Open Thinkering


TB872: Juggling the M-ball (Managing)

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 particular post is part of a series which is framed and explained here.

A blue ball, representing the 'M' ball of the BECM juggler isophor.

Chapter 8 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act focuses on the M-ball (Managing). This concerns the overall performance of juggling and effecting desired change. That in turn involves co-managing oneself and the situation, adapting over time to changes in the situation, approach, and one’s own development as a practitioner. This post reflects what I’ve learned from the chapter, applying it to Systemic Inquiry 1 (me as a learner developing my systemic practice) and Systemic Inquiry 2 (my ‘situation of concern’).

Systemic Inquiry 1

The more I get into Ray Ison’s juggler isophor, the more I think it might work for him but doesn’t really work for me. My tutor has said that others have found driving as a more appropriate metaphor/isophor for them, and I can see that. In effect, two of Ison’s four juggling balls are about the stance and the management of keeping the ball in the air. That might make sense for him, but it doesn’t make a lot of intuitive sense to me.

Regardless, this chapter has useful insights for the development of my systemic practice. There are a couple of tables which really speak to my current situation in terms of the consultancy work we do with clients. For example, the reading from Tim Haslett talks about how people are a bit ‘suspicious’ of new approaches, especially relating to systems thinking. “While the feedback concept is relatively easy to explain to an interested audience,” he says “the implications of its importance are not as easy. As a result “clients begin to view the consultant with the degree of suspicion reserved for door-to-door vacuum salesmen and snake charmers” (quoted in Ison, 2017, p.208).

Clients, understandably, want you to get straight to it. Although they might enjoy working with you as a consultant, those who are in control of budgets always have one eye on their budget, and therefore the clock. We’ve received pushback even from doing the most basic user research, for example. Some organisations do inordinate amounts of work without even really understanding the everyday lives of the people they’re trying to serve.

Haslett suggests that this is due to a tradition of ‘linear thinking’ within traditional hierarchical organisations. This linear thinking he characterises as “an assumption that an intervention in a system will have a chain reaction effect uncomplicated by a feedback from unintended consequences” (ibid., p.209). I really appreciated the reading in this chapter, as it seems that Haslett has had a many and varied career, with projects including everything from “modelling the capabilities of the Joint Strike Fighter” to “ambulance service demand” and figuring out why an “accident repair centre” wasn’t working as intended (ibid., p.208). His experience seems to have been large periods of frustration, punctuated by brief flashes and glimpses of success.

Reading and reflecting on this chapter has solidified my understanding of (and own frustration with) clients who carve out a very particular piece of the overall situation (aka ‘problem’) for you to work on. They’re implicitly asking for a systematic solution when you haven’t go the bigger picture. I’d like to work more systemically with organisations, I’ve realised. But I’m not entirely sure how to position that “as a service”, as it were. Perhaps you have to start with flashy-looking diagrams and help with understanding from there?

Sticking with the reading from Haslett, he gives a short but insightful example of unintended consequences as regards “a provider of major emergency ambulance services”. (It’s worth remembering that Haslett is writing in an Australian context.) I’ve recreated the diagram from p.211 of Chapter 8 but in a way that makes sense for me. I’ve replaced the original ‘S’ and ‘O’ (Same effect vs Opposite effect) with positive and negative icons. Hopefully I haven’t butchered the original meaning.

A flow diagram showing the impact of causal variables on dependent variables in terms of endogenous ambulance demand.

The point that Haslett was making with this story is that “the purchase of the new ambulance had the immediate effect that the ambulance service was under pressure to use the increased capacity” (ibid., p.210). As a result, “expensive and well-equipped emergency ambulances” were used effectively as taxis, which then had the knock-on effect of specialised vehicles taking on some of the workload of less specialised vehicles. The latter then had to find a way to use their excess capacity. As “demand was endogenously driven,” concludes Haslett, “one of the key drivers… [was] the provision of an increasingly range of services from the emergency service itself” (ibid., p.211).

As so often is the case, trying to solve immediate, pressing problems, prevents us from seeing the bigger picture. Or, as Haslett puts it with a characteristically Australian spin, “stamping out spot fires does not stop a major bushfire” (ibid., p.212). I’ve seen this time and again both as a consultant and when I’ve been employed in schools, universities, and organisations. People who see themselves as good at preventing emergencies and in a crisis are not actually motivated to improve the system. “It is the heroism of individuals that often stands in the way of long-term strategic thinking” (ibid., p.213).

I’ve seen this in schools where the ‘hard line’ senior leader actually makes the problem worse by ‘cracking down on discipline’. I’ve seen it in universities where ‘ensuring fiscal sustainability’ means everyone spends time in spreadsheets tracking their time and bean-counting rather than actually doing their work. And I’ve seen it in organisations where everything is a crisis because a competitor has launched a new product, or a funding stream has dried up, or someone with a lot of organisational knowledge/memory has left.

In terms of developing my own systemic thinking and practice, I’m pleased that my desire to talk things through with clients and colleagues rather than just ‘respond to a brief’ seems to be a good indicator of a systemic mindset. For example, Ison cites the work of Mark Winter, who leans on the work of Vickers (1978) to explain how “relationships are maintained through conversation which as it unfolds creates a matrix of relationships”. Out of this matrix, or network, of relationships, “one’s standards of fact and value emerge” (ibid., p193) and we often say that our work through WAO is both relational and contextual.

I’d say that we’re currently in the gap between what is described in Table 8.2 (ibid., p.200) as ‘consultants with a traditional perspective’ and those with a ‘complexity perspective’. To summarise:

  • A ‘complexity perspective’ consultant encourages adaptive change through self-organisation, as opposed to implementing fixed strategies.
  • This consultant views organisational change through the lens of a ‘natural tension’ between stability and instability. They see change as a constant, rather than as a temporary phase between stable states.
  • Instead of setting predetermined outcomes, they focus on iterative learning and coming up with future plans through ongoing engagement with staff and stakeholders in an organisation’s ecosystem.
  • They act as participative agents within both the formal and informal organisational systems; they promote complex learning instead of simply diagnosing system states.
  • This type of consultant emphasises the importance of local feedback loops which can be ‘escalated’ to system-wide outcomes. This diverges from the traditional top-down approach to global system change.

Meanwhile, in Table 8.1 Ison compares and contrasts systemic thinking and systematic thinking. There’s a really nice example to highlight the difference for those at the back who haven’t been paying attention: “the wetness of water cannot be understood in terms of hydrogen and oxygen” (ibid., p.196). It’s a good way to explain emergence. I guess another would be talk about how consciousness cannot be explained from just pointing to the physical structure of the brain.

The final thing I want to highlight from this chapter in terms of the development of my own systemic thinking is the synergy between Ison’s, Fairtlough’s, and Heron’s approaches to three categories or ways of understanding ‘managing’. Ison talks about ‘getting by’, ‘getting on top of’, and ‘creating space for’ (ibid, p.191), Fairtlough (2007) of ‘three ways of getting things done’ which are ‘hierarchy’, ‘heterarchy’, and ‘responsible autonomy’ (ibid., p.199), and Heron (1989) of ‘power over’, ‘power with’, and ‘power to’ (ibid., p.200-201).

To understand this, I need a table:

Type of managingIsonFairtloughHeron
AdaptiveGetting byHierarchyPower Over
CollaborativeGetting on top ofHeterarchyPower With
EmpoweringCreating space forResponsible AutonomyPower To

This table shows that an important part of ‘managing’ in terms of systemic practice is getting out of people’s way and helping to provide the conditions for innovation to happen. This includes giving people autonomy and also giving away power. Thankfully, I’m quite used to this in terms of the co-operative world.

Systemic Inquiry 2

My situation of concern (S2) is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs), where we’re helping with documentation and asset-creation.

In terms of applying the insights from Chapter 8 to my S2, there’s an interesting specific overlap with Ison’s mention of Open Source Software (OSS) and the reading which taken from John Naughton, the longtime technology columnist for the Observer newspaper. The example is relatively well-known and centres on Microsoft’s identification of a threat from Linux, an operating system historically made by hobbyists coordinating over the internet.

The Linux example is one of emergence, with a culture and approach emerging from a post to a mailing list by Linus Torvalds in 1991. OSS projects tend to aspire to a balance between a measure of control from the originator(s) of the project, help from a volunteer community, and innovation via feature requests from users. I’ve written about how OSS communities are evolving, as there’s a lot of different types of them.

The technology that the DCC is putting out into the world is OSS and based upon VC standards provided by the W3C. (What an acronym-laden sentence!) It is not something that can be ‘rolled-out’ to universities but rather depends on a complex network of relationships and influence that we’re still figuring out. It requires an approach that I’m beginning to realise depends on “juggling the M-ball so as to remove, or minimize, constraints to self-organizing emergence and innovation [in a way] that is ethically defensible” (ibid., p.218)

There’s a sentence in this chapter in which Ison asserts that Tim Haslett believes that the “overwhelming lesson” from his reading “is that the quality of the work is secondary to the manner in which projects are managed within organisations” (ibid., p.207). That’s not exactly what I got from the reading, which is summed up in the final paragraph:

At best, we can be a catalyst for change by providing information for the decision-makers who must ultimately take responsibility for the change. We can provide little information about the way to initiate, implement or evaluate the change. The criteria for our work must be that we are able to provide information that allows responsible managers to make informed choices about the changes in their organization.

Haslett, T. (2007), quoted in Ison, (2017, p.217)

I see this more to do with ownership than quality, and a related situation actually came up in terms of work we did today with the client project which forms my S2. I was all for submitting GitHub pull requests directly for changes that needed doing; my colleague suggested we might want to feed the information to our contact for them to do. While it’s less efficient, it gives more ownership and influence to those who will continue acting within the system once our consultancy period comes to an end.

This afternoon, I’ve been working on mapping the ecosystem around the Digital Credentials Consortium. It’s unfinished, but has already been useful in terms of generating insights and stimulating thoughts.

A map showing connections between different aspects of the ecosystem around the Digital Credentials Consortium
UNFINISHED ecosystem map made using

Due to our relationship with the director of the DCC, we don’t necessarily have the same artificial constraints that we’ve been subject to on other projects. So I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to “use system methods in their entirety” and not have our clients “just picking and using part of them” (Ison, ibid., p.207).

This chapter was useful in relation to my S2 in that it explicitly states that choosing to be ‘systemic’ does not mean rejecting systematic thinking. Instead, I should “regard such a pair as systemic/systematic as a duality, a totality which together go to make up a whole, or a unity” (ibid, p.195). There’s a tension between “doing the same thing more effectively or optimally” which would be first-order change, and the second-order change which affects “the whole situation” (ibid., p.196). In regards to the DCC, affecting the whole situation is exactly what they want to achieve.

The difficulty, as ever, is getting the balance right. Ison reflects on the work of Stacey (1993) and the amount of control exerted within a system:

A key point from Stacey’s research is that too much control or attempts to intervene according to any pre-conceived view and necessarily partial view, or blueprint plan, stunts the process of self-organisation. Change and adaptation in human organisations occur through social interaction. Apparent fixes can inhibit the emergence of organisation and relationships that are most appropriate to any particular situation, such that solutions arrived at in this way are likely to be shortlived. It is in this sense that I see creating the space for spontaneous behaviour and emergent phenomena as a key element in managing for self-organisation.

Ison (2017, p.202)

To be clear, we still need to plan, but in a way that allows for new approaches and learning to flourish. I’m reminded of the Two Loops Model here. But, right now, after writing this blog post on and off for three days, I’m going to get away from the screen and join in the ‘system’ of celebrating my son’s birthday 👋


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

Top image: DALL-E 3

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