Open Thinkering


Tag: TB871

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.


  • 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: (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.

TB871: Starting my next MSc module

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

I’ve also separated out TB871 from TB872 so that posts from each module are also grouped separately. You can get an RSS feed for any category from this blog by appending /feed to the url.

A circular map of module TB871 showing weeks of study and assessment

After deliberating over it for quite a long time, on the last day it was possible to register for my next MSc module, I decided to do so. The first module I studied for this qualification, TB872, was hard. It was doubly so as it’s essentially the second module, which for some reason I was allowed to take first. I’m assured by my tutor, Pauline Roberts, the same as I had for the last module, that I should TB871 easier.

This module (TB871: Making strategy with systems thinking in practice) starts from today, May 1st, and runs October 15th, when my End of Module Assessment will be due. I’ll then have the option to choose from quite a range of modules to study afterwards, from technical stuff like Network Security through to things that are probably more my kind of thing such as Sustainable Organisations: Theory and Practice.

TB871 seems a lot more, dare I say it, systematically organised than TB872. As the module study guide describes it:

TB871 consists of six blocks of study over 20 weeks, followed by 4 consolidation weeks. There are two parallel streams of learning – a primary Tools stream and a complementary People stream. The Tools stream is where you will gain practical knowledge of, and some confidence in, using a range of established systems approaches for interaction with complex situations. The People stream is where you will gain an awareness of how such practice is shaped by the often idiosyncratic ways people think and interact. The two streams run through all six blocks of the module. Together they are designed to develop your capabilities as a systems thinking practitioner.

In terms of what is covered in the Tools stream and the People stream:

The six blocks of the Tools stream are:

  • Block 1 Systems and strategy
  • Block 2 System dynamics
  • Block 3 Viable system model
  • Block 4 Strategic options development and analysis
  • Block 5 Soft systems methodology
  • Block 6 Critical systems heuristics


The six blocks of the People stream are:

  • Block 1 Encountering unknowns and knowns
  • Block 2 Working with metaphors
  • Block 3 Facing up to perception, projection and bias
  • Block 4 Working with individual differences
  • Block 5 Facilitating encounters with STiP
  • Block 6 The gathering (bringing together the People stream and the Tools stream)

The following is an activity model of how it all comes together, again taken from the module study guide:

An activity model showing how the Tools and People stream of module TB871 come together

The two course texts for this module are

I’ve introduced myself to my fellow students in the forums. There are some that took TB872 with me, which is good, but also people studying different qualifications (modularity is great!) and from all around the world doing all different kinds of jobs.

As oppoesd to the previous module, I’m going in with my eyes open for this one. I know what’s expected of me, how distance learning works, and how it feels. Thankfully, having moved house the week before TB872 started and also the week after it ended, I don’t have any of that additional stress to deal with!

Now, which box did I put those books in… 😅