Open Thinkering


Tag: Ray Ison

TB872: Juggling the C-ball (Contextualising)

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 green ball, representing the 'C' ball of the BECM juggler isophor.

Chapter 7 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act focuses on the C-ball (Contextualising). This concerns the ways that systems practitioners contextualise specific approaches in real-world situations. It involves understanding the relationship between a systems approach and its application, going beyond merely choosing a method. So, in what follows, I’m going to reflect on what I’ve learned in 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

As I’ve commented in previous posts, I think my assumption on starting this MSc was that I’d learn a bunch of approaches (‘methods’) and how to apply them to situations. What I’m actually learning is much more valuable, and deeply philosophical, than that. In the words of Ison, it’s not simply ‘horses for courses’ where a ‘horse’ (i.e. approach) is matched with a ‘course’ (i.e. situation). “This is because” he says “taking a systems approach involves addressing the question of purpose” (Ison, 2017, p.158).

Despite many and varied literature and statements to the contrary, it is not possible to generalise an approach across all contexts, as the climate emergency is showing. A one-size-fits-none approach has led to unsustainable approaches and destroyed or deprecated indigenous ways of knowing. As a competitive swimmer in my youth, and an occasional visitor to the pool at our local leisure centre, I quite liked Ison’s analogy which kicks off the chapter:

The lanes in my pool are labelled slow, medium, fast, and sometimes, aquaplay. Usually there is at least one lane of each. Over time I have come to contextualise my swimming to a set of circumstances in which I understand that what is fast and what is slow differs with time of day (i.e. who the other swimmers are; whether lap training is happening, etc.). I have also come to know that at certain times I can swim in the aquaplay lanes, or that at others I am best to consider myself fast or slow. Because I have flexibility to adapt my swimming to a changing situation I find my practice usually works very well for me … and presumably those who manage the pool. For me this is an example of juggling the C-ball in my swimming practice.

Ison (2017, p.155)

The temptation as a consultant working with other organisations is to think that you’ve seen the exact situation being presented before; that it is the same as a system in which you’ve previously intervened. Although there are, of course, great overlaps and similarities between organisations and the way the people within them approach the world, no two situations are identical.

What I found fascinating about this chapter was the way that Ison explicitly rejects the common ‘cyclical’ approach to systems thinking where knowledge leads to action, which leads to reflection, then more knowledge, and so on. Instead, he includes the following diagram, which is a system of interest which as “an epistemological act opens up opportunities to break out of the inner accepted-knowledge reinforcing cycle” (Ison, 2017 p.162)

Figure 7.3 from the book 'Systems Practice' shows an adaptive, systemic knowing process diagram. It features two unlabelled overlapping circles and one labelled 'Accepted Knowledge'. 
Arrows indicate a flow from the two unlabelled overlapping circles to 'Influences perception and action' and then to 'Determines what happens in the situation'

This leads to a person with a thought bubble 'Do I see anything unexpected?'. The arrow indicating 'No' leads to 'Accepted knowledge' while the arrow indicating 'Yes' leads to 'Snap to', 'Expansion of knowledge', and 'Changes in premises'. These three arrows lead back to the unlabelled overlapping circles.

 'Accepted Knowledge', signifying 'Changes in Premises' and 'Expansion of Knowledge'. Another arrow leads from 'Accepted Knowledge' to a thought bubble from a person who is pondering, which reads 'Do I see anything unexpected?'. If the answer is 'No', an arrow leads back to 'Accepted Knowledge', indicating a 'Snap to' effect. If 'Yes', the arrow loops from the thought bubble to 'Determines what happens in the situation', which then influences 'Perception and Action', completing the cycle back to 'Patterns of Knowing'.

To me, this is reminiscent of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions but on a more personal level. During the process of ‘normal science’ (i.e. accepted knowledge or ways of doing things) ‘anomalies’ are observed in the phenomena. These in turn lead to explanations to try and explain them within the bounds of accepted knowledge. When these anomalies accumulate, a period of ‘revolutionary science’ occurs where new frameworks (which are always being proposed) become more appealing. Eventually, the ‘revolutionary science’, in the form of a different framework, becomes the new ‘normal science’.

Kuhn’s approach is something I’ve been aware of since my first year at university as an undergraduate, so it’s something I’ve had at the back of my mind for more than half of my life. Applying it here may or may not be appropriate, but it helps develop my understanding of what is going on when a practitioner contextualises their approach to a situation. Challenging accepted knowledge is part of why a consultant is brought in to help an organisation. As I mentioned in a previous post, organisations can seem to have no common sense of purpose, which I suppose is because they’re drifting along in the comforting fiction of accumulated accepted knowledge.

Returning to my assumptions on starting this MSc, I’m pleased that Ison specifically calls out that systems practice “does not have to rely on established methods or ‘methodologies'” and that it “can be contextualised to unfolding, changing circumstances” (Ison, 2017, p.185). We were talking during one of our WAO co-working sessions yesterday about how soul-crushing it must be to run the same workshop or give the same presentation time after time. Just because other people share that they have done something on LinkedIn does not make it good practice.

Another useful diagram which aided my thinking in this chapter was the one that illustrates the difference between a technique, a method, and a methodology:

An illustation of the distinctions between tool, technique, method, and methodology. The first panel labelled 'TECHNIQUE' shows a man using a hammer, tagged with the word 'skill' pointing to the tool. The second panel labelled 'METHOD' depicts a sequence 'A' with illustrations of a hand using various tools: a saw, a hammer, a screwdriver, and a drill, with arrows indicating a process flow. The third panel shows a person with a thought bubble labelled 'purpose' looking at three sheets marked 'A', 'B', and 'C'. The final image within this panel shows three people around a table (the 'situation'), implying a discussion.

You see a lot of people sharing ‘tools and techniques’ and perhaps running workshops on ‘methods’. However, the systems thinker goes beyond this to adapt methods, based on a particular purpose, to a situation. This means that they have to have a wide range of methods in their methodological toolkit.

There is nothing wrong with learning a method and putting it into practice. How the method is put into practice will, however, determine whether an observer could describe it as methodology or method. If a practitioner engages with a method and follows it recipe-like, regardless of the situation, then it remains method. If the method is not regarded as a formula but as a set of ‘guidelines to process’, and the
practitioner takes responsibility for learning from the process, it can become methodology. The transformation of method into methodology is something to strive for in the process of becoming an aware systems practitioner and of course one can draw guidelines from several methods to develop a methodology in any situation.

Ison (2017, p.168)

This is a really key bit of learning for me in terms of how I approach both this module and my everyday work. For example, it is of course absolutely fine to use a similar method with multiple clients, but the way that I/we use it has to be contextualised. Also, the choice of method has to be intentional and reflexive, and not be merely ‘just the way we do things’.

I thought it was interesting that Ison pushed back a little on Stafford Beer’s famous quotation that “the purpose of a system is what it does” (Ison, 2017, p.159). He wonders whether Beer meant it in a tongue-in-cheek way, which I hadn’t considered, but is concerned that “this statement runs the risk of objectifying ‘the system'” (Ison, ibid.) The way that I have understood this quotation since coming across it relatively recently is that there is no one ‘purpose’ of a system, so if you are going to ascribe it a single, teleological aim, then, well, that is just what it currently does. So if, to use an example from my own professional experience, the DWP’s benefits system marginalises and excludes people who find it difficult to claim Universal Credit, then this is the ‘purpose’ of the system.

The final thing I want to include from this chapter in terms of the development of my own systemic practice is the comparison of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ traditions of systems thinking. Ison adapts a table from Checkland (1985) on p.160. Below are my highlights in bullet point form, with the fundamental difference in approach being that the ‘hard’ tradition aims to apply systematic methodologies to solve problems, akin to engineering, while the ‘soft’ tradition is more interpretive, and emphasises understanding and learning over finding a single correct solution.

  • Both traditions use system models as a means to engage with the complexities of the world, but have different foundational assumptions. ‘Hard’ systems thinking approaches consider models as direct representations of reality (ontologies) and soft systems viewing them as frameworks for understanding (epistemologies).
  • Each tradition adopts a specific linguistic framework. ‘Hard’ approaches to systems thikningfocus on the terminology of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions,’ which indicates a desire for ‘definitive answers’. This is in contrast to the ‘soft’ systems thinking language of ‘issues’ and ‘accommodations,’ which reflects perhaps a more nuanced engagement with situations.
  • The ‘hard’ tradition focuses on ‘goal seeking’, as opposed to the ‘soft’ tradition’s focus on learning. ‘Hard’ systems thinking approaches aim to engineer precise solutions to problems, whereas the ‘soft’ systems thinking tradition is more interested in continuous inquiry, and acknowledges the absence of absolute answers.
  • ‘Hard’ systems thinking approaches tend to neglect the human and subjective elements of situations, instead favouring logic and objectivity. ‘Soft’ systems thinking, meanwhile, maintains an awareness of the limitations of linear logic and the importance of human factors.
  • While both approaches are grounded in systems thinking, the ‘hard’ tradition is more prescriptive and oriented towards ‘techniques’. This might be suitable for stakeholders looking for structured approaches. The ‘soft’ tradition is more inclusive and adaptable to professional practice, emphasising the inescapability of the human side of situations.

Systemic Inquiry 2

Now, I’ll move onto my situation of concern (S2), which is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs). We’re helping with documentation and asset-creation.

To me, the image below is key in helping understand how we can make a difference in helping the DCC with the adoption of VCs. There is no one view of the ecosystem and, as I have said in previous posts, everyone has different incentives.

An illustration of three workers welding metal beams at a construction site. Each worker has a speech bubble expressing a different perspective on their activity: The first says 'I'm learning a trade,' indicating a focus on skill development. The second proclaims 'I'm building a skyscraper,' suggesting a view on the larger goal of the project. The third states 'I'm welding joints,' which reflects a task-oriented mindset. The caption reads 'An iconic model of how different 'actors' ascribe different purposes to the same action'."

For example, some people are interested in making money, others in saving it through ‘efficiency’. Some are just interested in the technological innovation involved, while others just don’t want to be left behind. What I think is perhaps missing from this diagram is the emotions involved: for example ‘fear’ or ‘enthusiasm’. Quite often, people adopt other people’s approaches to situations they don’t know much about, particularly if it means they err on the side of caution.

One of the things we need to consider with S2 is that, especially in the realm of Higher Education (HE), there is ‘legitimate knowledge’ which “conserve[s] manners of thinking and acting that have evolved over time”. This happens to such an extent that “organisations themselves come to be described as having a culture within which conceptions as what counts as legitimate knowledge are enacted and maintained” (Ison, 2017, p.169).

This takes me back to discussions around mental models and metaphors, and my post about the meta-narrative for this systemic inquiry. In particular, it’s increasingly clear as I get into this module that the ‘institutional antibodies’ of the HE system were in full effect when dealing with the threat of Open Badges. This is why they were ‘reinvented’ and reconceptualised as microcredentials, fully owned and operated by the HE sector. It seems clear, then, that positioning VCs as ‘legitimate knowledge’ could be key for wider adoption

In a prior post, I outlined the difference between purposeful and purposive framing:

  • Purposeful framing – refers to framing directed towards a specific goal or objective (i.e. focused on my learning and development as a practitioner)
  • Purposive framing – refers to framing that is intentional but with a broader or more holistic focus (i.e. not just about my goals, as it considers dynamics, stakeholders, and potential outcomes)

It’s always tempting to think that you know what is best, and particularly so when there’s a technology involved for which you personally have a utopian vision. However, this purposeful framing is not always useful in creating change. A purposive framing can be more useful, but even that comes with a health warning:

[M]any people have a propensity to pursue purposive behaviour that assumes both purpose and measures of performance, rather than engaging stakeholders in a dialogue in which purpose is jointly negotiated. This can have unfortunate consequences.

Ison (2017, p.163)

One of the things that I’ve ‘struggled’ with during my career (and I don’t often use that word) is setting appropriate boundaries. I don’t mean this in a weird sense, but in a systems sense! As Ison quotes Ulrich (1996) as saying, “we cannot conceive of systems without assuming some kind of systems boundaries”. Otherwise “systems thinking makes no sense” (Ison, 2017, p.165).

Thankfully, Chapter 7 includes some help in terms of boundary-setting, both from Ulrich (2000) and Churchman (1971). I’ll quote the latter for the sake of brevity, which are adapted by Ison and found on p.164-165. These are the conditions which need to be fulfilled for a designed system (S) to demonstrate purposefulness.

  1. S is teleological (or ‘purposeful’)
  2. S has a measure of performance
  3. There is a client whose interests are served by S
  4. S has teleological components which co-produce the measure of performance of S
  5. S has an environment (both social and ecological)
  6. S has a decision maker who can produce changes in the measure of performance of S’s components and hence changes in the measure of performance of S
  7. S has a designer who influences the decision maker
  8. The designer aims to maximise S’s value to the client
  9. There is a built in guarantee that the purpose of S defined by the designer’s
    notion of the measure of performance can be achieved and secured

When coupled with the three roles that seem to be always present in Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), this seems quite a powerful approach. The following is taken from Checkland and Poulter (2006) via Ison (2017, p.169):

  • A person or group who had caused the intervention to happen, someone without whom there would not be an investigation at all – this was the role of ‘client’
  • A person or group who were conducting the investigation – this was the role of ‘systems practitioner’
  • A person or people who could be named and listed by the practitioner who could be regarded as being concerned about, or affected by the situation and the outcome of the effort to improve the situation – this was the role of ‘owner of the issue(s) addressed’.

I think I need to spend some more time thinking about this and potentially applying it to this situation, probably with the help of Laura’s brain. I’ve already included a lot of images from this chapter, but I’m going to include one more and deal with the potential copyright issues later (fair use for learning!)

The image shows a cartoon of two characters in a rural setting, likely a farm. On the left, someone is heaving an amorphous package out of a van. A speech bubble reads, 'Where would you like us to put this information we're delivering to you...?'  On the right, a farmer stands leaning on a fence, looking perplexed by the question, with a large tractor behind him. The image comically represents the concept of delivering information in a non-digital, traditional context.
Illustration 7.1 from Ison (2017, p.183)

This image makes a mockery of the idea of ‘information transfer’, especially in a non-digital context. It’s something we need at the forefront of our minds when dealing with all of our clients, not just in the situation of concern I’m labelling S2. For example, I’ve pulled out of working with one particular network we’re part of, with the last straw being a complete lack of understanding of how learning actually happens. What they wanted is extremely well depicted in the illustration above. It doesn’t work. It never has.

This chapter around Contextualisation has helped me understand that helping successful change come about in my situation of concern depends on several factors. I need to ensure that we have a clear boundary on the system in which we’re intervening. We need to understand the motivations of different actors (stakeholders) involved. I have to make it clear that we’re not ‘delivering information’. We need to have a purposive framing which draws on the ‘soft’ tradition of systems thinking, adapting methods to our context.

In this post, I didn’t go into the reading that’s included in this chapter because it was actually included in a previous activity. This module is a bit ‘weird’ in that it encourages us to read Systems Practice in a non-linear order.


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

Top image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Juggling the E-ball (Engaging)

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 green ball, representing the 'E' ball of the BECM juggler isophor.

Chapter 6 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act focuses on the E-ball (Engaging). This concerns engaging with real-world situations and involves the practitioner’s choices in orientation and approach, affecting how the situation is experienced. In this post, I’m going to reflect on what I’ve learned in this 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 main thrust of Chapter 6 is that we all have a choice about how we engage with situations. This applies both to my own development of systemic practice (S1) and also the situation of concern I’ve chosen to use as an example (S2). I’ll deal with the former now and the latter in the section below this one.

I guess it’s fair to say that I strive for Gramsci‘s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. This results in me usually bordering on the pessimistic side; as my mother used to say “that means you can always be pleasantly surprised”. One example of this is in framing things as ‘problems’, which is something that Ison deals with early on in Chapter 6. He suggests there is more to be gained in either describing them differently, or at the very least describing them.

One way of describing ‘problems’ different is to compare and contrast ‘wicked problems’ or ‘tame problems’. Ison would reject this, however, in favour or ‘wicked and tame situations’. I can see why this is useful, and these days can also see why neologisms can be handy. I used to think that the latter, which involves coming up with new words or terms, was a waste of time. However, since doing some work on ambiguity alongside my thesis, I’ve come to see the value of them.

As I remarked in a previous post, I tend to ‘give up’ in the face of institutional bureaucracy, and that’s particularly true with regards to ‘wicked problems’, as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973, quoted in Ison, p.122) which the Australian Public Service Commission describe as “beyond the capacity of any one organisation to understand and respond to” (quoted in Ison, 2017, p.121). These are contrasted with ‘tame problems’ which, for example, “have a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement” (Conklin, 2001, quoted in Ison, p.123).

This is presented somewhat as a binary in the chapter — as a choice between describing a situation as unique, ill-defined, and involving multiple organisations (‘wicked’), and a situation which is similar to others, well-defined, and involving perhaps only a single organisations. Surely these must be on a spectrum? Some problems or situations must be more ‘wicked’ or ‘tame’ than others?

I guess the issue is less with definition and more with action: i.e. what are you going to do about it. This is where the idea of ‘goal finding’ rather than ‘goal setting’ comes in (Ison, 2017, p.124, fn.5) which is coming up time and again in my work at the moment. Clients understandably want ‘results’ but sometimes fail to grasp is that heading off in the wrong direction because you’ve chosen a destination without fully understanding a situation doesn’t lead to great results. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in systems thinking diagrams, because they help make visible the thought processes and mental work that we do.

A machine with tangled lines going in at the top and straight lines coming out of it at the bottom. Underneath are the words 'WE'LL UNTANGLE YOUR SPAGHETTI'
Image CC BY Visual Thinkery for WAO

People and organisations don’t tend to call in outside help unless they realise they need it. One situation which they might find themselves is what Russell Ackoff describes as a ‘mess’. These are distinct from ‘problems’:

A mess is a set of external conditions that produces dissatisfaction. It can be conceptualised as a system of problems in the same sense in which a physical body can be conceptualised as a system of atoms.

Akoff (1974), quoted in Ison (2017, p.128)

In my work with WAO, we often use the image above to talk about how we will help ‘untangle’ the ‘spaghetti’ of organisations. In other words, we’ll help sort out their mess. Up until now, however, although I am a somewhat intuitive systemic thinker, a lot of what we have done has been systematic.

One of the things that has always frustrated me about consultancy work is that you are often brought in to help with one particular issue, but it is of course so enmeshed with others within the organisation. However, there is usually a level of resistance in widening the scope of what you’ve been asked to do. This is when the idea of trojan mice can be useful!

When reflecting on my systemic practice using the E-ball, it’s interesting to think about how often I default to a particular approach. This is what Dave Snowden would call ‘sense making’ which is part of his Cynefin framework, which comes from the Welsh word for ‘habitat’. A slightly different version to the one found in Chapter 6 can be found below.

Image CC BY [email protected]

Snowden says that:

It is not a categorisation model in which the four domains are treated as four quadrants in a two by two matrix. None of the domains described is better than or desirable over any other in any particular context; there are no implied value axes.

IBM (2003), quoted in Ison (2017, p.135)

I’d suggest most organisations, when they get to a certain size, have elements of all four domains. If the leadership of those organisations isn’t careful, then this ends up with some kind of ‘meta-mess’ and confusion. This explains why you can have different departments within an organisation who all have processes and approaches which suggest they know what they are doing, but overall, the organisation under-performs.

Ison says several times in Systems Practice that we need to be careful with our use of language when talking about systems. There is no ‘it’ which objectively exists, be it a ‘mess’ or a ‘situation’ or even a ‘system’. These are all dependent on our subjective view as practitioners and our tradition of understanding. So by referring to an ‘it’ (as in ‘it is a mess’) we are hiding something else — as in the phrase “every noun obscures a verb”.

We’re perhaps familiar with the approach of ‘reframing’ a situation to prevent something being hidden or obscured, but I hadn’t come across the term ‘deframing’ before. This is described as “identifying framings that constrain or stop systemic innovation and change —and warrant active removal — e.g. clean coal” (Ison, 2017, p.131). What Ison is saying here, I think is that deframing is almost a conjurers disappearing trick; in the example he gives, it’s an attempt to remove something from the mental categorisation ‘problematic’.

Other than the reading which takes up a good chunk of Chapter 6, there were two other things that caused me to reflect on my own practice. The first was Donald Schön’s metaphor which contrasts the “swampy lowlands” featuring “messy, confusing problems [which] defy technical solution”, with the “high ground” featuring problems which are “relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large”, however great their technical interest may be” (Schön, D., quoted in Ison, 2017, p.131-132)

This section really spoke to me in terms of my career. Ison shares another quotation from Schön where he talks about the high ground versus the swampy lowlands. These days, it could be argued that I spend my time on the latter, whereas as a teacher I was more involved in the latter:

When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor. When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepancy between the technical rigor of the ‘hard’ zones of their practice and apparent sloppiness of the ‘soft’ ones. People tend to feel the dilemma of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45. At this point they ask themselves: Am I going to continue to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems — ill formed, vague, and messy — that I have discovered to be real around here? And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently.

Schön (1995), quoted in Ison (2017, p.132)

Wow. I’m 43 years young and, let me tell you, that feels like he’s peered into my soul.

The second ‘other’ thing I wanted to reflect on was also a metaphor. In this case, it is an observation attributed to Richard Dawkins:

If I hold a rock, but want it to change, to be over there, I can simply throw it. Knowing the weight of the rock, the speed at which it leaves my hand, and a few other variables, I can reliably predict both the path and the landing place of a rock. But what happens if I substitute a [live] bird? Knowing the weight of a bird and the speed of launch tells me nothing really about where the bird will land. No matter how much analysis I do in developing the launch plan … the bird will follow the path it chooses and land where it wants.

Plsek (2001), quoted in Ison (2017, p.134)

Ison says he is “constantly amazed” that this story seems “so profound for many audiences”. I think that says more about his experience and the level he is operating than anything else. The bird/rock anecdote is an extremely good way of bringing to life why, for example, goal finding is more important than goal setting. It’s also a valuable way of showing just how little we humans know about the world.

The E-ball is a reminder that we can choose to engage in situations in different ways. While I already knew this, I would often assume that there was a ‘correct’ way to do so. What this chapter has helped me realise is that everything is contingent, but because there is no ‘view from nowhere’, we have to have some kind of organisational framework to operate in the world.

Systemic Inquiry 2

As a reminder, the situation of concern I have chosen to focus on for my Systemic Inquiry 2 (S2) is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs). We’re helping with documentation and asset-creation.

One of the interesting metaphors Ison uses towards the start of Chapter 6 is that of a ‘tornado’:

[A] tornado is a particular dynamic configuration of air particles, from which a tornado ‘as named thing’ emerges and is constantly reconstituted.

Ison (2017, p.120)

This is qualitatively similar to the Ship of Theseus, just on a much slower scale. I remember as a teenager being introduced to this paradox and realising that everything is in flux, Just as Heraclitus said. This being the case, there is nothing that we can point to which is quantitatively identical to what existed previously; we can only point to qualitative similarities.

Finding space to move things in a new direction is where neologisms come in, as mentioned in the previous section. Ison talks about how these give “rise to a new expression as well as a new underlying logic” (Ison, 2017, p.120). This is a particularly interesting way of looking at things in terms of my S2. As I mentioned in a previous post, microcredentials can perhaps be seen “can be seen as a reaction to, and reconceptualisation of, Open Badges”. I know that when I was on Mozilla’s Open Badges team, and it was my job to go off an evangelise them, there were plenty of people who really didn’t like the term ‘badge’.

Eventually, I learned to say that it doesn’t matter what you call the digital credentials that you build upon the Open Badges standard. The important thing is that there’s a standard that it’s built on. But, by that time, I think it was a bit too late. This newer terminology around Verifiable Credentials started life as ‘Verifiable Claims’ which, again, was language people didn’t particularly like. There’s a desire for certainty, and VCs sound like the kind of thing that prestigious, trustworthy institutions issue.

Image of an hexagonal Open Badge with the front peeled back to reveal a circuit board behind. A label pointing to this says "THERE'S DATA INSIDE!"

A list names some metdata including 'badge name' and 'badge criteria' that can be included in the Open Badge.
Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers for City & Guilds. This image really helped with people’s understanding, due to what Bryan calls ‘cognitive ease’. As a result of this and other work, Open Badges became a movement.

In this post, I explained the changes I hope to see in my S2. The first of these, and perhaps the most important, is “greater understanding within the HE sector of what VCs are and how they can be used”. The trick, I think, is to find the right mental models and neologisms which help people conceptualise what’s going on. In doing that we need to ensure that the distinctions we create are for the benefit of understanding and not simply branding exercises (Ison, 2017, p.152). I’ve already mentioned how every noun obscures a verb (Ison, 2017, p.136) and this is certainly true of ‘credential’ versus ‘credentialing’ (or even ‘recognition’).

Before I realised that the reason that I was attracted to Open Badges was because of the Open Recognition which underpins it, I was a little too focused on the ‘badge’ itself. What I’ve come to understand through reading Chapter 7 about the E-ball is that we have to be careful not to reify things. That is to say, we should not “make or treat an abstraction, such as justice or learning, as a concrete material thing” (Ison, 2017, p.131).

[W]e project our meanings into the world [through living in language] and then we perceive them as existing in the world, as having a reality of their own.

Wenger (1998) quoted in Ison (2017, p.131)

When I apply this to my S2, it’s easy to see how people can be confused. Right now, even I would take a minute to explain the difference between Open Badges 2.0, 2.1, and 3.0. The last of these is compatible with the Verifiable Credentials data model. There’s also the Comprehensive Learning Record, which is a separate, but compatible standard. Digital credentials can be any of these, as can microcredentials, with the latter usually relating to a course with a credential at the end of it.

As a result, whereas sometimes we need to create neologisms to free up some conceptual space for some productive ambiguity, in this case we’re trying to actually help people understand what VCs are. In this case we need to use metaphors to do this. It’s just important to ensure these don’t turn into ‘dead metaphors’ by too closely associating just one of them with VCs. For example, I’ve heard the metaphor of an ‘envelope’ used quite a lot. But they are not literally envelopes, so it’s important to use multiple metaphors to help people understand in a more ‘three-dimensional’ way.

Often when people reify things it’s because they see them as a ‘difficulty’ (Ison, 2017, p.137). This is the case, for example, when people talk about ‘system failures’ when they’re not thinking about systemic failures but rather systematic failures (“if only people stuck to the rules and procedures!”). As the reading in Chapter 6 shows, it’s possible to be wrong or misguided on several levels. The point is to return with new knowledge to understand and attempt to intervene in the system differently.

It’s difficult to summarise the reading, but it was related to public health issues in Nepal stemming from rural agricultural practices being translated to urban environments. Interventions which treated only the symptoms failed, leading to a rethink. Ison outlines six phases, which I will paraphrase:

  • Phase 1 – traditional scientific approach where knowledge and practices from other contexts could be applied.
  • Phase 2 – development of a model which had a presumed single ‘correct’ perspective.
  • Phase 3 – broader framing with local groups joining to widen the perspective.
  • Phase 4 – methodological pluralism and involvement of different stakeholders at different levels/scales of the project.
  • Phase 5 – introduction of diagramming to engage with the situation and capture systemic depictions of the situation from a wide range of stakeholders.
  • Phase 6 – emergent awareness of what can be gained from shift towards systemic practice; drawing on stories for civic engagement.

When I reflect on these phases and thing about my S2, it’s clear that previously I would very much be thinking of the type of approaches that are represented in Phases 1-3 in the list above. Now, however, I’m more aware of the value of things such as methodological pluralism, the value of diagrams to help ‘explain the phenomena’, and wider engagement through storytelling.

I’m particularly keen to move onto one of the next activities that involves influence diagrams. From what I know of them, and my S2 so far, mapping how and why people and organisations influence one another could be extremely valuable. For example, we noticed early in our research and onboarding that what staff members were telling us and what was contained in the reports was slightly, but importantly, different. From this, we did some diagramming to map information flows, realising that vendors were going to be important in terms of influencing university registrars.

In a recent meeting, this was reflected back to us, showing that we are potentially on a productive track. What we need to do is to continue with our user research, of the leadership group, and also of people within the ecosystem. What I’ve come to realise is that there’s not a ‘correct’ way of seeing how everything fits together, just ones which help people make sense of it all. As William James might put it, approaches which are “good in the way of belief”.

Juggling the E-ball in my situation of concern (S2) involves multiple levels of contextualisation. It’s primarily concerned with the US Higher Education system, of which have only second-hand experience. That system, or rather ‘mess’ of systems, it nested inside not only US society and culture, but international education, and a long and deep history of credentialing. There are also technical systems with which any new technologies must be interoperable. What I need to remember is that, while we all want to make the world a better place, people respond to incentives. And the greatest incentive of all, for most people, most of the time, is to make their lives and jobs easier.


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

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: The juggler isophor for 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.

A person in the centre of the frame against a blurred background, juggling four brightly coloured, slightly squishy balls in red (labelled 'B'), green ('E'), yellow ('C'), and blue ('M').

An ‘isophor’ is different to a metaphor. Coined by Humberto Maturana, the idea is that instead of sparking the imagination, it focuses our attention:

The notion of metaphor invites understanding something by proposing an evocative image of a different process in a different domain (e.g., politics as war). With the metaphor you liberate the imagination of the listener by inviting him or her to go to a different domain and follow his or her emotioning. When I proposed the notion of isophor… I wanted it to refer to a proposition that takes you to another case of the same kind (in terms of relational dynamics) in another domain. So, with an isophor you would not liberate the imagination of the listener but you would focus his or her attention on the configuration of processes or relations that you want to grasp. In these circumstances, the fact that a juggler puts his or her attention on the locality of the movement of one ball as he or she plays with them, knowing how to move at every instant in relation to all the other balls, shows that the whole matrix of relations and movements of the constellation of balls is accessible to him or her all the time. So, juggling is an isophor of the vision that one must have of the operational-relational matrix in which something occurs to be able to honestly claim that one understands it. That is, juggling is an isophor of the vision that one wants to have to claim that one understands, for example, a biological or a cultural happening (such as effective system practice)

Maturana, H. quoted in Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. p.61. Available at:

So to summarise:

  • Metaphors — help us understand one thing by comparing it to something quite different (e.g. “politics is war”). Involve the use of imagination to think about things in a new way.
  • Isophors — compare two things that are similar in how they relate or work, but are in different areas. Focus our attention on understanding the patterns and relationships involved.

The example given in Chapter 4 of Ison’s book Systems Practice: How to Act is of a juggler who is juggling four balls:

The isophor of a juggler keeping the four balls in the air is a way to think about what I do when I try to be effective in my own practice. It matches with my experience: it takes concentration and skills to do it well. But all isophors, just like metaphors, conceal or obscure some features of experience, while calling other features to attention. The juggler isophor obscures that the four elements of effective practice are related. I cannot juggle them as if they were independent of each other. I can imagine them interacting with each other through gravitational attraction even when they are up in the air. Further, the juggler can juggle them differently, for example tossing the E ball with the left hand and the B ball with the right hand. These visualisations allow me to say that, in effective practice, the movements of the balls are not only interdependent but also dependent on my actions. Also, when juggling you really only touch one ball at a time, give it a suitable trajectory so that you will be able to return to it while you touch another ball. So it’s the way attention has to go among the various domains, a responsible moment of involvement that creates the conditions for continuance of practice.

Ison, R. ibid. p.60.

Those four balls, as illustrated in the image at the top of this post, are:

  • Being (B-ball): concerns the practitioner’s self-awareness and ethics. Involves understanding one’s background, experiences, and prejudices (so awareness of self in relation to the task and context is crucial).
  • Engaging (E-ball): concerns engaging with real-world situations. Involves the practitioner’s choices in orientation and approach, affecting how the situation is experienced.
  • Context (C-ball): concerns how systems practitioners contextualise specific approaches in real-world situations. Involves understanding the relationship between a systems approach and its application, going beyond merely choosing a method.
  • Managing (M-ball): concerns the overall performance of juggling and effecting desired change. Involves co-managing oneself and the situation, adapting over time to changes in the situation, approach, and the practitioner’s own development.

Thinking about the isophor of juggling in relation to my own life and practice is quite illuminating. It’s certainly relevant to parenting, where everything always seems to be a trade-off, but as I promised to focus mainly on professional situations in my reflections for this module, I’ll instead relate this to my work through WAO.

🔴 Being (B-ball)

At our co-op, we believe in living our values and in approaches such as nonviolent communication. Some of this is captured on this wiki page. As an individual member of WAO, I need to understand why I act (and interact) in a particular way in different contexts. This relates to my colleagues, clients, and members of networks of which I’m part.

We also need to think about the way that we as an organisation interact with one another and with other individuals and organisations. We’re interested in responsible and sustainable approaches, so ethics are particularly important to us. (A good example of this is the recent Substack drama.)

🟢 Engaging (E-ball)

There is always a choice in terms of how to engage with a situation, and every client is different. There are plenty of individual consultants and agencies who take a templated, one-size-fits-none approach to situations. But while we learn from our experiences and previous projects, we try to engage based on the specific context.

Client environments can be complex, as there are all kind of pressures and interactions of which we are not always aware. For example, a CEO being under pressure from their board, or an employee being at risk of redundancy can massively change their behaviour. Having tried and failed to change something previously can lead to cynicism or malaise.

Equally, finding the right ‘leverage points’ within an organisation or network can be incredibly fruitful. Success tends to breed success (in terms of validation) and changes most people’s conceptualisation of the situation.

🟡 Context (C-ball)

A lot of ‘systems thinking’ approaches that I see on LinkedIn are simply people taking templates and trying to apply them to a particular situation. While this is part of systems thinking, contextualisation means deploying one or more of a range of techniques.

Some of this involves crafting approaches which resonate with the client’s culture and objectives. For example, there are ‘messy’ clients, ones that thrive in a slightly chaotic environment. They prize relationships over things looking shiny. Conversely, there are those where every slide deck must look polished and interactions are more formal.

What I remind myself (and others that I work with) is that when we’re working for a client, we’re often working for their boss. That is to say, unless we’re working directly with the person who signs off the budget, we need to produce things that fit with how the person holding the purse strings sees the organisation. That perception can change over time, but it can’t be done immediately. Sometimes there has to be an element of smoke-and-mirrors to give space to get the real work done under the guise of something else.

🔵 Managing (M-ball)

Situations change over time. Particularly when working with longer-term clients, it’s important to take a moment and ensure that the strategies we’re using mesh with current realities. For example, as Heraclitus famously said, we can’t step into the same river twice. The way that I understand this enigmatic quotation is that this is because the river has changed and we have changed.

This is why retrospectives and planning sessions are important. Simply allowing a project to float along without them means that the dynamics of the project aren’t being addressed from either our side or the client side. This can include everything from increasing our day rates due to the cost of living going up, to the client pivoting their strategy and neglecting to tell us.

Sometimes, this might mean bringing in different skills, approaches, or expertise to the project. After all, meaningful and sustainable change doesn’t happen simply by doing the same things on repeat. To bring it back to parenting, we don’t treat kids the same way as teenagers as they are as toddlers.

This isophor of the juggler underpins a lot of the rest of Ison’s book, and will inform the next assessment I do as part of this module. So you’ll be coming across it again in future posts!

Image: DALL-E 3