Open Thinkering


Tag: systems

TB872: System-determined problems

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 abstract image vividly represents the concept of a system-determined problem. It features a complex, dynamic composition with entangled lines and structured elements, symbolizing the rigidity and constraints within hierarchical organizations and governments. The use of vibrant colors and varied shapes illustrates the intricate and often perplexing nature of institutionalized systems that resist change. The absence of text in the image emphasizes the visual metaphor of entrenched practices and the perpetuation of existing problems through inflexible structures and practices.

There are so many things I’ve come across in this module so far that help me understand situations I’ve been in during my career. While I wish I’d known about ways to conceptualise these situations before I encountered them, I realise that it’s only after experiencing them that I’m able to make sense of them.

One example of this is a situation where problems are inherent to a system and the system itself perpetuates it. One could think of systemic racism, or the DWP costing a lot of money to, ultimately, make people poorer.

The concept of a system-determined problem is a means of framing situations when a problem-determined system fails to dissolve because it has become institutionalised and those within fail to be open to changing circumstances (through learning, reframing, new language, understandings and practices). Thus it can be said that the existing system is itself perpetuating the problem – it is a system-determined problem (though as I have said elsewhere it could be that it is the lack of a purposeful system that is the issue). In many cases the attempts to ‘solve the problem’ are a large part of the dynamic of perpetuating the system that gives rise to what we perceive as the problem. Hierarchical organisations and governments often perpetuate system-determined problems through their structures (e.g. silos) and practices in effect constraining change to first-order change. DAD is an example of the perpetuation of a system-determined problem.

Ison, R. and Blackmore, C. and the TB872 module team (2020) ‘Part 2: A systemic inquiry into systems thinking in practice’ TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at: (Accessed: 19 December 2023)

I could write a lot more, but I’m a little behind in this module due to my birthday and Christmas preparations. So I’ll leave it there and move on.

Image: DALL-E 3

Weeknote #30

This week I have been mostly…


Attending Online Educa Berlin 2010

You can read my write up of my time in Berlin this week on my conference blog. The short version? Frustrating and expensive, but with some elements I enjoyed. It’s the system, not the people, that’s the problem. I’ve got an allegory in mind that I need to work on that I think highlights some of the ridiculousness.

Pondering the temporary, fragile nature of things

Almost everyone has had, at some point, the experience of an airline losing their luggage. And if you haven’t, your time will come! What it did for me this week, coupled with having to rely on hotel lobby wifi for connectivity and reading Three Cups of Tea, is force me to realise how much of my continued successful existence is built upon systems. These systems are oiled with money in a way that poses little problem for those inside the system playing the game, but huge barriers to entry for those outside the system.

A bit disappointed with myself

Although sometimes not completely consciously, I’ve allowed myself to be dragged into the subtle swamp of self-aggrandisement this week. I’ve concentrated on the journey instead of the destination and the surface of the water without realising it was a puddle. It’s time to re-energise, re-think and re-focus.