Tools stream in outline
A brief history of the five Tools stream approaches
Three characteristics of complex situations of change and uncertainty have shaped the way the systems concepts associated with the five systems approaches emerged as part of the historical development of the systems field since the mid-twentieth century:
- A concern for interrelationships and interdependencies. During the 1960s and 1970s the focus was very much on interrelationships, so methods were developed that explored these in depth − for example system dynamics (SD) and the viable system model (VSM).
- An appreciation of multiple perspectives. By the mid 1970s it was clear that interrelationships were not neutral concepts. The relative importance of a particular interrelationship depended on the different purposes you could ascribe to any single situation. Therefore methods were developed that helped explore the implications of applying different perspectives to the same situation − for example strategic options development analysis (SODA) and soft systems methodology (SSM).
- The critical acceptance that boundary judgements circumscribe systems design. During the mid 1980s it became clearer among systems practitioners that these perspectives were not neutral. Perspectives determined what was seen to be relevant and what was not. They determined what was ‘in’ someone’s assessment of the situation and what lay outside it. Whoever defined the dominant perspective controlled the boundary of the inquiry or intervention. Therefore a third key element of a systems approach became the importance of studying boundaries and of critiquing boundary decisions and who made them, in terms of the ethical and political questions they raised. Critical systems heuristics (CSH) was developed in the late 1970s to deal with this.
However practitioners who were familiar with the older approaches have tended to modify them to incorporate the new ideas as they came along. So the newer approaches have enriched a growing field of options rather than displacing the older ones.
The key concepts associated with each systems approach that you have used are summarised over the next few screens, but remember that an important feature of each approach is its flexibility. The users of all five approaches have often been able to adapt them to cope with new requirements.
Part 2 System dynamics
System dynamics (founded in the late 1950s by Forrester) is an approach to understanding complex situations over time.
SD configures such situations as systems with internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behaviour of the entire system. What makes using system dynamics different from other approaches to studying complexity is the use of feedback loops, and stocks and flows, in displaying nonlinearity.
Forrester started work on devices to control radar in the late 1950s. He then moved into the field of industrial relations, and from there into modelling global resource depletion as part of attempts to model sustainable development.
Part 3 Viable system model
VSM is a model of system viability. A viable system is a system able to keep an independent existence; that is to be autonomous.
To do so it needs to be organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in a changing environment. One of the prime features of systems that survive is that they are adaptable.
The model was developed by the cybernetician Stafford Beer who effectively founded management cybernetics – now known as organisational cybernetics – a set of ideas that are being developed and used by cyberneticians worldwide.
VSM, like SD, is particularly significant in surfacing interrelationships and interdependencies among relevant factors – giving substance to the notion of joined up thinking − and hence addressing the conventional thinking trap associated with narrow-mindedness, sometimes referred to as silo thinking or reductionism.
Part 4 Strategic options development and analysis
Cognitive mapping is a technique developed by Colin Eden for revealing and actively shaping the mental models, or belief systems (mind maps, cognitive models) that people use to perceive, contextualise, simplify, and make sense of otherwise complex situations.
The notion of cognitive mapping is based on a way of constructing meaning designed to facilitate negotiation and help participants agree on acceptable plans of action. Strategic options development and analysis (SODA) is used to cultivate organisational change through attention to, and valuing of, individual perspectives in a concerted manner.
Both facilitation (process) skills and conventional knowledge management (content) skills are involved.
It uses three, hierarchically organised levels (Figure P6.17):
- potential issues (strategic directions)
Part 5 Soft systems methodology
Soft systems methodology (SSM) is an approach to organisational process modelling developed by Peter Checkland and others through a ten year program of action research.
The primary use of SSM is in the analysis of complex situations where there are divergent views or even active disagreement about the nature and definition of the problem.
To intervene in such situations the soft systems approach uses the notion of a system as an interrogative device that will enable conversation and learning among concerned parties.
To support this process, multiple systems are designed as conceptual models each based upon a particular worldview. These are then used for interrogating real-world situations of interest.
Both SODA and SSM are sometimes referred to as problem-structuring (as against problem-solving) approaches as they both centrally deal with issues of multiple perspectives.
They are both well placed to address the conventional thinking trap associated with dogmatism – the tendency to hold steadfastly to one perspective irrespective of possible importance of other perspectives.
Part 6 Critical systems heuristics
Critical systems heuristics (CSH) is a framework for reflective practice based on practical philosophy and systems thinking, developed originally by Werner Ulrich.
The basic idea of CSH is to support boundary critique – a systematic process for handling boundary judgments critically through boundary reflection and boundary discourse.
CSH, like SSM, emerged from an ethical systems tradition promoted through the works of the American systems philosopher C. West Churchman. CSH raises issues of ethics in systems design regarding what is good (and harmful) and what is right (and wrong) as well as issues of politics regarding who has control and to what effect.
As a framework for reflective practice, CSH is well placed to address the systems thinking traps associated with holism (supposing that all entities can be taken into account in systems design) and pluralism (supposing that all perspectives can be taken into account in systems design).
That is the end of Appendix 1. Either continue directly into Appendix 2 or return to the main text
People stream in outline
The Tools stream focused on teaching mainstream systems approaches and methods. However the People stream aimed to trawl beyond the systems mainstream, in the cognitive sciences in particular, in pursuit of other ideas and phenomena that might be useful to the systems practitioner.
The eleven headline issues you have met in the course of the People stream are reproduced below for convenience. There are, of course, plenty of other issues raised by the People stream, so please feel free to also make use of any others that seem relevant to you; the choice is yours.
- Headline issue 1.1 – Mental models and rationality. Policy principles, even at the highest strategic level, draw on underlying mental models that shape perceptions and determine what is seen as rational.
- Headline issue 2.1 – Limits to knowledge and predictability: The world seems predictable. But this is a human construction, and little is known about the complexities on which it depends. The ‘ignore-ance’ about situations is usually vastly greater than you might think.
- Headline issue 2.2 – Multiple approaches to tackling problems: There are many different frameworks for thinking about problems and challenges. A change of conceptual framework may lead to a change of method.
- Headline issue 3.1 – Individual differences in cognition: The importance of recognising the wide range of ways in which people can differ in their cognitive processes, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, and hence in how they communicate, make sense of situations and tackle problems.
- Headline issue 3.2 – Modes of thinking other than the ‘rational’: We are all familiar with the kind of thinking that involves consciously working things out. But it is easy to demonstrate that the brain also has very different pattern-based ways of working which can, nevertheless, be very effective, though they may be all or partly out of consciousness
- Headline issue 4.1: The nature of metaphor: The role metaphors and similar processes play: in communicating about complex subjective experiences and states; in category-formation; and in their capacity, like any model, to highlight some aspects of a situation, marginalise others, and introduce distortions.
- Headline issue 4.2: Projection: Our perceived world is a result of sense-making activities in our brains ‘projected’ outwards. It can therefore be subject to various anomalies, particularly in ambiguous situations. Strategic thinking usually involves highly ambiguous situations.
- Headline issue 5.1 – The intervention system: If you are designing a system for carrying out an intervention, what needs to be included?
- Headline issue 5.2 – The nature of systems approaches: What are the family characteristics that distinguish systems approaches from other approaches?
- Headline issue 5.3 – Evaluating interventions: How can you tell how successful an intervention has been?
- Headline issue 6.1 – Systems thinking and wisdom: The work of the German psychologists Paul Baltes and Ursula Staudinger suggest useful parallels between systems thinking and the concept of wisdom. Further parallels can be made with ideas of triple-loop learning and the art of bricolage.
The five short sections that follow are memory joggers for the main landmarks in parts 1−5.
Part 1 Mental frameworks, metaphors, Gulf War
Lakoff, using the Gulf War as an example, argued that strategic decisions can’t avoid being based on metaphor. However, different underlying metaphors lead to different implicit rules about what is rational. It is therefore important to recognise the metaphors being used, and to try out a variety of contrasting metaphors.
Part 2 Why is today so like yesterday?
The apparent predictability of the everyday world is embedded within an immensely complex web of factors that are mostly outside a person’s awareness, for example unconscious mental processing, network complexity, tipping point dynamics, evolving relationship patterns, and the ‘wickedness’ of many social issues. The familiar world is a relatively predictable construction within this unpredictable wilderness – a cognitive niche that is the human equivalent of an animal niche or territory.
It was suggested that you could think of a strategy as a way of creating a manageable garden within this unmanageable wilderness (Figure P6.21). There are usually many equally appropriate gardens that could be created. Hence there is need for negotiation and decision making so that collective efforts can be focused on creating an agreed garden.
The experience of resolving problematic issues can take many forms. Ten different metaphors for problem-solving were suggested, each leading to a different problem-solving approach and hence a different rationality.
Part 3 The idiosyncratic world of thinking
Good strategic thinking is hugely demanding and needs to be able to draw on every thinking mode available. Limiting it to rational thinking based on explicit data is much too restrictive.
It was suggested that interpersonal differences in cognitive style and preference (MBTI, five senses) could lead to different strengths, weaknesses and needs in making sense of situations and tackling problems.
Two different intra-personal modes were explored: an evolutionarily old mode that is associative, automatic, unconscious, parallel and fast (intuitive thinking is one expression of this) versus a more evolutionarily recent, distinctively human, mode that is rule-based, controlled, conscious, serial and slow (rational thinking is one form of this).
Ways of working with metaphor landscapes showed that some problems can be solved entirely at the level of metaphor, without any of the usual trappings of rational analysis.
Part 4 Patterns in the mind
Metaphors are a kind of model, albeit in the mind rather than on paper. Like any model, they highlight some aspects, but also marginalise others and introduce distortions. You can reduce the risk of error by seeking out alternative metaphors or models, for example by inviting critique from others.
Metaphor-related concepts that were introduced included ‘conceptual metaphors’ versus ‘metaphoric linguistic expressions’; ‘target’ versus ‘source’; the links between comparison, analogy, metaphor and category; the notion of ‘logical level’; and the role of radial metaphors.
‘Projection’ is the result of perception mediated by models. What you perceive as ‘out there’ is due to a model in your brain being activated and projected out onto the world.
In an ambiguous situation several different patterns may be activated, which may result in your perception switching between them.
If you are aware of your projections, you may be able to use them as a useful indicator of your internal state, as a source of creative ideas, to let you imagine how the world might be different, or to help you appreciate what others are experiencing.
Projections you are unaware of may have unexpected consequences (positive or negative) for you and others.
Part 5 Some approaches from other practitioner communities
Two metaphor-based methods were explored: Vincent Nolan’s version of synectics and Caitlin Walker’s Metaphors@Work, (some case-studies of Caitlin’s work are provided as an optional extra resource).
The methods gave some insight into the features that any intervention might require, gave a different perspective on the Tools stream approaches, and looked at some of the issues around evaluating and choosing such methods.
Synectics raised issues such as the need to check that the basic conditions for problem solving are present, the difference between a powerful wish and a technical goal, the practical value of unpolished or even nonsensical ideas, and the requirements for constructive, rather than destructive, feedback.
Metaphors@Work shows how different subjective personal positions can be externalised and shared, and thereby used as a basis for negotiating shareable personal positions, which can then be mapped back onto real situations.
Part 5 is the end of the main People stream teaching, since Part 6 is used for integrating the two streams.