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TB872: Making choices about situations and systems

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 image illustrates the concept of setting boundaries in systems thinking. It portrays an individual making choices and connections within a vast, intricate network, emphasizing the depth and complexity of systems interactions. The network is multi-layered and complex, symbolizing the careful consideration required in defining system boundaries.

My last post was about the difference between situations and systems, and about moving from having a systemic sensibility, through to having a form of systems literacy, and then on to systems thinking in practice (STiP) capability. It was a reflection on Systems Practice: How to Act by Ray Ison.

This post picks up where that one left off by discussing Chapter 3. One of the first things to note is that STiP practitioners need to decide a boundary for the system that they create from any given situation. Ison points out that we need to be careful when doing so, and note that:

  1. We are always in situations, never outside them
  2. We have choices that can be made about how we see and relate to situations
  3. There are implications which follow from the choices we make

Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. London: Springer. p.39. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4471-7351-9.

The reading in this chapter comes from Dick Morris, a former Open University (OU) colleague of Ison’s. I want to pull out a quotation from it that I thought was interesting:

When thinking in terms of systems, we have at least partially to move away from our usual manner of thinking, which has been heavily influenced by the generally science-based model that has characterised European thought, particularly during the last century. Such thinking in science and its partner, technology, has produced enormous strides in our material well-being, but we also recognised that it has also brought some problems. A key feature of classical science has been to work under carefully controlled experimental conditions, looking in detail at one factor at a time. The success of this approach has unintentionally encouraged a widespread popular belief that we can isolate a single cause for any observed event.

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p. 40

The examples that Morris gives range from blaming food additives for children’s poor behaviour through to fewer police ‘on the beat’ leading to increased crime rates. I thought this was worth pausing to discuss, especially when coupled with the quotation from John Shotter (1993) that Ison included in a footnote in Chapter 2, and which I also quoted in my last post:

Why do we fell that our language works primarily by us using it accurately to represent and refer to things and states of affairs in the circumstances surrounding us, rather than by using it to influence each other’s and our own behaviour?

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p. 25

I haven’t time to explore this fully here, so I will just park (for now) the thought that conspiracy theories are a non-scientific way of thinking about the world that nevertheless attempt to ‘explain the phenomena’. By reconceptualising language as “a system to influence others” rather than “a system to accurate describe the world” might we be able to do a better job of working together to improve our world?


As we discovered in Chapter 2, Ison is not a fan of definitions but there is a definition of a ‘system’ in the reading within Chapter 3. Dick Morris (Ison, ibid. p.41) uses one from the OU’s Technology Faculty, which defines a system as:

  • A collection of entities
  • That are seen by someone
  • As interacting together
  • To do something

This means that a system is not an indivisible entity, but that it has parts or components and these components interact with one another to cause change. The difficult thing is drawing a boundary and deciding which components to include in a system. For example, is a farm a system to produce food? to produce a profit? to maintain a particular landscape?

We can’t solve all of the problems of the world in one go, and indeed setting a boundary so that the system is too large is self-defeating. As Morris says, “Choosing an inappropriate boundary, and with it, inappropriate criteria, can be misleading” (Ison, ibid. p.43). He gives the example of using animals for food production which, as a vegetarian, I don’t endorse and so won’t repeat here. I don’t think that murdering animals because it might be in some way “sustainable” can be justified.

One thing that is worth quoting from Morris is why STiP practitioners tend to use diagrams (my emphasis):

In order to share our visions, and to debate futures, we need to have some way of explaining what we regard as the system of interest and its key features. We need to have some model of the system which is necessarily simpler than the whole, complex situation itself, but shows what we think are the important aspects. It may be possible to do this in words, but often it is much quicker and more powerful to use some sort of diagram. Words have to flow in a sequential manner to make sense, and one of the features of most systems is that the interactions between entities are often recursive, that is they form loops, where A may affect B, which in turn affects C, but C can also affect A. In such a situation, a diagram can literally be ‘worth a thousand words’!

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p.43

Two examples of diagrammatic forms that can be useful in this regard are given by Morris as Systems Maps (the first example below) and Multiple-cause (or ‘Causal Loop’) diagrams (the second example):

Two examples of useful diagrams for STiP practitioners: one Systems Map and one Multiple Cause (or 'Causal Loop')

Morris (2005), cited in Ison, R. ibid. p.44

As we can see, both diagrams tell us much more about a given system, and more quickly, than a page of text could do.


At this point, I want to share a brief anecdote as it will help me reflect on the difference between a situation and a system, and the importance of knowing where to place a boundary. I’m a member of the Green Party, although not currently a very active one. I emailed the Green’s candidate in the upcoming North East Mayoral elections recently asking them to come in behind Jamie Driscoll, who is running as an independent after being kicked out of the Labour party for being too closely aligned with Jeremy Corbyn.

I’m not going to share the details of my emails with the Green candidate, especially as they asked me not to, but suffice to say that they seemed much more interested in the technical details of candidacy and party politics than me. The emails to party members reflect this. While this is perhaps understandable, if we look at language as a way of influencing other people’s behaviour, they’re not doing a particularly good job.

It’s not quite the language of systems, and perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but the latest post by Jamie Driscoll on his website talks of there being “no template” for what he’s doing and that “nobody knows” what the future holds:

There’s no template for running a successful combined authority. Devolution is just a vehicle, you need the right driver. My goal was always to build a zero-carbon, zero-poverty, North East, with thriving modern industries and richer communities. We’re making real progress. And we’ve done this without borrowing money or putting a penny on your council tax bills. People of ordinary means already pay enough tax.

[…]

So what does the future hold? The truth is nobody knows. So, instead of making predictions I’ll make a resolution. To finish the job I started in 2019.

It’s time to finish the job I started…. (26 December 2023) Jamie Driscoll, North of Tyne Mayor. Available at: https://jamiedriscoll.co.uk/news/its-time-to-finish-the-job-i-started/ (Accessed: 30 December 2023).

I guess my point is that to make change we have to embrace uncertainty, and act based on values.


As a segue back to Chapter 3, I’ll just note that one of Driscoll’s key pledges is around a “fully integrated public transport [system] under public control” (Driscoll, 2023). Here, the word ‘system’, as is relatively normal in everyday usage, is a thing as opposed to a process.

A constraint to thinking about ‘system’ as an entity and a process is caused by the word ‘system’ being a noun — a noun implies something you can see, touch or discover, but in contemporary systems practice more attention can be paid to the process of ‘formulating’ a ‘system’ as part of an inquiry process in particular situations.

Ison, R. (2017). Ibid. p.47.

In other words, a system is an epistemological device used to engage with a situation, rather than having any ontological status. As he goes on to say (Ison, ibid. p.54) “contemporary systems practice is concerned with overcoming the limitations of the word ‘system’.” Hence, I suppose, Ison’s use of terms like ‘system of interest’ or ‘a system to x’.


Top image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Emerging worldview commonalities and clashes

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 reflects a vision of a flourishing society, where balance and harmony are paramount. It features soft, flowing forms and tranquil colors, interspersed with dynamic elements symbolizing social change. The image includes subtle representations of feedback loops, emergence, and systemic interventions, symbolizing the complex interactions and simple actions that lead to societal transformation.

Most people don’t like having their worldview challenged. But as someone who has changed their mind about quite a few things in their life, I’ve come to, if not enjoy it, certainly find the process exhilarating. In this module, we’re asked to reflect on our ‘tradition of understanding’, what some might call a ‘worldview’:

A worldview or a world-view or Weltanschauung is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the whole of the individual’s or society’s knowledge, culture, and point of view. A worldview can include natural philosophy; fundamental, existential, and normative postulates; or themes, values, emotions, and ethics.

Wikipedia

The course materials give us the following seven questions to answer to help probe this a bit more:

  1. What is the nature of human beings?
  2. What are the nature and sources of power?
  3. What are the nature and sources of truth and authority?
  4. What is your analysis of the causes of social problems?
  5. What is the role of individuals, organisations and institutions in social change?
  6. What is your vision of the way it can or should be?
  7. What do you consider as mechanisms of change?

We’re encouraged to describe commonalities and clashes in worldview that we see emerging, either in terms of the module, or in media reporting of current events. I could spend all day doing this, so I’ll have to rein myself in a bit. Let’s start with the questions…

1. What is the nature of human beings?

I see humans as fundamentally social and cooperative. That is to say that while we compete with one another, we do so within a larger frame of collaboration. Our nature is therefore to help one another, understanding that by doing so, we help ourselves.

While this is not at odds with how we bring up small children, it is at odds with the dominant narratives with which we are presented as adults. This affects everything from the idea of ‘climbing the career ladder’ at work, to the kind of attention the media give to billionaires and other sociopathic individuals who put other things (mainly profit and power) before cooperation.

2. What are the nature and sources of power?

I guess religious people, of which I am no longer one, would say that all power comes from a divine being. Sources of natural power on Earth ultimately come from the Sun, our nearest star. But here I think we are concerned with metaphysical power.

We live in a world where we do not get a choice in terms of the society we are born into, and also a world where state monopoly on violence is normalised. I have always seen this as problematic, that we do not get to choose to be part of a state, but rather have it forced upon us. This has become even more of a problem for me since Brexit, given that I have little choice but to live on an island which Frankie Boyle describes as “that isosceles triangle of wind and racism”.

While I might tell my own kids that “people can only treat you the way you let them”, this is not true on a macro scale. In reality, states (and people acting on behalf of states) can legitimately coerce you physically and mentally. Nevertheless, most power comes from the mental models we have of the world. I’m reading Roots at the moment and am fascinated at the change in worldview of the main protagonist as he comes to, if not accept, somewhat normalise the situation of slavery in the 18th century.

There are people around me who possess a strong sense of duty and are so deferential to traditional forms of power, which include the monarchy and whoever is currently in government. I confess that I find it very difficult to understand this approach to life.

3. What are the nature and sources of truth and authority?

Again, some people would appeal to divine beings to answer this question. However, I’m a Pragmatist and so look to a form of coherentism which understands beliefs in ‘sets’. One way of understanding this is that a belief only makes sense in relation to other beliefs, in what W.V. Quine called a ‘web of beliefs’. Challenging a core belief affects many other beliefs, whereas challenging one at the periphery can have a negligible effect.

In terms of ‘truth’ I think that this consists in statements which are, to quote William James, “good in the way of belief” and which a community of inquirers would settle on at the end of debate. In this sense, truth never has a capital ‘T’ because it can only ever be represented by an asymptotic line. There can be many communities of inquirers, and therefore many ‘truths’.

To my mind, an ‘authority’ is someone or some thing that has some form of legitimacy, and this legitimacy bestows some form of power. This could be ‘hard’ power in terms of the state (they can throw you in prison) but more often ‘soft’ power as in being a legitimate source of trusted information.

Who becomes a legitimate source of information or power, and therefore who becomes an ‘authority’ is something that should depend on the community of which one is part. However, increasingly these days we have a media-fuelled celebrity culture in which people who show talent in one area (e.g. sports) are seen to have some kind of authority in other areas (e.g. politics). It makes no sense to me, but it seemingly does to other people.

4. What is your analysis of the causes of social problems?

Media representations of crime often begin and end with explanations from human nature. That is to say that some people are either born or made evil/deviant and therefore need to be punished for their actions. This is on the other side of the spectrum from the belief that society creates the crime and the criminal commits it.

While I don’t think you can completely rule out nature and nurture, when it comes to crime, I do think a lot of it comes from the way that we conceptualise ‘social problems’. For example, so-called ‘spontaneous’ riots and looting often have not only a trigger (e.g. police violence) but underlying causes (e.g. increasing inequality and segregation).

Social problems can therefore be seen as emergent properties of complex systems, with many different factors interacting over time. Instead of attributing social issues to single causes, I think we need to consider societal structures, patterns of behaviour, and feedback loops that contribute to the problem. This can be considered through different lenses (e.g. economic, political, cultural) with only holistic approaches likely to make any different in the long-term.

5. What is the role of individuals, organisations and institutions in social change?

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Margaret Mead

As an historian, I know Mead’s words to be true. However, it often does not feel like this, at all. Things such as the climate emergency feel far too big for individuals and small groups of people to address. As does the current political turmoil across the world.

For me, organisations are collections of individuals who, by virtue of their cooperation, have greater leverage. Institutions are organisations with some form of authority (legitimate power). As individuals, we can share our thinking and take action in a way that influences others. Think of Greta Thunberg, for example.

To truly change a system, though, we need to formalise the rules, norms, and values which guide behaviour (either explicitly or implicitly). Therefore, I suppose that my theory change here is that individuals decide to stand up for something, form organisations with others who feel similarly, and therefore influence institutions who have the power to transform the entire system.

6. What is your vision of the way it can or should be?

I’m not sure how to answer this question as it’s so broad. But, generally speaking, my version of utopia is people living their lives in ways that can be considered flourishing, and which do not affect the ability for other human beings to live flourishing lives. In some ways, I think this involves an understanding of Eudaimonia, and therefore knowing what constitutes balance, harmony, and flourishing for you, personally.

I think that many of the world’s problems, especially currently, involve taking a good impulse too far. That is to say that we can and should speak up on behalf of others. But when we are living a life of perpetual outrage on behalf of others, when newspaper headlines involve emotional trigger words telling us how to think, and when our lives become constrained by how social media influencers think we should act, then we are in trouble.

So, I think we should be aiming for peaceful lives, ones that allow us space to reflect on our place in the world and how we want to interact with it and others. I genuinely believe that we would all be happier and get along with fellow human beings if we showed greater tolerance and gave each other more space. (I’m imagining my children laughing at my hypocrisy as they read these lines.)

7. What do you consider as mechanisms of change?

Part of my reason for doing this MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice is to figure this out, because I’m not very sure. I guess part of my answer is in the one above about the relationship between individuals, organisations, and institutions.

However, that only tells part of the story. We can amplify ideas and voices through feedback loops. I’m thinking of Marcus Rashford’s campaign around food poverty which made it impossible for the government not to act. We can intervene in specific ‘leverage points’ within a system. Identifying these produces larger changes that if we intervened elsewhere. For example, spending money on early years education can lead to a bigger impact that spending the same amount of money when children are older.

There are other things that I’m learning about as well, including the idea of ’emergence’ which is the process where complex systems and patterns emerge out of many relatively simple interactions. For example, if I think about our small cooperative, it would take me a very long time to talk about “how we do things” given the number of relatively-straightforward interactions we have with one another and our clients.

The more I understand about mechanisms of change, the more likely I am to move from ‘systemic thinking’ to ‘doing Systems’, to use Ray Ison’s language. I think this is mainly because I don’t want to waste my time doing pointless stuff. Life is short.


I don’t think my way of viewing the world is unusual but is certainly uncommon. Thankfully, I’ve come across plenty of people who at least share enough of my worldview for us to work and take action together. What makes me despair is the number of people who seemingly take their worldview from what other people think, with those other people being the media, or those incentivised to sow discord and division.

I’d be interested in reading other people’s responses to these seven questions. If you do take the time to write down your thoughts, please share a link in the comments below.


Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: You can create a map from the territory, but you can’t create the territory from my map

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 intricate kaleidoscope pattern fills the image, with a rich tapestry of colors and shapes converging towards a central, harmonious mandala. Silhouettes of people are interwoven into the pattern, signifying the diverse collective contributing to the systemic whole in the realm of systems thinking.

The title of this post comes from the first footnote in Chapter 13 of Ray Ison’s Systems Practice: How to Act. His point is that “you can create the value from the happening, but you can’t create the happening from the value”. This is a subtly different concept to the usual way of saying this, i.e. “the map is not the territory”.

I found even just the first few paragraphs of this chapter really interesting. Ison talks about how ‘value’ has similar origins to ‘valiant’ (i.e. being strong or well) and is therefore historically a verb rather than a noun. This made me think of going into the Barclays skyscraper in Canary Wharf a few years ago and being confronted with huge words like EMPATHY and TRUST which were the ‘values’ (noun) that the bank had decided represented them.

Banks, like most large organisations, are hierarchical. As I mentioned in another of today’s posts, I’m not a very hierarchically-minded person, which is why I approved of Ison quoting He then quotes Gerard Fairtlough as saying (my emphasis):

Hierarchy will not easily withdraw. Understanding inventiveness, balance and bravery will be needed to shift it. But there is good reason to hope that it can be shifted. Vast energy presently goes into propping up hierarchy. Releasing this energy for constructive use will bring great and clearly recognizable benefits. It will allow organizations to emerge that are more effective for getting things done and much better places in which to work.

Fairtlough (2007) p.101, quoted in Ison, R. (2017) Systems practice: how to act. p.316. London: Springer. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4471-7351-9.

As someone who has worked remotely for over a decade, and is the founding member of a cooperative with a flat structure, I’d agree with Fairtlough’s analysis.


Chapter 13, the final chapter of Ison’s book, explores the transition from ‘being systemic’ to ‘doing Systems’. He considers the valuing of systems practice as being an emotion of hope for the future. This is different to the market-derived ‘value’ which economics places upon a situation. Although he doesn’t mention it in particular, this made me think about ‘carbon credits’ and the attempt to even try and solve the climate emergency through the logic and language of the market. This approach does not take into account the complexity of everything involved. In short, it is a systematic rather than a systemic approach.

Citing the work of Wadsworth (1991, pp.1-8), Ison challenges the view of evaluation as being something that an outside expert does. Instead, relating things back to values as a verb rather than a noun, he talks about how evaluation needs to be values-driven. After all, as Wadsworth says, “value is not inherent in what is being evaluated, but is ascribed by those observing it”. Systemic evaluation therefore becomes a branch of ethics (McCallister, 1980, p.280) as values are being used to judge practices.


The reading as part of Chapter 13 is from Mary Catherine Bateson, who passed away a couple of years ago. As the daughter of two systems thinkers, I enjoyed reading her book Composing a Life as an account of five women (including herself) and how they carved out a creative life for themselves. In this reading, which is based on a presentation to the American Society of Cybernetics, she talks about a consideration of the ‘whole’ as being a form of aesthetics. I was particularly struck by these lines:

There… is something like a template within the self, that makes possible the recognition of aesthetic order in the other. We reveal something about ourselves in judging something beautiful.

Groups, like organisms, are systemic, perhaps in ways more accessible to awareness than our individual systemic characteristics.

Bateson (2001), quoted in Ison, ibid.

This is in the same direction as the idea, popular in the first decade of this millennium, of the “wisdom of crowds” which could be seen as a systemic reaction against a systematic focus on biological determinism. Ison reflects that the reading demonstrates the tension between systems as ontologies (defining what exists) and systems as epistemologies (defining is known). Either way, it is not enough to merely be systemic, you have to ‘do Systems’ as well — i.e. act in the world, moving from being to doing. This is of particular importance if the value of systems thinking is ‘hope’ for the future.


Following on from this, and subtly different to the PFMS heuristic, Ison introduces Armson (2007)’s influence diagram of systems practice. There is the situation (S), the practitioner (P), the approaches the practitioner users (F? M?) but also stakeholders, and a more holistic notion of the practitioner’s practice as related to their performance:

The image shows an influence diagram of systems practice. It illustrates the interconnected relationships between "the situation," "the systems practitioner," "the stakeholders," and "the approaches the systems practitioner uses." Arrows indicate the direction of influence, leading to "the practitioner's practice," which in turn affects "performance." This diagram serves as both a design for capability building and a framework for evaluation, as noted in the caption, referencing Armsom 2007, 2011.
Taken from Ison, ibid.

As I noted in a recent post on the WAO blog, social learning means that workshops are ineffective when done to people. As Ison quotes Armson as stating, “individual employees are the only stakeholders who can attribute a connection between the intervention and improved performance”. In other words, without the involvement and reflection of the practitioner, the approach is only ever going to be systematic.

Returning to evaluation, the above diagram shows that ‘performance’ within a given role isn’t simply the responsibility of the practitioner. Instead, it is an emergent property of a system of influences which includes everything from their colleagues (other stakeholders) to the choice that is made about how the situation is framed.

I watch a lot of football, so perhaps a good example of how difficult it is to separate a practitioner from the system in which they operate is to think about strikers. Yes, a good striker is more likely to score more goals than a bad one, no matter what team they are in. However, goal-scoring is a product of both systemic (e.g. team harmony and cohesion) and systematic (e.g. attacking training, discipline) factors. This is not solely under the influence of the striker, which is why we “cut some slack” to new recruits, allowing them time to “bed in” and “get to know the system”.


Top image: DALL-E 3

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