Open Thinkering


Tag: systems practice

TB871: Three purposeful orientations and five different systems approaches

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 spray diagram outlining three orientations of systems thinking: RESPONSIBILITY linked to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH), UNDERSTANDING, and PRACTICE linked to System Dynamics (SD), Viable System Model (VSM), Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), and Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA).

The above spray diagram (Activity 1.11) is my attempt at relating five different systems approaches to three different ‘purposeful orientations’. The idea is that different approaches are useful for different purposes.


Below can be found my overviews of the five different approaches, taken from Reynolds & Holwell (2020, pp.19-21).

System Dynamics (SD)

SD is a method to conceptualise, analyse, and simulate complex systems over time. It helps in understanding the internal structures of systems, including feedback loops and time delays that influence behaviour.

This approach uses causal loop diagrams and other modeling techniques to predict how changes in one part of the system can ripple through and affect the entire system. It focuses on how system structures cause its behavioir and how simulation can be used to explore policy and strategy changes within the system.

This approach is useful for: examining strategic issues and persistent problems by looking at them as part of a feedback system rather than isolated incidents .

Viable System Model (VSM)

VSM is a model of the organisational structure that is capable of surviving in a changing environment. It provides a framework for analysing and designing organizations in such a way that all necessary functions for survival are fulfilled. The VSM helps diagnose organisational issues and suggests where changes should be made to improve viability.

This model uses the concept of recursion to structure organizations, ensuring that each subsystem is itself a viable system.

This approach is useful for: emphasising the importance of adaptability and self-organization, which are critical for maintaining the viability of an organisation in a dynamic environment .

Strategic Options Development and Analysis (SODA)

SODA is a method that uses cognitive and causal mapping to help groups and individuals explore and solve complex problems. By structuring thoughts and perceptions into a visual map, SODA facilitates a deeper understanding of the situation, helping to identify key issues and develop strategic options.

SODA maps are used to explore different scenarios and their potential impacts before making decisions.

This approach is useful for: focusing on negotiation and consensus-building, making it particularly effective for strategic planning and decision-making where multiple stakeholders are involved.

Soft Systems Methodology (SSM)

SSM is an approach designed to tackle ‘soft’ complex, problem situations where there is no clear problem definition. It encourages the use of ‘systems thinking’ to explore the different perceptions of reality held by different stakeholders.

By creating conceptual models of the system, SSM helps to stimulate debate and dialogue about desirable and feasible changes. This methodology is action-oriented and focuses on facilitating structured and informed discussions to bring about improvement in complex situations .

This approach is useful for: situations where human factors and qualitative dimensions play a big role.

Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH)

CSH is a framework designed to support reflective practice through the use of boundary critique. This approach focuses on uncovering and questioning the underlying assumptions and power dynamics that frame how problems and solutions are defined and addressed.

CSH uses a set of guiding questions to explore the boundaries of consideration for problem-solving, which helps to understand the interests of different stakeholders, especially those who are marginalized.

This approach is useful for: encouraging a more inclusive and participatory approach to systems practice by emphasising the importance of transparency and ethical considerations in systems design and decision-making .


  • Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S. (eds) (2020) Systems approaches to making change: a practical guide, 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer.

TB871: Systems practice competencies

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

Causal-loop diagram illustrating the learning process associated with reflective practice

A strategic thinker has a mental model of the complete end-to-end system of value creation, his or her own role in it, and an understanding of the competencies it contains.

(Liedtka, 1998, quoted in Open University, 2020)

Activity 1.10 focuses on our relative strengths and weaknesses when it comes to systems practice (competencies) relevant to making strategy. We’re asked to reflect on the following list:

  • Systems practice is reflective practice.
  • An aware systems thinking practitioner has the ability to use systems thinking as part of a process of learning (by them or with others), in which the outcome is the improvement of a situation of concern.
  • The particular form of learning at the core of systems practice is concerned with enabling effective action among stakeholders in complex situations. This involves collaborative action or social learning.
  • Systems practice recognises the significance of making boundary judgements and continually exploring purpose.
  • In addition to problem solving, systems practice can help identify what other problems might be relevant to a situation.
  • Systems practice is a transdisciplinary skill used to complement and support an existing skill set from a single discipline.
  • Part of the transdisciplinary skill is in using a systems literacy that helps facilitate interdisciplinarity.
  • Systems practice draws on but is different from systems science or complexity science in that it attends to judgements on boundaries and values as much as judgements on facts.
(Adapted and further developed from a discussion paper (Open Systems Group, 2004) among members of the Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice group, cited in Open University, 2020)

I’ve identified what I consider to be my existing main strength in bold above, namely: Systems practice is reflective practice. This is because I was drawn towards systems thinking because of the way that I reflect upon my life and work.

In terms of my greatest weakness, or area for development, which I’ve highlighted in italics above, I’d say it is: In addition to problem solving, systems practice can help identify what other problems might be relevant to a situation. That is to say, I very much see life in general as a problem to solve and so am likely to become somewhat fixated on the initial problem, rather than investigating others.


TB872: Authenticity and accountability

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

The image captures the complex emotions of a narrator who isn't being completely honest, embodying the tension between authenticity and pretense. It features a swirling mix of colors where warm and cool tones clash, symbolizing the internal conflict between truth and deception. Vague, semi-transparent shapes suggest a human figure obscured by the chaotic environment, evoking a sense of unease and ambiguity.

I recently finished a book which, although well-written, I didn’t enjoy as much as I expected. A work of non-fiction, I nevertheless felt that the narrator when talking about their own experiences was not being completely honest and straightforward with the reader.

We experience this kind of unease in terms of authenticity all of the time; it’s part of the human condition. While some people live in places and spaces where, for various reasons relating to forms of oppression they can never freely speak their mind, most of us can do so to a greater or lesser extent.

[Authenticity is] the pleasure of participating in togetherness in which one is free to speak for oneself, no in the name of absent others, not under pressure to say things one does not believe in, and not having to hide something for fear of being reprimanded or excluded from further conversation.

(Krippendorff, 2009, quoted in Ison, 2017, p.323)

I should imagine it’s quite different reading the above quotation as a middle-aged white guy compared to anyone who comes from a marginalised group. Treading the line can be exhausting.

But what does this have to do with systems thinking and systems practice?

I’d suggest that, if we consider our practice as a series of conversations with other people, with the literature, and with ourselves, then we should think about the ‘freedom’ we have to speak for ourselves, about things we believe in, without fear of exclusion.

This can be true of the course I’m on and, for example, disagreeing or expressing a different viewpoint to course leaders, tutors, and other students. Although I retain a need to be seen as a “successful” person who tries their best, post-therapy, I’m more willing to take off the ‘mask’ and share some of my concerns, anxieties, and foibles. For example, I asked for an extension for the first time in my academic career for an assessment which would have been due tomorrow. Previously, I would have worked through the night if I’d had to.

[E]verything said is said not only in the expectation of being understood, but also in the expectation of being held accountable for what was said or done.

(Krippendorff, 2009, quoted in Ison, 2017, p.324)

Ultimately, although I have to meet the requirements of the course, I am accountable only to myself. I’m paying for it, and I’m doing it for my own benefit. This explanation is one type of accountability, along with three others that Ison (2017, p.325) outlines: justifications, excuses, and apologies. “Of these only apologies and explanations admit responsibility” he says, while “justifications and apologies admit the speaker’s agency, unlike excuses”.

As I’ve said before, this module (TB872) involves simultaneously undertaking two ‘systemic inquiries’. The first, S1, is about my own systems practice as I move through the module, learn more, and reflect upon it. The second, S2, is about a particular situation outside of the context of the module. I have explained this in more detail in this post, and created a rich picture for S1 and a rich picture for S2.

Thinking about what I’m doing with my S1 and S2 through the lens of explanations, justifications, excuses, and apologies is an interesting exercise. I’m definitely not someone who over-apologises, but nor do I try and make excuses for my actions. So I’m going to consider explanations and justifications .

In terms of my S1, returning to the book I mentioned at the top of this post, am I a reliable narrator? Have I been authentic and accountable in my systemic inquiry, or have I attempted to justify any shortcomings (or shortcuts) taken? Have I acknowledged any limitations or biases in my work? In other words, am I subject to the same criticisms as I’ve levelled at the book author?

If I, consciously or unconsciously, misrepresent my systemic inquiry (S1), then who is to know? Other than scores in my assessment tasks, the results are mine alone. Whereas the author might be forgiven for changing the order in which certain things happened in the story, or embellishing them for dramatic effect, how could I explain or justify changes or omissions? Who would I be trying to fool? My tutor? Fellow students? My wife and other members of my family?

No, in terms of my S1 I have been as straightforward as possible with myself and others. I have held myself accountable for any shortcomings in my work, and reflected openly and honestly on any confusion, misunderstanding, or problems I’ve had as I’ve gone along. The only justifications I’ve needed to make have been to myself (to keep going!)

With my S2, on the other hand, other people are involved with whom I have prior relationships. These include fellow members of my co-op, and the client who hired us for this work who I have known for around a decade. Although we were hired to work on documentation, asset creation, and storytelling, as I explained in my previous post, we’ve run user research and Theory of Change sessions to take more of a systemic approach to the work.

Doing this meant explaining to the Director of the DCC what we were attempting to do, and based on our relationship, they trusted us to do the right thing. We had to both explain and justify this, so let’s dig into the differences:

  • Explanation — clarify or make something understandable by providing information and context to others. For example, we needed to explain what was involved in the Theory of Change session and provide questions in advance for the user research interviews.
  • Justification — defending or upholding an action, decision, or belief as ‘appropriate’ under the circumstances. For example, although it wasn’t difficult to do so, we needed to provide a rationale of the need for user research interviews and Theory of Change session before “getting on with the work”.

Compared to another client we had to which we often compare current ones, this has been very straightforward. With ‘difficult’ clients, they tend to question not only things like day rates but also approaches which involve digging into the reasons and rationale for the way that the organisation does things.

Having the freedom to talk with key stakeholders for the work that comprises my S2 is extremely important. Clients mediating stakeholder interactions can mean that they make excuses for why things don’t match what they’ve previously told you. I much prefer working in an environment where people are open to new experiences and to change.


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

Image: DALL-E 3