Week 17 Part 1: What is it about plans?

Dear STA Procrastinators,

Oh dear, I don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s us, but we just don’t seem to be able to stick to a plan.  The intention had been to run through our allotment purpose tree diagram and take the “requirements” listed on it and run them through the Holistic Requirements Model.  The expectation being that we will have omitted requirements, miss-named functions, i.e. not used verb-nouns, and won’t have defined all of the performance and implementation requirements.  Perhaps we’ve been procrastinating in not doing that job, we were supposed to do it last week after all, but the conversations we’ve had instead have, nonetheless been rich and worthwhile.

So, to get to the point, we didn’t have the allotment requirements discussion yesterday.  There were only a few of us able to get to the session, including a new group member, Mike, who asked a few pertinent questions, which led me to give a bit of an overview of the topics we’ve covered so far.  He also pulled me up on something that I’d said to him quite some time ago along the lines of “increasing quality will reduce costs”.  As we have been discussing “requirements”, it seemed a good opportunity to explore this a bit further and in particular the relationship between requirements, quality and cost.  There is quite a bit to say about this and we had a very good conversation, so I think I’ll write it up in a separate post.  For now, I just want to get this post out in time for your Saturday morning newsletter, so you can at least see the homework for this week and start thinking about next week’s session.

With a bit of help from our friend Julian Johnson

Next week’s session is to get on with the exercise of correctly terming and categorising our allotment requirements.  They are set out on the tree diagram.  A kind man called Julian Johnson has been posting some very helpful comments below our blog posts from the past weeks giving us some guidance on how to correctly handle requirements.  See his comments below the blog posts here, and here.

He has also suggested we read this paper by Stuart Burge on writing and categorising requirements.  It’s very good and gives straightforward and clear guidance on how we can better develop our allotment requirements.  In a way, it’s no bad thing we didn’t attempt the exercise this week and will read this paper before doing it.


Julian’s Functional Requirements

Well, they’re the allotment’s actually, but Julian has provided them for us.  He has put together from our tree diagram.  I suppose it’s a bit of a cheat to give these to you in advance of the session on Thursday, but i think there is still a job to do in deciding if this is a complete set of functions and then working out what the associated non-functional requirements are.

Allotment Functional Requirements

manage the allotment

       manage social aspects

                   manage tenants

                   define rules

                   resolve conflicts

                   establish / maintain collective sense of ownership

       manage the site

                   manage space

                               manage utilities (water, power, waste disposal)

                               mark / maintain plot boundaries

                               define rents

                               collect rents

                               pay rents

                               manage costs v income

                               protect people

       manage physical environment

                   access the site

                               manage pedestrian access

                               manage car parking

                               manage cycle parking

                               manage / maintain road access

                               maintain bus stop

                               park a car

                               park a bicycle

                   access within site

                               access the plot (ingress, egress)

                               maintain secure storage

                               access the secure storage

                   maintain the growing climate

                               maintain fertile soil

                               maintain conducive topography

                               protect the crops

                   maintain wellbeing

                               establish / maintain contemplative space

                               establish / maintain peaceful environment

                               establish / maintain plot sense of ownership

This list of functions is not necessarily complete though.  Please do think about whether it is.  I think that will partly decide who’s perspective we view the allotment purpose from, i.e. what it’s Operational Requirement is.

Enjoy this long weekend fellow STA friends,


After a break, it’s time to tend the allotment

Good evening Systems Thinkers,

Big thank you to Gary Smith

Yesterday, we were extremely fortunate and privileged to have Gary Smith come to speak with us.

Gary is a seriously bright guy.  I already knew that, but what I hadn’t quite appreciated is just how deep a systems thinker he actually is and in particular, his incredible appreciation of systemic human interconnectedness.  Thank you Gary, I feel like I was missing something important that you’ve helped reconnect now. 

The session has given me a jolt and left me asking some questions about the direction we’re taking.  Perhaps we need to mix in more systems theory and philosophy and investigate the emotional and sensory apsects of being a good systems thinker, as well as plugging away with the practical tool kit we’ve been learning.  You thoughts are welcome.

I’ll write up a full reflection on the session and get it posted.  If you were there, and would like to add your own thoughts, please do note them down and let me have them.

Harmonised Requirements

Now, I know you’ve really missed having homework the past couple of weeks, so here is some for next week’s session.  I propose we revert back to our plan of do a show and tell of the two purpose Tree Diagrams we built.  To help us in our discussions about them, it would be good to improve our understanding of defining different types of Requirements.

I  realised my understanding of how to define and classify requirements isn’t up to scratch and that left us floundering a little when trying to do it, so if we can all read the linked document below and learn together, that will be great.  So, here’s the reading, the Harmonised Requirements Model:


The Harmonised Requirements Model is quite a technical approach and there’s quite a bit of detail to digest and understand in this paper, so please do try to read it a couple of times, and not at the last moment.

Hard or Soft

This is an approach from the “hard” side of systems approaches and more commonly used in Systems Engineering of physical systems, rather than the “soft” approaches we are focussing on for use in systems involving human interaction, or Human Activity Systems as they’re known.

I think that is OK though.  It’s certainly OK to use this approach when you’re designing a stand alone service I think and the problem is relatively tame. That may or may not be the case with our allotment example. We can discuss that.

I also think this is a very helpful approach to help us gain a deeper understanding of requirements that relate to function, operation, performance etc.  It will give us a better understanding of how to describe systems and their purposes, before we get into the more comprehensive “soft” approaches.  This is should give us a good grounding.

So, enjoy your weekend and i look forward to seeing you next week.



Week 12 – Topiary with Tree Diagrams

Written 22/07/2016

Good evening Systems Thinkers,

Finding a path

At yesterday’s session we continued with the previous week’s work of constructing a Tree Diagram to describe the purpose of the allotment.  This week we found it easier.

I arrived at the session not quite sure what the best way to approach the job would be, but with a feeling it may be a good idea to split down into smaller groups.  I’d felt one of the reasons we found the task difficult the previous week, apart from it just being a difficult thing to do, was that we we’re too large a group to focus on the detailed work involved.

We split the group

We discussed this and the option of splitting down, and the 7 of us who attended split ourselves into two groups.  We discussed whether we’d prefer to work on the wall again with post-it notes, or to use the screen in the room to work on the electronic model I’d produced, or to just use the old fashioned method of a pen and paper, using some A3 print outs of the draft model I’d produced.  We opted for the old fashioned method, as it just seemed quicker and easier to pick up and get on with.

We set about the work of continuing to remove duplicated requirements, checking we were happy with top level functions and which requirements sit under which functions.  It went well and progress was much swifter and free flowing than it had been the previous week.  I only mention all of this, as I think it’s important for us to remember in the future when we repeat this activity in the learning group, or outside on a project.

Show and tell

At the end of the session each group explained to the other what they had done and the choices they’d made.  A volunteer from each group has agreed to take away the marked up diagrams and turn them into computer based models to bring back to the meeting in 2 weeks’ time so we can do a more in depth feedback and compare and contrast.  I’m not sure whether there is a “right” way to structure the purpose, but that is something we can discuss and it will be interested to see how similar or different our structures and what effects, if any, those differences might make to a design derived from the purpose.  I look forward to the discussions.

A big week for us

Next week, we have our special guest Jean Boulton coming to talk to us about managing in complex, uncertain, volatile and ambiguous environments.  I for one can say I could do with some advice in that right now and am very much looking forward to the session.  Do try to arrive on time, so we can start promptly and make the most of Jean’s generous offer.

Enjoy your weekend.



Week 10 – To Affinity and Beyond….

Systems Thinkers,

We’ve been to affinity

This week we went ahead and constructed our Affinity Diagram.  Julian led us though the process and made a very good job of doing so.  Thank you Julian, here’s pictures of us in action.

Affinity Pic 1

It was particularly interesting to do the exercise in silence.  I thought we worked together brilliantly in cooperative synchronisation.  We were like ballet dancers, gracefully and elegantly moving around one another sorting and structuring our system requirements into functional groupings.

A form of structured brainstorming

This method was essentially a structured brainstorming session.  Structured in that we started with a fairly tightly defined question:

“As an allotment holder, what do I require of the allotment system?”

We would have needed to have a less tightly bound question if we have a great variety of stakeholders present, for example the Council, who are landlords and also have statutory requirements on them to provide allotment facilities.  The Allotment will have a quite different purpose from their perspective than it will from an allotment holder’s.

Also structured in that once we had brainstormed our requirements, we sorted the requirements into categories.  This was an interesting process and there were some silent disagreements in the room over what level requirements should be categorised to.  Here is a representation of what we built, just click on it to expand.

Allotment Affinity Diagram
Allotment Affinity Diagram


Where’s our boundary?

One interesting reflection for me is that even though we spent a previous session trying to work out where on our Context Diagram we should redraw our System of Interest boundary, when we came to the Affinity Diagram exercise, we almost had to forget about where we had drawn that boundary and to brainstorm requirements as widely as we could.  Next week, when we structure requirements into the Tree Diagram we can revisit the Boundary question and decide what to include in the new diagram and where to draw our Boundary.  It’s an iterative process.

If we had been viewing yesterday’s requirements generating session from the perspective of a wider range of stakeholders, then part of the power and value of having created the Context Diagram and thought about where to draw our boundary is to help us understand which stakeholders to invite to a session to create an Affinity Diagram.  The Context Diagram does do more than that, it leads us to define flows between stakeholders and objects as well, but the identification of stakeholders is one useful feature.

It’s interesting that we’re beginning to see how these tools work together and compliment and help one another.

Happy faces – A job well done.

Affinity Pic 2


We’ll draw a tree

Next week we will take our categorised requirements and construct a tree diagram from them.  This will give us a structured understanding to the system’s purpose.  Once that is done, we could then look at the real life allotment and determine to what extent it fulfils our required purpose, or use it to identify alternative ways to fulfil the functional requirements.

I think we will probably refine and redraft out grouping headings as we work our way through this and probably have some debate about what the hierarchy or relationships between purpose, sub-purpose and requirements should be.  That’s good and is partly the point of the exercise.  It will push us to think hard and to take various views into consideration.

The Tree Diagram paper is here for you to read in advance of the session.

Julian is kindly going to type up our outputs from yesterday and we’ll use those as the basis to begin constructing our Tree Diagram from.

Enjoy your weekend.   I’m off to London to attend the a Systems and Cybernetics in Organisations (SCiO) Development Day on Sunday and then Open Day on Monday.  Really looking forward to interesting presentations and, conversations.  I’ll update you on the highlights and/or any particular insights.


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.