Open Thinkering


Tag: systematic

TB872: DAD vs EDD

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 illustration in 16:9 aspect ratio contrasting the DAD and EDD approaches. On the left, representing the DAD approach, a large megaphone directed from the top towards a passive crowd below, symbolizing one-way, top-down communication. This side is depicted in cooler tones, emphasizing a distant, authoritative dynamic. On the right, depicting the EDD approach, a network of colorful speech bubbles connects a diverse group of people (men and women of various descents). This side uses warmer, inviting tones, illustrating open, multi-directional communication and a collaborative atmosphere.

In the work we do with clients, there is often a tendency to for them to want to decide something on behalf of a group they serve. This is usually done with good intentions: people within organisations have expertise, can move relatively quickly, and are aware of any restrictions around funding they have for a project.

To use an example which I’ll keep anonymous, during the pandemic there was funding available to help young people who were isolated due to lockdowns. One organisation I spoke with ‘knew’ exactly what was needed, started implementing a digital solution, and were surprised when very few people used it.

The acronym DAD (decide-announce-defend) describes this 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. Although it may seem speedier to decide things behind closed doors and then get on and implement things, if stakeholders are resistant then the overall implementation can be delayed or even stopped entirely.

It might be that what is proposed is fantastic and exactly what is required. Or it might be that what is proposed is terrible and does not take account of some key information. Either way, change management involves stakeholder engagement, without which even the best of plans can be thwarted. It’s often actually faster and cheaper, in terms of the overall implementation, to get people involved from the start. It’s just a lot messier.

Note: in the absence of knowing why something is happening, people make up all kinds of stuff. I remember overhearing a conversation among retirees in a coffee shop about technology which took on an almost mystical flavour; because they didn’t know why some things happened, they’d invented all kinds of conspiracy theories!

Another approach, which is the one that WAO usually champions, can initially take longer. Sometimes, much longer. It involves stakeholder engagement, usually through user research and convening meetings. This takes facilitation skills which draws on both nonviolent communication and creating psychologically-safe environments with consent-based decision making. It’s challenging work in its own right, and so I can understand why technocratic-minded people and organisations seek to skip it. As I often say, it’s harder to work with people than technology.

I’m pleased to now have a name for this approach: EDD (engage-deliberate-decide). One of the biggest problems with a DAD approach is that stakeholders don’t understand the why and the how of the situation, as they have not been consulted. In the example given in the course materials, the UK’s Environment Agency worked behind closed doors to figure out a plan for a town at risk of flooding from the sea. When the plan is presented to the people of the town as a fait accompli, they only see the negative impacts of the flood defences. Unlike the staff who have worked on the plan, the townspeople have not engaged with the risks or options for prevention and mitigation.

Contrast that with the other example given in the course materials, after the Environment Agency learned its lesson and switched from a DAD to an EDD approach when working with another town. In this case, a much more holistic approach meant that the project was successful and seen as beneficial, came in under budget, and proceeded smoothly. In fact, because the liaison group which was established was separate to the Environment Agency, they could go beyond the agency’s brief to increase the system boundary to include all different kinds of flooding.

One thing mentioned in passing which I don’t think should be underestimated is that an EDD approach can lead to stakeholders seeing themselves as active participants in creating a shared future. This is what we mean by ‘civil society’: people and organisations on the ground working together to improve the local situation, rather than technocrats at a distance deciding what is ‘appropriate’ or ‘efficient’.

Let’s compare and contrast DAD and EDD approaches using the PFMS heuristic:

DAD ApproachEDD Approach
ParticipantsMainly Environment Agency staff and decision-makers. Limited local involvement. Stakeholders as ‘victims’.Broad range including Environment Agency staff, local residents, business owners, local authorities, and other stakeholders. Stakeholders as active participants.
FrameworksTop-down decision-making. Consultation as a formality. Rational, technocratic, and ‘efficient’.Collaborative, inclusive, and transparent process. Emphasis on building trust. Emotions welcome, holistic approach.
MethodsDecisions made behind closed doors, followed by public announcement and defence. Engagement from the outset, deliberation, and collective decision-making.
SituationFlood prevention in Teignmouth with public unaware of the risk, leading to shock and opposition.Flood prevention in Shaldon with proactive engagement to understand and address local concerns and knowledge.

Now let’s look at the benefits of DAD vs EDD in this particular situation:

DAD ApproachEDD Approach
OutcomeResistance and failure to address local concerns effectively. Huge delays to the project.Effective solution accepted by the community, demonstrating the value of diverse perspectives and a holistic approach.
Community InvolvementMinimal to none. Decisions imposed on the community.High. Community actively involved in the decision-making process.
TransparencyLow. Lack of information and communication with the public.High. Open dialogue and information sharing.
FlexibilityRigid. Sticking to the pre-decided plan despite opposition.Adaptive. Open to changing plans based on community input and new information.
EfficiencyInefficient in the long term due to opposition and delays.More efficient overall: initial time investment led to smoother implementation.
Trust and RespectLow. Community suspicious and distrustful of Environment Agency.Medium to High. Improved trust and respect for Environment Agency, and constructive ways of working established.

I found working through this example extremely instructive when it comes to my own work. For example, we’ve got some potential work with a client onto which the DAD vs EDD approaches map almost perfectly. They’ve come to us wanting an implementation in a hurry based on limited interaction with stakeholders (DAD), and we’re pushing back against this suggesting starting with finding out what problems actually need to be solved, and to engage their stakeholders (EDD).

Image: DALL-E 3

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