Open Thinkering


Tag: STiP

TB871: Three activities associated with using a STiP heuristic for making strategy

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

In a previous post, I recreated the STiP heuristic diagram that was introduced in the module materials:

A heuristic diagram for Systems Thinking in Practice with a cyclical flow of several stages indicating a process for dealing with complex situations, involving understanding interrelationships, engaging with multiple perspectives, and using conceptual tools.

This suggests three ‘conversations’ when using a bricolage approach: conversing with the situation (1), conversing with other practitioners about the situation (2), and conversing with yourself in reflecting on two prior conversations (3).

Activity 1.19 (Open University, 2020) asks what is specific in each conversation about STiP as praxis (i.e. the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practised, embodied, or realised)

Conversation 1: Situation

This conversation focuses on sense-making within complex, real-world situations, with the practitioner aiming to explore and examine these situations as an agent of change. As such, it emphasises the importance of developing an understanding of the interrelationships involved.

In addition, the practitioner is seeking through the ‘conversation’ to identify and connect relevant variables in order to form as holistic a picture as possible. It’s important to ensure that they are mindful that complexities do not always fit neatly into pre-defined views.

Third, this conversation centres on traditional Systems Thinking approaches which aim to see both the forest and threes. In other words, it involves understanding the larger system while recognising its individual components.

Conversation 2: Other Practitioners

This second conversation involves engaging with various practitioners to understand and strategise about the situation. This includes modelling different perspectives using systems tools to develop a shared model of action.

In this phase, the need to empathise with, and incorporate diverse, often contrasting, perspectives is foregrounded. The aim here is to develop effective strategies without dismissing views that could hinder their implementation.

The main focus here is on practical challenges, such as capturing perspectives and working with them to understand interrelationships more effectively and empathetically. This could be called collaborative modelling.

Conversation 3: Yourself

The third conversation is an internal, reflective process where the practitioner balances idealised systems models with the realities of the situation. This is a continuous process that involves reflecting on the boundaries and judgements made about the system designed to improve the situation.

Evaluating systemic desirability and cultural feasibilty of the strategies proposed is key to this phase. In other words, is this what people want, and is the change likely be able to happen given the culture surrounding it? Potential difficulties with implementation need to be addressed here, including extremes around holism (including everybody) and pluralism (including everybody’s views).

This conversation addresses the challenges of dealing with partiality and bias in making boundary judgements. Systems are human constructs, so they are inherently partial and biased, which means we must continually adapt to changing circumstances and stakeholder values.

I’ve come to enjoy figuring out boundary judgements over the last few months as I’ve been studying (Conversation 1) and I’m reasonably confident with Conversation 3 in terms of reflecting on my practice. I suppose it’s Conversation 2 in terms of dealing with other people’s differences in use of language and ways of understanding the world that I sometimes struggle with.

It’s also increasingly difficult to deal with people who neither have a background in STiP nor perhaps are ‘natural’ systems thinkers. With that, I found something recently by John Cutler on LinkedIn (thanks Amber and Abi!) which can help with that. I’ve included his full list below, and one of the illustrations by Viktor Cessan:

An illustration of three nested squares with connecting lines and arrows depicting layers of complexity, and a statement at the top about problem descriptions being overwhelming.

20 Things I’ve Learned as a Systems (Over) Thinker

  1. Take care of yourself. Your brain is working overtime—all the time. Practice “radical” recovery.
  2. You may spend a lot longer thinking about things than most people. Pace your delivery.
  3. If you go deep first, and then simplify…keep in mind that you don’t need to show all of your work.
  4. Your default description of (almost) any problem will be too threatening/overwhelming.
  5. Do your deepest thinking with co-conspirators (not the people you’re trying to influence).
  6. Informal influence is often not formally recognized. Prepare mentally for this.
  7. The people you’re trying to influence spend 98% of their day overwhelmed by business as usual.
  8. Remember to also do the job you were hired to do (if you don’t you’ll be easier to discount).
  9. Seek “quick wins”, but know that most meaningful things will take a while.
  10. Some things take ages to materialize. It is discontinuous, not continuous.
  11. Make sure to celebrate your wins. They will be few and far between, so savor the moment.
  12. The people who support you in private may not be able to support you in public. Accept that.
  13. Hack existing power structures—it’s much easier than trying to change them.
  14. Consider becoming a formal leader. It’s harder in many ways, but you’ll have more leverage. What’s stopping you?
  15. In lieu of being a formal leader, make sure to partner with people who actually “own” the area of change.
  16. Watch out for imposing your worldview on people. Have you asked about what people care about?.
  17. You’ll need a support network. And not just a venting network. Real support.
  18. “Know when to fold ‘em”. Listen to Kenny Rogers The Gambler. Leave on your own terms.
  19. Don’t confuse being able to sense/see system dynamics, with being about to “control” them. You can’t.
  20. Grapple with your demons, and make sure not to wrap up too much of your identity in change.


TB871: A Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) heuristic

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

There are three core activities with Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP):

  1. Understanding interrelationships (uIR)
  2. Engaging with multiple perspectives (eMP)
  3. Reflecting on boundary judgements (rBJ)

These three activities can be translated into a learning system, or ‘heuristic’ which is presented in the module materials in the following way:

A heuristic diagram for Systems Thinking in Practice with a cyclical flow of five stages indicating a process for dealing with complex situations, involving understanding interrelationships, engaging with multiple perspectives, and using conceptual tools. Two silhouetted figures of people face the diagram.

Unlike TB872, this module doesn’t have such great diagrams. I’m not so good at making them, but I can’t live my life looking at this one repeatedly! So I’ve recreated it:

The same diagram as above, in a different illustrative style

There is a video associated with this task (Activity 1.13) which refers to the three areas of this diagram as:

  1. Events
  2. People
  3. Ideas

This is perhaps a more intuitive and easy-to-remember way of referring to the parts labelled Situations, People, and Tools. Here’s an extended quotation from the transcript to the video which helps explain the STiP heuristic:

Real world situations are often rendered intuitively as systems, such as the health system, or the financial system, or an ecosystem. Such renderings as systems can be a useful means for then engineering change. So for example, messy financial affairs might be more formally rendered as a budgeting system, which has clear inputs and outputs that might be more easily managed.

The danger is in fooling ourselves that such rendered systems are the actual reality. It’s confusing the map as a system for the actual territory, the reality of the situation. Like any map, much is left out.


A starting point for a systems thinking approach is working with complicated and complex issues. So systems thinking might be regarded as an endeavour to render complicated, complex, conflictual situations into bounded, conceptual construct, that is, systems for analysis and design, or more specifically, using systems for making strategy. The Systems Thinking in Practice heuristic, or a STiP heuristic as we will call it from now on, is one such learning system; a mental model or idea used as a device for learning about situations of interest and making a strategy to transform them into something better.

(Open University, 2020)

The rest of the video goes on to explain the difference between ‘complicatedness’ (which I don’t think is an actual word?) and ‘complexity’ and also defines a ‘wicked problem’. I’ve summarised these below:

  • Complicatedness refers to situations that have many parts that need to be arranged in a certain way. Although it might be tough to solve, it can figure be figured it out with enough expertise or detailed analysis. For example, fixing a broken car is complicated because it requires specific knowledge about the car’s parts and how they work together.
  • Complexity relates to a situation is one where everything is interconnected and changes can happen unexpectedly as a result of these connections. Small changes or actions can have big, unpredictable effects. For instance, the stock market is complex because many unpredictable factors can affect stock prices. See also the butterfly effect.
  • Wicked problems are tough issues that are difficult to solve because it involves incomplete or contradictory information and changes depending on how people perceive it. These problems are tricky because they are not just hard to solve; they are hard to define. For example, climate change is a wicked problem because it involves many factors and opinions, and solutions are not straightforward.

In addition, a mess is when several complicated and complex issues are all tangled up together, making it hard to see where one problem starts and another ends. Messes are chaotic and hard to sort out because solving one problem might affect another part of the mess. A city’s transportation system can be a mess because it involves roads, traffic laws, public transportation, and the behaviors of thousands of people.

I’m composing this in my local library, run by Northumberland County Council. It’s housed within the new leisure centre. Earlier this week, I was at a Design Sprint session as part of the Thinking Digital conference which was run by members of the digital team at the council. The situation we chose to address as a team was library provision, with visitor numbers going down.

Right now, as I’m trying to work, there is a group of older people meeting in the study space as part of a social group. They’ve having coffee and tea, which is not usually allowed in this space. Given the noise, I’ll probably end up decamping to a coffee shop and may not return on a Friday. This could be seen as a small example of a ‘mess’ which would also involve opening hours, underfunding, and even popular conceptions of what libraries are for.

In fact, come to think of it, this might be a good topic to focus on for my assessments for this module. I shall ponder that further… 🤔


TB872: Revisiting my learning contract

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.

At the end of November, I was asked to come up with a learning contract. You can see my post about it here, and the table I produced can be found below. I’ll call this one Version 1 (v1).

Original learning contract

As part of the learning process, we’re asked to go back and revisit this based on what we’ve learned since doing this. So below is my updated version (v2), with new additions to the ‘Notes’ section in bold, a new colour to differentiate it, and strikethrough formatting on words I’ve removed.

Version 2 of my learning contract

I’ll admit to being quite confused by the difference between S1 and S2. I still am to some degree, although I’ve got more of a grip on it than before. As you can see, my S1 in v1 applies to a client situation, which is actually an S2. In v2 of my learning contract, I correct that.

The words in bold that I’ve added show my additional learning over the past month or so. In particular, what I’ve learned from Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act about systems thinking as a social dynamic and as a process. I’ve also realised through some of the readings just how important it is to take a holistic view of a particular situation of interest. This is crucial for those in leadership positions, but it’s also important for everyone in an organisation to have some kind of understanding of the whole.

One of the things that’s fascinating is to see how my own understanding of “what I do when I do what I do” has developed over the weeks since I started this module. As my (second) rich picture shows, I’ve been reflecting on tendencies that I have to fight against in terms of perfectionism and control.

What I’ve noticed is how I have come to learn about STiP at pretty much an ideal time in my life. As I was explaining to someone recently, if I had studied systems thinking earlier, I wouldn’t have been ready; I need the lived experience for it to be worthwhile. Coupled with the academic study I’ve done and the approach I took to my doctoral thesis, what I’m doing here feels like a logical extension.

I’m particularly interested in leverage points, and have come to realise that it’s only really possible to identify them once you’ve spoke to plenty of people within a particular situation of concern, and (visually) mapped it out. I’m really looking forward to doing more of this, both for the course, and in terms of my work with clients.

Towards the end of Chapter 3, in a footnote, Ray Ison discusses Max Weber’s concept of an ‘ideal type’:

An ideal type is formed from characteristics and elements of the given phenomena, but it is not meant to correspond to all of the characteristics of any one particular case. It is not meant to refer to perfect things, moral ideals nor to statistical averages but rather to stress certain elements common to most cases of the given phenomena.

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. p.56. Available at:

In that regard, an ideal type is not a Platonic form, but rather something which is more akin to the Pragmatic idea that something is ‘good in the way of belief’. That is to say that it’s an approach to situations which lead to good outcomes, rather than being a template for all outcomes. At least, that’s the way I’m thinking about this at the moment, before moving on to the next section of the book.