Open Thinkering


Tag: heuristic

TB871: A Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) heuristic

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

There are three core activities with Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP):

  1. Understanding interrelationships (uIR)
  2. Engaging with multiple perspectives (eMP)
  3. Reflecting on boundary judgements (rBJ)

These three activities can be translated into a learning system, or ‘heuristic’ which is presented in the module materials in the following way:

A heuristic diagram for Systems Thinking in Practice with a cyclical flow of five stages indicating a process for dealing with complex situations, involving understanding interrelationships, engaging with multiple perspectives, and using conceptual tools. Two silhouetted figures of people face the diagram.

Unlike TB872, this module doesn’t have such great diagrams. I’m not so good at making them, but I can’t live my life looking at this one repeatedly! So I’ve recreated it:

The same diagram as above, in a different illustrative style

There is a video associated with this task (Activity 1.13) which refers to the three areas of this diagram as:

  1. Events
  2. People
  3. Ideas

This is perhaps a more intuitive and easy-to-remember way of referring to the parts labelled Situations, People, and Tools. Here’s an extended quotation from the transcript to the video which helps explain the STiP heuristic:

Real world situations are often rendered intuitively as systems, such as the health system, or the financial system, or an ecosystem. Such renderings as systems can be a useful means for then engineering change. So for example, messy financial affairs might be more formally rendered as a budgeting system, which has clear inputs and outputs that might be more easily managed.

The danger is in fooling ourselves that such rendered systems are the actual reality. It’s confusing the map as a system for the actual territory, the reality of the situation. Like any map, much is left out.


A starting point for a systems thinking approach is working with complicated and complex issues. So systems thinking might be regarded as an endeavour to render complicated, complex, conflictual situations into bounded, conceptual construct, that is, systems for analysis and design, or more specifically, using systems for making strategy. The Systems Thinking in Practice heuristic, or a STiP heuristic as we will call it from now on, is one such learning system; a mental model or idea used as a device for learning about situations of interest and making a strategy to transform them into something better.

(Open University, 2020)

The rest of the video goes on to explain the difference between ‘complicatedness’ (which I don’t think is an actual word?) and ‘complexity’ and also defines a ‘wicked problem’. I’ve summarised these below:

  • Complicatedness refers to situations that have many parts that need to be arranged in a certain way. Although it might be tough to solve, it can figure be figured it out with enough expertise or detailed analysis. For example, fixing a broken car is complicated because it requires specific knowledge about the car’s parts and how they work together.
  • Complexity relates to a situation is one where everything is interconnected and changes can happen unexpectedly as a result of these connections. Small changes or actions can have big, unpredictable effects. For instance, the stock market is complex because many unpredictable factors can affect stock prices. See also the butterfly effect.
  • Wicked problems are tough issues that are difficult to solve because it involves incomplete or contradictory information and changes depending on how people perceive it. These problems are tricky because they are not just hard to solve; they are hard to define. For example, climate change is a wicked problem because it involves many factors and opinions, and solutions are not straightforward.

In addition, a mess is when several complicated and complex issues are all tangled up together, making it hard to see where one problem starts and another ends. Messes are chaotic and hard to sort out because solving one problem might affect another part of the mess. A city’s transportation system can be a mess because it involves roads, traffic laws, public transportation, and the behaviors of thousands of people.

I’m composing this in my local library, run by Northumberland County Council. It’s housed within the new leisure centre. Earlier this week, I was at a Design Sprint session as part of the Thinking Digital conference which was run by members of the digital team at the council. The situation we chose to address as a team was library provision, with visitor numbers going down.

Right now, as I’m trying to work, there is a group of older people meeting in the study space as part of a social group. They’ve having coffee and tea, which is not usually allowed in this space. Given the noise, I’ll probably end up decamping to a coffee shop and may not return on a Friday. This could be seen as a small example of a ‘mess’ which would also involve opening hours, underfunding, and even popular conceptions of what libraries are for.

In fact, come to think of it, this might be a good topic to focus on for my assessments for this module. I shall ponder that further… 🤔


TB872: The PFMS heuristic

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 word heuristic comes from the Ancient Greek and means ‘to find’ or ‘discover’. In modern usage we use heuristics as practical tools for problem-solving, decision-making, or self-discovery. The idea is that they’re not something that necessarily generate ‘perfect’ results, but that they nevertheless lead to a satisfactory solution.

For example, a simple (and somewhat trivial) heuristic where I live in the north east of England would be to wear waterproof shoes when going out from October until March. It might not be wet when you go out, but the chances are the weather could turn at any point. It’s not a perfect solution, as your feet could overheat, or you might not look as stylish as you would otherwise have wished, but on the whole this is outweighed by mostly having dry feet.

PFMS heuristic

In module TB872, students are presented with the PFMS heuristic which I mentioned in my first post about this MSc. We discussed this in the tutorial I attended last night. Here’s my understanding of the different elements:

  • Practitioner (P): this represents me, either in the context of the module or in the situation to be examined. Everyone is a practitioner in terms of the various aspects of our lives; this could be studying but also in our working lives, parenting, etc. Recognising that our practice is situated and embodied is essential as it means acknowledging that we are central to our own practice — and that we are influenced by our surroundings, experiences, and history.
  • Framework (F): this is the theoretical and conceptual base from which you can understand and approach the situation under consideration. We all have a ‘tradition of understanding’ which we bring to situations under consideration. I currently think of this in terms of W.V. Quine’s web of belief, in which we have things which are more core or more to the periphery of our belief systems. So, for example, the ‘framework’ which we bring to a situation could be a formal one, but equally it could be a hodge-podge of correct, incorrect, useful, and tenuous ideas.
  • Methods (M): these are the things that you use to practically apply theoretical concepts from the framework of ideas. They can also be thought of as ‘tools’ to help engage with, explore, and understand the situations we encounter as practitioners. So, for example, whereas the idea of ‘interconnectedness’ or ‘holism’ might be a framework, the method by which we instantiate this could be through rich pictures, which help us visually see how everything is connected.
  • Situation (S): this refers to the specific context or situation in which we find ourselves practicing. In TB872, the situation is the module itself, whereas in my day-to-day work this might be the organisational change that we’re helping a client with. In my personal life, a ‘situation’ could be managing my migraines through a combination of nutrition and exercise.

The PFMS heuristic is a tool to help us think about our practice within the module. What I like about it is that it helps us think about praxis (i.e. theory-informed practice) and gives us a way of separating out, for example, the theoretical frameworks from the methods by which we apply them to a situation.