Open Thinkering


Tag: systems practice

TB872: Juggling the E-ball (Engaging)

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. This particular post is part of a series which is framed and explained here.

A green ball, representing the 'E' ball of the BECM juggler isophor.

Chapter 6 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act focuses on the E-ball (Engaging). This concerns engaging with real-world situations and involves the practitioner’s choices in orientation and approach, affecting how the situation is experienced. In this post, I’m going to reflect on what I’ve learned in this chapter, applying it to Systemic Inquiry 1 (me as a learner developing my systemic practice) and Systemic Inquiry 2 (my ‘situation of concern’).

Systemic Inquiry 1

The main thrust of Chapter 6 is that we all have a choice about how we engage with situations. This applies both to my own development of systemic practice (S1) and also the situation of concern I’ve chosen to use as an example (S2). I’ll deal with the former now and the latter in the section below this one.

I guess it’s fair to say that I strive for Gramsci‘s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. This results in me usually bordering on the pessimistic side; as my mother used to say “that means you can always be pleasantly surprised”. One example of this is in framing things as ‘problems’, which is something that Ison deals with early on in Chapter 6. He suggests there is more to be gained in either describing them differently, or at the very least describing them.

One way of describing ‘problems’ different is to compare and contrast ‘wicked problems’ or ‘tame problems’. Ison would reject this, however, in favour or ‘wicked and tame situations’. I can see why this is useful, and these days can also see why neologisms can be handy. I used to think that the latter, which involves coming up with new words or terms, was a waste of time. However, since doing some work on ambiguity alongside my thesis, I’ve come to see the value of them.

As I remarked in a previous post, I tend to ‘give up’ in the face of institutional bureaucracy, and that’s particularly true with regards to ‘wicked problems’, as defined by Rittel and Webber (1973, quoted in Ison, p.122) which the Australian Public Service Commission describe as “beyond the capacity of any one organisation to understand and respond to” (quoted in Ison, 2017, p.121). These are contrasted with ‘tame problems’ which, for example, “have a relatively well-defined and stable problem statement” (Conklin, 2001, quoted in Ison, p.123).

This is presented somewhat as a binary in the chapter — as a choice between describing a situation as unique, ill-defined, and involving multiple organisations (‘wicked’), and a situation which is similar to others, well-defined, and involving perhaps only a single organisations. Surely these must be on a spectrum? Some problems or situations must be more ‘wicked’ or ‘tame’ than others?

I guess the issue is less with definition and more with action: i.e. what are you going to do about it. This is where the idea of ‘goal finding’ rather than ‘goal setting’ comes in (Ison, 2017, p.124, fn.5) which is coming up time and again in my work at the moment. Clients understandably want ‘results’ but sometimes fail to grasp is that heading off in the wrong direction because you’ve chosen a destination without fully understanding a situation doesn’t lead to great results. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in systems thinking diagrams, because they help make visible the thought processes and mental work that we do.

A machine with tangled lines going in at the top and straight lines coming out of it at the bottom. Underneath are the words 'WE'LL UNTANGLE YOUR SPAGHETTI'
Image CC BY Visual Thinkery for WAO

People and organisations don’t tend to call in outside help unless they realise they need it. One situation which they might find themselves is what Russell Ackoff describes as a ‘mess’. These are distinct from ‘problems’:

A mess is a set of external conditions that produces dissatisfaction. It can be conceptualised as a system of problems in the same sense in which a physical body can be conceptualised as a system of atoms.

Akoff (1974), quoted in Ison (2017, p.128)

In my work with WAO, we often use the image above to talk about how we will help ‘untangle’ the ‘spaghetti’ of organisations. In other words, we’ll help sort out their mess. Up until now, however, although I am a somewhat intuitive systemic thinker, a lot of what we have done has been systematic.

One of the things that has always frustrated me about consultancy work is that you are often brought in to help with one particular issue, but it is of course so enmeshed with others within the organisation. However, there is usually a level of resistance in widening the scope of what you’ve been asked to do. This is when the idea of trojan mice can be useful!

When reflecting on my systemic practice using the E-ball, it’s interesting to think about how often I default to a particular approach. This is what Dave Snowden would call ‘sense making’ which is part of his Cynefin framework, which comes from the Welsh word for ‘habitat’. A slightly different version to the one found in Chapter 6 can be found below.

Image CC BY [email protected]

Snowden says that:

It is not a categorisation model in which the four domains are treated as four quadrants in a two by two matrix. None of the domains described is better than or desirable over any other in any particular context; there are no implied value axes.

IBM (2003), quoted in Ison (2017, p.135)

I’d suggest most organisations, when they get to a certain size, have elements of all four domains. If the leadership of those organisations isn’t careful, then this ends up with some kind of ‘meta-mess’ and confusion. This explains why you can have different departments within an organisation who all have processes and approaches which suggest they know what they are doing, but overall, the organisation under-performs.

Ison says several times in Systems Practice that we need to be careful with our use of language when talking about systems. There is no ‘it’ which objectively exists, be it a ‘mess’ or a ‘situation’ or even a ‘system’. These are all dependent on our subjective view as practitioners and our tradition of understanding. So by referring to an ‘it’ (as in ‘it is a mess’) we are hiding something else — as in the phrase “every noun obscures a verb”.

We’re perhaps familiar with the approach of ‘reframing’ a situation to prevent something being hidden or obscured, but I hadn’t come across the term ‘deframing’ before. This is described as “identifying framings that constrain or stop systemic innovation and change —and warrant active removal — e.g. clean coal” (Ison, 2017, p.131). What Ison is saying here, I think is that deframing is almost a conjurers disappearing trick; in the example he gives, it’s an attempt to remove something from the mental categorisation ‘problematic’.

Other than the reading which takes up a good chunk of Chapter 6, there were two other things that caused me to reflect on my own practice. The first was Donald Schön’s metaphor which contrasts the “swampy lowlands” featuring “messy, confusing problems [which] defy technical solution”, with the “high ground” featuring problems which are “relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large”, however great their technical interest may be” (Schön, D., quoted in Ison, 2017, p.131-132)

This section really spoke to me in terms of my career. Ison shares another quotation from Schön where he talks about the high ground versus the swampy lowlands. These days, it could be argued that I spend my time on the latter, whereas as a teacher I was more involved in the latter:

When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor. When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepancy between the technical rigor of the ‘hard’ zones of their practice and apparent sloppiness of the ‘soft’ ones. People tend to feel the dilemma of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45. At this point they ask themselves: Am I going to continue to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems — ill formed, vague, and messy — that I have discovered to be real around here? And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently.

Schön (1995), quoted in Ison (2017, p.132)

Wow. I’m 43 years young and, let me tell you, that feels like he’s peered into my soul.

The second ‘other’ thing I wanted to reflect on was also a metaphor. In this case, it is an observation attributed to Richard Dawkins:

If I hold a rock, but want it to change, to be over there, I can simply throw it. Knowing the weight of the rock, the speed at which it leaves my hand, and a few other variables, I can reliably predict both the path and the landing place of a rock. But what happens if I substitute a [live] bird? Knowing the weight of a bird and the speed of launch tells me nothing really about where the bird will land. No matter how much analysis I do in developing the launch plan … the bird will follow the path it chooses and land where it wants.

Plsek (2001), quoted in Ison (2017, p.134)

Ison says he is “constantly amazed” that this story seems “so profound for many audiences”. I think that says more about his experience and the level he is operating than anything else. The bird/rock anecdote is an extremely good way of bringing to life why, for example, goal finding is more important than goal setting. It’s also a valuable way of showing just how little we humans know about the world.

The E-ball is a reminder that we can choose to engage in situations in different ways. While I already knew this, I would often assume that there was a ‘correct’ way to do so. What this chapter has helped me realise is that everything is contingent, but because there is no ‘view from nowhere’, we have to have some kind of organisational framework to operate in the world.

Systemic Inquiry 2

As a reminder, the situation of concern I have chosen to focus on for my Systemic Inquiry 2 (S2) is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs). We’re helping with documentation and asset-creation.

One of the interesting metaphors Ison uses towards the start of Chapter 6 is that of a ‘tornado’:

[A] tornado is a particular dynamic configuration of air particles, from which a tornado ‘as named thing’ emerges and is constantly reconstituted.

Ison (2017, p.120)

This is qualitatively similar to the Ship of Theseus, just on a much slower scale. I remember as a teenager being introduced to this paradox and realising that everything is in flux, Just as Heraclitus said. This being the case, there is nothing that we can point to which is quantitatively identical to what existed previously; we can only point to qualitative similarities.

Finding space to move things in a new direction is where neologisms come in, as mentioned in the previous section. Ison talks about how these give “rise to a new expression as well as a new underlying logic” (Ison, 2017, p.120). This is a particularly interesting way of looking at things in terms of my S2. As I mentioned in a previous post, microcredentials can perhaps be seen “can be seen as a reaction to, and reconceptualisation of, Open Badges”. I know that when I was on Mozilla’s Open Badges team, and it was my job to go off an evangelise them, there were plenty of people who really didn’t like the term ‘badge’.

Eventually, I learned to say that it doesn’t matter what you call the digital credentials that you build upon the Open Badges standard. The important thing is that there’s a standard that it’s built on. But, by that time, I think it was a bit too late. This newer terminology around Verifiable Credentials started life as ‘Verifiable Claims’ which, again, was language people didn’t particularly like. There’s a desire for certainty, and VCs sound like the kind of thing that prestigious, trustworthy institutions issue.

Image of an hexagonal Open Badge with the front peeled back to reveal a circuit board behind. A label pointing to this says "THERE'S DATA INSIDE!"

A list names some metdata including 'badge name' and 'badge criteria' that can be included in the Open Badge.
Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers for City & Guilds. This image really helped with people’s understanding, due to what Bryan calls ‘cognitive ease’. As a result of this and other work, Open Badges became a movement.

In this post, I explained the changes I hope to see in my S2. The first of these, and perhaps the most important, is “greater understanding within the HE sector of what VCs are and how they can be used”. The trick, I think, is to find the right mental models and neologisms which help people conceptualise what’s going on. In doing that we need to ensure that the distinctions we create are for the benefit of understanding and not simply branding exercises (Ison, 2017, p.152). I’ve already mentioned how every noun obscures a verb (Ison, 2017, p.136) and this is certainly true of ‘credential’ versus ‘credentialing’ (or even ‘recognition’).

Before I realised that the reason that I was attracted to Open Badges was because of the Open Recognition which underpins it, I was a little too focused on the ‘badge’ itself. What I’ve come to understand through reading Chapter 7 about the E-ball is that we have to be careful not to reify things. That is to say, we should not “make or treat an abstraction, such as justice or learning, as a concrete material thing” (Ison, 2017, p.131).

[W]e project our meanings into the world [through living in language] and then we perceive them as existing in the world, as having a reality of their own.

Wenger (1998) quoted in Ison (2017, p.131)

When I apply this to my S2, it’s easy to see how people can be confused. Right now, even I would take a minute to explain the difference between Open Badges 2.0, 2.1, and 3.0. The last of these is compatible with the Verifiable Credentials data model. There’s also the Comprehensive Learning Record, which is a separate, but compatible standard. Digital credentials can be any of these, as can microcredentials, with the latter usually relating to a course with a credential at the end of it.

As a result, whereas sometimes we need to create neologisms to free up some conceptual space for some productive ambiguity, in this case we’re trying to actually help people understand what VCs are. In this case we need to use metaphors to do this. It’s just important to ensure these don’t turn into ‘dead metaphors’ by too closely associating just one of them with VCs. For example, I’ve heard the metaphor of an ‘envelope’ used quite a lot. But they are not literally envelopes, so it’s important to use multiple metaphors to help people understand in a more ‘three-dimensional’ way.

Often when people reify things it’s because they see them as a ‘difficulty’ (Ison, 2017, p.137). This is the case, for example, when people talk about ‘system failures’ when they’re not thinking about systemic failures but rather systematic failures (“if only people stuck to the rules and procedures!”). As the reading in Chapter 6 shows, it’s possible to be wrong or misguided on several levels. The point is to return with new knowledge to understand and attempt to intervene in the system differently.

It’s difficult to summarise the reading, but it was related to public health issues in Nepal stemming from rural agricultural practices being translated to urban environments. Interventions which treated only the symptoms failed, leading to a rethink. Ison outlines six phases, which I will paraphrase:

  • Phase 1 – traditional scientific approach where knowledge and practices from other contexts could be applied.
  • Phase 2 – development of a model which had a presumed single ‘correct’ perspective.
  • Phase 3 – broader framing with local groups joining to widen the perspective.
  • Phase 4 – methodological pluralism and involvement of different stakeholders at different levels/scales of the project.
  • Phase 5 – introduction of diagramming to engage with the situation and capture systemic depictions of the situation from a wide range of stakeholders.
  • Phase 6 – emergent awareness of what can be gained from shift towards systemic practice; drawing on stories for civic engagement.

When I reflect on these phases and thing about my S2, it’s clear that previously I would very much be thinking of the type of approaches that are represented in Phases 1-3 in the list above. Now, however, I’m more aware of the value of things such as methodological pluralism, the value of diagrams to help ‘explain the phenomena’, and wider engagement through storytelling.

I’m particularly keen to move onto one of the next activities that involves influence diagrams. From what I know of them, and my S2 so far, mapping how and why people and organisations influence one another could be extremely valuable. For example, we noticed early in our research and onboarding that what staff members were telling us and what was contained in the reports was slightly, but importantly, different. From this, we did some diagramming to map information flows, realising that vendors were going to be important in terms of influencing university registrars.

In a recent meeting, this was reflected back to us, showing that we are potentially on a productive track. What we need to do is to continue with our user research, of the leadership group, and also of people within the ecosystem. What I’ve come to realise is that there’s not a ‘correct’ way of seeing how everything fits together, just ones which help people make sense of it all. As William James might put it, approaches which are “good in the way of belief”.

Juggling the E-ball in my situation of concern (S2) involves multiple levels of contextualisation. It’s primarily concerned with the US Higher Education system, of which have only second-hand experience. That system, or rather ‘mess’ of systems, it nested inside not only US society and culture, but international education, and a long and deep history of credentialing. There are also technical systems with which any new technologies must be interoperable. What I need to remember is that, while we all want to make the world a better place, people respond to incentives. And the greatest incentive of all, for most people, most of the time, is to make their lives and jobs easier.


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

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Juggling the B-ball (Being)

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. This particular post is part of a series which is framed and explained here.

A red ball, representing the 'B' ball of the BECM juggler isophor.

Chapter 5 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act focuses on the B-ball (Being). This concerns the practitioner’s self-awareness and ethics, and involves understanding one’s background, experiences, and prejudices. In this post, I’m going to reflect on what I’ve learned in this chapter, applying it to Systemic Inquiry 1 (me as a learner developing my systemic practice) and Systemic Inquiry 2 (my ‘situation of concern’).

Systemic Inquiry 1

One of the things we’re encouraged to reflect on in this module is our ‘tradition of understanding’. Mine is informed both by my academic studies and my lived experience. The former is mainly focused on the Humanities (Philosophy, History, Education) and the latter includes navigating different codes, having grown up in a middle-class household in a deprived, working class area, and experiencing various situations in life including some life-changing CBT.

I mention this because Table 5.1 in Chapter 5, which is based on the work of Lakoff and Johnson (1999), compares and contrasts the ‘Traditional Western conception of the disembodied person’ with ‘The conception of an embodied person’. The first column includes assumptions around such things as the existence of an objective world. It also mentions ‘ and ‘universal reason’ and the widely-held view that our ability to use this is what separates us from ‘the animals’.

The second column contrasts with this, with statements around the subjectivity of the world based on embodied understanding. For example, one entry reads “we can only form concepts through the body” and foregrounds “primary metaphors” which are “unconscious, basic-level concepts”. Essentially, it is arguing against a Cartesian mind-body duality, suggesting that our understanding of the world is mediated by our sensorimotor system. As such, our bodies shape our understanding.

Yesterday, I listened to an episode of Adam Grant’s WorkLife podcast which featured Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychologist and neuroscientist. She was talking about how our brains are trapped in our skull and essentially ‘guess’ what’s happening in the world based on sensory inputs. The argument she was making was for greater ’emotional granularity’, as our brain attempts to make sense of new data based on what we’ve experienced before. If we use large buckets such as ‘unhappy’ or ‘unwell’ then our brain doesn’t tend to match our current situation with a relevant one from the past. This can cause problems.

This podcast episode reminded me of the B-ball discussion in Chapter 5, as it relates to my Systemic Inquiry 1. Because we ‘live in language’, including that which we use internally for private thoughts, language shapes our understanding of the world. As such, new information doesn’t necessarily change behaviour, as our emotions and understanding of the world are not directly altered by getting the most accurate data. What the brain is often trying to do is to do the thing which is metabolically least expensive. So if that means erring on the side of caution, then so be it.

What I liked about Chapter 5 was that it seemed to draw on lots of things I’ve learned over the years — as well as recently — and put it all together. For example, I’ve long been a fan of Richard Rorty’s Pragmatism, and indeed Rorty is quoted in this chapter:

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood.

Rorty (1980), quoted in Ison (2017, p.96)

The “by current standards” is important here. It’s the reason why we might be ‘historically disappointed’ by the actions of our ancestors, but given the milieu of the time, it might be hard to blame them. Conversely, there are ‘ways of knowing’ that are being lost due to globalisation. Chapter 5 gives the example from a novel (that I didn’t finish) called Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Høeg. The story centres around a character called Smilla who is immersed in the history and culture of the Inuit people; she can therefore ‘read’ snow and ice in a lot more detail than others.

Part of this difference stems from whether we see ourselves as looking at the world (or universe) as something separate to it, or whether we are part of it. In broad brushstrokes, this is essentially the difference between our modern, neoliberal, individualistic way of thinking, and a more indigenous, holistic approach. The latter is also promoted by religions such as Buddhism. Having been brought up in the former worldview, I find it very difficult to switch to the latter, no matter how appealing it is.

In terms of my Systemic Inquiry 1, I’d say that Chapter 5 helped bring together different strands which already formed part of my existing tradition of understanding. While I don’t think I interpret my past practice much differently as a result of reading it, the chapter does help in terms of what I am currently doing in my system practice. For example, the reflection on the notion of an ‘institution’ (p.112-113) helps me understand how they can hinder systemic practice by reifying things and acting as a ‘social technology’ (see previous post) to standardise behaviour.

Thinking about my future systems practice, therefore, it’s important for me to stand up for what I know to be correct. I have a tendency to ‘give up’ in the face of institutional bureaucracy. Systems can be changed, and language is an extremely powerful way of doing so. As is saying “I don’t know, but let’s find out” in the face of being asked questions by people in power which, ultimately, are designed to make you feel small.

On reflection, I think I came into this module assuming that we would go through a series of ‘techniques’ for systems thinking which could be applied in different situations. Although it’s important to have a toolbox of such techniques, which perhaps are dealt with via the C-ball, the stance that you take when approaching a new or existing system is particularly important. I shall be bearing that in mind in future.

Systemic Inquiry 2

The situation of concern I have chosen to focus on for my Systemic Inquiry 2 is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs). We’re working with the Director of the DCC, who we know from previous projects related to digital credentials, to help with documentation and asset-creation. It turns out that explaining these technologies is quite difficult.

One of the things we’ve started to address is the mental models that people use to understand concepts such as VCs, including metaphors and symbolism. We published a blog post about this yesterday. This is an example of purposive framing in that we are interpreting what others in the situation of concern think and do. As we do more user research interviews, and find out what they actually think, this will move to purposeful framing.

I’ve been involved with work around digital credentials for around 13 years when I first heard about Open Badges. My current understanding is therefore coloured by successes and failures that have taken place over the years, as well as systems in which I have tried to intervene. What Chapter 5 has helped me realise is attempts that I and others have made centered on the potential future value of the technologies to creating a fairer society. Meanwhile, most people and organisations care about themselves, an abstract notion of ‘fairness’, and financial sustainability.

For example, around a decade ago, Open Badges was originally presented along with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) as an existential threat to universities, especially in the US. Unsurprisingly, universities fought back against both, citing concerns around ‘quality’. Fast-forward to today, and most universities have all kinds of online courses and digital credentials. In fact, it can be argued that the term ‘microcredential‘ is essentially a Higher Education re-invention of Open Badges and MOOCs as an online course provided by universities.

Language and relationships are therefore of vital importance when it comes to trying to intervene in a system. It’s possible to be intentional about information flows, as demonstrated in the (unfinished) diagram below, but such abstraction fails to take into account the way that people understand technologies. In the previous example, it would have been entirely possible for universities not to have threatened by Open Badges and MOOCs, and in fact outside of the US, the reaction was different.

A diagram showing primary and secondary audiences of the DCC (unfinished work)
Unfinished work on the DCC project, not for quoting or re-use

Reflecting on Chapter 5 suggests to me that it is relationships which will be an important way to intervene in this system. Helping the DCC encourage more universities to use VCs involves helping people at those universities understand what the technology involves, hence the work on mental models and metaphors. But it also involves helping those people understanding that they are not simply the victims of historical inevitability and market forces; that they can work together to build a future they would like to see.

It was interesting to witness on a recent DCC community call just how inspired many of the, predominantly US-based, audience was at the work on Diia by the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine. This initiative, which pre-dates the Russian invasion, is a form of e-governance along the lines of Estonia’s E-residency programme. Ukrainian citizens can access most government documents, including driving license and passport, using the app and web portal. Soon, they will also be able to do this for their university degrees.

In my studies so far, although I’ve read a lot about the relational aspect of systems, I haven’t seen or heard the word ‘inspiration’. Yet this is so important when it comes to behavioural change. It’s the reason that a reasonably-average football team can win a cup game against better opposition. It’s also a reason why people and organisations can transcend the current problems and malaise within a landscape, working together to build a system to change something specific.

Chapter 5 makes me realise how fortunate we are to be able to go into this work with the DCC being known and trusted enough to be able to feel our way forward a bit, and to present provisional and tentative conclusions in our meetings with the director. This stands in stark contrast to the proposal we sent as a response to an Invititation to Tender this week, which had us answering questions and providing evidence in a very regimented way. In addition, as is usual with these things, we had to present a project plan without having much context. Understood through the lens of embodied ways of knowing, it seems like an approach designed to create maximum stress rather than maximum understanding.

In the situation of concern relating to the DCC, we have identified our stakeholders and have started to talk with them in semi-structured user research interviews. We’re asking relational questions such as what motivated people to first engage with the DCC and VCs in general, as well as human interactions they’ve had, and ways in which they think we could speed up adoption. This chapter has also made me think that we need to dig even more into what they are trying to achieve. As I mentioned above, my assumption is that people tend to be motivated by problems and concerns that directly affect them. So if we can find those ‘pain points’ we can start explaining how VCs and the reference technologies offered by the DCC can help with these.

Finally, it’s worth saying that my Systemic Inquiry 2 is not only informed by Systemic Inquiry 1, but also other systems which involve other practitioners. For example, as I’ll explore when we get to other chapters, my interactions with other members of WAO, with members of adjacent communities, and with our client are particularly important in shaping a way forward for the inquiry and wider project.


  • Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: how to act. Springer, London.
  • Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books, New York.

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Purposeful and purposive framing

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.

Update: clarified the difference between ‘purposeful’ and ‘purposive’ thanks to some feedback from Robert Holtom in the module forum.

A serene water surface with a single drop creating expanding ripples. The initial drop in the center has a dynamic impact, with ripples radiating outward. The water is in varying shades of blues and greens. Floating objects, like leaves and small boats, in contrasting colors, are scattered across the water, interacting with the ripples. The scene conveys a reflective and expansive mood, indicative of broader impacts and interactions within a system.

The four blog posts which follow this one are related to my reading, and reflecting, on chapters from the book  Systems Practice: How to Act by Ray Ison. By way of context, they relate to the juggler isophor introduced in this post. In addition, I’ve linked the BECM balls that are included in the isophor to my own practice here.

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.

System diagram showing a person (P) in a situated practice with two boxes - S1 (your systems practice) and S2 (managing change in your situation). There is an arrow pointing out of the S1 box to outside the situated practice with the label 'another situation'

Each chapter dealt with in subsequent posts focuses on just one of the BECM balls. I have 10 questions to help guide my reading, grouped under three headings: one for S1 and two for S2. This is due to S1 being framed in a ‘purposeful’ way, while S2 can be framed both in a ‘purposeful’ and ‘purposive’ way.

To explain the difference:

  • Purposeful framing – refers to framing directed towards a specific goal or objective that is determined by the practitioner (i.e. focused on my learning and development as a practitioner)
  • Purposive framing – refers to framing that is intentional but with a broader or more holistic focus where the observer ascribes purpose to another (i.e. it’s not just about my goals, as it considers dynamics, stakeholders, and potential outcomes)

It’s a nuanced difference, but it makes sense to both be thinking about my own development in a separate but linked way to my intervention in a process of systemic change management.

Systemic Inquiry 1

a) Purposeful framing: these questions situate me as a practitioner in the situation of concern. I’m a learner with a developing understanding and practices around systems practice.

  1. What does my reading of this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M-ball have to say that affects how I now interpret my past understandings and use of systems practice?
  2. What does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M -ball have to say about what I am currently doing in my systems practice? Does it alter my understanding of any aspects of what I do?
  3. What possibilities for my future systems practice does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M -ball suggest (in general terms or in relation to the situation I have chosen for Systemic Inquiry 2)?

Systemic Inquiry 2

a) Purposeful framing: these questions situate me as a practitioner in the situation of concern that I have nominated to enact your Systems understandings and skills.

  1. What does my reading of this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M-ball have to say that affects how I have interpreted my situation of concern in the past?
  2. What does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M-ball have to say about my current understandings and practices in the situation? Does it alter my understanding of what the situation is, or could be?
  3. What possibilities for my future systems practice for managing systemic change does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M-ball suggest in relation to the situation I have chosen?

b) Purposive framing: these questions help me interpret and make judgements about others in my situation of concern. As I am not asking them directly, I am interpreting what others in the situation of concern think and do (and why they do what they do).

  1. From my reading of this chapter on the B, E, C or M-ball, who are, or could be, the stakeholders in my situation of concern?
  2. What does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M-ball have to say that affects how I now interpret past understandings and practices of others in the situation?
  3. What does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M-ball have to say about my current understandings and practices of others in the situation?
  4. What insights does this chapter on the B-, E-, C- or M -ball provide in relation to what others in the situation may regard as improvements and how these might be achieved?

Image: DALL-E 3