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TB871: Four perspectives on 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


An influence diagram of different systems traditions which have shaped contemporary systems practice (Maiteny & Ison, 2000, in Reynolds & Holwell, 2020, p.13)

If there’s one obvious thing I’ve learned in my life, work, and studies, it’s that people think differently about things. This is entirely unsurprising, given that we have different genes and different experiences. As a result, though, when it comes to academic disciplines, there are often many different traditions and approaches. The same is true in systems thinking.

With the large number of ‘systems approaches’ it is not surprising that there are several ways of thinking about how systems approaches relate to each other and doing this produces different typologies. Typologies can themselves be regarded as system models; particular perspectives on organizing the interrelationships between different entities, each associated with a particular purpose. Here we briefly look at four ‘typologies’ or perspectives. As with any model, viewpoints are inevitably partial in the sense of being both incomplete and of being viewed from a particular or partisan perspective necessarily based on its own particular purpose. The following short overviews of these four perspectives represent a gradual shift in focus from the systems approach itself, to the situations in which they are used, and finally to the user.

Reynolds & Holwell (2020, p.10)

Activity 1.8 asks us to look at four perspectives, or groupings, of systems approaches, and to classify them based on the relative emphasis given to a) the ‘situation of use’, and b) the systems thinking practitioner.

I’m always interested in the biographies of people who come up with systems and ideas. I think you can learn a lot about why they came up with their approach if you understand more about them. So I’m looking forward to getting more into the book Systems Thinkers by Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp, which is one of the course texts.

Perspectives on systems approachesRelative emphasis given to…
Situation of useSystems thinking practitioner
Perspective 1: Three Traditions of Systems Thinking 
(West Churchman, Peter Checkland, Werner Ulrich, Mike Jackson, and Others)

Medium

Low
Perspective 2: Systems Thinking for Situations 
(Mike Jackson and Bob Flood)

High

High
Perspective 3: Influences Around Systems Approaches
(Ray Ison and Paul Maiteny)

High

Medium
Perspective 4: Groupings of Systems Thinkers 
(Magnus Ramage and Karen Shipp)

Low

High

References

  • 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: Making strategy in difficult/messy situations

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


Clear systems thinking is one of the basic literacies of the modern world, not least because it offers unexpected insights that are not amenable to common sense.

Mulgan (1997)
Three blocks of texts with two arrows going to and from each:

"Ideas - including systems tools - for making change"

"Practitioners in the act of making change in complex situations"

"Situations of change and complexity"

The above influence diagram, taken from the module materials, illustrates the influences between the three factors of any human endeavour to make strategy:

  • Situation – comprising the arena of change and real-world complexities
  • Practitioners – people effecting change in the situation
  • Ideas – conceptual constructs developed by people for effecting change

I don’t usually find these kind of diagrams particularly useful, because it might as well be the bullet point list. You’re simply saying “take into account these things when doing X.” In this case, X is “making a strategy”.

Equally, I don’t find this kind of table particularly useful because it encourages the typologising of situations rather than understanding that everything is, and forever will be, on a spectrum:

Table comparing Perspectives (single/many) against Variables (few/many)

To that end, I’ve created my own alternative. I’m not sure the background works, but I was attempting to show the ‘one to many’ nature through overlapping grey triangles. Ah well, creating it helped me understand this a bit more:

But what is the difference between a ‘difficulty’ and a ‘mess’?

Issues of concern to us vary enormously in terms of their complexity and seriousness, from minor hiccups to near-catastrophe, and we can think of all issues falling somewhere on a continuum between minor and straightforward to very complex and crucial. We can label one end of the continuum as being a ‘difficulty’ and the other a ‘mess’ (the term coined by Ackoff 1974). We can distinguish between the
concept of a mess, and a difficulty, in several ways.

Messes usually have more serious implications; more people are likely to be involved; they include many interlocking aspects and may appear in different guises. As our three stories illustrate, messes usually have a longer time-scale; and they are often more complicated in terms of having many interdependent factors, than a difficulty. In addition to these broad characteristics there is a crucial difference between
a difficulty and a mess and that is the extent of uncertainty.

Reynolds & Holwell (2020, p.5)

It may be an act of hubris, but one thing that I think might contribute towards a meta-understanding of the systems thinking tradition is my work around ambiguity. We all have a tendency towards reduction and dogmatism, which is spectacularly unhelpful when it comes to systems thinking.

Continuum of ambiguity ranging from Generative Ambiguity, through Creative Ambiguity, Productive Ambiguity, and 'Dead Metaphors#

In the diagram above, this would mean approaches such as the following have the potential to become what philosopher Richard Rorty termed ‘dead metaphors’, no longer having any explanatory power:

  • Messes (Russell Ackoff)
  • Swamp (Donald Schön)
  • Wicked problems (Horst Rittel)
  • Resource dilemmas (Neils Röling)
  • VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity)

When a term is “literalized into language” (Reynolds, 2009), for example with business jargon, it is no longer conceptually useful as it likes connotative power. I think about this a lot when reading systems thinking literature, as there seem to be a lot of different approaches and traditions which are, in one way or another, trying to hover around the realm of ‘productive ambiguity’.

For more on this, see On the strategic uses of ambiguity.

References

  • Reynolds, A. (2009) ‘The Afterlife of Dead Metaphors: On Derrida’s Pragmatism / A sobrevida das metáforas mortas: sobre o pragmatismo de Derrida’, Revista de Letras, 49(2), pp. 181–195. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40542131 (Accessed: 3 May 2024).
  • 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: Getting the bigger picture and appreciating other perspectives

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


Activity 1.2 asks us to list some phrases and practices associated with the two features of systems thinking shown in the images below. These are, as the title of this post would suggest, getting the bigger picture and appreciating other perspectives.

Two line-drawn images, one showing a person looking through an 'understandascope' at a power station, shopping mall, polar bear, and machine moving logs. 

The second shows multiple people looking through their own 'understandascopes' thinking different thoughts about the situation (e.g. 'I need to show that we have this under control' vs 'How am I to provide food for my family?')

I’m going to continue with the example I used in TB872 in terms of my co-op’s work with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC). As I showed in previous posts, I think I have the ‘bigger picture’ of the different players and what’s going on in the ecosystem. What’s been important is to understand, through user research, their motivations.

For example, in terms of implementing Verifiable Credentials, it’s a cost/benefit decision for registrars in terms of ease of use and efficiency. For the DCC team it’s perhaps a more idealistic mission. And for organisations such as Credential As You Go it’s part of reforming assessment and student mobility. There are still more angles, of course, such as vendors looking to make money by providing products and services, and funders who have a larger objective in terms of changing ecosystems.

I’m fairly comfortable with this concept, as it’s similar to a post I wrote near the start of TB872 entitled Systemic praxis and epistemological devices. So I’ll leave this one here and move on.

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