the interconnected relationships between "the situation," "the systems practitioner," "the stakeholders," and "the approaches the systems practitioner uses." Arrows indicate the direction of influence, leading to "the practitioner's practice," which in turn affects "performance." This diagram serves as both a design for capability building and a framework for evaluation, as noted in the caption, referencing Armsom 2007, 2011.
Taken from Ison, ibid.

As I noted in a recent post on the WAO blog, social learning means that workshops are ineffective when done to people. As Ison quotes Armson as stating, “individual employees are the only stakeholders who can attribute a connection between the intervention and improved performance”. In other words, without the involvement and reflection of the practitioner, the approach is only ever going to be systematic.

Returning to evaluation, the above diagram shows that ‘performance’ within a given role isn’t simply the responsibility of the practitioner. Instead, it is an emergent property of a system of influences which includes everything from their colleagues (other stakeholders) to the choice that is made about how the situation is framed.

I watch a lot of football, so perhaps a good example of how difficult it is to separate a practitioner from the system in which they operate is to think about strikers. Yes, a good striker is more likely to score more goals than a bad one, no matter what team they are in. However, goal-scoring is a product of both systemic (e.g. team harmony and cohesion) and systematic (e.g. attacking training, discipline) factors. This is not solely under the influence of the striker, which is why we “cut some slack” to new recruits, allowing them time to “bed in” and “get to know the system”.

Top image: DALL-E 3

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