Week 23: Rich Pictures – Not as easy as expected

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Show me your Rich Picture

This week we continued with Rich Pictures.  The homework last week was to draft Rich Pictures for “sub-problems” within the larger problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to “solve”.  For one reason or another, there were only two pictures available for viewing in yesterday’s session.  One exploring the commissioning landscape, created by me, and another drafted by Jan and Lee looking at the relationship between health and social care.  You can see them further down the page.

We had lots of discussion and debate in the session about the Five YEar Forward View, and about our Rich Pictures.

It’s not quite clicking

It became clear we weren’t quite clicking with this yet. It’s funny.  I came to the session thinking I knew what a Rich Picture was, it’s purpose and what it should include.  I quite quickly realised that I’ve still not quite got it right in my mind.

On paper, it sounds simple.   Express a problem or “Human Activity System” through pictorial means.  But actually doing this in a way that is useful and helps us get to the next step in the process of Soft Systems Methodology, i.e start to build a root definition for the system’s purpose, is not so easy.  The question we were grappling with is, what would a useful Rich Picture be?

What’s the purpose of a Rich Picture?

The purpose of a Rich Picture is to both express the what’s going on and to also enable you to derive system requirements (root definitions).  I’m not sure that either of our pictures did that.  To be fair to Lee and Jan, I think the question they were asked, describe the problems caused in the relationship between health and social care, was probably the wrong question.

Social Care meet Health Care

The two approaches we’ve taken are quite different, and I think the best approach is probably somewhere in the middle.  Here is Lee and Jan’s effort:

Rich Picture for Health and Social Care
The situation between Health and Social Care

They have basically drawn some very good and expressive pictures, but not quite captured what is going on from a systemic point of view.  I suppose a better question would have been to ask “what is the experience of a patient on their journey through the domains of both health and social care?”.  

The Health Care Commissioning Landscape

And here is my effort.  I think this is more of a system map than a Rich Picture.  I’ve probably done more than Lee and Jan to explain what happens and the relationships between things, but I’ve not really captured anything that wouldn’t be shown by a Context Diagram or Interrelationship Diagram. It’s basically, bubbles, arrows and words.  The pictures don’t really add richness or flesh out where things are working well and where they are not.

A Rich Picture describing the Healthcare Commissioning landscape
A Rich Picture describing the Healthcare Commissioning landscape
Stuart’s view

I think a good Rich Picture would probably combine the best of each our efforts.  Thinking I needed to clarify this a bit further, I got in touch with our good friend Stuart Burge to ask his advice on how we should approach this.  Here is what he says he does when he’s teaching the approach to a group:

“Talk and agree with the group about the area of the business/organization we are going to explore – I always emphasize that we are capturing their perceptions of the area. We are not looking for problems!”

I think it’s interesting that the emphasis is capturing perceptions of a situation, process or experience and not on explicitly trying to find problems.  I guess the process allows for problems to emerge.

Let’s find some more examples

In addition to Stuart’s paper on Rich Pictures (here) I’ve found a nice example on the Open University’s website. Have a look:


I’ll find some more examples and print them off to bring to next week’s session.  I probably should have done that last week as a starting point for us, but you live and learn, right.

And finally, our homework

I’m sure the thing you want to know above all else, is what is this week’s homework.  We had some debate in the session about what we should look at, and whether we should grapple with one of our real life problems, or whether we should look at some type of neutral case study.

After a couple of conversations, the feedback is that it’s very helpful to stay away from real problems while we learn how to use the tools and really get to grips with them.  Once we’ve grasped them fully, we can put them into action, but until we feel we’ve confidently understood how to create useful Rich Pictures, it’s better to stick with relatively artificial situations.  While we’re learning, our focus needs to be on the tool, rather than the problem.  So, with that in mind, I suggest we do as Stuart does and use the following example:

  • Construct a Rich Picture for a restaurant:
    • One team to describe the best experience they have had
    • One team to describe the worst experience they have had
    • One team to describe the most unusual experience they have had

I suggest we pair up in groups to do this.  Let’s catch up on Monday to decide who’s taking which option.  Email me if you’re not going to be around.  I suppose to spice it up, each person in a group could take on the role of a different stakeholder; a customer, a waiter, a manager. Maybe we should leave that complication until next week though.

Again, I can’t wait to see what we all come up with.

Enjoy your weekend,


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