Open Thinkering


Tag: Ray Ison

TB872: Four pervasive institutional settings inimical to the flourishing of systems practice

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

On one side, there is an explosion of hyper-vivid, surreal organic forms in a kaleidoscope of ultra-bright, neon colors, representing the full force of human emotions in their most extreme expression. The forms are so intense and lively that they seem to leap out of the image. The opposite side presents the zenith of sterile, mechanical coldness: a stark, lifeless landscape of rigid, ultra-precise geometric shapes and complex machinery in grayscale, symbolizing an absolute void of emotion and type of dystopia. The dramatic disparity between the two sides creates a powerful visual shock, emphasizing the extreme dichotomy between unbridled emotional expression and absolute emotional suppression.

This post builds upon a previous one about ‘projectification’ and ‘apartheid of the emotions’ and deals with Chapter 9 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act in which he outlines four settings that constrain systems practice.

They are:

  1. A pervasive ‘target mentality’
  2. Living in a ‘projectified world’
  3. Failures around ‘situation framing’
  4. An ‘apartheid of the emotions’

When I wrote the previous post, because of the way this module is structured I had not studied the juggler isophor. Reading this chapter again with a new frame of reference is enlightening:

In my experience systems practice which only focuses on methods, tools and techniques is ultimately limited in effectiveness. This is particularly so at this historical moment because the organizational and political situation has generally not been conducive to enacting systems practice… [T]o be truly effective in one’s systems practice it may mean that changes have to be made in both practice and situations so that practice is re-contextualised.

Ison (2017, p.224)

A couple of days ago, I wrote about exactly this: that, from what I can see, governmental approaches to ‘systems thinking’ are very much about “methods, tools and techniques” in a world of targets and projects. Instead of understanding context and emotions, systems are framed as being ‘out there’ in the world (rather than human constructs).

While discussing the characterisation of natural resource issues as ‘resource dilemmas’, Ison (ibid., p.238-9) outlines a ‘framing shift’ which incorporates five elements:

  1. Interdependencies
  2. Complexity
  3. Uncertainty
  4. Controversy
  5. Multiple stakeholders and/or perspectives

What I like about this in relation to my own work is that these are often exactly the kind of things that hierarchical organisations (and most clients) want to minimise or avoid talking about. And I would suggest that it is this reticence that leads to an over-use of targets, rampant projectification, failures around situation framing, and an apartheid of the emotions.

What is possibly missing from all of this is the psychological element of working with others. This is related to, but separate to emotions, and is perhaps most easily understood through the grouping that Buster Benson has made of over 200 cognitive biases to which we as humans are subject:

  1. “There’s too much information to process, and we have limited attention to give, so we filter lots of things out.”
  2. “Lack of meaning is confusing, and we have limited capacity to understand how things fit together, so we create stories to make sense of everything.”
  3. “We never have enough time, resources, or attention at our disposal to get everything that needs doing done, so we jump to conclusions with what we have and move ahead.” (Benson, n.d.)

I’ve had the following image on the wall of my office for the last five years:

Buster Benson's Cognitive Bias Codex
(click to enlarge)

Just like the PFMS example, we deal in heuristics because of our human psychology. That means that we tend to simplify things based on prior experience, reducing complexity and uncertainty where possible, doing uncontroversial things so that we don’t have to get input from lots of people (and deal with their needs). It’s entirely understandable. But, as the subtitle and context of Ison’s book suggests, this isn’t going to cut it for dealing with “situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world”.

In terms of my own experience, I’m not even sure where to start. I began my career in UK schools, that is to say in institutions that are extremely hierarchical, deal in social reproduction, and are filled with staff members who (mostly) did well at school themselves. In addition, change is exogenous in this sector, coming from politically-motivated announcements from ambitious government ministers eager to placate the right-wing tabloid press.

As such, my experience of working in schools was of hard-working and well-meaning staff cosplaying what they thought people do in a business setting. Young people were reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, and things might have worked very well in the classroom in practice, but they didn’t work well in theory, so they were canned. I loved teaching. I didn’t enjoy everything that was wrapped around it.

If education is a system to inspire the lifelong learning of young people by introducing them to a range of experience, which would be my framing, then the system was failing when I was a teacher, and is failing my own children.

I’m not going to rehearse my career history, but instead I’ll compare and contrast this with my current practice as part of the co-op of which I’m a founding member. In this work, although we have better and worse clients, we get to lean into the ambiguity, the uncertainty, and the complexity that results when humans work with one another.

We endeavour to call the way we work with clients a ‘partnership’ rather than simply working on a ‘project’. I’ve been inspired by people like Kayleigh Walsh, who we interviewed in Season 4 of our podcast, and how they bring their full selves to work. Even with straight-faced, straight-laced people who work for ‘serious’ organisations it’s possible to treat one another as human beings subject to good days, bad days, and all of the emotions that go with the various seasons of our lives.

Some of this has been brought home to me in the last week or so, with the contrast between two organisations. One, partly because of funding constraints, asked us to go through an involved, time-consuming process in order to respond to an Invitation to Tender (ITT). Despite the situation we were potentially going into being essentially unknowable without doing the research, we were being asked for project plans and all kinds of details at which we could only guess.

It reminded me very much of what Ison describes in Chapter 10 of Systems Practice, except we weren’t particularly in a position to suggest another approach; we just wouldn’t have got the work. To be fair to the people involved in the organisation, I think they knew that a different approach was needed, but they were constrained by the logic of the systematic approach imposed upon them. In other words, systematic thinking prevented a systemic approach.

If we compare this with a Theory of Change workshop we ran yesterday for a different organisation, then the difference in approach is clear. An example of the basic template we use for this, based on work by Outlandish, is below:

Theory of Change template with 'Final goal', 'Outcomes' and 'Activities'
(click to enlarge)

During the session, we surfaced differences between what came out of the user research with staff members compared with what is included in the reports they publish. We used this as an entry point for each member of the small team to fill in boxes underneath the prompts:

  • What we do…
  • …to influence these people…
  • …to have this impact in the world

As expected, this is not an easy thing to do, and each team member surfaced something slightly different. We then went round the circle twice, first asking everyone to give some context to the text they entered in their three boxes, and then asking for things that someone else mentioned that with which they would definitely agree (or disagree). From there, we attempted through structured conversation a synthesis to create an overall goal.

Sometimes, you just need someone to do some work which fits in as a piece of an extremely well-designed jigsaw. But the number of situations in which this is true is much smaller than most people imagine. In my experience, siloed working and cognitive biases mean that few of us can answer more than a couple of ‘why’ levels deep even in relation to work that is important to us.

As I’ve said before, what I really appreciate about this module, hard and time-consuming though I’m finding it at times, is that it’s a justification of an approach to life that I’ve carried with me from the start of my career. It’s refreshing to realise that I’m not alone in thinking that putting on a suit and tie and talking about KPIs and OKRs is not the right way to improve the world.


  • Benson, B. (no date). Cognitive biases. Available at: (Accessed: 31 January 2024).
  • Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. Available at:

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Systemic inquiry and the ‘design turn’

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 artistic depiction emphasizing the 'design turn' in knowledge and learning. The image displays a stark contrast between two halves: the left side features structured, linear patterns in monochromatic tones, representing conventional learning systems. The right side bursts with colorful, abstract shapes and swirls in a spectrum of reds, yellows, and blues, symbolizing a shift to creative, user-centric design thinking. The central area, where these two halves meet, blends the elements, illustrating the transformative journey from traditional methodologies to innovative, design-led paradigms.

The direct consequence of the profound changes in the character and role of organised knowledge is that the future must now be regarded as increasingly a human artefact — an art-in-fact. The future can no longer be regarded as a natural object, a fact already there or objectively determined by present trends. Rather, it must be chosen.

Hooker (1992), quoted in Ison (2017, p.269)

The above quotation reminds me of this Steve Jobs video in which he says “everything around you that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you; and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use”. There is no ‘fact of the matter’ but rather approaches we can take to shift our own and other people’s perspectives.

A ‘design turn’ is “a shift in perspective and level, as well as in critical reflexivity” (Ison, 2017, p.270). It’s a move towards incorporating principles and practice from design thinking to create a more holistic, generative, and creative approach. It’s visual, focused on action, and inherently user-centred; taking a ‘design turn’ means “considering a situation as if it were a learning system” (Ison, ibid.).

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. If I think about taking a design turn with this work, then it means challenging some assumptions.

For example, the reports put out by the DCC either implicitly or explicitly discuss primary and secondary audiences for influencing the Higher Education (HE) system to use VCs for issuing digital credentials. We created a simple diagram of this, and then compared that with one we created from the user research interviews carried out with staff.

Analysis of the difference between what the DCC's reports identified as their audience and what user research interviews with staff identified as their audience.

Having clarity around who it is that you’re trying to influence is key to designing effective documentation and assets, and telling the right kind of stories. We’ve therefore carried out some more user research interviews with the DCC’s Leadership Council, and will be running a ‘Theory of Change’ workshops for staff in the next couple of weeks.

The outcome of these workshops should allow us to agree on primary and secondary audiences and therefore draw an appropriate boundary for the situation of concern involved in this work. In turn, this should mean that we can spot the influence that different audience groupings have on one another (i.e. ‘system dynamics’) so that we can map feedback loops and opportunities for intervention.

Screenshot of Theory of Change workshop (Whimsical board)

The key to all of this is testing and iteration. One of the ways we’re doing this, in addition to the above is by starting to tell stories which introduce mental models and metaphors. Through a series of blog posts and other assets, we expect will learn what resonates with the wider public, with particular stakeholder groups, as well as discovering unexpected connections and ways of describing the required conceptual shift.

Helen Wilding, who is now one of the tutors for this module, wrote a blog post about the design turn when she was a student herself. She reflects on a video which discusses how you never arrive at a ‘blank slate’ situation; there is always something going on, meaning that “in effect you are working your way through understanding an existing dynamic and trying to think about how to work to improve it” (Wilding, 2013)

This ‘design turn’ is something which sits comfortably with me. Unlike some of the other approaches and ways of thinking on this module, design thinking is something more familiar and embedded in the kind of work that WAO do with clients. For example, we don’t ‘deliver’ projects, but explore situations with clients through tools and approaches such as user research, experimentation, prototyping, and encouraging people to work more openly.

So in terms of taking a design turn to “go about designing a learning system to enact a systemic inquiry in the context you are using… for your Systemic Inquiry 2” (The Open University, 2021), the learning system is to a great extent the existing practices of the co-op of which I’m part. There are certainly some approaches from this module that I’m already adding into the mix with our work, but in terms of a learning system, the main thing is to help our client (the DCC, and in particular the director) learn more about, and how to influence, the system of which they are part.

This might mean, for example, helping them realise that they don’t have a direct way of themselves influencing a key stakeholder group. So who can they influence? How? What kind of assets and resources might they need to do this? How might their documentation need to change? What about the events they go to? What would the ‘minimal lovable product’ be in this regard?


  • Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: how to act. Springer, London.
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘2.5.1 Taking a design turn in your practice’, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2024).
  • Wilding, H. (2013) ‘Returning to the “design turn”’, Just Practicing, 12 March. Available at: (Accessed: 26 January 2024).

Top image: DALL-E 3

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