Open Thinkering


Tag: STiP

TB872: The role of narrative in STiP

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 abstract depiction of the journey of storytelling, reflecting the transition from past experiences to anticipated future narratives. This image symbolizes the importance of stories in personal and professional growth and captures the shift in storytelling techniques and their impact on identity formation and worldview, in line with Systems Thinking in Practice.

As I get older, I find myself consciously shaping the stories I tell for impact. This might be informally, over a drink or on the side of a football pitch, but equally it could be at work. The stories that we tell about ourselves and others are often, ultimately about identity and worldview. Narratives are therefore a fundamental consideration with Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP).

From the course materials:

Constructing a story or narrative is a very human thing to do. Some people are better at it than others, but at some level we all compose stories that we tell ourselves about what we have done, what we might do or about situations and others. Key capabilities within STiP are:

  • to be sufficiently aware i.e. critically reflexive, to appreciate your own stories that make you who you are. These stories/narratives constitute your traditions of understanding out of which you think and act;
  • to appreciate the cultural, including professional, narratives in which you and others are immersed;
  • being willing to amend our stories i.e., open to learning, when something discordant with our story becomes apparent (even as a sense of unease). We (as individuals, groups, communities, or societies) have the choice of rejecting, adapting or expanding our story;
  • to be able to actively listen and create enabling conditions for others to tell their story – something they may have never done before

The table below is one that the course authors shared which they consider helpful for structure when questioning and listening to others.

PastPresentAnticipated future
Issue/driving force/concern

All stories have some form of meaning, otherwise there would be little point in telling them. For example, meaning could be literal, it could be symbolic, or it could be ritualistic. Ultimately, though, as I mentioned above, they’re about identity and worldview — confirming or distancing ourselves from some other kind of group.

Narrative can be thought of as a combination of three aspects: (i) stories, (ii) the telling of them and (iii) their meaning. Stories consist of a series of events around a theme as told by the storyteller. In narrative, meaning consists of more than the events alone (as in storytelling) – it also consists of the significance these events have for the narrator and the listeners in relation to a particular theme (Polkinghorne, 1988, p. 160).

A couple of days ago, Andrew Curry reminded me that the author Kurt Vonnegut created graphs to illustrate the world’s most popular stories. He found, like others before and after him, that there are essentially seven types. The one below, for example, is a Cinderella-type story:

This image illustrates Kurt Vonnegut's concept of graphing stories. The graph plots the protagonist's fortune over time, with the vertical axis representing the spectrum from ill fortune to good fortune and the horizontal axis marking the story's progression from beginning to end. The dotted line traces the fluctuating fortunes of Cinderella, starting with a low point, rising to a peak of good fortune, dropping back down, and then soaring to infinite good fortune at the story's end, as indicated by the infinity symbol. The graph conveys the narrative arc of Cinderella's tale in a simple, visual form.

Likewise, when you listen to stories from founders of companies, or middle managers, or people who have had a hard life, you start to be able to categorise them. This can be particularly useful when working with clients, as you can either reinforce the story that they’re telling others (and therefore themselves) or you can help them change their story (and therefore their self-image). This works for organisations as well as individuals, because what are organisations other than collections of people?

The example I’ll share reinforces the DAD vs EDD post I wrote yesterday, based on course materials I found particularly enlightening. I’ll use the table above as a structure to indicate a clash between the story that the founder was telling themselves and their organisation, and the story we as consultants were trying to tell them.

To recap: the acronym DAD (decide-announce-defend) describes an approach where an individual or organisation decides on something, announces it to stakeholders, and then has to defend the decision when things don’t go to plan. The acronym EDD (engage-deliberate-decide), meanwhile, describes a transparent, collaborative, and inclusive process with stakeholder engagement from the outset.

I think it’s fair to say that the client, run by a founder who is well-known in the sector, employed a DAD approach to change. The organisation in question provided a tool which was used widely in the sector they support. However, they realised that it needed updating and so asked one of our more technical sister cooperatives for some help. That co-op brought us in to help with some of the change management side of things.

Without getting into details, on reflection the following table summarises the narrative from the client’s point of view:

PastPresentAnticipated future
Issue/driving force/concernImportant big issue for sectorImproving and scaling the tool with funding from partner orgFinancial sustainability and relevance
Action(s)Creation of tool to help with big issue in sectorGetting in outside technical help to assist with tool and map future optionsIncreased funding, hiring, and training
Usefulness/resultEstablishment of metrics for the sectorIteration of tool and creation of new tool to help with big issue in sector; hiring of new Digital Lead roleIncreased digital capacity

We did a lot of work on this project, but ultimately the vision terrified the founder. We moved too quickly for them, leaning too heavily on our ‘expert’ credentials and not explaining well enough their next steps.

From our point of view:

PastPresentAnticipated future
Issue/driving force/concernImportant big issue for sector; reputation of organisation and founder in particularFinancial stability and relevance of the organisationIncreased organisational relevance, reputation, and impact
Action(s)Creation of a tool which was created and maintained by a freelancer (who was sometimes unavailable)Working collaboratively with sister co-op on deliverables for current project; mapping future options to diversify fundingMaking first digital hires, announcing pivot in business model
Usefulness/resultEstablishment of metrics for the sector, based on a tool which was increasingly unfit for purposeDocumentation of a different business model to enable a new version of the tool(s) to be white-labelled by other organisationsDiversified funding streams, impact on big issue for sector, long-term sustainability

The subtle mismatch between these tables was enough for us and the organisation to decide to go our separate ways. Although we did help them make their first digital hire, that person then, in effect, became their in-house consultancy.

Reflecting on this using the modified PFMS heuristic introduced in this activity (L = Learning, T = Tools):

PFMS diagram with addition of L (Learning) arrows coming out of Situation for both Practitioners. There are also T (Tools) arrows pointing from M (Methods) to the Situation.
Modified PFMS diagram based on an original provided by the TB872 course authors. Tap to enlarge.

Together with the tables, this diagram should help explain how the difference in frameworks and methods led to a lack of shared future vision for the organisation. We reflect on this occasionally as a co-op in relation to current clients. This activity has helped me, personally, understand what happened in a new way. Although we tried to be consultative, the clash of frameworks was never adequately resolved, meaning that the founder could describe us as ‘not understanding’ the sector.

If and when I come across this situation again, I will explicitly use the DAD vs EDD language to explain the importance of early stakeholder engagement, iteration, and a systemic view of the problem in hand. In founder-led organisations, there tends to be a lot of ego and emotion bound up with the future success or failure of the organisation, which we would do well to remember. Sometimes things need to be said one-to-one instead of to a wider group.

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Moving into Part 2 (a systemic inquiry into systems thinking in 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 DALL-E 3 created image conveying the concept of growth and preparedness for new challenges through its use of abstract forms and a vibrant colour scheme, representing learning and intellectual development.

There’s no rest for the wicked and, so after submitting my first tutor-marked assessment marking the end of Part 1 of this module, it’s time to get started with Part 2. I’m in Vienna at a conference next week, and then of course it’s Christmas, so I’d like to front-load as much of the work in this part as possible.

Part 2 is designed to enable you to become an effective Systems Thinking Practitioner and to use your STiP literacy and capabilities to undertake systemic inquiries which effect change that can make a difference.

In the course materials, Part 2 starts with some fantastic quotations, some of which I’d like to share here:

A caterpillar grows by getting longer and fatter, but this can only go on for a while before it reaches the limit…. It has to go through a transformation in how it is organised and how it relates to the world around it. The caterpillar changes the pattern of its life, abandoning the old and adopting the new. Similarly, we recognise the need for transformational change when we see that the way things are getting done now has limit; that we cannot get beyond these limits however much we try to improve the existing system, and that we must, as a result, create a new pattern of life for the future we want and need.

(Sharpe, 2020 p. 5; as quoted in Ofir, 2020)

This analogy captures a core principle of Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) around the necessity for transformational change in systems. Like the caterpillar, systems have inherent limits to incremental growth and ‘efficiency improvements’. At some point, continuous small-scale enhancements are no longer sufficient, so a fundamental reorganisation/overhaul of the system is required.

The caterpillar’s metamorphosis into a butterfly is symbolic of the emergence of new patterns and behaviours in a system. The analogy is also instructive in terms of the need for the proactive creation of new systems aligned with desired future states. In other words, the caterpillar doesn’t become a butterfly by being more caterpillar.

When we must deal with problems, we instinctively refuse to try the way that leads through darkness and obscurity. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness.

(Jung, 1933, p. 111)

This quotation from Carl Jung emphasises the importance of embracing complexity and uncertainty in systemic problem-solving. With STiP, complex problems often have many interdependencies and hidden factors (“darkness and obscurity”) meaning that STiP practitioners need to be ready to engage with uncertain and ambiguous situations. Real-world problems rarely have obvious, clear-cut solutions, so journeying into the complexities to find a solution can involve courage to face the uncertain.

Of any stopping place in life, it is good to ask whether it will be a good place from which to go on as well as a good place to remain.

(Bateson, 2001 p. 14)

As I’m learning in the book Systems Thinkers there were quite a few prominent people relating to systems thinking with the surname Bateson. All were related. This quotation is from Mary Catherine Bateson, and emphasises how systems are dynamic. A ‘stopping place’ is therefore not just a static point but part of a larger, continuously evolving process. In others words, every state within a system is provisional and transitional.

This is similar to to something I often say in terms of “every technology is a bridging technology”. In other words, it’s the direction of travel that’s important when thinking about technologies, not whether this or that is the perfect technology for all time. Bateson’s reference to evaluating a place as both good to remain and to move on from resonates with me in terms of continual learning and adaptability.

With STiP, it’s important to keep reassessing situations, acknowledging that strategies and solutions effective in one context may need changing or adapting for future challenges. This mindset is forward-looking, and the value of any current state is assessed not only in terms of its immediate benefits, but but also by its capacity to enable and support future growth.

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: An inquiry into my practice for managing change with STiP

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.

DALL-E 3 created abstract image representing the concept of systemic inquiry and personal reflection on managing systemic change. It visually captures the complex network of interconnected paths, embodying decision-making processes, problem-solving approaches, and the balancing of different life roles. The elements within the image suggest themes of communication, collaboration, diverse viewpoints integration, stress management, and personal habits, all contributing to a holistic perspective on systemic thinking. This image encapsulates the dynamics of personal and professional life within the realm of systems thinking.

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:

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?
  9. 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?
  10. 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.

Image: DALL-E 3