Open Thinkering


Month: January 2024

TB872: Authenticity and accountability

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 image captures the complex emotions of a narrator who isn't being completely honest, embodying the tension between authenticity and pretense. It features a swirling mix of colors where warm and cool tones clash, symbolizing the internal conflict between truth and deception. Vague, semi-transparent shapes suggest a human figure obscured by the chaotic environment, evoking a sense of unease and ambiguity.

I recently finished a book which, although well-written, I didn’t enjoy as much as I expected. A work of non-fiction, I nevertheless felt that the narrator when talking about their own experiences was not being completely honest and straightforward with the reader.

We experience this kind of unease in terms of authenticity all of the time; it’s part of the human condition. While some people live in places and spaces where, for various reasons relating to forms of oppression they can never freely speak their mind, most of us can do so to a greater or lesser extent.

[Authenticity is] the pleasure of participating in togetherness in which one is free to speak for oneself, no in the name of absent others, not under pressure to say things one does not believe in, and not having to hide something for fear of being reprimanded or excluded from further conversation.

(Krippendorff, 2009, quoted in Ison, 2017, p.323)

I should imagine it’s quite different reading the above quotation as a middle-aged white guy compared to anyone who comes from a marginalised group. Treading the line can be exhausting.

But what does this have to do with systems thinking and systems practice?

I’d suggest that, if we consider our practice as a series of conversations with other people, with the literature, and with ourselves, then we should think about the ‘freedom’ we have to speak for ourselves, about things we believe in, without fear of exclusion.

This can be true of the course I’m on and, for example, disagreeing or expressing a different viewpoint to course leaders, tutors, and other students. Although I retain a need to be seen as a “successful” person who tries their best, post-therapy, I’m more willing to take off the ‘mask’ and share some of my concerns, anxieties, and foibles. For example, I asked for an extension for the first time in my academic career for an assessment which would have been due tomorrow. Previously, I would have worked through the night if I’d had to.

[E]verything said is said not only in the expectation of being understood, but also in the expectation of being held accountable for what was said or done.

(Krippendorff, 2009, quoted in Ison, 2017, p.324)

Ultimately, although I have to meet the requirements of the course, I am accountable only to myself. I’m paying for it, and I’m doing it for my own benefit. This explanation is one type of accountability, along with three others that Ison (2017, p.325) outlines: justifications, excuses, and apologies. “Of these only apologies and explanations admit responsibility” he says, while “justifications and apologies admit the speaker’s agency, unlike excuses”.

As I’ve said before, this module (TB872) involves simultaneously undertaking two ‘systemic inquiries’. The first, S1, is about my own systems practice as I move through the module, learn more, and reflect upon it. The second, S2, is about a particular situation outside of the context of the module. I have explained this in more detail in this post, and created a rich picture for S1 and a rich picture for S2.

Thinking about what I’m doing with my S1 and S2 through the lens of explanations, justifications, excuses, and apologies is an interesting exercise. I’m definitely not someone who over-apologises, but nor do I try and make excuses for my actions. So I’m going to consider explanations and justifications .

In terms of my S1, returning to the book I mentioned at the top of this post, am I a reliable narrator? Have I been authentic and accountable in my systemic inquiry, or have I attempted to justify any shortcomings (or shortcuts) taken? Have I acknowledged any limitations or biases in my work? In other words, am I subject to the same criticisms as I’ve levelled at the book author?

If I, consciously or unconsciously, misrepresent my systemic inquiry (S1), then who is to know? Other than scores in my assessment tasks, the results are mine alone. Whereas the author might be forgiven for changing the order in which certain things happened in the story, or embellishing them for dramatic effect, how could I explain or justify changes or omissions? Who would I be trying to fool? My tutor? Fellow students? My wife and other members of my family?

No, in terms of my S1 I have been as straightforward as possible with myself and others. I have held myself accountable for any shortcomings in my work, and reflected openly and honestly on any confusion, misunderstanding, or problems I’ve had as I’ve gone along. The only justifications I’ve needed to make have been to myself (to keep going!)

With my S2, on the other hand, other people are involved with whom I have prior relationships. These include fellow members of my co-op, and the client who hired us for this work who I have known for around a decade. Although we were hired to work on documentation, asset creation, and storytelling, as I explained in my previous post, we’ve run user research and Theory of Change sessions to take more of a systemic approach to the work.

Doing this meant explaining to the Director of the DCC what we were attempting to do, and based on our relationship, they trusted us to do the right thing. We had to both explain and justify this, so let’s dig into the differences:

  • Explanation — clarify or make something understandable by providing information and context to others. For example, we needed to explain what was involved in the Theory of Change session and provide questions in advance for the user research interviews.
  • Justification — defending or upholding an action, decision, or belief as ‘appropriate’ under the circumstances. For example, although it wasn’t difficult to do so, we needed to provide a rationale of the need for user research interviews and Theory of Change session before “getting on with the work”.

Compared to another client we had to which we often compare current ones, this has been very straightforward. With ‘difficult’ clients, they tend to question not only things like day rates but also approaches which involve digging into the reasons and rationale for the way that the organisation does things.

Having the freedom to talk with key stakeholders for the work that comprises my S2 is extremely important. Clients mediating stakeholder interactions can mean that they make excuses for why things don’t match what they’ve previously told you. I much prefer working in an environment where people are open to new experiences and to change.


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

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Four pervasive institutional settings inimical to the flourishing of systems practice

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

On one side, there is an explosion of hyper-vivid, surreal organic forms in a kaleidoscope of ultra-bright, neon colors, representing the full force of human emotions in their most extreme expression. The forms are so intense and lively that they seem to leap out of the image. The opposite side presents the zenith of sterile, mechanical coldness: a stark, lifeless landscape of rigid, ultra-precise geometric shapes and complex machinery in grayscale, symbolizing an absolute void of emotion and type of dystopia. The dramatic disparity between the two sides creates a powerful visual shock, emphasizing the extreme dichotomy between unbridled emotional expression and absolute emotional suppression.

This post builds upon a previous one about ‘projectification’ and ‘apartheid of the emotions’ and deals with Chapter 9 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act in which he outlines four settings that constrain systems practice.

They are:

  1. A pervasive ‘target mentality’
  2. Living in a ‘projectified world’
  3. Failures around ‘situation framing’
  4. An ‘apartheid of the emotions’

When I wrote the previous post, because of the way this module is structured I had not studied the juggler isophor. Reading this chapter again with a new frame of reference is enlightening:

In my experience systems practice which only focuses on methods, tools and techniques is ultimately limited in effectiveness. This is particularly so at this historical moment because the organizational and political situation has generally not been conducive to enacting systems practice… [T]o be truly effective in one’s systems practice it may mean that changes have to be made in both practice and situations so that practice is re-contextualised.

Ison (2017, p.224)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about exactly this: that, from what I can see, governmental approaches to ‘systems thinking’ are very much about “methods, tools and techniques” in a world of targets and projects. Instead of understanding context and emotions, systems are framed as being ‘out there’ in the world (rather than human constructs).

While discussing the characterisation of natural resource issues as ‘resource dilemmas’, Ison (ibid., p.238-9) outlines a ‘framing shift’ which incorporates five elements:

  1. Interdependencies
  2. Complexity
  3. Uncertainty
  4. Controversy
  5. Multiple stakeholders and/or perspectives

What I like about this in relation to my own work is that these are often exactly the kind of things that hierarchical organisations (and most clients) want to minimise or avoid talking about. And I would suggest that it is this reticence that leads to an over-use of targets, rampant projectification, failures around situation framing, and an apartheid of the emotions.

What is possibly missing from all of this is the psychological element of working with others. This is related to, but separate to emotions, and is perhaps most easily understood through the grouping that Buster Benson has made of over 200 cognitive biases to which we as humans are subject:

  1. “There’s too much information to process, and we have limited attention to give, so we filter lots of things out.”
  2. “Lack of meaning is confusing, and we have limited capacity to understand how things fit together, so we create stories to make sense of everything.”
  3. “We never have enough time, resources, or attention at our disposal to get everything that needs doing done, so we jump to conclusions with what we have and move ahead.” (Benson, n.d.)

I’ve had the following image on the wall of my office for the last five years:

Buster Benson's Cognitive Bias Codex
(click to enlarge)

Just like the PFMS example, we deal in heuristics because of our human psychology. That means that we tend to simplify things based on prior experience, reducing complexity and uncertainty where possible, doing uncontroversial things so that we don’t have to get input from lots of people (and deal with their needs). It’s entirely understandable. But, as the subtitle and context of Ison’s book suggests, this isn’t going to cut it for dealing with “situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world”.

In terms of my own experience, I’m not even sure where to start. I began my career in UK schools, that is to say in institutions that are extremely hierarchical, deal in social reproduction, and are filled with staff members who (mostly) did well at school themselves. In addition, change is exogenous in this sector, coming from politically-motivated announcements from ambitious government ministers eager to placate the right-wing tabloid press.

As such, my experience of working in schools was of hard-working and well-meaning staff cosplaying what they thought people do in a business setting. Young people were reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, and things might have worked very well in the classroom in practice, but they didn’t work well in theory, so they were canned. I loved teaching. I didn’t enjoy everything that was wrapped around it.

If education is a system to inspire the lifelong learning of young people by introducing them to a range of experience, which would be my framing, then the system was failing when I was a teacher, and is failing my own children.

I’m not going to rehearse my career history, but instead I’ll compare and contrast this with my current practice as part of the co-op of which I’m a founding member. In this work, although we have better and worse clients, we get to lean into the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the complexity that results when humans work with one another.

We endeavour to call the way we work with clients a ‘partnership’ rather than simply working on a ‘project’. I’ve been inspired by people like Kayleigh Walsh, who we interviewed in Season 4 of our podcast, and how they bring their full selves to work. Even with straight-faced, straight-laced people who work for ‘serious’ organisations it’s possible to treat one another as human beings subject to good days, bad days, and all of the emotions that go with the various seasons of our lives.

Some of this has been brought home to me in the last week or so, with the contrast between two organisations. One, partly because of funding constraints, asked us to go through an involved, time-consuming process in order to respond to an Invitation to Tender (ITT). Despite the situation we were potentially going into being essentially unknowable without doing the research, we were being asked for project plans and all kinds of details at which we could only guess.

It reminded me very much of what Ison describes in Chapter 10 of Systems Practice, except we weren’t particularly in a position to suggest another approach; we just wouldn’t have got the work. To be fair to the people involved in the organisation, I think they knew that a different approach was needed, but they were constrained by the logic of the systematic approach imposed upon them. In other words, systematic thinking prevented a systemic approach.

If we compare this with a Theory of Change workshop we ran yesterday for a different organisation, then the difference in approach is clear. An example of the basic template we use for this, based on work by Outlandish, is below:

Theory of Change template with 'Final goal', 'Outcomes' and 'Activities'
(click to enlarge)

During the session, we surfaced differences between what came out of the user research with staff members compared with what is included in the reports they publish. We used this as an entry point for each member of the small team to fill in boxes underneath the prompts:

  • What we do…
  • …to influence these people…
  • …to have this impact in the world

As expected, this is not an easy thing to do, and each team member surfaced something slightly different. We then went round the circle twice, first asking everyone to give some context to the text they entered in their three boxes, and then asking for things that someone else mentioned that with which they would definitely agree (or disagree). From there, we attempted through structured conversation a synthesis to create an overall goal.

Sometimes, you just need someone to do some work which fits in as a piece of an extremely well-designed jigsaw. But the number of situations in which this is true is much smaller than most people imagine. In my experience, siloed working and cognitive biases mean that few of us can answer more than a couple of ‘why’ levels deep even in relation to work that is important to us.

As I’ve said before, what I really appreciate about this module, hard and time-consuming though I’m finding it at times, is that it’s a justification of an approach to life that I’ve carried with me from the start of my career. It’s refreshing to realise that I’m not alone in thinking that putting on a suit and tie and talking about KPIs and OKRs is not the right way to improve the world.


  • Benson, B. (no date). Cognitive biases. Available at: (Accessed: 31 January 2024).
  • Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. Available at:

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Outstanding leadership and making the case for developing STiP

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 more prominent central human-like figure, surrounded by detailed patterns of interaction. It conveys a strong sense of unity and collaboration, emphasizing the richness of human connections in leadership.

A 2010 research report by The Work Foundation entitled Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership outlined differences between good and outstanding leaders. For the purposes of this post, I’ve stuck to the executive summary (Tamkin, et al., 2010) which outlines three principles of outstanding leadership:

  1. They think and act systemically: they see things as a whole rather than compartmentalising. They connect the parts by a guiding sense of purpose. They understand how action follows reaction, how climate is bound and unravelled by acts, how mutual gains create loyalty and commitment, how confidence provides a springboard to motivation and creativity and how trust speeds interactions and enables people to take personal risks and succeed.
  2. They see people as the route to performance: they are deeply people and relationship centred rather than just people-oriented. They give significant amounts of time and focus to people. For good leaders, people are one group among many that need attention. For outstanding leaders, they are the only route to sustainable performance. They not only like and care about people, but have come to understand at a deep level that the capability and engagement of people is how they achieve exceptional performance
  3. They are self-confident without being arrogant: self-awareness is one of their fundamental attributes. They are highly motivated to achieve excellence and are focused on organisational outcomes, vision and purpose. But they understand they cannot create performance themselves. Rather, they are conduits to performance through their influence on others. The key tool they have to do this is not systems and processes, but themselves and the ways they interact with and impact on those around them. This sense of self is not ego-driven. It is to serve a goal, creating a combination of humility and self-confidence. This is why they watch themselves carefully and act consistently to achieve excellence through their interactions and through their embodiment of the leadership role.

Or, more briefly:

  1. Systemic thinking — outstanding leaders view organisations holistically, understanding the interconnectivity of components and actions. They create an environment of shared purpose, recognising how mutual gains and trust help motivation and creativity.
  2. Focus on people — outstanding leaders place the utmost importance on people and relationships as the key to sustainable performance. They invest a lot of time in nurturing team capabilities and engagement, recognising that people are central to achieving excellence.
  3. Appropriate self-confidence — outstanding leaders leaders balance self-confidence with humility, focusing on organisational goals while understanding their role as facilitators. This approach involves self-awareness and a commitment to influencing others positively, avoiding arrogance.

Thinking about my own career history, perhaps like most people I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing more poor and average leadership than good and outstanding. However, I can think of a couple of examples of outstanding leadership which would certainly back up these three points. In both cases, the people involved were understanding of the differences between the people they led, meaning that they had to help create an environment where all could flourish.

At the same time, in each case there was very much a ‘team’ ethos with an understanding of how we both related to one another and to the bigger picture. With one of the examples, the outstanding leader made us very aware of some of the politics involved and how they were representing and positioning us (as a team) in relation to this. I think that is a good example of systemic thinking.

A search of both the academic and popular literature around systems thinking in relation to leadership brings back a whole range of results. I was struck by the number of links to GOV.UK web page there were, which took me to a list of National Leadership Centre research publications. Of the 19 listed, eight mention ‘systems’ in the title, including one entitled Systems Leadership: How systems thinking enhances systems leadership by Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley, both from the Centre for Systems Studies at the University of Hull.

The authors set the scene by talking about “systemic leadership” which they define as “systems leadership + systemic thinking” (Hobbs & Midgley, 2020, p.1). This is required because of the ‘wicked problems’ facing society:

Systems leadership views organisations as composed of interrelated parts, and it focuses on coordination of these parts to achieve a given purpose. When the issue being addressed is too complex for a single organisation to deal with alone, multiple organisations can become involved. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: constituent parts of an existing system must be ‘joined up’ into a greater whole.

(Hobbs & Midgley, 2020, p.1)

It’s a short paper at only four pages, but I was still surprised not to see any mention of anything resembling ‘B-ball’ and the role of the practitioner. Instead, a range of approaches is discussed with the focus on the importance of joined-up action. ‘System change’ here seems to be used systemically but the focus seems to be on changing the way (i.e. systematic) way that ‘delivery’ is done by public-sector bodies. Instead, argue the authors, we need an “exploratory, design-led, participative, facilitative, and
adaptive” future (Hobbs & Midgley, 2020, p.4).

Although I’ve never worked directly in government, as an informed (and often concerned) British citizen I have a keen interest in how it works. I’m also connected with a lot of people who work in various government departments. So I was interested to stumble across guidance on the GOV.UK site for civil servants entitled Systems Leadership Guide: how to be a systems leader. Although the word ‘systemic’ is mentioned six times in the overview, the approach outlined seems to be more systematic in nature.

For example, the following diagram seems like quite a standard circular diagram that you would see on ‘leadership’ slides in every sector around the world:

Circular diagram entitled 'Systems Thinking Journey'

The linked page, The civil servant’s systems thinking journey, goes into more detail with the above steps to make them feel less prescriptive. In addition, a systems thinking toolkit and systems thinking case study bank provide seem useful. What is still missing is discussion of the practitioner reflecting on their own ‘tradition of understanding’ and biases.

Although there is discussion of systems being both things you can see and things you can’t, the assumption still seems to be that systems are ‘out there’ in the world, and that systems thinking is an approach to increase performance or outcomes. It seems to be just another approach:

Systems thinking can be used alongside existing project management and stakeholder management techniques like Agile, P3M and Prince2 to strengthen them for dealing with complexity, uncertainty, multiple perspectives and broader interdependencies.

(The civil servant’s systems thinking journey, 2023)

The thought of using Prince2 alongside systemic approaches actually blows my mind.

One of the realisations I’ve had since starting this module is how pernicious the provision of pretty diagrams is. As with the GOV.UK example above, with systems thinking it’s problematic not to start with the individual practitioner reflecting on their own role in the world.

So how do we define what ‘systems thinking’ is. Can we use a systems thinking approach to define it? Now, given that I wrote my doctoral thesis explicitly trying to avoid ‘one definition to rule them all’, you’d expect me to appreciate an approach (Arnold & Wade, 2015) which uses a systemigram instead of simply presenting a contextless word-based definition.

A systems thinking systemigram

Although potentially ‘scarier’ for those new to systems thinking (like me!) than the GOV.UK diagram, it’s so much richer.The resulting definition of systems thinking is: “The capability of identifying and understanding systems, predicting their behaviors, and devising modifications to them in order to produce desired effects.”

This may not be exactly the definition I would choose, but I appreciate being able to see how they arrived at it. It’s the kind of thing I’ve called for with frameworks for years. Just as with learning a new language, developing a systemic sensibility involves understanding what is and what is not useful when it comes to resources and discussion of systems practice.


Image: DALL-E 3