Open Thinkering


TB872: Systems practice and social relations

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 abstract digital representation of a network of diverse social relationships. It features interconnected nodes symbolising people, digital communication methods like messages, and family connections. The nodes are linked with lines, depicting the complex web of interactions within various systems, including family, student cohorts, and online communities. The image uses vibrant colors, emphasizing the dynamic and multifaceted nature of social relationships within these systems.

In a recent post in which I reflected on Chapter 2 of Ray Ison’s book Systems Practice: How to Act I missed out an obvious but important part of what defines systems practice: social relations. Usually when we think about ‘social relations’ we think of things like friendships.

While it’s possible to have a system of friendships, just like anything else, what we mean here is rather a network of social relations. Those relationships don’t have to be between human beings, and they influence and shape the dynamics of a system.

So for me, even though I’m physically in a library with two other people who have no idea what I’m doing, I’m in a social relationship with several systems. For example, I’ve just received a message from my wife, and have just sent a message to my daughter. Along with my son, we’re part of a family ‘system of interest’.

I’m part of the cohort of students studying the TB872 module. This is a ‘system of interest’. Although I’m unlikely to meet any of them in person, I do interact with them via the forums and occasionally through tutorials. By writing about my work on a public blog, I’m also inviting anyone reading this to come along for the journey. This can involve me interacting with people via comments on posts, responding to anything they write elsewhere (e.g. on social networks or their own blog) about my work, or through private correspondence such as email. More subtly, it also frames the way that I write these posts, because although I don’t have a particular person in mind in terms of audience, I want to present myself in a particular light, and self-censor — even unconsciously.

Although I’m on holiday until next week, I’m also part of a ‘system of interest’ in terms of the co-operative I helped set up almost eight years ago. The importance of social relationships at work is often commented upon, but is crucial to the success of a co-op. When there is a flat structure with decisions made as a result of consent-based decision making, trust, empathy, and nonviolent communication are particularly important.

Let’s remind ourselves of some of the key characteristics of systems practice:

Communication — human communication is biological in that it involves not only language but emotion and behaviour. For example, we talk about the importance of ‘body language’ and the way that we give meaning to words through eye movements, posture, and hand gestures. Interestingly, for me at least, the better I know someone offline, the easier I find understanding their written words.

Emergent properties — emergence refers to the phenomenon of new properties, behaviours, or structures arising in a system as a result of the interactions between its elements. These cannot be predicted simply by analysing the individual components of the system. It involves thinking holistically. So, for example, there are some emergent behaviours caused by the design of this leisure centre: slots for classes are released at a particular time, meaning that people all over my home town are hitting refresh on the app at the same time. Lockers are in short supply, and are unlocked using personal gym bands, so tend to be ‘adopted’ and treated as a private, rather than a public good, by some leisure centre users.

(note that it would be easy to fix both of these issues: the first by releasing spaces in classes in phases, and the second by automatically unlocking all lockers at closing time)

Feedback — there are two types of feedback, negative and positive. The former involves compensation or balance, as with a thermostat which ‘aims’ to keep a room at a certain temperature. The latter involves exaggeration or reinforcement, for example an employee bonus system designed to increase performance by incentivising certain behaviours or achieving particular targets.

A lot of larger organisations have a problem with learning and adaptation. This is why, like football teams, they bring in a new CEO to ‘shake things up’. This new leader comes up with a ‘vision’ and then instigates some kind of restructuring process. This all looks like work and the kind of thing you should do if you want to reorient an organisation. However, if it is done to people in an organisation rather than done with them, it is likely to fail.

Yesterday, Wayne Rooney was sacked as manager of Birmingham City football club after just 83 days in charge. Teams usually experience a ‘bounce’ after appointing a new manager, as players are looking to impress, either to retain their place in the team, or to gain an opportunity. This did not happen with Rooney. He didn’t do very well at Derby County or DC United, either.

This is in stark contrast to his former boss, Sir Alex Ferguson, who is acknowledged as one of the greatest football managers of all time. It’s telling that Ferguson, consciously or unconsciously, arrived at Manchester United understanding that a football club is as a ‘system of interest’ made up of social relationships:

Putting them in a position to challenge consistently would, I knew, be a long haul. I would have to build from the bottom up, rectifying the flaws I had recognised and spreading my influence and self-belief through every layer of the organisation.

I wanted to form a personal link with everybody around the place—not just the players, the coaches and the backroom staff but the office workers, the cooks and servers in the canteen and the laundry ladies. All had to believe that they were part of the club and that a resurgence was coming

Ansorge, P. (6 November 2016) 30 Years On: Sir Alex’s Ferguson’s 1st Manchester United SeasonBleacher Report. Available at: (Accessed: 3 January 2024).

There are lots of football clubs. All of them have players, stadiums, managers, fans, and so on. But the interesting thing about thinking about this from a STiP perspective is that each ‘system of interest’ is quite different.

When I think about my own practice, whether as a member of a family, as a student, or as a member of a co-op, what makes it a systems practice? I’m perhaps being harsh on Rooney, but do I act like (I assume) him and focus on my own individual performance? Or do I act like Ferguson, and seek to influence social relationships, and therefore the whole system?

The answer, of course, is both. Interestingly, I’m more likely to be like Rooney when I’m under stress, and more like Ferguson when I’m not. That is to say that I’m more likely to listen and be ‘open to circumstances’ as Ison puts it in Chapter 2 of Systems Practice. Instead of just using an approach that has worked before, I’m more likely to ‘abandon certainty’ (Ison) and start thinking creatively, along with other WAO members and collaborators.

If ‘systems of interest’ result from holistic thinking, considering multiple perspectives, recognising interdependencies, and being adaptive to change, then there are several ways in which we lean into this at WAO:

Daily co-working — we don’t just have meetings and then go off to work independently, but rather co-create an agenda, prioritise, and work at the same time. This reduces the amount of time between feedback loops if people need information or ideas.

“Good enough for now, safe enough to try” — by using this mantra, we focus on forward momentum and have the right amount of risk tolerance to get stuff done without blowing up the organisation. This means we can be adaptive to change, especially as a smaller co-operative.

Consent-based decision making — by ensuring that we use proposals to agree on things which require agreement, we surface disagreements and misunderstandings. This also usually means we have documented evidence to go back to, making it easier to see how our decisions relate to one another. More than once we’ve realised that we’ve already made a decision on a particular thing about which someone has brought a proposal!

Monthly co-op days — we spend half a day every month on ‘bigger picture’ stuff which takes us out of client projects to think about the health, sustainability, and direction of the co-op. This enables us to consider multiple perspectives, and think more holistically about what we’re doing. For example, do we want to continue to work with this particular client who never pays on time? Do we want to package up this workshop we developed for a particular organisation into a more general offering?

The person I work with most is Laura. I’ve known her for almost 15 years at this point and, although we fight occasionally, she’s very much my partner in crime cooperation. We influence one another by sharing what we’re reading and thinking about. We also benefit from having overlapping, but slightly different backgrounds (formal education for me, community and media education for her) which leads to some creative friction. For example, for my birthday last month, she bought me the book I’m reading at the moment: How Infrastructure Works by Deb Chachra. Laura’s talked about how she’s “getting a Bachelor’s Degree by osmosis” as I talk and write about my MSc so much!

What Laura and I, and other members and collaborators of WAO, bring to the table is a particular way of looking at a situation of interest. If we think of this through the lens of the PFMS heuristic, we’re all different practitioners with different frameworks and methods, considering the situation differently. What’s powerful is when we come together to decide that we’re going to use a particular approach to work with a client, one that depends on multiple perspectives, and uses frameworks and methods that we’ve defined together.

What have I missed? Worldviews? I touched on that here. The differences between project management and systemic practice? That’s here. How to infuse our decision-making practices with more emotion? I’ve mentioned that above, and also written about it here. The importance of user research and social relations when doing ‘projects’ with clients? That’s here.

Image: DALL-E 3

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