Open Thinkering



TB872: Adding the juggler isophor to 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 image illustrates the PFMS heuristic where a practitioner (P) is engaging in a systemic inquiry within a situation (S). The practitioner is considering various frameworks (F) and methods (M) in an iterative cycle. 

F and M are represented as systemic enquiries where a practitioner is juggling balls labelled B, E, C, and M which relate to the juggler isophor.
Image taken from TB872 course materials

This course is accretive in that it builds up student knowledge and understanding, particularly through the use of concepts as they relate to diagrams. In an early post for this module, I introduced the PFMS heuristic. This post adds into the mix the isophor of the juggler.

Placing myself in the position of the practitioner in the above image, I can see how the juggler isophor fits into the PFMS setting: I am not merely an observer but an active participant. I bring with me a history of systems thinking in practice (STiP) as well as the experiences of juggling various aspects of my personal, professional, and academic life.

In this example wehre the practice situation S is my own practice of STiP, I’m engaging with a nested set of frameworks (F) and methods (M). This nested nature reflects the complexity of systems thinking, where ideas are interconnected and inform one another. The first layer of the framework is the domain of Systems itself, as interpreted through the various lineages and the readings incorporated in the course material. This forms a theoretical backdrop against which my inquiry is conducted.

The second layer comprises systemic inquiry, where the juggler isophor serves both as a framework and a method. This duality recognizes the isophor as a conceptual tool informed by second-order systems praxis theory and metaphor theory. These theories are not just academic constructs but are actively developed and applied by practitioners in order to make sense of and navigate our practice.

As we juggle, we’re not manipulating physical objects but relational dynamics over time. This includes me as a practitioner (P), as well as the frameworks (F), methods (M), and situation (S) over time. The performance of juggling in this context is not just about maintaining balance and motion but also about understanding, analysing, intervening, modelling, changing, and interpreting the situation at hand. It’s about how these elements are perceived and assessed by myself as a reflective and reflexive practitioner— somebody who is not just thinking but also evaluating the effectiveness and impact of actions within the practice.

The juggler isophor reminds us that systems thinking is a dynamic and ongoing practice, where the practitioner is continuously engaged with the elements of PFMS; we adapt, learn, and evolve in response to the situation of concern. In doing so we’re trying to achieve an ‘ideal type’, as mentioned towards the end of a recent post. To reiterate: “an ideal type is not a Platonic form, but rather something which is more akin to the Pragmatic idea that something is ‘good in the way of belief’. That is to say that it’s an approach to situations which lead to good outcomes, rather than being a template for all outcomes.”

TB872: You can create a map from the territory, but you can’t create the territory from my map

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 intricate kaleidoscope pattern fills the image, with a rich tapestry of colors and shapes converging towards a central, harmonious mandala. Silhouettes of people are interwoven into the pattern, signifying the diverse collective contributing to the systemic whole in the realm of systems thinking.

The title of this post comes from the first footnote in Chapter 13 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act. His point is that “you can create the value from the happening, but you can’t create the happening from the value”. This is a subtly different concept to the usual way of saying this, i.e. “the map is not the territory”.

I found even just the first few paragraphs of this chapter really interesting. Ison talks about how ‘value’ has similar origins to ‘valiant’ (i.e. being strong or well) and is therefore historically a verb rather than a noun. This made me think of going into the Barclays skyscraper in Canary Wharf a few years ago and being confronted with huge words like EMPATHY and TRUST which were the ‘values’ (noun) that the bank had decided represented them.

Banks, like most large organisations, are hierarchical. As I mentioned in another of today’s posts, I’m not a very hierarchically-minded person, which is why I approved of Ison quoting He then quotes Gerard Fairtlough as saying (my emphasis):

Hierarchy will not easily withdraw. Understanding inventiveness, balance and bravery will be needed to shift it. But there is good reason to hope that it can be shifted. Vast energy presently goes into propping up hierarchy. Releasing this energy for constructive use will bring great and clearly recognizable benefits. It will allow organizations to emerge that are more effective for getting things done and much better places in which to work.

Fairtlough (2007) p.101, quoted in Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. p.316. London: Springer. Available at:

As someone who has worked remotely for over a decade, and is the founding member of a cooperative with a flat structure, I’d agree with Fairtlough’s analysis.

Chapter 13, the final chapter of Ison’s book, explores the transition from ‘being systemic’ to ‘doing Systems’. He considers the valuing of systems practice as being an emotion of hope for the future. This is different to the market-derived ‘value’ which economics places upon a situation. Although he doesn’t mention it in particular, this made me think about ‘carbon credits’ and the attempt to even try and solve the climate emergency through the logic and language of the market. This approach does not take into account the complexity of everything involved. In short, it is a systematic rather than a systemic approach.

Citing the work of Wadsworth (1991, pp.1-8), Ison challenges the view of evaluation as being something that an outside expert does. Instead, relating things back to values as a verb rather than a noun, he talks about how evaluation needs to be values-driven. After all, as Wadsworth says, “value is not inherent in what is being evaluated, but is ascribed by those observing it”. Systemic evaluation therefore becomes a branch of ethics (McCallister, 1980, p.280) as values are being used to judge practices.

The reading as part of Chapter 13 is from Mary Catherine Bateson, who passed away a couple of years ago. As the daughter of two systems thinkers, I enjoyed reading her book Composing a Life as an account of five women (including herself) and how they carved out a creative life for themselves. In this reading, which is based on a presentation to the American Society of Cybernetics, she talks about a consideration of the ‘whole’ as being a form of aesthetics. I was particularly struck by these lines:

There… is something like a template within the self, that makes possible the recognition of aesthetic order in the other. We reveal something about ourselves in judging something beautiful.

Groups, like organisms, are systemic, perhaps in ways more accessible to awareness than our individual systemic characteristics.

Bateson (2001), quoted in Ison, ibid.

This is in the same direction as the idea, popular in the first decade of this millennium, of the “wisdom of crowds” which could be seen as a systemic reaction against a systematic focus on biological determinism. Ison reflects that the reading demonstrates the tension between systems as ontologies (defining what exists) and systems as epistemologies (defining is known). Either way, it is not enough to merely be systemic, you have to ‘do Systems’ as well — i.e. act in the world, moving from being to doing. This is of particular importance if the value of systems thinking is ‘hope’ for the future.

Following on from this, and subtly different to the PFMS heuristic, Ison introduces Armson (2007)’s influence diagram of systems practice. There is the situation (S), the practitioner (P), the approaches the practitioner uses (F? M?) but also stakeholders, and a more holistic notion of the practitioner’s practice as related to their performance:

The image shows an influence diagram of systems practice. It illustrates the interconnected relationships between "the situation," "the systems practitioner," "the stakeholders," and "the approaches the systems practitioner uses." Arrows indicate the direction of influence, leading to "the practitioner's practice," which in turn affects "performance." This diagram serves as both a design for capability building and a framework for evaluation, as noted in the caption, referencing Armsom 2007, 2011.
Taken from Ison, ibid.

As I noted in a recent post on the WAO blog, social learning means that workshops are ineffective when done to people. As Ison quotes Armson as stating, “individual employees are the only stakeholders who can attribute a connection between the intervention and improved performance”. In other words, without the involvement and reflection of the practitioner, the approach is only ever going to be systematic.

Returning to evaluation, the above diagram shows that ‘performance’ within a given role isn’t simply the responsibility of the practitioner. Instead, it is an emergent property of a system of influences which includes everything from their colleagues (other stakeholders) to the choice that is made about how the situation is framed.

I watch a lot of football, so perhaps a good example of how difficult it is to separate a practitioner from the system in which they operate is to think about strikers. Yes, a good striker is more likely to score more goals than a bad one, no matter what team they are in. However, goal-scoring is a product of both systemic (e.g. team harmony and cohesion) and systematic (e.g. attacking training, discipline) factors. This is not solely under the influence of the striker, which is why we “cut some slack” to new recruits, allowing them time to “bed in” and “get to know the system”.

Top image: DALL-E 3

TB872: The people of 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.

A DALL-E 3 created abstract image, conceptualizing the PFMS heuristic in a collaborative learning context, is now available. It visually represents the integration and interaction of the four elements of the PFMS heuristic: Practitioners, Framework of Ideas, Methods, and Situations of Concern, within a vibrant and dynamic setting.

As I’ve explained in a previous post, the PFMS heuristic is at the core of the TB872 module I’m currently studying:

Practitioners (P) Which other practitioners do you work with?
Framework of ideas (F) What ideas are informing your practice? Do you have a shared set of ideas or are you all working with different ideas? Are there particular ideas you have heard about that you would like to explore further?
Methods (M) What methods and tools are you using?
Situations of concern (S) Do you have a shared situation of concern? If so, what is it?

The next activity on my list is to fill in what seems like a straightforward 2×2 table, based on the work of De Laat and Simons (2002). The idea, I think, is to introduce the idea of social learning to those who are perhaps only really conceptualise the kind of individual learning done on traditional university undergraduate courses.

IndividualIndividual learningIndividual learning processes with collective outcomes
CollectiveLearning in social interactionCollective learning

Taking both the PFMS model and the table together, it’s clear that in my day-to-day work through the co-op of which I’m a founding member, I engage in all four of the kinds of learning:

  • Individual learning: all knowledge and belief is contextual and theory-laden, so much of what I learn is based on my own personal experience, observation, and internal reflection. For example, I might learn what to say or not say to a colleague in a given situation. Or I might find out about something from a client who works in a slightly different way to me.
  • Individual learning processes with collective outcomes: although learning often occurs at an individual level, the knowledge or skills we acquire can contribute to a larger group’s collective goal. For example, we can pool the expertise we have as a cooperative, and the experience for clients is greater than if they engaged us as individual consultants. In this quadrant, there’s a symbiotic relationship between personal development and collective advancement.
  • Learning in social interaction: I’d say about half of my working week is spent ‘co-working’ with members and collaborators of the co-op. As such, learning happens through these interactions by sharing, discussing, and negotiating knowledge. This happens within Communities of Practice (CoP) we’re part of but WAO itself is a CoP, and a place for learning and development as well as for doing business.
  • Collective learning: although individual people learn, so do groups, communities and organisations. This goes beyond the simple aggregation of individual learning experience to include the creation of new knowledge through collective effort. To achieve this, there needs to be shared goals, co-creation of knowledge, and mutual engagement. In my working week, this happens most often through networks of co-ops we’re part of (e.g. and CoPs (e.g. ORE).

I’ve been working on the Open Recognition Toolkit this week, and during our working group call we discussed the Plane of Recognition we’re using on this page. Although, like De Laat and Simons’ grid, it involves quadrants, what’s really happening is a continuum. In the former case it’s from traditional, formal recognition to non-traditional, non-formal recognition. In the latter, it’s a continuum of learning that mvoes from the individual to the collective, emphasising the connections between personal knowledge acquisition and social, collaboration knowledge creation.

So, in my Situation (S), the Practitioners (P) I’m working with are primarily Laura, and then on few with John and Anne. In the past there have been other members and collaborators involved, too. The Framework of Ideas (F) that we implement has been negotiated over time, but was helped by us all working together for a few years at the Mozilla Foundation. At our monthly co-op days, we reflect on different aspects of our work together, for example creating pages such as Spirit of WAO which allow us to say together things like:

We believe in:

  • Placing ourselves and our work in historical and social contexts so that we can make thoughtful decisions about our behaviours and mindsets.
  • Seeing ourselves as part of nature not the rulers of it and acknowledging that there is a climate emergency. We are conscious of the lost lessons and spirit of the indigenous and strive for climate justice.
  • Sharing resources to help combat prejudice wherever we see it (including, but not limited to: racism, sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, and hostility relating to education or socio-economic status).

In terms of our methods (M) we try and make these as explicit as possible. So we’re currently using software tools such as Trello, Google Docs, and Whimsical. But we’ve got a Learn with WAO site where we share tools and approaches, which include the templates we use with clients on a range of activities. These are all Creative Commons licensed, as we walk the talk of openness.

In considering the Situations (S) of concern, our work at the co-op often revolves around diverse and sometimes complex projects. Each project brings its own set of challenges and opportunities for learning. Returning to my earlier example of the Open Recognition Toolkit, there were some new things we had to learn about using MediaWiki, even though it’s a tool we’ve used before. Likewise, there was a time when I had to send a somewhat awkward, but necessary, email, to a contributor who was engaging in a way that wasn’t entirely pro-social. As such, the project has required not individual learning but also collective effort to bring together different expertise and perspectives.

A really interesting aspect of thinking through my practice using the PFMS heuristic is how it enables a fluid transition between individual and collective learning processes. For example, I often find that my own, individual, learning about Open Source technologies contributes significantly to the collective knowledge base of the group.

Social learning is essentially learning in practice. It’s not just about exchanging information, but full-bandwidth collaborative experience that inform and shape both our understanding and approaches to work. For example, I’ve seen many instances when people have taken things that they’ve seen us used (and which we learned from others), and then use them in their own practice. Sometimes they even verbalise it: “Oh, I’m going to steal that!”. This encourages a culture of continuous learning and adaptation, which is important in any kind of work environment.

I’m part of the Member Learning group of, and in a meeting this week I was trying to explain the value of regular community calls. I was trying to get across the point that the kind of learning we want to foster in the network is not a series of transactional experiences, but rather building a constituency of people who are learning and growing together. It’s not something confined to formal training sessions or workshops. Instead, it’s embedded in our interactions, projects, and shared culture.

As I get further into the TB872 module, I am increasingly appreciative of the way that WAO works internally, with clients, and with other cooperatives. We’ve essentially set up a learning organisation. What’s useful to me is that the PFMS heuristic provides a really valuable lens through which to view and understand these processes, and I’m glad I’m forcing myself to blog all of this so that I can come back to it later!

Image: DALL-E 3 (it reminds me somewhat of a Doom painting you might find on the wall of a medieval church!)