It was a bit VUCA, wasn’t it? – Week 6

Written 10/06/2016

Welcome to VUCA

Well, that was an interesting week.  In the spirit of her interest in the concepts of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), Jean Boulton wasn’t able to get to us for our session on Thursday, so we had to respond by spontaneously improvising an alternative session.

Get your Wellies

The inspiration for what we should discuss came to me whilst I was watering the beds at my allotment on Wednesday evening.  The obvious system for us to start unpicking and understanding the allootments my plot is part of.  As we’re being anonymous here, let’s make up a name and call them Rabbit Hill Allotments.

What’s the Purpose of an Allotment?

We spent Thursday’s session returning to our favourite topic of trying to understand “purpose”.  We came up with 2 possible “18 Word Statements”.  They are:

“An allotment is a plot of land made available for individual, non-commercial gardening or growing food plants.”  (from Wikipedia).

“Community (council) owned accessible and fertile outside space for the growing of produce by those interested in doing so.”

A Path Through the Allotments

They probably need more work, and we will do that.  We’ve decided we will spend the coming weeks discussing the allotments.  Initially, we will gain an understanding of the Rabbit Hill Allotments as a system, and then move onto a case study looking at the situation that existed a few years ago in Anonymous Land when there was an acute shortage of allotment’s and waiting lists were bursting at the seams, resulting in much dissatisfaction and considerable coverage of the situation in the local press.  A wicked problem.  We’ll look at the problem and use systems approaches, probably SSM, to pull it apart and work out a solution.  Let’s see if we come up with the same solution the council did.

Welcome to Context Diagrams

Before we do that though, we’ll spend a couple of weeks further understanding the Rabbit Hill Allotments as a system and next week will draft a “Context Diagram” to understand the system boundary, stakeholders and inputs and outputs.  So, this week’s homework is to read Stuart Burge’s excellent paper on creating a Context Diagram, a copy of which is linked here.   Do have a go at drafting a diagram yourself in advance.

Something to think about is from what perspective we’re building the diagram and viewing the allotments, even in terms of the “purpose”.  I suggest we take the perspective of an allotment holder, as it’s probably closest to most of our experience, or ability to imagine.  I’ve not drawn a context diagram before, so don’t know how much it matters whether we take a certain perspective, or try to be objective in our view of the system.  I suppose it will make a difference to where we draw the boundary, but let’s find out!

Purposeful Functions

I think we may return to purpose and more specifically defining the sub purposes, or functions of the allotments the week after as I think we’ve more work to do on that.  Here are some “functions” I’ve just noted down:

Ground for growing

Water supply

Access to Site

Access to individual allotments

Car parking

Collection of rents

Allocating of allotments

Waiting list

Management of allotments

Supports social interaction

I don’t know whether they are necessarily all “functions” as some could be “means of delivering functions”, but we can discuss that and come up with a tight set of system functions.

Think back to Stuart Burge’s example of a toaster here and how he set out the functions / sub-purposes and then looked at different ways for delivering them.

It’s Raining

I wish you an excellent weekend.  Looking out of the window here, I can see it’s started to rain.  That’s very good news for me and my allotment.  I can have an evening off watering duties!  What a wonderful start to the weekend, for me at least.


Swimming in the Sea of Complexity – Week 5

Fellow Systems Thinkers,

Before I recap on this week, I just want to remind you about the INCOSE talk coming up on the evening of 13th June at the Atkins offices in Aztec West.  The flyer is attached.  Do come along, it’s free, and should be a good evening.

Embracing Complexity with Jean Boulton

Secondly, Jean Boulton is very kindly coming to talk to us at next week’s STA session, so do try to get there, and also, do try  to get there promptly so we can really get the most out of the hour.  She will be talking to us about “complexity”, so for this week’s homework, I suggest we refresh ourselves with the Wicked Problems paper and also Jean’s paper on Complexity and Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).

So back to this week. It was a short week, but we still managed to pack in an excellent STA session.

There were six or seven of us, which was a nice number, and the conversation flowed.  I felt we’re really beginning to get some of the concepts we’re learning about and are managing to begin to change the way we’re viewing problems and even the world.  Well, if nothing else, we’re certainly beginning to change the way we view hand dryers.

Purpose, Emergence and Outcomes

We spent the hour exploring the concepts of “Purpose”, “Emergence”, and “Outcomes”.  In particular, I was interested to explore whether they are one and the same thing.  We continued to use the example of a hand dryer to explore them with.  It was an entertaining and insightful conversation.  I don’t think we came to an agreement on whether they are one and the same thing, or quite what the nature of the relationship between them is, but we certainly deepened our appreciation of them, and of systems more broadly.

Moving the Boundary

We played around with moving the system boundary and seeing how it changed our perception of what the system is and what we needed to consider.  For example, if the hand drying device is a paper towel dispense, then the system will need to also include a bin to put the used towels in and a person to refill the dispenser and empty the bins.

Conversations have continued around the office yesterday and today, and we’ve been talking about the need to “solve, rather than serve” problems.

Should we Serve, or Solve Problems?

So, the notion of needing a hand drying device is based on our view that we need to “serve” the problem of having wet hands.  If we take the view that we need to “solve” that problem, then we start to think of ways to clean hands without getting them wet.  If we can crack that, with some kind of ultraviolet bacteria zapping device, then we also no longer need all of the space consuming basins and expensive plumbing etc.  And that means we don’t need to dedicate nearly so much space to the toilet facilities in the building and can use it for productive office space.

We Need to Challenge Ourselves and Our Assumptions

Now, this is perhaps a silly example, and you’re no doubt saying, “but that technology doesn’t exist”, and “we’d still need some wet wash facilities for when people need to wash things from their hands rather than just sanitise them”, but I think it does show that we can get new perspectives of problems and solutions by using these Systems Thinking approaches.  Even if we simply ask ourselves, “what is the system”, and “what is it’s purpose” or “what is the problem we’re trying to solve” and then challenge ourselves on the answers we jump to, we can make big shifts in our thinking, and this should pay dividends when we apply it to our real life healthcare system problems.

Finally, I’ve recently joined the INCOSE Service Systems Working Group and will be attending my first meeting on Monday.  I’ll let you know how it goes and bring the learning back to you.  Here’s a link to more info, there’s a menu halfway down the page on the right with links to sub-pages:

Enjoy the weekend,


Dry Your Hands – Week 4

Written 27/05/2016

Dear Systems Thinkers,

I hope you’ve had a good week and are set to enjoy the long weekend.

Yesterday’s session was most enjoyable.  We were allowed ourselves the luxury of spending the first half of the session having an unstructured and insightful conversation about the NHS “system”.

The Purpose of a Hand Dryer is?

We then took the example of a “hand drying device” and tried to define its purpose.  I think we did a pretty good job with the following “18 Word Statement”.  So, the purpose of a hand dryer is to be:

“An affordable over the full lifecycle device to comfortably and hygienically dry wet hands within and acceptable period of time”

Now there are some variables in there to be defined, such as “affordable”, “comfortably”, “hygienically” and “acceptable period of time”, but that’s OK I think.  We can talk to our customers and find out what is acceptable/desirable for them within each of those areas and then design accordingly.

Funtions are More Difficult

We found that it became a bit more difficult when we then tried to decompose the purpose into functions.

If you recall, in his example, Stuart Burge used a toaster and split it out into the various functions.  It relied on the fact that making toast is always going to involve applying heat to bread.  However, with the hand dryer, there are a number of methods.  Indeed, we can apply heat and evaporate the water, but we can also blow it off, or absorb it off with a fabric or paper towel, or perhaps some as yet non-commercialised method we might come up with.

So, I think some good homework for this week would be to think about breaking the purpose down into functions in the way Stuart did for the toaster for our example of the hand dryer.

I’m looking forward to seeing/hearing what you come up with.  Enjoy “Thinking”.

I’d asked previously for you to also have a think about the “purpose” of a GP practice.

Does a GP Practice have a Purpose?

Our fellow Thinker, Dr.K, came up with the following “purpose” for Primary Care (doing it for a GP Practice was a bit tricky at this stage).  I think it’s very nice.  Once we’ve covered the hand dryer in our next session I’d like us to look at this and see if we think we might improve it, and indeed what the difficulties are we experience when trying to do so.  So, here’s Kevin’s 18 Word Statement.  Thank you Dr.K.

“To cost effectively enhance the health of a population through promoting prevention, treating illnesses effectively and referring appropriately.”

Over the weekend I will have a think about the best way to move on with “purpose” and some of the methods we can use for defining it in more complex situations (such as for GP Practices).  Rich pictures and root definitions spring to mind.

Even More from Stuart

Finally, I see Stuart Burge has been busy and has uploaded a load of new downloads to his Systems Thinking Tools page.  Have a look:

So, enjoy your long weekends and I look forward to hearing what Thinking you’ve been doing when we meet next week.


What’s the purpose? – Week 3

Written 20/05/2016

Sorry I wasn’t there yesterday lunchtime, but I’ve heard from a few of you who were, that it was a good session and you got on with looking at understanding the “purpose” of a GP practice.

If no one objects, I think we should probably continue with that next week.

To compliment the reading and thinking you’ve already done on “purpose”, I’ve linked another Stuart Burge download.  This one is called “18 Word Statements” and helps us to refine our thinking around the purpose of a system.

Enjoy the weekend and don’t let your wicked problems get you down.


INCOSE Systems Thinking Training Day

Written 16/05/2016

Hello Systems Thinkers,

INCOSE Training Day

I thought I should let you know about an upcoming Systems Thinking Training day.

It is part of a larger training day event being run by the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) on 8th June at the Lydiard House Conference Centre near Swindon.

INCOSE are an excellent organisation and if you’re interest in all things systems develops, I can recommend membership, which I think is excellent value at £105 per year.

Here is a link to information about the overall event and the five different courses on offer:

And here is information about the Systems Thinking 1 day course:

Stuart Burge

It is being delivered by Stuart Burge, who’s excellent bite size Systems Thinking resources we are using.

I really wish I could get to this, I’ve heard excellent things about Stuart’s courses, but have already self-funded several development days this past year and this one is a stretch too far for me.  If you are in the fortunate position of having a training budget you can use, then this is something you might consider.


Embracing Complexity

Written 13 May 2016

Dear Systems Thinkers,

Jean Boulton

Jean Boulton is now confirmed to come and talk to us about “complexity” on the 9th June from 12:30 to 13:30.

I’m thrilled about this and thoroughly enjoyed hearing her speak previously.  It’s quite a coup to have her coming to see us.  Here’s some background:

“Jean Boulton is a director, strategy consultant and part-time academic at both Bath and Cranfield universities. She teaches, consults, researches and writes about the implications of complexity thinking to management, research and policy development. She has been Chair of Sustain Ltd, Chair of Social Action for Health, a non-executive director of IOPP and Head of Engineering Operations for BAe Commercial Aircraft. She was previously a Senior Lecturer at Cranfield School of Management. She has consulted many blue chip companies and charities including Carillion, RBS, ICI, Lloyds TSB and Oxfam. Her background in theoretical physics coupled with her practical engagement in the fields of management and social research – both through academia, consulting, hands-on management and working as a director and trustee – give her a multi-faceted, informed and practical perspective on the implications of embracing complexity.”

Embracing Complexity

She’s written this first-rate book, which I’ve put on our suggested reading list:

I think we’ll probably keep it quite informal and just have an open discussion with her, rather than a presentation.

Something Funny

So, wishing you fellow “thinkers” an enjoyable weekend, and here’s a little humour to start it off.  It’s an funny article I came across while googling the group name Systems Thinkers Anonymous to check it wasn’t in use elsewhere:


It’s Wicked – Week 2

Written 12/05/2016

Another excellent session today.  There were 11 of us in the room and a good selection of organisations represented.  We discussed the “wicked problems” paper and our own experiences of this type of problem in our work.  Conversation regularly returned to subject of “inappropriate” and “unnecessary” A&E attendances and admissions.

For those of you who couldn’t make it to the meeting, and weren’t able to pick up the print outs for this week’s reading, I’ve attached the papers for you.  There is a zip file containing a selection of short papers/notes on different aspect of properties of systems.  In particular, I’d like us to focus on thinking about system “purpose” in advance of our next meeting. Here are some links:




Boundary and Environment

The paper on “purpose” uses a pen as an example.  I’d like it If we could think of the example of a GP practice (it’s probably the part of the NHS everyone is most familiar with) and try to define its purpose.  Please have a think about that before we meet again.  It’s actually a pretty tricky example for us to begin with, but let’s challenge ourselves and go for it. It will at least surface some interesting issues I think.  So, what is the “purpose” of a GP practice???????

When we discussed wicked problems and the cycle of over “studying” problems and “paralysis through analysis” we covered the option of modelling and simulation of potential solutions as being a productive approach.  I thought I’d send out this short video clip.  It’s a basic simulation put together by a fellow systems thinker called Simon Dodds.   It’s only 5 or so minutes long, so do have a look.

Simon is someone to keep an eye on.  He’s very heavily into using systems appraoches for quality improvement including system dynamics approaches and writes a very good weekly blog, which is well worth following:

As ever, please do just get in touch if there’s any aspect of any of this you’d like to discuss more.  If you’re in Castlewood, we can always discuss over lunch, or if not, just call me.


Acknowledging we have “Wicked Problems” – Week 1

Originally written 05/05/2016

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Today’s inaugural session went very well I thought.  I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and can see we’re going to be able to help one another with our “wicked Problems”.

We’ve Got Wicked Problems

Before I recap on what we did and agreed today, for those who couldn’t make it, I want to point out what the homework is for next week’s session.  We’ve agreed we’re going to read the linked paper on “wicked problems”.  It’s excellent and will help us gain an idea of what these complex problems are, that they’re the types of problems we’re faced with as commissioners, and why standard linear problem solving techniques aren’t enough on their own.

We’ll Meet Weekly

We’ve decided we’re going to meet on a weekly basis and try to keep the sessions to just 1 hour.  It’s appreciated not everyone is going to be able to make it every week, but we thought it worth trying to build some momentum and cover some ground.  It will be good to get through a reasonable amount of theory quite quickly so we can get on with working on real example projects together and even helping one another with real commissioning issues.

Learning Materials

Stuart Burge, a fellow INCOSE member and founding partner of the Burge Hughes Walsh Partnership has made available loads of resources detailing how to then do the various aspects of systems thinking through his website.  Have a look here:

Our thinking is that we’ll pick a different download from the list each week, and read it before we meet and then discuss how to apply it in the group and work on examples together.  It might be that we need to take several weeks for some of the bigger concepts/tools, but that’s fine.

Before we dive into that though, we’ve agreed to spend next week’s meeting discussing “wicked problems”.  They’re basically the starting point and the reason we need to employ systemic approaches.  As mentioned above, we’ve some homework to do, so please do read the attached paper.

OK, I look forward to seeing you next week.  In the meantime, please do feel to ask me any questions.