Open Thinkering


Tag: situation of concern

TB872: Situations of concern, systems of interest, and PQR statements

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

A DALL-E 3 created image representing the concept of a 'system of interest' within a broader 'situation of concern'. Each image employs abstract elements to symbolize the contrast between the specific, focused nature of a system of interest and the encompassing, general nature of the situation of concern. The designs use contrasting colors, shapes, and patterns to visually differentiate between the detailed, concentrated system of interest and the larger, more diffuse field of the situation of concern.

I’ve already pointed out in this module how difficult it can be when there are two words which are often used in a similar situation that look or sound the same. So, for example systemic (something that relates to, or affects, an entire system as a whole, rather than just its individual parts) and systematic (a process or method that is done according to a fixed plan or system).

Only slightly less confusing, until you get your head around it is the difference between a situation of concern and a system of interest. I thought the best way to illustrate it might be to come up with my own example, rather than use the one in the course materials. So let’s talk about football (soccer).

In the last decade, Video Assistant Referees (VAR) have become an increasingly large part of the professional game. This has had a huge impact on the sport: it’s changed the way matches are officiated, the way players interact with referees (and one another), and even affected how long spectators need to allow for getting home at the end of a game, as they often massively ‘overrun’.

Let’s imagine a football coach whose team has won promotion from the Championship (no VAR) to the Premier League (VAR). From pre-season training onwards, while VAR has always been part of the coach’s situation of concern, it’s now part of their system of interest. That is to say, whereas previously it might have only affected the sport that he coaches more generally, and perhaps the occasional cup game that the team he coaches plays in, now he needs to prepare for VAR being a factor in most matches.

That means the coach needs to understand the intricacies of VAR, choose and apply relevant frameworks (e.g. adapting team strategies), and make explicit choices and changes. This might even involve the recommendation of buying new players, or training in a different way. An example of the latter would be that if a game is likely to be more stop-start and players are likely to be out on the pitch for, say, 105 minutes instead of 90 minutes, then they should be prepared for this.

To summarise, then, the coach is a practitioner whose situation of concern (the world of football) has changed in a way directly related to their system of interest (the team they coach).

Thinking about module TB872 as a system of interest to me, as a practitioner, this brings us to the Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) of thinkers like Peter Checkland. SSM is a useful methodology when dealing with situations where there are significant social, political, and other ‘human’ components. It does not assume that there is a single, objective ‘problem’ to be solved, but rather recognises that there are many different perceptions of problems. It therefore offers a structured approach to explore these differing perceptions among stakeholders.

We’re not going into too much detail around SSM right now, just looking at what are called PQR statements. These take the following format:

A system to do P (what) by Q (how) because of R (why).

As the course materials note, the simplest way of referring to the ‘change’ that occurs in us as practitioners because of our involvement in the TB872 as students is represented in this diagram:

Practitioner on the left wearing blue shirt and same practitioner now on the right wearing a purple shirt (to represent difference). In the middle is a box labelled 'The TB872 module' with arrows pointing from the practitioner on the left to the box, and then from the box to the practitioner as represente on the right.

The interesting thing, of course, is what’s in the box. Representing it using a PQR statement from my own perspective might yield:

A system to develop my systems literacy by helping me reflect and complete activities about Systems Thinking because of a need to improve my practice.

It’s a bit of a clunky statement, so the concise version is probably: “A system to develop my systems literacy through the use of reflective activities that help me improve my practice”.

Thinking about that ‘black box’, this is a brief and cursory overview of what’s inside it, from my point of view:

(tap to enlarge)

As the course materials state, everyone’s diagrams will be slightly different. I noticed that the module authors’ focused very much on the way that the module is organised rather than on the way it is experienced, for example. This is something I would go into a bit more, if it wasn’t for the fact that I’m rushing to get this done on a weekend inbetween driving my kids between sporting activities and social engagements!

To conclude, then, the system of interest for me is shown above in the diagram I have drawn. This sits within a wider situation of concern, which could be thought of as being my whole MSc, or (given that I’ve already referred to my family) my life as a husband and parent. A systems diagram like this is to show in a visual way systematically desirable change from a particular point of view. I always find visual aids useful when talking to others and helping them explain a point of view, and so getting better at these will help my practice no end.

Top image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Systemic praxis and epistemological devices

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.

As a Philosophy graduate, I’m entirely comfortable both in using terms such as ontology and epistemology, and also unphased when other start throwing them around as well. After all, most of the time, what people are talking about is what exists (ontology), or what/how we can know things (epistemology).

So from a Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) perspective, it makes sense to be talking about ‘epistemological devices’. These are just ways of knowing about a particular situation. Meanwhile, ‘systemic praxis’ just means ‘theory informed practice within a systems thinking context’.

Diagram of woman thinking about a situation of concern. Text reads: 'Systemic praxis involves a practitioner (s) bringing forth a relational dynamic between a system and an environment mediated by a boundary judgement. For an aware systems practitioner a system of interest is an epistemological device - a way of knowing about a situation.'

Putting it all together makes it seem all academic but really all that’s happening is that we’re saying people look at things in different ways because they have different backgrounds and ways of understanding the world. They also are likely to be thinking about things at different scale. In the example above, which is a screenshot from a video on the course, the person/practitioner could be thinking about the pond in terms of the production of fish, or in terms of increasing biodiversity.

In both cases the ‘boundary’ of the system is the pond itself, within a wider ‘situation of concern’. However the purpose is different. The point when drawing diagrams like this isn’t to try and capture some kind of objective view of a situation, which would be impossible. Rather, it’s a good way of helping understand and communicate with others the way you see it.

I particularly liked the way that the course authors explained how STiP fits, like Russian dolls, inside wider issues — for example, systems literacy and systemic sensibilities. Crucially, they’re then situated within what is labelled the ‘technosphere’ and the ‘biosphere’. In other words, everything is connected.

Person with thought bubble which includes nested ideas from 'Systems thinking in practice capability' through to 'Biosphere'

In addition, it’s fascinating to see how they break down what they’ve learned about studnets on Systems Thinking-related course over the last 50 years or so. There have been over 40,000 students, and they’ve started to notice some patterns.

A ‘rule of thumb’ is now recognised: about one third of students come with a strongly held systemic sensibility. For this cohort, discovering systems thinking through formal study offers solace, and gives credibility to the way in which they intuitively understand the world. It is a great relief for them to know that they are not alone, that there is a language and concepts that make sense of the way they think. For another third, study of Systems creates ‘aha moments’. This is when realisation dawns that you can appreciate your own thinking … and act to change it. For the final third, the courses lead to a sort of personal precipice, one might say a challenge to their sense of identity, because systems thinking challenges what they are good at or how they have succeeded in their world. Fear of change undoubtedly plays a part.

I’m definitely in the first cohort, the ones with a ‘strongly held systemic sensibility’. The reason I’m finding the module so interesting is because it really gives me for the first time a way of explaining something I find innate.