Open Thinkering


Tag: time

TB872: Avoiding systemic failures

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.

When it comes to managing change effectively, the goal is to do it in a way that prevents the kind of problems that affect the whole system. These kind of problems are called systemic failures, and often bring unexpected negative results that can ripple through the entire structure we’re dealing with — whether it’s a business, a healthcare system, or a community.

The ‘sweet spot’ we’re aiming for is to make changes in a way that fits well with what everyone wants and what actually works in the real world. In other words, changes that are not only good in theory but also work well in practice (and are accepted by the culture of the organisation).

Situational change dynamic of focus in this module – change in situations over time (S1 to S2 to some future Sn) brought about by changes in what is considered systemically desirable (as understood through systems thinking in practice) and culturally feasible.

For example, with reference to the above diagram from the course materials, let’s say we’re looking at a situation where we want to make some changes (Situation 1 or ‘S1’). We’ve got an idea of where we want to get to (Situation 2 or ‘S2’). We might even have a vision for the future beyond that (referred to as ‘Sn’). The trick here is therefore figuring out what changes will be both systemically desirable (good for the system as a whole) and culturally feasible (acceptable/practical within the cultural context).

The diagram is like a map showing the journey of change which is a bit like watching ripples spread out after throwing a stone into a pond. The ripples represent the waves of change. The horizontal axis shows the extent of culturally feasible change over time, which we can understand as what changes the culture will accept, and when. Meanwhile, the vertical axis shows the extent of systemically desirable change over time, which we can understand as the changes that would be good for the system.

This is really interesting to me, as there are definitely some places that I’ve worked that were very resistant to change even when there was a general understanding it would be good for the whole system. Likewise, there have been others where they have adopted change much more readily.

Usually, though, getting the organisational culture to accept change takes longer than the amount of change that’s desirable. I usually sum this up by saying that humans are more difficult to deal with than technology! This discrepancy between desirable change and culturally-feasible change creates a pattern in the ripples (aka the journey of change).

When we’re trying to ‘manage’ change, therefore, it’s a constant balancing act between what’s best for the system with what the culture will support. This makes a lot of sense based on my career history. It’s basically an ongoing process of enquiry and understanding, specific to the context we’re in. It’s definitely true that what works in one place might not work in another, even if the context superficially looks similar.

The last thing to say is that what’s considered systemically desirable and culturally feasible now may change in the future. I guess that’s a bit like the Overton Window, but from system change perspective. Our job, of course, is to navigate this changing landscape carefully and thoughtfully.

An ending, a beginning

A French republican calendar date inscribed over the entrance to a barn in France (Mury), near Geneva. Inscription reads: L AN 2 DE LA REPUBLIQUE FR. (Year 2 of the French Republic). 1793 or 1794.

Of all the human constructs that shape our ways of thinking, chief among them has to be our collective understanding of time. After all, dates, months, and years do not exist objectively and separately from human experience. Birds and insects are not arranging to meet at 9pm on Saturday the 22nd.

For anyone who spent any time in formal education in the western world and then has paid taxes, the question of “when does the year start?” might have at least three answers. We might answer with the calendar year (January), the financial year (April), or the academic year (September).

Elsewhere, more than 20% of the world celebrate Chinese New Year, which depending on the moon, happens in either January or February each year. Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah, their New Year, usually sometime in September. Endings and beginnings are happening all of the time for different people and in different places.

Using the calendar that I, and everyone else I know, use it’s currently the 15th of November 2021. This is the Gregorian calendar and, stepping back from it a moment makes it all sound a bit odd. For instance, months have different lengths, and then there’s the concept of ‘leap years’… which are worked out thus:

Every year that is exactly divisible by four is a leap year, except for years that are exactly divisible by 100, but these centurial years are leap years if they are exactly divisible by 400. For example, the years 1700, 1800, and 1900 are not leap years, but the years 1600 and 2000 are.

United States Naval Observatory

As Wikipedia’s list of calendars shows, there is a plethora of different ways of organising time — and for different reasons.

I’ve discussed many times in my presentations that literacy is a form of power. It’s a way of legitimising certain practices, attitudes, and approaches to the world. The same could be said of calendars, which impose an official way of looking at time. This is why the French Republican calendar, the Soviet calendar, and the Era Fascista calendar exist; they offer a revolutionary break with the past, represented by a rending of time itself.

This is all interesting in and of itself, and I could start getting into the decimalisation of days and weeks, but my main reason for mentioning it is somewhat more prosaic. Ever since discovering the French Republican calendar, I’ve been fascinated by the way that months were named after the weather in Paris at that time of the year.

The days of the French Revolution and Republic saw many efforts to sweep away various trappings of the Ancien Régime (the old feudal monarchy); some of these were more successful than others. The new Republican government sought to institute, among other reforms, a new social and legal system, a new system of weights and measures (which became the metric system), and a new calendar. Amid nostalgia for the ancient Roman Republic, the theories of the Enlightenment were at their peak, and the devisers of the new systems looked to nature for their inspiration. Natural constants, multiples of ten, and Latin as well as Ancient Greek derivations formed the fundamental blocks from which the new systems were built.


The Republican calendar year began the day the autumnal equinox occurred in Paris, and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris and sometimes evoking the Medieval Labors of the Months. The extra five or six days in the year were not given a month designation, but considered Sansculottides or Complementary Days.

Here is the list of months of the French Republican calendar:


– Vendémiaire (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “vintage”), starting 22, 23, or 24 September
– Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”), starting 22, 23, or 24 October
– Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”), starting 21, 22, or 23 November

– Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), starting 21, 22, or 23 December
– Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”), starting 20, 21, or 22 January
– Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”), starting 19, 20, or 21 February

– Germinal (from French germination), starting 20 or 21 March
– Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”), starting 20 or 21 April
– Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”), starting 20 or 21 May

– Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), starting 19 or 20 June
– Thermidor (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
– Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August

We live about seven lines of latitude north of Paris, but the above is not too far off in terms of a description of the weather where we are. I guess that’s particularly true as climate change warms the planet, meaning that weather which would have been ‘normal’ slightly further south than us in 1792, becomes the ‘new normal’ here in 2021.

More than anyone else I know, the seasons have a great affect upon my energy levels and disposition towards the world. Sometimes I wish it weren’t so, but I am not a robot. I’ve learned to embrace it, giving myself a break and expecting great things of myself at other times of the year.

According to the French Republican calendar we’re almost at the end of Brumaire. I would like to say publicly that Brumaire can get very firmly into the sea. I am looking forward to Frimaire, and then Nivôse starts on (or around) my birthday. But the real action starts in in the month of Germinal, towards the end of March.

Coincidentally, Germinal is also the name of Émile Zola’s masterpiece, an “uncompromisingly harsh and realistic story of a coalminers’ strike in northern France in the 1860s”. It’s one of my favourite novels.

Vive la révolution!

Image CC BY-SA Divadwg

What’s your favourite month?

I reckon my favourite month is probably Prairial, and my least favourite the one we’re entering right about now ⁠— Frimaire.

For those scratching their heads, I’m referring to the French Revolutionary Calendar (also called the ‘Republican’ calendar) which divided the year up in the following way:

The Republican calendar year began the day the autumnal equinox occurred in Paris, and had twelve months of 30 days each, which were given new names based on nature, principally having to do with the prevailing weather in and around Paris. The extra five or six days in the year were not given a month designation, but considered Sansculottides or Complementary Days.


When you think about it, although it’s useful to have everyone in the world using the same calendar, doing so is almost an act of cultural violence.

I live in the North East of England, a place that historically has been known as Northumbria. What would a Northumbrian calendar look like? I don’t think it would be so different to the French Revolutionary one, except we’d probably use month names like ‘Clarty‘:

  • Autumn:
    • Vendémiaire (from French vendange, derived from Latin vindemia, “vintage”), starting 22, 23, or 24 September
    • Brumaire (from French brume, “mist”), starting 22, 23, or 24 October
    • Frimaire (From French frimas, “frost”), starting 21, 22, or 23 November
  • Winter:
    • Nivôse (from Latin nivosus, “snowy”), starting 21, 22, or 23 December
    • Pluviôse (from French pluvieux, derived from Latin pluvius, “rainy”), starting 20, 21, or 22 January
    • Ventôse (from French venteux, derived from Latin ventosus, “windy”), starting 19, 20, or 21 February
  • Spring:
    • Germinal (from French germination), starting 20 or 21 March
    • Floréal (from French fleur, derived from Latin flos, “flower”), starting 20 or 21 April
    • Prairial (from French prairie, “meadow”), starting 20 or 21 May
  • Summer:
    • Messidor (from Latin messis, “harvest”), starting 19 or 20 June
    • Thermidor (or Fervidor*) (from Greek thermon, “summer heat”), starting 19 or 20 July
    • Fructidor (from Latin fructus, “fruit”), starting 18 or 19 August

This post is Day 63 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. Want to get involved? Find out more at