Open Thinkering


TB871: Turtles all the way down

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 fantastical image of a stack of decreasing-sized turtles ascending towards a glowing ringed planet in a star-filled galaxy.

Activity P1.4 is to explore unknowns in our professional practice:

Review your own area of practice and consider whether there are any aspects – ‘pieces’ or ‘connections’ – within that broad field that are relatively unknown to those of you within the field. Make a list of any such unknowns and identify which of these you would claim to be the most significant unknown. Can you express why you consider this to be the most significant unknown in your area of practice?

(The Open University, 2020)

In my last MSc-related post, I reflected on my personal unknowns. I found that relatively straightforward. Applying this to my work I find both much more easy and much more difficult because, well, almost everything is ‘unknown’ on some level.

Right now, for example, WAO got significant spare capacity, so where work is going to come from is unknown. Over the past eight years, people have almost exclusively approached us, so how to do outbound business development is an unknown.

But that’s relatively surface-level. If we go a bit deeper, with the clients that we work with there’s both an initial unknown and a longer-term unknown quantity about how they work. The initial unknowns can be made explicit by asking a series of questions loosely organised around who, what, when, where, why, and how. The deeper unknowns involve mental models, relationships between people, things that have been tried before, and things that cannot be accessed directly nor ever fully captured.

The same is true of us. For example, although I’ve worked with Laura for a long time and feel that I know her well, occasionally I find out something about her, or she finds out something about me that we didn’t know and which affects our work. It could be something from our past, or an aversion to something, or an assumption that we’ve made about each other that turns out not to be true.

Fundamentally, everything is fundamentally ambiguous on some level, but when you grasp this fact it can be used to your strategic advantage. I’ve written about this in some detail elsewhere, so I’ll finish by identifying what I think is the most significant unknown, and why.

To me, a lot of the ‘problem’ of consulting with other people and organisations revolves around Theory of Mind and how, as humans who live in a world of language, we can relate to each other in ways that make changes in ourselves, in others, and in the world around us. To be honest, there are some days that I wonder how anything ever gets done at all. What I see around me most of the time is unproductive ambiguity, confusion, and low-level chaos, mitigated by recourse to tradition and dead metaphor. That might seem pessimistic, but if we look at the lag between a technological invention and its adoption, there’s a lot of flailing around, even when the use case is obvious.

The reason for this, I think, without wanting to start an essay on the subject, is that we care deeply what other people think about us, because humans are social animals. Therefore, there is an almost an infinite regression where I do something knowing that you are observing it, or will do in future. It’s turtles all the way down.


The Open University (2020) ‘P1.1 The knower and the unknowns’, TB871 Block 1 Systems and Strategy [Online]. Available at (Accessed 22 May 2024).

Image: DALL-E 3

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