Apparently, the difference between ‘inquiry’ and ‘enquiry’ isn’t simply an example of variation between American and British English. Rather, as the course materials note, “recent British usage enquire has tended to mean ‘to ask’ and inquire has meant ‘to investigate’, but this difference is not apparent everywhere”. The TB872 module therefore uses ‘inquiry’ in the sense of an exploration or investigation.
We understand ‘systemic inquiry’ as a meta-process for project or programme managing suited to some, but not all, situations. A systemic inquiry can precede or run in parallel with a programme or project. Inquiry is a form of practice as well as a disposition and it is enhanced by acknowledging uncertainty from the start i.e. an attitude of avoiding the hubris of certainty.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand Activity 1.18, so I asked my “little robot friend” (I’ve created a GPT using the TB872 course materials, being sure to tick the option not to use them for ChatGPT’s training data). It said that this activity is an exercise in self-examination and a way to align my personal or professional practices with the principles of managing systemic change. This activity, and therefore this blog post, is only about setting it up.
As such, I need to consider:
Reflecting on my current practice: particularly in terms of managing changes in complex systems. This might involve considering how I approach problems, make decisions, and interact with others in situations that require systemic thinking.
Identifying Practices: I need to think about specific practices or habits I currently use when faced with systemic challenges. This could include both formal methods and informal strategies that I employ in professional or personal contexts.
Analysing the effectiveness of these practices: for example, are there areas where my approach works well? Are there aspects that could be improved? Through this analysis, I should be able to recognise strengths as well as areas for development in my systemic practice.
Praxis: by connecting my personal practices with theoretical concepts and frameworks I’m learning module, I should figure out how my methods align with or diverge from the principles of systems thinking.
Iteration: my systems literacy will improve over time, so I only need to consider what I would call System Inquiry v0.1. As I progress through the module I’ll then integrate new insights and learning.
There are so many areas I could cover, but given that I’m blogging publicly about all of this I think I’ll probably steer clear of anything solely related to my family. Instead I’ll focus more on personal or work-related things.
For example (again, with the help of my little robot friend), I could consider:
Decision-making processes: how do I make decisions, especially in complex situations? Do I consider multiple perspectives? How do I deal with uncertainty or conflicting information?
Problem-solving approaches: how do I approach problem-solving? Do I tend to look at problems in isolation, or do I consider the wider system and potential ripple effects of my solutions?
Communication & collaboration: if I consider my communication and collaboration practices, particularly in group settings or teams, how do I ensure diverse viewpoints are considered? How do I manage conflicts or integrate different ideas?
Change management: by reflecting on a specific instance where I was involved in managing change, what were the strategies I used, the challenges I faced, and the outcomes that were achieved?
Workplace practices: what are the systems and processes within my organisation. How do they impact my work? Are there inefficiencies or areas for improvement that a systems thinking approach could address?
Personal habits & routines: looking at my daily habits and routines, how do these contribute to my overall well-being or goals? Are there systemic factors influencing these habits?
Handling stress & complexity: reflecting on how I handle stress and complex situations, do I have strategies for maintaining a holistic perspective and not getting overwhelmed by details?
Balancing different life roles: considering how I balance different roles in my life (e.g., professional, parent, community member), how do these roles interact and influence each other?
Learning & education: thinking about my approach to learning and education, how do I integrate new knowledge into my practice? Do I consider the broader implications of what I learn?
Community engagement: in terms of community activities in which I’ve involved, I could consider how I contribute and what systemic factors affect the community. How do I approach community issues from a systems perspective?
It was useful to ask for some options, as otherwise I’d probably just have looked about something specific to our co-op. Instead, I think I’ll reflect on my practice in terms of how I remain productive despite all of the different things that could hinder that (health, time pressures due to family commitments, study, etc.)
I’ll refine this further as I get into things a bit more, but thinking about my ‘practice’ in terms of the way I set up my life to be as (sustainably) productive as possible seems like a good start.
The above diagram is a ‘trajectory map’ showing my arrival at module TB872: Managing Change with Systems Thinking in Practice. The approach comes from Etienne Wenger’s work around communities of practice to help them understand their identities in relation to others, as well as their past, present, and future trajectory.
[Trajectories] give signiﬁcance to events in relation to time construed as an extension of the self. They provide a context in which to determine what, among all the things that are potentially signiﬁcant, actually becomes signiﬁcant learning. A sense of trajectory gives us ways of sorting out what matters and what does not, what contributes to our identity and what remains marginal.
(Wenger, 1998, p. 155, cited in TB872 module guide)
There were two examples given to us, one of which you can see below:
You may think that mine doesn’t look much like the example, and you’d be correct. However, I have a preference for using digital tools and so used Whimsical again. I initially tried Kumu, but couldn’t find an adequate way to represent what I wanted to include.
What is similar are the ‘blobs’ containing information, and the causal arrows pointing to and from each of them. I reorganised my trajectory map after I read that it should have a ‘temporal flow’ to it. In other words, it should be easy for the reader/viewer to understand the order in which things happened. In my case, it reads mainly left to right and top to bottom.
I found this relatively straightforward to do, as I didn’t stumble into this module but had thought carefully about what I wanted to do and why. For example, I had reflected that in the second half of my career I wanted to work on finding leverage points to effect change at scale. Systems Thinking seemed to be a good way of doing this, and fitted with my interests. I looked at the Masters-level courses available and rejected Cranfield’s MSc as it seemed too technology-focused. Likewise, although I enjoyed the UCL Short Course in Systems Thinking that I tried, it was again too technically-minded.
My aim is to use my background in the humanities to think much more on the human side of things. I’ve worked with the Open University before, and my dad loved his postgraduate studies through the OU when I was growing up. It seemed a good, flexible option, and I haven’t been proved wrong so far!
I would definitely like to be the kind of person who does an in-depth look back and analysis of each year. However, I’m usually so mentally and physically exhausted that the idea is anathema to me.
Given that I write weeknotes every week, I had the idea of just writing a short synopsis with a link to each of them. It’s better than nothing. I did 212 days of work and took 41 days of holiday (incl. public holidays) this year. I also took five days of professional development to do a course, and had one sick day.
Week 1 — I went straight from Christmas holidays into preparing for Catalyst work. At this point, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was going to remain part of We Are Open Co-op (WAO) after some internal drama saw two members leave. I was doing some work for Outlandish around what became Building OUT. We were still homeschooling the kids, had our house on the market, and I’d developed tendonitis from running with my shoes tied too tightly. The attempted coup happened at the US Capitol, just as we thought things in the world couldn’t get much worse after the Australian wildfires.
Week 2 — My son started the process of choosing his GCSE options, and it was my daughter’s birthday (double digits!) I kicked off the Catalyst sector challenge, working with a team I’d put together through Dynamic Skillset, as well as several charities trying to provide some digital assistance for those struggling to apply for Universal Credit. I scaled back my work with Outlandish, and did some strategy work with my WAO colleagues.
Week 3 — Joe Biden was successfully sworn in as 46th President of the USA. My son turned 14. My colleague Laura and I put together a pilot episode for a new podcast that we asked WAO members to fund. They agreed, and it turned into The Tao of WAO. I retired the wiki at neverendingthesis.com which had received almost a million visits before it fell over for the last time. I created a thesis page instead and moved my ebook to it, also making it free in the process.
Week 4 — I had a third-round interview at the Wikimedia Foundation for the Director of Anti-disinformation role which I’d applied for during the WAO turmoil. Ultimately, I didn’t get any further, but the thinking I did was shared in this blog post. All WAO members attended one of Outlandish’s Sociocracy 101 courses. The Catalyst UC project started to become a bit of a rollercoaster. Another Catalyst project, PM’d by Laura, started. I was on the team.
Week 5 — The two Catalyst projects continued, and I tied up my productisation work with Outlandish. I finished planning for a Getting Started with Digital Badges workshop I ran the following week. It rained a lot and, with it, days of migraines and pain disappeared.
Week 6 — This was a tough week on the Catalyst UC project, and I had to have several behind-the-scenes phone calls to straighten things out. I ran the badges workshop, helped Laura plan the other Catalyst work, and practised some sociocratic decision-making in our co-op half-day.
Week 7 — Half-term week, so I took Monday and Friday off to be with the kids. On the other three days, I was in work mode on the Catalyst projects, and thinking about my future career. I potentially slipped a couple of discs in my lower back after landing with a bump on a sledge going down a snowy hill.
Week 8 — More work on the two Catalyst projects, with the UC one really coming together through some prototyping. I watched the sun rise at Cresswell as I couldn’t get back to sleep. The government announced that the UK was coming out of lockdown, which was a relief but also caused anxiety as Hannah and I were still unvaccinated.
Week 9 — I started a new side project called eink.link focused on providing links to websites that work well on e-ink screens (like Kindles). More work on the two Catalyst projects, including some difficulties doing remote user testing. Lots of business development, and we took the house off the market after a chat with a mortgage advisor.
Week 10 — Our children went back to school this week, which they were enthusiastic about. We ran a ‘show and tell’ session for the DWP and other interested parties about the work we’d done on the UC project, and got great feedback. The other Catalyst project felt a lot like ‘teaching’. I still wasn’t doing much exercise due to my back hurting. I read the Deep Adaptation paper and freaked out a little.
Week 11 — I was surprised to get my first Covid vaccine, after being contacted by my GP surgery and being notified that I was on the ‘vulnerable’ list (I’ve got asthma). The UC project entered what I thought was going to be the second-last week, and the other Catalyst project chugged along nicely.
Week 12 — I started a new side project called extinction.fyi as I didn’t think people were taking the climate emergency seriously enough. I attended an RSA Cities of Learning Summit, worked on the playback deck for the UC project, and continued work on the other Catalyst project. I wasn’t yet back at the gym due to residual back pain.
Week 13 — It was the first week of the Easter holidays, so I did a three-day work week with one of those days including a workshop for NEAR. It was the first time WAO did work in the crypto space, and the first time we got paid partly in fiat and partly in crypto! I messed about with olderappropriate technology and started a conversation with a neighbour about the climate emergency.
Week 14 — Perhaps because it was the second week of the Easter holidays and I wasn’t doing much exercise, I started another side project called privacy.garden. This is a WordPress site that automatically pulls in RSS feeds from privacy-focused websites, combines them, and displays the resulting ‘megazorded’ feed. I configured a Minecraft server for the kids.
Week 15 — My wife, Hannah, was away for the first time for a week looking after her mother. My mother helped with a range of things while I otherwise solo-parented. WAO ran another workshop for NEAR, worked on the staging site for our new website, and continued the Catalyst project.
Week 16 — I checked myself out of therapy after a marked improvement, and bought my kids a memento mori each as a reminder to ‘seize the day’. My son was stretchered off the football pitch after going into shock when he damaged the nerve between his neck and shoulder. He had the week off school. I bought some KORG Volca synths after cashing in some of my crypto.
Week 17 — We celebrated five years of the co-op on International Workers Day and wrapped up the Catalyst project. The UC project received some continuation funding so we started experimenting with merging two of the prototypes. WAO did some work on a project that still can’t be named with Greenpeace and kicked off some new work with Participate. I spent a ridiculous amount of time researching smartwatches and redesigned my personal website to be under 1KB in size.
Week 18 — I managed to get back to some kind of normality with my exercise and so decided on, and bought, a Garmin Venu 2S smartwatch. I worked on Greenpeace, Participate, and Catalyst UC projects. We booked an (expensive!) short holiday for when lockdown restrictions were to be lifted.
Week 19 — Hannah was away again looking after her mother, so I was solo parenting again. While we were apart, we celebrated both 21 years of being together (half our lives!) and her getting a User Researcher contract with the NHS Digital team. I tied up the ends of the UC project, and continued work on Greenpeace and Participate projects, as well as doing some business development.
Weeks 20 & 21 — Laura took three weeks off to go travelling, including the second of these weeks. Team Belshaw also went away just over the border to Scotland for a much-needed break. I started a new regime and approach with Thought Shrapnel.
Week 22 — I spent most of the week on holiday and experimented with not taking L-Theanine for a few days. We converted the weird landing / small room thing next to the bedroom in our loft conversion into an office for Hannah.
Week 23 — I got up early on Wednesday to the first 10k run since hurting my back, running on the beach. I got blisters. Laura was still away, and so I carried on with work for Greenpeace and Participate, as well as providing advice for the founders of gradu.al. Team Belshaw went kayaking as we didn’t get the chance while on holiday due to sea fret. My office roof was re-felted.
Week 24 — Hannah was away for a third time looking after her mother. Laura was back from her three-week holiday full of energy. I facilitated a Catalyst network engagement working group session, recorded another episode of our podcast, and did some consulting around LMS strategy.
Week 25 — A quiet week, work-wise, so I did more writing than usual on the blog and Thought Shrapnel. My family spoiled me with a half-cake for my half-birthday!
Week 26 — I did a marvellous overnight wild camp on the Scottish border which involved a four-hour walk there and a four-hour walk back. Hannah started her NHS 111 contract but then had to fly at short notice to see her mother. We watched a lot of the Euro 2020 football tournament. On the work front I updated an introductory course on badges ready for some client work and handed over the Universal Credit project for further development.
Week 27 — My mother-in-law sadly passed away after what proved to be her final battle in a longer war against the ravages of cancer. I began growing tomato plants up the wall of my office after a neighbour’s gift, and I spent a lot of time researching one-person tents after realising my camping gear is too heavy for me in my forties…
Week 28 — I spent the working week on a Sustainable Leadership and Deep Adaptation course. We kept the kids off school for the last few days of the summer term in case they caught Covid and couldn’t attend their granny’s funeral. After an inordinate amount of research, I bought new camping gear, and I flipped over dougbelshaw.com to a new super-small filesize version.
Week 29 — This was a busy week which included the funeral in Devon as well as kicking off work with Julie’s Bicycle and Outlandish. We’d already planned to be in Devon on holiday anyway, so after the funeral we stayed down there.
Week 30 — We watched a lot of the Olympics during this holiday week. I took the kids cycling along the River Exe from Exeter to Starcross. Our eldest got stung by a wasp and our youngest fell off her bike into a hedge while looking at a plane! I discovered Genesis Foods and, determined to lose pandemic pounds, started ordering their nutritionally complete meal replacement powder.
Week 31 — A relaxing, enjoyable week back home. Hannah was in back-to-back meetings with her new job, and I split my time between Julie’s Bicycle, the Keep Badges Weird project with Participate, and some digital support for charities, funded by Catalyst.
Week 32 — We met up with Hannah’s side of the family in Lincolnshire for an enjoyable weekend, and finally got to the bottom of my son’s neck/shoulder injury after another trip to A&E.
Week 33 — I went camping with my 10 year-old daughter on the North York Moors. There were lots of flying insects and it rained, but we had fun! I ended up doing so little work this week that I thought that it might be worth just having August off next year.
Week 34 — The plan was to do a walk and some wild camping with my son this week, but in the end his neck/shoulder wasn’t up to carrying a rucksack. Work continued to be pretty chill.
Week 35 — I recorded some microcasts over at Thought Shrapnel and stopped updating extinction.fyi as people seemed to have finally cottoned on to the climate emergency. Hannah’s NHS Digital contract was renewed, and I did some more wild camping. I read, and really enjoyed, The Book of Trespass.
Week 36 — Back-to-school week, which in these pandemic times isn’t to be taken for granted. I got stuck into work for Julie’s Bicycle with Laura, and tried to get back into the habit of exercising as part of my recovery from damaging my right rotator cuff. I started what became my September series of microadventuring in my new one-person tent.
Week 37 — Hannah and I went away to celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary and then I did some more wild camping, walking west from Morpeth. I spent some time researching and purchasing equipment to transform the small room-cum-landing next to our bedroom into Hannah’s home office.
Week 38 — I decided this week not to fly anymore, except in extenuating circumstances such as family emergencies. More wild camping. I started working with a neighbour on a plan to start a Climate Café in Morpeth. Northumbrian Water came to do some work on a leak just outside our property.
Week 39 — Work with Participate and Julie’s Bicycle continued while Hannah went to Devon for an NHS Digital meetup and to see her family. We surprised my Dad with a meal out for his birthday, and the saga with Northumbrian Water and our insurance company continued. Laura went on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I was holding the fort both personally and professionally.
Week 40 — I suffered a pretty bad migraine which I tracked down to annatto in one of the additional birthday cakes which we had for my father’s birthday. It knocked me out for a whole working day. I finally got around to going to the physio for my rotator cuff injury, and I had a couple of interviews for jobs from which I subsequently withdrew. A slug slithered across my forehead while I was asleep. Yes, you read that correctly.
Week 41 — I didn’t sleep very well all week after the slug incident. I spoke at Israel EdTech Week and was a guest on the EPALE podcast. It was Hannah’s birthday so we both took the day off and did some walking, eating, and drinking. I continued helping Julie’s Bicycle with recruitment.
Week 42 — My shoulder started feeling better after doing daily exercises recommended by the physio. Laura and I met with Catalyst and others to figure out how to form a coalition to help cohorts of charities with digital transformation. We helped Julie’s Bicycle with a (successful) Arts Council England funding bid for their work next year.
Week 43 — We went away for a few nights during half-term to Dumfries & Galloway and did some great mountain biking in the Forest of Ae. I was still suffering with residual sleep issues due to the slug incident.
Week 44 — Our 14 year-old son was absolutely wiped out by having both Covid and flu jabs on the same day, and took two days off school. His temperature was sky high and he was shaking. I was notified that the bid to take me over to the Netherlands for the Dutch National Libraries conference was successful, so I started planning my ferry trip…
Week 45 — I got my first cold in a few years this week, so took it easy rather than trying to push through it as I’ve often tried (and failed) to do. Work continued with Julie’s Bicycle and Participate, and I recorded three podcast episodes with Laura. We were supposed to run the first Climate Café, but the neighbour I was organising it with got sick the day before.
Week 46 — A podcast episode I recorded on Open Badges and Verifiable Credentials in the summer was finally published. Some work we’d been developing over the previous six months didn’t go ahead due to procurement issues relating to Brexit. In addition, increasing Covid restrictions in the Netherlands meant that the Dutch National Libraries conference was postponed. We got confirmation of more work with Greenpeace in the new year, some of which I might be involved with.
Week 47 — We celebrated my mother’s 70th birthday after watching an England Women’s game at the Stadium of Light. Storm Arwen wreaked havoc and brought down trees. I pre-recorded a very enjoyable conversation as the panel keynote for the ICoBC Symposium. John told us he’d handed in his notice and so was looking forward to doing more work through the co-op in the new year!
Week 48 — My energy levels plummeted as we crossed the line into December. I tried to get out of the house and work in coffee shops, which was a little problematic due to the rise in Covid cases, but I just needed a change. Hannah’s work travel plans were cancelled for the same reason.
Week 49 — This was my last full work week of 2021. I ate a lot of mince pies, trying every supermarket’s brands rating them accordingly. We had a Christmas light switch-on with our neighbours, followed by a buffet and a nice evening of catching-up with everyone. I bought a Covid-related ornament for our Christmas tree.
Week 50 — I worked two days, then travelled to the Peak District for a walk with Bryan, before getting my Covid booster jab. We had a remote WAO Christmas party, and the en-suite roof was re-plastered and painted.
With Buster Benson’s classic post as a touchstone, it’s clear to me after putting this together that I spent the first part of the year in ‘Flow Mode’ and then the rest of the year I’ve been alternating between ‘Work Mode’ and ‘Recovery Mode’. There’s no normal to return to any more, but I’m really looking forward to some kind of post-pandemic stability. Is that too much to wish for in 2022?
Photo of an end-of-year collage I put together to represent 2021.