Open Thinkering


Tag: STiP

TB872: Systems, situations, and systemic praxis

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.

11 years ago I gave a TEDx talk on digital literacies. Around the 12 minute mark, I mentioned that it’s useful to consider literacies as developing in terms of ‘progressive encoding’ rather than ‘sequential encoding’. This is a bit of a geeky analogy from the early days of internet when images could take a while to download.

In other words, as the slide below shows, the development of literacies happens by progressively adding detail to our understanding. It is not best developed through a course where (to use a gaming analogy) a ‘fog of war’ prevents you from knowing what comes next.

Slide showing two images of Hokusai's famous 'Great Wave' print. In the first, which is accompanied by a cross indicating it is incorrect, only the top of the wave can be seen. The rest has not been loaded.

In the second, the image has a check mark ('tick') next to it showing that it is correct. It is blurry, as it is loading 'progressively' - i.e. adding more detail as the image loads.

I mention this as at the start of Chapter 2 of Systems Practice: How to Act by Ray Ison, he talks about how people move from having a systemic sensibility, through to having a form of systems literacy, and then on to systems thinking in practice (STiP) capability. I see this spectrum as being similar to the holistic approach I was advocating for in that TEDx talk.

Engaging with Systems is perhaps like learning a new language — I could refer to it as learning ‘systems talking’, where ‘talking’ involves thinking and doing, i.e. practice. It is the sort of learning that can challenge our sense of identity. It is as if ‘systems talk’ is ‘talk that undermines the boundaries between our categories of things in the world, [and thus] undermines “us,” the stability of the kinds of beings we take ourselves to be.’

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. pp.19-20. Available at:

If systems thinking is like learning a new language, then it can be challenging to talk using a new vocabulary and grammar to people who do not understand it. Ison gives words to something I’ve come up against in my work; it can seem ‘reasonable’ to want evidence and examples and proof but… the world doesn’t work like that?

Those who do not think systemically usually require explanations of what ‘it’ is and justification or evidence that ‘it works’ or that there is a ‘value proposition’ for engaging with it. There is also a tendency to require explanations of effectiveness in causal terms of the form: ‘using systems thinking can cause X to happen’ i.e., using a framework of linear causality in which a systemic view is lost because one cannot understand circularity by making it linear.

Ison, R. ibid. p.20.

I totally get having a ‘theory of change’ and working backwards from a desired future state. But to require evidence that a new approach will work, or that one that has worked elsewhere will work in a different context, is to essentially ask us to get out a crystal ball. As Ison notes, it’s an attempt to turn something holistic and systemic into something which is linear and systematic.

One of the things that a background in Philosophy allows you to do, I think, is to be more comfortable with ambiguity. Or it may be simply that my own studies have led to me being interested in, and therefore more comfortable with it. Either way, Ison believe ‘abandoning certainty’ to be a good way to provide the conditions to start thinking and acting systemically (Ison, ibid. p.21). He also talks about being ‘open to your circumstances’ which I’ve discussed elsewhere as cultivating a larger serendipity surface.

The interesting thing here is that, while the world (and especially the corporate world) is set up to remove emotion from our working environments as much as possible, abandoning certainty and being open to your circumstances requires an emotional response. To use a flamboyant metaphor: instead of trying to reduce us to a monochrome grey, it allows us to interact with one another’s rainbow colours.

I have a lot in common with what I’ve read of Ison’s work. For example, he refuses to give a definition of systems thinking or systems practice. In my doctoral thesis and subsequent ebook, I did likewise, calling for people to come up with their own definitions based on eight essential elements of digital literacies I identified.

In my experience definitions are constraining because (1) they are abstractions and thus a limited one dimensional snapshot of a complicated dynamic and (2) we do not appreciate how definitions blind us to what we do when we employ a definition.

Ison, R. ibid. p.22.

As a Pragmatist, I’m not so against definitions as Ison seems to be, as I think they can be ‘useful in the way of belief’ for a community of inquirers. In fact, I’d argue that the discussion that leads to the definition is what’s important. The trouble comes when a definition becomes what Richard Rorty would call a ‘dead metaphor’, no longer doing any work. That’s why we need to continually return to and reassess our assumptions, using the Sigmoid Curve.

To relate another concept of Ison’s to my own work, in a footnote on p.25 he quotes John Shotter (1993) as saying “why do we fell that our language works primarily by us using it accurately to represent and refer to things and states of affairs in the circumstances surrounding us, rather than by using it to influence each other’s and our own behaviour?” I see this as similar to my discussion of voodoo categorisation based on the work of Clay Shirky. We create a model that (we believe to) perfectly represent the world, says Shirky, then manipulate the model and are surprised when the world does not change as a result.

I don’t often read books in any way other than from start to finish, but Ison, as the author of this book, has instructed us to read this one in a bit of a topsy-turvy way. For example, I’ve already read Chapter 9, 10, and 13, and now I’m on Chapter 2.

As a result, I’ve come across concepts and phrases for which I haven’t had a clear definition. I was therefore pleased, to come across this explanation of the link between systems thinking and practice:

The terms systems thinking and systems practice are different ways of being in the same situation. This can be understood as a recursive dynamic much like the relationship between the chicken and egg — they are linked recursively and bring each other forth — speaking metaphorically they can be seen as mirror images of each other. Understood as a recursive dynamic systems thinking and practice can also be described as systems praxis — theory informed practical action.

Ison, R. ibid. p.30.

Doing systems thinking with systems practice is a bit like spending time coming up with a privacy policy and then not acting in a way which would be in accordance with it. In other words, it’s useful, but it’s not praxis; it makes little difference to the world.

Finally, as I come to the end of Chapter 2, what is the difference between a ‘situation’ and a ‘system’?

A situation is the context in which things happen. A real-world setting such as an office, or a family household, or a natural habitat. Situations are usually complex, messy, and characterised by both uncertainty and multiple perspectives. For example, the boss has a different perspective to the cleaner; the parent has a different perspective to the child; the biologist has a different perspective to the economist. Situations are the starting point for any STiP process.

A system, on the other hand, is a construct, a mental model used to make sense of some aspects of a situation. It’s an abstract representation which helps us understand the situation’s dynamics, for example by identifying patterns, structures, and behaviours that might not be immediately apparent. For example, a system might be a company’s project management system, or a family’s meal planning system (including recipes, shopping lists, cooking rota, budgets, etc.), or a wildlife monitoring and management system (including methods for tracking animal populations, habitats, the impact of human activities, conservation strategies, etc.)

So the situation represents the broader context with all its complexities and dynamics, while the system represents a more focused, structured approach to understanding and managing specific aspects of that situation.

TB872: Differences between project management and systemic inquiry

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 I explained in my last post, systemic inquiries can be thought of as a meta-form of purposeful action. In other words, it provides a setting for programmes and projects. So we’re not setting one against another, but rather understanding that systemic inquiry is a cyclic process focused on learning and so without ‘outcomes’ or ‘deliverables’ defined at the start.

AspectTraditional ProjectsSystemic Inquiry
DefinitionA structured process with a specific goal, end product, or result to be achieved within set parameters.An adaptive approach to practice, focusing on continuous learning and adaptation to changing circumstances.
ApproachLinear and sequential; follows a set plan from start to finish.Cyclic and dynamic; not strictly linear and evolves as the inquiry progresses.
OutcomesSpecific outcomes or deliverables are defined at the beginning.Outcomes are not pre-specified; open to new possibilities and adaptations.
FlexibilityLimited flexibility; changes often require formal processes to revise initial plans.High flexibility; able to adapt to surprises and changes in circumstances.
FocusTypically focuses on achieving specific, tangible results within a certain timeframe and budget.Focuses on understanding and learning, often dealing with complex issues requiring adaptive change.
Management StyleOften managed through traditional project management methodologies.Managed through principles of systems thinking, action research, and adaptive management.
SuitabilitySuitable for projects with clear objectives and stable environments.Suitable for complex situations with uncertainty and evolving requirements.
Time FrameGenerally operates within a fixed timeframe with specific deadlines.Timeframes might be more flexible, with a focus on the process rather than strict deadlines.
BudgetUsually has a predetermined budget.Budget might be more flexible, accommodating changes in the inquiry process.
Quality StandardsQuality and performance standards are often specified and measured against pre-determined criteria.Quality is assessed in terms of learning outcomes and adaptability to changing scenarios.
Emotional UnderpinningOften characterized by a focus on efficiency, control, and predictability.Embraces uncertainty and maintains an openness to surprise and adaptability.

In my experience, Agile software development can be understood as a way to combine systemic inquiry with project management. According to the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, it’s the idea of valuing:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

It doesn’t always work like that in practice, and there are plenty of un-agile ‘Agile’ approaches in the wild. But that speaks more to it becoming a dead metaphor in command-and-control environments, rather than the original ideas not being sound.

Agile approaches usually centre around the learn-build-measure cycle, with an important element of the process being ‘discovery’. This involves talking to stakeholders to figure out their problems, find leverage points, and unearth users’ jobs to be done.

'Discovery' with the learn-build-measure cycle 

CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers for WAO

Conceptualising agile approaches as systemic inquiries (which I haven’t done previously) helps explain the value of user research. Systemic inquiry foregrounds social relations: it’s not just about the theory or method, but how these are applied and evolve through collaboration.

The scary thing for most people is that recognising that life is uncertain and unpredictable is a little scary. Traditional project management, with its outcomes, deliverables, and Gantt charts looks impressive but is likely to bear little relation to reality. In addition, not only is the world constantly changing, but our interactions with our environment change it and us. So our plans need to be adaptable; it’s not about doing things to a group of people, but rather doing it with them.

'Doing to' vs 'Doing with'

CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers for WAO

They say that the best way to learn something is to teach it, and the above images come from work that WAO did as part of an emergency response during the pandemic with Catalyst-funded charities. We helped them move away from pretending they knew what their stakeholders wanted to actually asking them. Although this sounds obvious, in the grant-funded world, where organisations have precious little time to reflect on their processes, delivery is hard enough.

What was interesting was how transformational this shift was for participants in the programme. Although it wasn’t couched in the language of systemic inquiry, the iterative nature of what we helped them do, along with understanding that they needed to learn from their successes and mistakes, really helped them.

What I’m still getting to grips with is how to explain systemic inquiry to others. The boxes-in-the-arrow approach and reference to Agile software development only takes me so far — especially for those who are less technical.

Images: CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers for WAO

TB872: Systemic inquiry as a social technology

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 large arrow extending from left to right, symbolising a workflow or process. Within the confines of this arrow, a sparse collection of 3D boxes representing projects, including rectangular prisms and cylinders, are arranged to reflect different project types and stages. Small curved arrows, indicating the interconnections or links between these projects, connect the boxes in a seemingly random yet structured pattern, emphasizing the interconnected nature of project management and workflow progression.

If projects are so problematic, and we need more emotion in our decision-making, then what should we do instead? This post focuses on Chapter 10 of Ray Ison’s book Systems Practice: How to Act, which begins with a list of the kinds of things people who want to use an alternative approach need to be able to do.

Ison can be wordy, so I’ve asked ChatGPT for a more straightforward version:

  1. Comprehending the current and historical context of situations.
  2. Recognising and valuing the diverse viewpoints of multiple stakeholders.
  3. Clearly identifying and exploring the underlying purpose of actions or decisions.
  4. Differentiating between the ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘why’, and determining the appropriate timing for each aspect.
  5. Implementing actions that are purpose-driven, systemically beneficial, culturally viable, and ethically justifiable.
  6. Creating a method to harmonise understanding and practices across different locations and over time, especially in situations where initial improvements are unclear, thus managing a dynamic, co-evolutionary process adaptively.
  7. Sustainably integrating the approach into ongoing practices without oversimplifying or misusing its fundamental principles.

Instead of setting this approach against projects, it’s more of a “meta-form of purposeful action” which provides a “more conducive, systemic setting for programmes and projects”. (See the arrow image above to get the gist.)

We understand systemic inquiry as a meta-platform or process for ‘project or program managing’ as well as a particular means of facilitating movement towards social learning (understood as concerted action by multiple stakeholders in situations of complexity and uncertainty). When conducted with others it can be called systemic co-inquiry.

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. pp.252-253. Available at:

Just because the systemic inquiry is ‘meta’ does not mean that it is necessarily bigger or longer lasting than the programmes and/or projects it contains. Nor is the ‘goal’ of systemic inquiry to create ‘a system’; it is an action-oriented approach where the intention is to produce a change.

The image below, Fig. 10.1 in Ison’s book (p.256), is an activity model of a system to conduct a systemic inquiry. It has been adapted from Peter Checkland’s work.

An activity model of a system to conduct a systemic inquiry, depicted as a series of nested loops in a flow diagram. Starting from the top, the process begins with 'set up structured exploration of situation considered problematical.' The next step is 'make sense of situation by exploring context (culture, politics) using systems models as devices.' Following this, 'tease out possible accommodations between different interests' leads to 'define possible actions to change; that are systemically desirable and culturally feasible.' The final step within the main loop is 'take action to change - creating a new situation.' This leads to a smaller loop consisting of 'monitor,' then 'take control action,' and finally 'define criteria: efficacy, efficiency, effectiveness.' Arrows between each step indicate the flow and sequence of activities within the systemic inquiry process.

If this approach creates a ‘social learning’ then this is a ‘learning system’. But what does that mean? Ison suggests that instead of thinking about it in ontological terms (e.g. “a course or a policy to reduce carbon emissions”) we should think of a learning system as an epistemic device (i.e. “a way of knowing and doing”).

This move constitutes a ‘design turn’, says Ison, away from first-order inquiry (e.g. drawing a boundary to determine what is in/out of scope) to a second-order understanding (e.g. the learning system as existing after its enactment, through human relationships). Both are necessary, it’s just a question of different levels of abstraction and “critical reflexivity”.

Although Ison doesn’t talk about it this way, I guess this is the practitioner (P) reflecting on their own place within a system, making it P(PFMS). See the diagram at the top of this post. When intervening, as an educator, policy maker, or consultant, therefore, there’s a difference between triggering a first-order response (e.g. creating a course or an ‘intervention’) versus a second-order response (e.g. creating the circumstances for people to reflect on their context and take responsibility).

Top image: DALL-E 3 (based on the bottom part of Fig. 10.1 on p.252 of Ison’s book)