Open Thinkering


Tag: systems literacy

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: 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: 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