Open Thinkering


Tag: systems thinking

TB871: Block 1 Tools stream references

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

Just a quick post to share the books, articles, and other material referenced in the Block 1 Tools stream that I might want to come explore at some point in the future (Open University, 2020)

Armson, R. (2011) Growing wings on the way: systems thinking for messy situations. London: Triarchy Press.

Birney, A. (2017) Cultivating system change: a practitioner’s companion. London: Routledge.

Burns, D. (2018) ‘Deepening and scaling participatory research with the poorest and most marginalised’, European Journal of Operational Research, 268(3), pp. 865–874.

Cabinet Office (2004) Systems thinking in practice, Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. Available at: s_systems.htm (Accessed: 1 July 2009).

Caulkin, S. (2006) ‘Why things fell apart for joined-up thinking’, The Observer, 26 February. Available at: (Accessed: 24 December 2019).

Chakravarty, M. (2005) The 10 schools of strategic planning. Available at: (Accessed: 1 September 2009).

Chapman, J. (2004) System failure: why governments must learn to think differently, Demos. Available at: (Accessed: 3 January 2020).

Cohen, L. (1993) Stranger music: selected poems and songs. New York: Pantheon Books.

Habermas, J. (2015) The theory of communicative action. Volume 2: Lifeworld and System: a critique of functionalist reason. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Huston, T. (2007) Inside-Out: stories and methods for generating collective will to create the future we want. Cambridge, MA: Society for Organizational Learning.

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act in situations of uncertainty and complexity in a climate-change world. New York: Springer.

Jagustović, R., Zougmoré, R.B., Kessler, A., Ritsema, C.J., Keesstra, S. and Reynolds, M. (2019). ‘Contribution of systems thinking and complex adaptive system attributes to sustainable food production: Example from a climate-smart village’,Agricultural Systems, 171, pp. 65–75. doi:10.1016/j.agsy.2018.12.008.

Korzybski, A. (1933) ‘A non-Aristotelian system and its necessity for rigour in mathematics and physics’, Science and Sanity, pp. 747–761.

Liedtka, J.M. (1998) ‘Linking strategic thinking with strategic planning’, Strategy and Leadership, 26(4), pp. 30–35.

Mintzberg, H. (2000) ‘Strategy, blind men and the elephant’ in Dickson, T. (ed) Mastering Strategy, Harlow: Financial Times/Prentice Hall.

Mintzberg, H., et al. (1998) Strategy safari: a guided tour through the wilds of strategic management. New York: The Free Press.

Mulgan, G., 1997. Life after politics: new thinking for the twenty-first century. London: Fontana Press.

Open Systems Group (2004) ‘Systems practice: a distinctive competence with the Open University’. Unpublished discussion paper.

Open University Applied Systems Thinking in Practice (ASTiP) group (2019) ‘Systems thinking practitioner (STP) competencies’. Unpublished discussion paper for development of the STP Apprenticeship Standard.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2017) Systems approaches to public sector challenges: working with change. Paris: OECD.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) (2020) Systemic thinking for policy making. the potential of systems analysis for addressing global policy challenges in the 21st century. Edited by W. Hynes, M. Lees, and J. M. Muller. doi: Paris: OECD.

Lankelly Chase (2016) Systems changers 2016 ‘From where I stand:’ How frontline workers can contribute to and create systems change. London: Lankelly Chase.

Reynolds, M. (2014) ‘Triple-loop learning and conversing with reality’, Kybernetes, 43(9/10) pp. 1381–1391. doi:10.1108/K-07-2014-0158

Reynolds, M. (2015) ‘Rigour (-mortis) in evaluation’, Evaluation connections: the European Evaluation Society newsletter, June, Special edition, pp. 2–4. Available at: (Accessed: 31 March 2020).

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

Reynolds, M., Sarriott, E., Swanson, R.C. and Rusoja, E. (2018). ’Navigating systems ideas for health practice: towards a common learning device’, Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice, 24(3), pp. 619–628. doi:10.1111/jep.12872

Savigny D. de, Adam T. (2009) Systems thinking for health systems strengthening. Geneva: World Health Organization.

Seddon, J. (2019) Beyond command and control. Buckingham: Vanguard Consulting.

Ulrich, W. (2003) ‘Beyond methodology choice: critical systems thinking as critically systemic discourse’, Journal of the Operational Research Society, 54(4), pp. 325–342.

Weick, K.E., Sutcliffe, K.M. and Obstfeld, D. (2008) ‘Organizing for high reliability: Processes of collective mindfulness’, Crisis management, 3(1), pp. 81–123.

Witell, L., Gebauer, H., Jaakkola, E., Hammedi, W., Patricio, L. and Perks, H. (2017) ‘A bricolage perspective on service innovation’, Journal of Business Research, 79, pp. 290–298.

Er, references to references?

TB871: Three activities associated with using a STiP heuristic for making strategy

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

In a previous post, I recreated the STiP heuristic diagram that was introduced in the module materials:

A heuristic diagram for Systems Thinking in Practice with a cyclical flow of several stages indicating a process for dealing with complex situations, involving understanding interrelationships, engaging with multiple perspectives, and using conceptual tools.

This suggests three ‘conversations’ when using a bricolage approach: conversing with the situation (1), conversing with other practitioners about the situation (2), and conversing with yourself in reflecting on two prior conversations (3).

Activity 1.19 (Open University, 2020) asks what is specific in each conversation about STiP as praxis (i.e. the process by which a theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practised, embodied, or realised)

Conversation 1: Situation

This conversation focuses on sense-making within complex, real-world situations, with the practitioner aiming to explore and examine these situations as an agent of change. As such, it emphasises the importance of developing an understanding of the interrelationships involved.

In addition, the practitioner is seeking through the ‘conversation’ to identify and connect relevant variables in order to form as holistic a picture as possible. It’s important to ensure that they are mindful that complexities do not always fit neatly into pre-defined views.

Third, this conversation centres on traditional Systems Thinking approaches which aim to see both the forest and threes. In other words, it involves understanding the larger system while recognising its individual components.

Conversation 2: Other Practitioners

This second conversation involves engaging with various practitioners to understand and strategise about the situation. This includes modelling different perspectives using systems tools to develop a shared model of action.

In this phase, the need to empathise with, and incorporate diverse, often contrasting, perspectives is foregrounded. The aim here is to develop effective strategies without dismissing views that could hinder their implementation.

The main focus here is on practical challenges, such as capturing perspectives and working with them to understand interrelationships more effectively and empathetically. This could be called collaborative modelling.

Conversation 3: Yourself

The third conversation is an internal, reflective process where the practitioner balances idealised systems models with the realities of the situation. This is a continuous process that involves reflecting on the boundaries and judgements made about the system designed to improve the situation.

Evaluating systemic desirability and cultural feasibilty of the strategies proposed is key to this phase. In other words, is this what people want, and is the change likely be able to happen given the culture surrounding it? Potential difficulties with implementation need to be addressed here, including extremes around holism (including everybody) and pluralism (including everybody’s views).

This conversation addresses the challenges of dealing with partiality and bias in making boundary judgements. Systems are human constructs, so they are inherently partial and biased, which means we must continually adapt to changing circumstances and stakeholder values.

I’ve come to enjoy figuring out boundary judgements over the last few months as I’ve been studying (Conversation 1) and I’m reasonably confident with Conversation 3 in terms of reflecting on my practice. I suppose it’s Conversation 2 in terms of dealing with other people’s differences in use of language and ways of understanding the world that I sometimes struggle with.

It’s also increasingly difficult to deal with people who neither have a background in STiP nor perhaps are ‘natural’ systems thinkers. With that, I found something recently by John Cutler on LinkedIn (thanks Amber and Abi!) which can help with that. I’ve included his full list below, and one of the illustrations by Viktor Cessan:

An illustration of three nested squares with connecting lines and arrows depicting layers of complexity, and a statement at the top about problem descriptions being overwhelming.

20 Things I’ve Learned as a Systems (Over) Thinker

  1. Take care of yourself. Your brain is working overtime—all the time. Practice “radical” recovery.
  2. You may spend a lot longer thinking about things than most people. Pace your delivery.
  3. If you go deep first, and then simplify…keep in mind that you don’t need to show all of your work.
  4. Your default description of (almost) any problem will be too threatening/overwhelming.
  5. Do your deepest thinking with co-conspirators (not the people you’re trying to influence).
  6. Informal influence is often not formally recognized. Prepare mentally for this.
  7. The people you’re trying to influence spend 98% of their day overwhelmed by business as usual.
  8. Remember to also do the job you were hired to do (if you don’t you’ll be easier to discount).
  9. Seek “quick wins”, but know that most meaningful things will take a while.
  10. Some things take ages to materialize. It is discontinuous, not continuous.
  11. Make sure to celebrate your wins. They will be few and far between, so savor the moment.
  12. The people who support you in private may not be able to support you in public. Accept that.
  13. Hack existing power structures—it’s much easier than trying to change them.
  14. Consider becoming a formal leader. It’s harder in many ways, but you’ll have more leverage. What’s stopping you?
  15. In lieu of being a formal leader, make sure to partner with people who actually “own” the area of change.
  16. Watch out for imposing your worldview on people. Have you asked about what people care about?.
  17. You’ll need a support network. And not just a venting network. Real support.
  18. “Know when to fold ‘em”. Listen to Kenny Rogers The Gambler. Leave on your own terms.
  19. Don’t confuse being able to sense/see system dynamics, with being about to “control” them. You can’t.
  20. Grapple with your demons, and make sure not to wrap up too much of your identity in change.


TB871: Bricolage, rigour, and service design

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

Decoration in a kind of bricolage-style

It’s been over a decade since I started wondering out loud about whether people really knew what they were talking about when they use the term ‘rigour’. In that particular case, it was whether then UK Education Secretary Michael Gove knew what he was talking about:

What concerns me about Gove’s proposals is the assumption that rigour consists of a very particular method of assessing young people’s knowledge, understanding and skills. I say this as a former teacher and senior leader, as someone who is currently involved in education on a national and international level and, most importantly, a parent. The ability to sit still and concentrate for three hours on examination questions testing feats of memory does not sound to me like a 21st century skill. Which pieces of the complex puzzle of human knowledge, skills and understanding are not captured under such a system? I’d suggest many.

(Belshaw, 2012)

I was reminded of this as I come to work on Activity 1.18 of this module, which introduces the module author’s (Martin Reynolds) views on rigour:

Disciplinary rigour is usually measured by a sense of reliability in the disciplinary tools used. Replicability of tools used in the same way across different situations or for specific situations is usually a good guarantor for reliability. I have argued that relying on one guarantor for rigour might be restrictive, and can lead to a sense of rigor mortis (Reynolds, 2015). For a transdisciplinary area of practice like STiP or evaluation, it is important to have several co-guarantor attributes. In the article (Reynolds 2015) I flag three sets of co-guarantor attributes (CoGs) – reliability/replicability, resonance, and relevance – each interrelated and conforming respectively with the three entities of the STiP heuristic.

(The Open University, 2020)

Reynolds introduces the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss around bricolage, which is a concept referring to a process of improvisation and creativity. Individuals (or organisations) make use of whatever resources they have on-hand to solve problems. The term comes from the French word bricoler which means ‘to tinker’.

Karl Weick leant on the work of Lévi-Strauss in an article entitled ‘Organizing for High Reliability’ (Weick, et al., 1997) and Reynolds presents and expands on Weick’s four attributes of a successful bricolage:

  • Careful observation and listening – incorporating the idea of conversation; the bricoleur works with others in the village where s/he visits.
  • Intimate knowledge of resources – each situation is different with different resources, human and non-human; the bricoleur must be adaptable to the resourcefulness of the situation at hand.
  • Trusting one’s own ideas – whilst situations vary and are always in a state of flux, the bricoloeur remains self–confident, though not arrogant, in the tools and experiences gained.
  • Self-correcting structures with feedback – bricolage is adaptable to change, accepting a safe-fail environment which allows for errors and experimentation, but embraces the learning emerging from such situations.
(The Open University, 2020)

For example, new tech startups which might have a lot of talent at their disposal but not much cash might use Agile development methodologies, combined with a range of Open Source technologies, rapidly iterating their product. Or healthcare practices in rural, resource-constrained environments might lead to the development of medical devices that operate without electricity. Likewise, urban gardeners often make do with what is available, perhaps turning an abandoned area into a community garden using recycled materials and local knowledge.

In their paper ‘A bricolage perspective on service innovation’ (Witell, et al., 2017) the authors present an approach to bricolage which aligns well with Reynolds’ three co-guarantor attributes (CoGs) of reliability, resonance, and relevance. The table below, created with the help of GPT-4, outlines the overlap:

Bricolage Aspects (Witell et al.)Bricolage CapabilitiesCo-Guarantor Attributes (Reynolds)Description of Overlap
Making Do with What is AvailableUsing available resources creatively.CoG1: ReliabilityBoth emphasise the use of existing tools and resources in a consistent and adaptable manner. The bricolage principle of ‘making do’ aligns with replicable methods of resource application.
CoG2: Resonance
Making do ensures solutions are contextually appropriate, providing resonance with the immediate environment and its challenges.
CoG3: Relevance
By focusing on available resources, solutions are directly tailored to meet current needs, ensuring relevance.
Improvising When Recombining ResourcesAdapting and combining resources in new ways.CoG1: ReliabilityImprovisation in bricolage demonstrates a reliable approach to innovation under constraints, maintaining methodological consistency.
CoG2: Resonance
Improvisation ensures that solutions resonate with stakeholders by adapting to feedback and changing needs dynamically.
CoG3: Relevance
Improvised solutions maintain relevance by adjusting to real-time feedback and evolving challenges.
Networking with External PartnersCollaborating and utilising external insights.CoG2: Resonance
Networking enhances resonance by ensuring solutions are developed in collaboration with stakeholders and reflect shared insights.
CoG3: Relevance
Networking keeps solutions relevant by incorporating diverse perspectives and resources from a broader community.
Careful Observation and ListeningEngaging with the context and stakeholders.CoG2: Resonance
Careful observation ensures that the bricolage process is deeply connected to stakeholder needs and contextual cues, enhancing resonance.
CoG3: Relevance
Listening to stakeholder feedback ensures that innovations are aligned with real-world needs, ensuring relevance.
Intimate Knowledge of ResourcesUnderstanding and leveraging what is available.CoG1: ReliabilityKnowing what resources are available allows for consistent application in various contexts, supporting reliability.
CoG2: Resonance
Intimate resource knowledge ensures solutions resonate by using the most appropriate and contextually aligned resources.
CoG3: Relevance
Deep resource knowledge ensures that solutions are relevant by effectively matching resource application to needs.
Trusting One’s Own IdeasConfidence in the innovative process.CoG2: Resonance
Trust in one’s own innovative capacity fosters resonance by aligning solutions closely with personal and communal insights.
CoG3: Relevance
Self-trust ensures that solutions remain relevant by adhering to a vision that meets identified needs.
Self-Correcting Structures with FeedbackAdaptability and learning from implementation.CoG1: ReliabilityThe ability to self-correct based on feedback enhances the reliability of bricolage by refining methods and outcomes.
CoG2: Resonance
Self-correcting mechanisms ensure resonance by continually adjusting solutions to better align with stakeholder feedback.
CoG3: Relevance
Feedback loops maintain relevance by ensuring that solutions evolve to meet changing needs effectively.

The bricolage paper contains four ‘propositions’ (Witell, et al., 2017, pp.295-296) some of which have an ‘a’ and ‘b part because they present competing hypotheses based on different theoretical perspectives or empirical observations.

Proposition 1

Addressing resource constraints actively is positively associated with strengthening bricolage capabilities of making do, improvising and networking.

This proposition suggests that when organisations or individuals actively confront and address their resource constraints, they enhance their ability to engage in bricolage effectively. This strengthens their capabilities to make do with what is available, to improvise solutions, and to network with others to acquire needed resources or knowledge.

So this highlights the importance of having a proactive stance towards resource limitations. By actively engaging with constraints, instead of bemoaning them, organisations can create a more innovative culture leading to resourceful approaches leveraging bricolage effectively.

Propositions 2a and 2b

Capabilities for making do with what organizations have at hand are positively associated with service innovation outcomes. (2a)

Capabilities for making do with what organizations have at hand are negatively associated with service innovation outcomes. (2b)

Propositions 2a and 2b are competing, or in tension, because they suggest different outcomes from the same bricolage capability. This reflects the ways that innovation can be complex and context-dependent

Proposition 2a suggests that the ability to use available resources effectively (making do) leads to positive service innovation outcomes. That is to say, ‘making do’ helps organisations innovate successfully because it encourages creativity and problem-solving within existing constraints.

In contrast, Proposition 2b suggests that relying solely on available resources (making do) can limit the scope of innovation and lead to less optimal innovation outcomes. This happens because ‘making do’ might prevent organisations from seeking out new resources or methods that could lead to more groundbreaking innovations.

So these competing views reflect the dual nature resource constraints in innovation. On one hand, constraints can spark creativity and lead to novel solutions (2a). On the other hand, too much reliance on limited resources can inhibit the development of more ambitious, potentially more impactful innovations (2b).

Proposition 3

Improvising capabilities are positively associated with service innovation outcomes.

This proposition states that the ability to improvise, that is “creatively recombine resources in novel ways under constraints,” is positively linked to successful service innovations. Improvisation is a core component of bricolage and is essential for adapting to and overcoming immediate challenges.

Proposition 3 supports the idea that flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly are crucial for innovation, especially in environments where conditions and resources can change rapidly.

Propositions 4a and 4b

Networking capabilities are positively associated with service innovation outcomes. (4a)

Networking capabilities are negatively associated with service innovation outcomes. (4b)

Like Propositions 2a and 2b, Propositions 4a and 4b are competing hypotheses regarding the impact of networking on innovation outcomes.

Proposition 4a suggests that the ability to network with external partners and collaborators contributes positively to innovation outcomes. Networking expands the resource pool and can bring in new ideas, both of which can enhance the innovation process.

Conversely, Proposition 4b suggests that networking might sometimes lead to negative innovation outcomes. This could be due to the complexity and coordination costs associated with managing multiple partnerships or because external inputs might dilute the organisation’s focus or lead to conflicts.

These propositions then lead to a diagram which I’ve recreated and adapted slightly. (I’ve used WAO colours and put the logo on because I can imagine us using this with clients!)

I found this activity, and especially the academic paper, really eye-opening. This is exactly the kind of work we do through the co-op, as opposed to, say, large consulting firms who encourage their clients to adopt templated approaches. It’s great to have another framework to apply to be able to show our clients an approach we can offer them.