Open Thinkering


Tag: systems thinking

TB871: The role of phenomenology in systems thinking

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

Close-up of a daisy with a yellow center and white petals against a blurred background of other daisies and greenery.

Phenomenology is a philosophical approach focusing on subjective experience and perception. It’s one of those long, impressive-sounding words that actually means something reasonably straightforward:

[Phenomenology] seeks to investigate the universal features of consciousness while avoiding assumptions about the external world, aiming to describe phenomena as they appear to the subject, and to explore the meaning and significance of the lived experiences


As such, phenomenology plays a significant role in systems thinking. In what follows, I want to explore how phenomenology contributes to a deeper grasp and more effective practice of systems thinking.

Systems thinking involves understanding and addressing complex problems by viewing them as interconnected wholes rather than isolated parts. Phenomenology complements systems thinking by providing a method to capture and analyse human experiences and perspectives within these systems.

One practical application of phenomenology in systems thinking is cognitive mapping. This tool captures an individual’s reasoning about a situation, helping to weave together multiple perspectives into a comprehensive cause map. By reflecting on the cognitive processes and subjective experiences of stakeholders, systems practitioners can gain valuable insights into the dynamics of the systems they are analysing.

The MSc module I am studying (TB871) provides detailed guidance on using cognitive mapping to analyse reasoning and develop strategic options. As the module materials note, recognising the significance of multiple perspectives is crucial in organisational problem-solving and collaborative decision-making (The Open University, 2020).

SODA is an approach that exemplifies the integration of phenomenology in systems thinking. It involves creating cognitive maps to capture the reasoning and perceptions of individuals involved in a situation. These individual maps are then combined to form a collective understanding, which helps in identifying strategic options and making informed decisions.

The approach taken when using the SODA approach recognises that different stakeholders have different perspectives and experiences, and these are critical to understanding the full scope of a problem. By using cognitive mapping, SODA captures these diverse viewpoints, facilitating a richer and more comprehensive analysis of the situation. This method supports collaborative decision-making by ensuring that all voices are heard and considered.

Integrating phenomenology into systems thinking offers several benefits:

  1. Enhanced understanding: by focusing on subjective experiences, phenomenology helps to uncover deeper insights into complex systems.
  2. Improved decision-making: considering diverse perspectives leads to more informed and effective decisions.
  3. Collaborative problem-solving: a phenomenological approach fosters mutual understanding and collaboration among stakeholders, which is essential for addressing complex issues.

While phenomenology offers significant benefits, integrating it with systems thinking can also present challenges. Balancing subjective insights with objective analysis requires careful consideration, and practitioners must be skilled in both phenomenological methods and systems thinking tools to effectively combine these approaches.

In conclusion, then, phenomenology enriches systems thinking by bringing in human experiences and subjective realities. This integration enhances our grasp of complex systems, leading to better decision-making and collaborative problem-solving.


Image: Garvit Nama

TB871: Russell Ackoff as a systems thinking pioneer

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

Russell Ackoff was a key figure in systems thinking who left an enduring impact through his innovative approaches and concepts. His work spanned various domains, from organisational theory to systems science, and he is well-known for his emphasis on holistic thinking and interactive planning. I mentioned his work in a previous post.

Ackoff didn’t like being called a ‘consultant’, preferring the term ‘educator’ as he believed consultants impose solutions, whereas educators help people discover their own solutions. This distinction is a good example of his underlying philosophy of empowering individuals to solve their own problems rather than providing predefined solutions (Ramage and Shipp, 2020, p. 141).

Ackoff embodied wholeness, seamlessly integrating complementary opposites. He combined forcefulness with kindness, illustrating the harmonious merging of seemingly contradictory qualities (Ibid., p. 142). He observed that society has moved from the machine age, which focused on analytical thinking, to the systems age, emphasising synthetic thinking and understanding wholes. He viewed all objects and experiences as parts of larger systems, reflecting a holistic perspective on the world (Ibid., pp. 143-144).

Complex situations as ‘messes’

Ackoff introduced the concept of a “mess” to describe complex systems of interacting problems. He argued against breaking down a mess into parts, as this approach can worsen the situation. Instead, he advocated for managing messes holistically, considering all interrelated aspects simultaneously (Ibid., p. 144).

What Ackoff termed ‘interactive planning’ involves designing a system that one would ideally want to replace the existing one with. He outlined five stages of interactive planning:

  1. Formulating the mess
  2. Ends planning (designing the desirable future)
  3. Means planning (finding ways to reach the desirable future)
  4. Resource planning (deciding what resources are required and how to obtain them)
  5. Design of implementation and control (putting changes into place and monitoring them)

Ackoff also introduced the hierarchy of Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom (DIKW), describing the progression from simple data to valuable wisdom. This hierarchy is widely used in knowledge management (Ibid., p. 144).

The DIKW pyramid, with Data at the bottom, followed by Information and then Knowledge. Wisdom is at the top.

Ackoff’s concept of interactive planning was proactive, aiming not just to solve problems but to dissolve them by changing the environment that generates them. This forward-thinking approach aligns with his belief that organisations should aim for idealised designs, envisioning the best possible future and working towards it rather than merely reacting to issues as they arise.

Fun and philosophy

Ackoff’s philosophy on work and pleasure is encapsulated in his statement, “For me, there has never been an amount of money that makes it worth doing something that is not fun” (Ibid., p.145). I can definitely agree with that!

In his career, he identified five sources of fun:

  1. Denying the obvious and exploring its consequences: Ackoff found enjoyment in challenging widely accepted truths and exploring the outcomes. This approach not only sparked curiosity but also led to innovative thinking and solutions. For instance, he questioned the effectiveness of traditional educational methods, advocating for experiential learning over rote memorisation.
  2. Proving that large social Systems often pursue incorrect objectives: He demonstrated that large social systems frequently aim for the wrong goals. For instance, the educational system prioritises teaching over learning, which obstructs the latter. Similarly, corporations often focus on enhancing the quality of life for managers rather than maximising shareholder value (Ibid., pp.146-147). Ackoff argued that these misaligned objectives lead to inefficiencies and systemic failures.
  3. Producing conceptual order where there was ambiguity and confusion: Creating order from chaos was another source of fun for Ackoff. He achieved this by identifying the DIKW hierarchy, defining the three traditional types of management and proposing the interactive manager as a fourth type, and finding ways to control the future through methods such as vertical and horizontal integration, cooperation, incentives, and responsiveness (Ibid., pp.147-148). His ability to synthesise complex ideas into coherent frameworks helped organisations navigate uncertainty and make better decisions.
  4. Disclosing intellectual ‘con men’: Ackoff took pleasure in exposing the flaws of popular management trends like TQM, benchmarking, downsizing, process reengineering, and scenario planning. He criticised these trends for offering simplistic solutions to complex problems without considering systems thinking (Ibid., p.148). He argued that many of these approaches were fads, lacking the depth required to address real organisational issues effectively.
  5. Designing organisations that avoid common traps He enjoyed designing organisations that bypass common management pitfalls. His innovative designs included democratic hierarchies, internal market economies, multidimensional structures, and systems that support learning and adaptation (Ibid., pp.148-149). Ackoff’s organisational designs aimed to empower employees, encourage innovation, and create environments where continuous learning and improvement were integral to the corporate culture.

Russell Ackoff exemplified his principles of systems thinking through his actions, embodying the philosophies he advocated. He consistently applied holistic thinking and participatory methods in his work with organisations, ensuring that his theoretical concepts were grounded in practical application.

Ackoff’s approach to problem-solving was not just academic; he actively engaged with real-world issues and demonstrated the effectiveness of his ideas in practice. He famously said, “The only thing harder than starting something new is stopping something old,” highlighting his commitment to continuous improvement and innovation within systems (Ackoff, 1999, p. 426). This dedication to both theory and practice solidified his reputation as a practitioner who truly ‘walked the talk.’


  • Ackoff, R. L., 1999. On Passing through 80. Systemic Practice and Action Research, 12(4), pp. 425-430.
  • Ramage, M. and Shipp, K., 2020. Systems Thinkers. 2nd ed. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer.

TB871: Chris Argyris and his influence on systems thinking and organisational development

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

Chris Argyris is an influential figure in organisational theory who made significant contributions to our understanding of how individuals and organisations learn and develop. His work, often in collaboration with Donald Schön, offers insights into the mechanisms of learning and the barriers that can hinder effective organisational development. (Note: I discussed some of Schön’s work in my work on module TB872)

Adult-like working environments

Argyris observed that hierarchical structures within organisations often create environments inconsistent with adult-like work settings. He argued that such settings can lead to frustration among employees who value autonomy and responsibility. This observation is encapsulated in his statement:

If hierarchies had their way, they would create work worlds for human beings that were consistent with the features of infancy … those workers who valued adult-like work settings would likely experience a conflict and would likely be frustrated

(Ramage and Shipp, 2020, p. 288)

This critique highlights the tension between hierarchical control and the need for more democratic, participative work environments. Argyris believed that when employees are treated as adults, they are more likely to be motivated, satisfied, and productive.

Espoused theories vs. Theories-in-use

One of Argyris’ most notable contributions is the distinction between ‘espoused theories’ and ‘theories-in-use’. The former are what individuals claim to follow, while the latter are the actual principles that govern their behaviour in practice. Argyris and Schön explain:

Espoused theories, which people believe in, advocate, and claim to be those which govern their actions; and theories-in-use, which in real situations actually govern a particular individual’s actions.

(Ibid., p.289)

This distinction is crucial because it reveals the often significant gap between what people say they do and what they actually do. Recognising this gap is the first step toward more honest self-assessment and organisational improvement.

Theories-in-use comprise three interconnected elements:

  1. Governing variables: These are the assumptions and factors that individuals aim to keep within acceptable levels.
  2. Action strategies: These are the methods individuals employ to maintain the governing variables.
  3. Consequences: These are the outcomes of the actions, which can be either intended or unintended.

Understanding these elements helps clarify why individuals often behave differently from what they profess. For instance, a manager might espouse the value of teamwork but, in practice, might prioritise individual achievements due to underlying beliefs about competition and reward.

Argyris illustrated the concept of theories-in-use with simple, everyday examples to demonstrate their automatic and often subconscious nature. For instance, he noted:

If we had to think through all the possible responses every time someone asked, ‘How are you?’ the world would pass us by.


This example highlights how ingrained and automatic our responses can be, guided by deeply held theories-in-use. Such automatic responses can be beneficial in routine interactions but problematic in situations requiring thoughtful reflection and change.

Single and Double-loop learning

Argyris introduced the concepts of single-loop and double-loop learning to describe how organisations adapt and evolve. Single-loop learning involves making adjustments to actions to better meet existing objectives. In contrast, double-loop learning involves questioning and altering the underlying assumptions and goals themselves. He stated:

If observing the consequences of actions results in changes in assumptions about what outcomes are desirable, that would be double-loop learning.


A diagram illustrating single and double-loop learning can effectively visualise these concepts:

The diagram illustrates single-loop and double-loop learning. It shows that governing variables influence actions, which lead to consequences. In single-loop learning, if a mismatch between actions and desired outcomes is detected, adjustments are made to actions to better align with governing variables. In double-loop learning, a mismatch prompts reassessment and potential changes to the governing variables themselves. This represents how single-loop learning corrects actions, while double-loop learning reevaluates underlying assumptions.
Diagram showing single-loop and double-loop learning (Ramage and Shipp, 2020, p. 289)

The diagram shows that governing variables influence actions, which lead to consequences. In single-loop learning, if a mismatch between actions and desired outcomes is detected, adjustments are made to actions to better align with governing variables. In double-loop learning, a mismatch prompts reassessment and potential changes to the governing variables themselves. This represents how single-loop learning corrects actions, while double-loop learning reevaluates underlying assumptions.

So, single-loop learning is like a thermostat that adjusts heating or cooling to maintain a set temperature. Double-loop learning, however, questions whether the current temperature setting is appropriate.

Model I and Model II behaviour

Argyris identified two typical patterns of behaviour in organisations: Model I and Model II. Model I behaviour focuses on unilateral control, striving to win, suppressing negative feelings, and acting rationally. This behaviour is closely linked to single-loop learning and often results in defensive reasoning:

Model I behaviour is closely linked to single-loop learning: its values include being in unilateral control of situations, striving to win rather than losing, suppressing negative feelings in oneself and others, and acting rationally. (Ramage and Shipp, 2020, p. 290).

In contrast, Model II behaviour encourages valid information sharing, promoting free choice, and assuming personal responsibility. It aligns with double-loop learning and fosters a more open and reflective organisational culture:

Model II behaviour is linked to double-loop learning: its values include utilizing valid information, promoting free and informed choice, and assuming personal responsibility to monitor effectiveness.

(Ibid., p.290)

Defensive reasoning

Defensive reasoning is a significant obstacle to organisational learning. Argyris explained how individuals use defensive reasoning to protect themselves from threats or embarrassment, which can stifle learning and innovation:

Individuals keep their premises and inferences tacit, lest they lose control; they create tests of their claims that are self-serving and self-sealing.


This behaviour creates an environment where mistakes are hidden, and learning opportunities are missed. Defensive reasoning leads to a culture of blame and fear, rather than one of openness and continuous improvement.

Four basic values

Argyris identified a universal human tendency to design actions based on four basic values:

  1. To remain in unilateral control.
  2. To maximise ‘winning’ and minimise ‘losing’.
  3. To suppress negative feelings.
  4. To be as ‘rational’ as possible.

These values often lead to defensive behaviours and the defensive reasoning mentioned above, which can hinder genuine learning and adaptation (Ibid., p. 293). By recognising these tendencies, individuals and organisations can begin to adopt more open and reflective practices.


  • Ramage, M. and Shipp, K. (2020) Systems Thinkers. 2nd edn. Milton Keynes: The Open University/London: Springer.