Embracing Complexity: Jean Boulton INCOSE Talk on 24th April 2017

A quick post to let you know about an upcoming talk being put on by the Bristol branch of INCOSE on Monday the 24th April.

The speaker, Jean Boulton, is a good friend of Systems Thinkers Anonymous and kindly came to speak to us last summer.  Here’s a reminder of the session:

http://systemsthinkersanonymous.com/learninggroup/jean-boulton-challenges-us-embrace-complexity/

I think Jean is great.  She will be talking about her her book, “Embracing Complexity” and experiences as a manager, consultant and academic in relation to Complexity Theory and what it means for managing organisations.

This is one I don’t think you should miss.

The evening will start at 18:30 for a 19:00 start.

Presentation Details:

Meeting Title:     Embracing Complexity: Adaptive management in a volatile and complex world

Presenter Names:    Jean Boulton

Date:            24 April 2017

Time:           18:30 for a 19:00 start – 21:00

Venue:            Atkins, 500 Park Avenue, Aztec West, Bristol, BS32 4RZ

Cost:            Free – Non-members welcome

You can book here:

http://bit.ly/INCOSE-JeanBoulton

blg-embracing-complexity-april-2017-issue-1-page-001

Week 25: It’s an increasingly complex world

Hello Systems Thinkers,

A short and sweet post this week. Before I get into what we discussed yesterday here is the homework for next week.  It’s a paper describing Soft Systems Methodology by Stuart Burge.  I thought it worth putting Rich Pictures into a bit more of their context for you now and think we’re ready to start looking at the methodology.  Here it is:

soft-systems-methodology

What’s going on?

Back to yesterday.  I kicked the session off by asking the question;

“Do you want to talk about Rich Pictures, or shall we spend some time discussing the what on earth is going on with the world at the moment?”

Of course, I was referring to the previous day’s US election result and the fractious state of politics in the UK at the moment; and of course, everyone wanted to discuss that.  We had a ranging discussion about what’s going on within our political and economic “systems”.  I can’t say we found any solutions, but it was good to explore and unpack the issues.

How can we explain?

One particular thing that stood out for me and came up a number of times, is the difficulty of understanding and then communicating the complexity and interconnected nature of many of the difficulties faced by nations and the global community.  Especially, how do we explain the complexity of problems and the fact simplistic solutions tend not to work to people who struggle to see that.

This is actually a problem we Systems Thinkers have more generally.  It’s not limited to political discussion.   In my experience, people tend to either easily connect with and “get” Systems Thinking, or they really struggle with it.  It doesn’t seem to come naturally to many people.  I am reminded of the famous paraphrased H. L. Mencken quote:

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong”

This might explain why in difficult times, people who offer simple solutions, that apparently draw strong relationships between direct cause and effect do well.  As we’ve been learning through, cause and effect tend not to be so tightly coupled and are not linear.  Complex situations require more systemic approaches.

Let’s work on communication

We’ve not really touched on this topic of “communication” before, and didn’t have much of a chance to explore it today, but it’s something we’re going to need to return to.  It’s brilliant that we are developing ourselves as Systems Thinkers and are building up our tool boxes, but we need to be able to explain the rich complexity of problems and our resultant non-linear solutions to other folk.  How can we make the complex sound and look simple?  How do we explain what we see in a way that doesn’t make people glaze over, or confused. I really don’t know.  We’re going to need to work on this.

Back to our pictures

For the last 15 minutes of the session, we did discuss the Rich Pictures we’d produced for homework.  I say “we”, but actually it was only Jan and Lee who had time to show their pictures.  Here are their efforts:

They’re very good.  Jan very much came at the task from a “customer” point of view, and Lee came at it from a wider perspective.  The results are really interesting and I’m so pleased to see how they are both coming along in their abilities to do this.  Good for you!

Jan's Picture
Jan’s Picture
Lee's Picture
Lee’s Picture

We’ve decided to continue with the canteen example, and see how far we can take it, so look out for further developments.

Enjoy your weekend,

Tim

Week 19: Sam opens the door and shows us the way

Dear Systems Thinkers,

Guess what happened this week. That’s right, we didn’t do the Systemic Textual Analysis exercise.  I know, I know, it looks like we’re avoiding it intentionally.  We will do it, I promise.  Although actually, it won’t be next week as group member Sam is going to be talking to us about some work he’s been looking at involving a taking a systemic approach to challenges in public health.

So, what did we do this week.  Well, we have a pretty good excuse for not doing the Systemic Textual Analysis as it happens.  We had a very special guest who came to talk to us about the amazing work she’s been involved with.  Her name is Sam and she works for the MoD.  Over the past five years, she’s been deeply involved in rolling out a major programme within that organisation to develop its Systems Engineering/Thinking abilities.  Largely from an organisational and capability point of view.

Genuine trailblazers

I won’t go into details of the specifics of what they’ve been doing, but to say it’s impressive is an understatement.  I genuinely felt inspired.  For the team to have gained sponsorship at a high level for such a major programme is seriously impressive. They’ve been exploring how systemic approaches to understanding the problems and challenges they face as an organisation can be harnessed and embedded into all that they do.

The parallels between our organisations are substantial.  Both are large, hierarchical, command and control structured, public service organisations. Many of the challenges and issues Sam described facing on the journey of trying to develop and embed these capabilities totally resonated with me and the rest of the group.  It’s so impressive that they’ve persevered and continued to develop the credibility of these approaches.

Mix your methods

Sam describes herself as a “mixed-methods practitioner”.  She isn’t attached to any one tool, method or methodology, but picks up and uses whatever seems most appropriate for the given situation.  The two methodologies she finds the most useful in understanding and addressing complex organisational problems are Soft Systems Methodology and the VIable Systems Model.  I was pleased to hear this, as these are the two approaches I’ve identified as likely be most useful to us, so it was reassuring to hear her say that.

I’ve asked the group to give some feedback on the session, so you get more than just my perspective.  Here’s what I’ve had so far. I’ll add in more below when I receive it.

Matt’s Thoughts:

Some thoughts from me on a very enjoyable session:

  • It was helpful to look outside of our usual setting and see that some of the challenges are common to a similar public industry.
  • Sam gave a very reassuring pragmatic view on systems thinking around trying techniques and working out what works best for each situation and to pick the solution that fits. Think tool box rather than one dimension.
  • She also gave helpful advice about testing it on the right issues to help you and others gain understanding and confidence – don’t go straight at the most complex problem!
  • Some really good thoughts around having a taxonomy of terms and approaches to show what we mean in the phrases we use.
  • I really liked the description about seeking the ambiguity and not being afraid of it. Widening the problem also helps to widen the solutions!
Peter’s Thoughts:

“Approach (paraphrasing): 90% mindset change management, 10% tools/techniques.

Senior commitment: 5 years ring-fenced funding. How did they get this? What was it that made the decision maker commit?

(5 year comes across as a serious long-term commitment, but in MOD terms, this may not be considered long term – perhaps it is just my NHS-glasses)

Common sense realised: Focussing resource upstream to make better decisions, rather than applying systems thinking post decision – e.g Do we need a tank, rather than, how do we make a better tank.”

Ciao for now,

It was a brilliant session and I hope we’ll be staying in touch with Sam. She and her team have really blazed a trail and I just hope we can follow in their footsteps.  Further discussion is required!

OK, enjoy your weekend,

Tim

Week 18 Part 2: Where in the world of Systems Thinking are we?

Let’s pause and think about thinking

We’ve charged head first into learning various tools and methods, but haven’t had much discussion about what Systems Thinking is and where the approaches we’re learning sit within the wider discipline.   We’re now on the verge of heading into learning about Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and I thought it worth us taking an opportunity to catch our breath and talk about Systems Thinking more generally.

You’d think it’s all about System Dynamics

When you google “Systems Thinking”, the overwhelming majority of the top listings relate to the approach of System Dynamics and its proponents such as Peter Senge, Donella Meadows, the Waters Foundation and others.  System Dynamics is a valuable approach and is especially good for understanding relationships, causal effects and feedback loops between system elements.  

Another approach sitting high on the google rankings is John Seddon’s “Vanguard Systems Thinking”.  This is a kind of overhauled version of “Lean” specifically for service provision and has gained a lot of traction in the Public Sector here in the UK.  There is debate about whether it is genuinely a form of Systems Thinking or not.  Personally, I don’t intend to add to that debate, so will leave it there.  It is a good and useful approach in the right context, and the core concept of “failure demand” is particularly insightful.  Why not look it up.  Whether they are genuinely Systems Thinking approaches or not, these approaches have valuable uses and much can be gained from employing them.  

But there’s a problem.

Whilst they may dominate, these approaches only account for a very small part of what’s on offer in the world of Systems Thinking.  The problem comes when you tell people you’re into Systems Thinking, as they tend to think this is what you mean.  Well, it’s largely not what we mean.  Not to say there’s anything deficient about these approaches, it’s just that given our particular context, I don’t think they are the most useful for us right now.  

I hope we are going to be relatively agnostic in our approach and embrace the diversity of what is out there and become “mixed methods” practitioners.  There’s such a wealth of amazing stuff out there, with each approach having its strengths and weaknesses for any given context.  Here is an amazing map showing some of the incredible diversity and range of theories and approaches available to us:

http://www.scimaps.org/maps/map/map_of_complexity_sc_154/detail

Hard and Soft Approaches

System Dynamics, is from the “hard” school of approaches and is the dominant approach on the other side of the Atlantic.  Here in the UK, we use “hard” approaches extensively, where they are the more appropriate, but there has also been significant development in “soft” approaches. The term “soft system” is one coined by Peter Checkland when he created Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), but it has been extended to encompass the range of approaches created to help understand and intervene in complex situations involving humans, or “Human Activity Systems”, where “purposeful Activity” is being undertaken.

Are systems real?

One way “soft” approaches differ from their “hard” relatives is they don’t view systems as things that have their own objective existence. In this view, systems are not real things.  The operative word in Soft Systems Thinking is “thinking”.  It’s about using the various conceptual qualities of systems, such as boundary, purpose, structure and interrelationships to better understand messy real life situations.  There is a difference between thinking about systems and thinking in terms of systems.  Here is a quote from the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge (SEBoK) describing this:

“The identification of a system and its boundary is ultimately the choice of the observer. This may be through observation and classification of sets of elements as systems, through an abstract conceptualisation of one or more possible boundaries and relationships in a given situation, or a mixture of both concrete and conceptual thinking. This underlines the fact that any particular identification of a system is a human construct used to help make better sense of a set of things and to share that understanding with others if needed.”
http://sebokwiki.org/wiki/What_is_a_System%3F

The System of Systems Methodologies

I am proposing we learn about SSM next.  I think it an appropriate method to support us in commissioning health services.  To give some perspective of where it sits in relation to other approaches, here is a very nice table called the System of Systems Methodologies (SoSM) created by Robert L. Flood and Michael C. Jackson.  It’s described and explored in their excellent book, Creative Problem Solving: Total Systems Intervention (I just checked and there are some second hand versions of this available for just £0.01 plus postage.  Why not treat yourself).  It also gives a good description of what Systems Thinking is and is not, as well as describing a variety of approaches and in what contexts it is most appropriate to use each.  I must admit I’ve copied this version of the table (to save me re-drafting it) from this rather good blog post about Critical Systems Thinking, another approach:
http://wulrich.com/bimonthly_november2012.htmlSystem of Systems Methodologies

For now, we’re in the Pluralist/Complex Zone

As commissioners, when we come to design new services, or intervene in existing ones, I think we’re very much in the pluralist/complex zone. Pluralist, because not all parties involved are directly under our control and will have different views, interests and motivations.  It is likely those interests are compatible though and an accommodation can be found, so ours in not a “coercive” environment.   It’s “Complex”, because as we’ve discussed previously, the problems we face in commissioning and intervening in services are “Wicked” in nature.

Having said that, if we find ourselves redesigning parts of our own or other organisations, we will likely shift to the left, a “Unitary” environment.  In that case, we would find a Cybernetic approach like the Viable Systems Model useful.  And if we find ourselves doing Lean, or Quality Improvement work within a single organisation we would drop into a less complex, simple/unitary environment and find an approach like System Dynamics useful.

The value is in matching approaches to contexts, not in the approaches themselves

To finish, I just want to make it clear that this System of Systems Methodologies is in no way a hierarchy.  I’ve observed some practitioners who tend to specialise in one approach, come to view their favoured approach as the “right” or “best” way to do Systems Thinking. I’ve also observed a kind of perception that there is more kudos and prestige in being involved in problems and approaches that are sited in the “Complex” domain.  I suppose it’s not helped by terminology such as “Simple”.  Perhaps we imagine that the less capable people deal with the “simple” problems, whilst we more impressive folk deal with the “complex” problems.  I think this is an unhelpful and wrong view.  As the SoSM shows, it’s about horses for courses, and selecting the most appropriate method for the problem you’re facing.  In our working lives, we’re likely to face organisational problems in all six of the zones.  Let’s just hope there aren’t too many in the Complex/Coercive space.

I’ve said we’re going to look at SSM next.  It seems to be the most appropriate approach for us, given our context, but I don’t want us to become attached to it, or personally identify ourselves with it.  I want us to be open to all approaches and to even get to the point where we are able to mix them.  We have to start somewhere though, and the best place for us to do that, seems to me to be with SSM.  Let’s see where it takes us.

A Provocation: Jean Boulton Challenges us to Embrace Complexity

A very special guest

A couple of weeks ago, we were very fortunate to have Jean Boulton come to talk to us at Systems Thinkers Anonymous. These are some rather belated reflections on what was an excellent session. It was a real thrill and a pleasure to have Jean come. A real coup. For anyone who doesn’t know who Jean is, have a look at this previous post. In person, she is as charming as she is formidably bright and enthusiastic about her subject. Happily for us, that subject is directly relevant to our work.

I’d read Jean’s book “Embracing Complexity” earlier in the year and had heard her talk at the SCiO Winter Open Meeting, so was reasonably familiar with her approach and views on how complexity theory can help us better manage our organisations. It’s a different kind of approach to the prevailing school of thought in management and for me, it feels very right.

Embracing Complexity

An alternative to Reductionism and Determinism

We had about an hour and a half with Jean in total. She began by giving us a 15 minute whirlwind tour of complexity theory and the differing view it takes from linear scientific approaches, such as those influenced by Newtonian Science, before having an informal discussion. Not that Jean says there’s anything wrong with linear approaches, there’s a time and a place for everything. Holding that linear cause and effect view of all actions having equal and opposite reactions can lead us into trouble when we face complex problems in open systems though, and those are the types of problems we’re faced with in organisations everyday. In complex environments, what emerges when you take action is unpredictable and nonlinear. This is the world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). Our world.

To set the scene, I’ll recount the essential points of Complexity Theory as an alternative to the prevailing reductionist and deterministic approaches, before then giving my own reflections on what I’ve personally taken from it. Jean began by differentiating between two differing scientific viewpoints that have converged to dominate the management of our organisations, markets and societies. Those being the Newtonian, mechanical view where everything moves in a predictable, deterministic fashion, and Equilibrium Thermodynamics which see most situations as near equilibrium. This is extended to the belief that when things are close to equilibrium we can predict what will happen next as things tend to move back to equilibrium.

Jean argues that the mechanical worldview, a deterministic and reductionist one, has led to too high an importance being placed on design, control, prediction and measurement. It has come to dominate the idea of what is professional. Historically, in the West, we have been conditioned to believe that predictability and therefore control, measurement and structure are ‘scientific’ and hence professional ways of working. Management and professionalism have come to be about being “scientific”, where scientific means being singularly reductionist to the exclusion of also being systemic in enquiry.

Is it reasonable to reason?

A reductionist view believes that to solve a “big” problem we should divide it into smaller problems that can be solved. The solution to the bigger problem is therefore the sum of the solutions of the smaller problems. This is logical and seductive in its simplicity, but is actually simplistic, as it does not address the interactions between the problems. System Thinking still tends to involve dividing big problems up, but pays close attention to the relationships between the smaller components.

Reductionist and deterministic views of organisations assert that;

  • They behave like machines and are predictable.
  • The things that are important can be measured
  • Departments can be dealt with independently.
  • Change can happen top down
  • One method or “best practice” can work everywhere
  • The future is predictable and follows from the past
  • People behave rationally and like parts of a machine
  • Measurement leads to control and clarifies what to do next
  • Projects, functions, groups can largely be treated independently of each other (and indeed this is the best option) and can be made to follow a controllable process

This is the world of Budgets, Project Management Offices, and Strategic Visions of the future. In “machine thinking”, there is also an implicit assumption that organisations cannot learn, adapt, that nothing new can emerge and that the future is just a continuation of the present.

So what is Complexity Science?

To quote Jean:

“Complexity science is the study of the evolution of systems which are open to their environment. It explores how the reflexive interdependence of constituent elements leads to self-organisation and emergence of new characteristics in a way that is shaped by, but not determined by history.”

Jean explained to us that Complexity Science has stepped beyond Newtonian and Equilibrium Thermodynamics views of science and offers an alternative. It is grounded in Evolutionary Theory and yet emphasises that “survival of the fittest” is more like “survival of those most able to prosper in a given context”. It emphasises that what emerges is very much context/environment dependant. That which is a strength in one context, may well be a weakness in another, and the nature of contexts and environments are often beyond our control. They change in ways that are not random but not predictable either.

Complexity Theory says that the world and human systems and economies and organisations are types of ‘complex systems’, and that they behave more like living organisms than like machines. In a world that is increasingly fast-changing, things often do not go to plan, people and situations are individualistic, many things impact on each other, change can happen radically and rapidly. Thinking you can control things when you cannot can create more harm than good and lead to unintended consequences.

What does this mean for management?

Jean said that in her experience, public services are too often managed towards “economies of scale” and efficiencies are sought through hierarchical standardisation, and top down, “Command and Control”. She expressed her belief that we over measure organisations in the belief that it’s the right, professional thing to do, but the learning from these measures does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. She referred to the example of the British education system, which has been increasingly managed like a “machine”, with everything possible being measured, yet literacy and numeracy rates among British children have been decreasing and are right at the bottom of the pile compared to other developed countries. Something important is being missed.

Jean feels we need to work to understand what really matters to our customers, patients, service users, stakeholders, society, rather than simply measure what can be measured. She believes much more emphasis needs to be placed on “bottom up”, localised organisation rather than top-down machine like focus on “economies of scale” – albeit situated within clear principles and intentions, with strong review, learning and sharing processes.

So, what do I make of all this?

By and large, this all rings very true for me. I don’t think it’s a black and white case that we should forget about scientific reductionist and deterministic approaches to management and be purely systemic, as we’d end up in quite a pickle. And indeed, as Jean would point out, complexity thinking is a middle ground between thinking we can predict and control everything and thinking we know nothing. Complexity thinking is not advocating a laissez-faire approach – rather it is bringing our attention to the fact that many things are interconnected whether we like it or not – and to ignore that can bring failure.

After all, we have an enormous amount to thank scientific reductionist approaches for. I think the point though is we shouldn’t be blinded by their brilliance and in honour of their successes ignore their deficiencies and apply them inappropriately. There is a time and a place for all methods, including measurement. We just need to be careful and considered in our approach and try and ensure that the approach to measurement is fit for purpose.

As when anyone tries to argue against a status quo, in our discussion Jean took a fairly hard stance against the reductionist and deterministic approach and I know a couple of group members found this a difficult view to agree with. I think that was probably a symptom of us not having much time with Jean, as having read her book and having heard her talk more extensively, I know she values these approaches. She is after all a physicist by training. It’s just a question of finding the right balance and using the most appropriate approach for the situation and context we find ourselves in. I think it can also be quite shocking to hear someone say something negative about a “scientific” approach to management (or at least to question which ‘scientific approach suits the complex social world). I think the point though, is that there is nothing scientific about using a “scientific” approach inappropriately. And of course, complexity theory itself is a science!

Often, the things that really matter can’t be easily measured quantitatively

Something that stood out for me from Jean Boulton’s talk was that sometimes, the things that really matter just aren’t measurable. Or at least, are very difficult to define, monitor and measure. I think that’s probably the case with patient outcomes and it’s something to think about. There was a feeling among some in the group that Jean’s approach is one that dismisses measurement altogether. I’m don’t think that’s correct. I believe that for her it’s more about stepping back from measuring absolutely everything we possibly can (and then doing nothing useful with the data, apart from beating people with it) and instead really understanding what’s important and it may or may not be possible to measure that. That’s my interpretation, and also my belief. We need balanced approaches that rely as much on qualitative feedback as quantitative measurement. We need ways to spot and then monitor emerging trends and deal with multi-causal inputs and interconnected outcomes. Sounds difficult, but to me, it seems that to aim for anything less would be to let ourselves and those we serve down.

The question that “the things that really matter are not always easily measurable” is one that seems less relevant in business. That is to say, it is still true, but I wonder if it matters as much. In business, you gauge whether customer outcomes are being fulfilled by their willingness to pay you for your goods and services. It’s just so much harder in public services, where that customer supplier relationship and the direct payment for services doesn’t exist. Please don’t read that as a suggestion we privatise and introduce direct charging in healthcare services, it absolutely isn’t, it’s just a recognition of how difficult our job is in identifying and then knowing if we’re fulfilling the right outcomes for patients. Feedback may be more important than direct measurement, and the best feedback comes from open, honest and direct conversation. We need to be sure we are we having those conversations. Even then, cause and effect are often hard, if not impossible to attribute in our complex multi-causal world. Being too simplistic about what is measured and what is assumed to cause what, can not only waste money, but result in a dysfunctional “system” and unintended consequences.

We need to pay attention to context and complexity

Another point I took away from Jean’s talk was that the approach you use, hard or soft, tight or loose, reductionist or systemic depends on the stability of the environment and the degree of control you have. We need to ask ourselves where we sit on those continua. How Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous is our commissioning world? The approach, tools and methods we pick for doing commissioning will be influenced by the answers to those questions.

I think the answer to this will be constantly changing. I mean, even in my commissioning role and in the context of our organisations, some things are relatively clear, constant, simple and predictable, while others and most certainly not. Even then, these can quickly and easily flip and change to being more or less stable states. We need to be open to the possibility of change in our environment and honest about our ability to predict and control it.

Not only provoked, but also inspired

So taken were some of us with what Jean had to say, that we’ve been inspired to set up a small sub-group to work on a project together. We were particularly taken with the idea that “sometimes, the things that really matter can’t be measured”. This made us wonder what it means for us as commissioners and in particular, what it means for the Commissioning for Outcomes agenda.

We have resolved to write a paper titled something like, “Commissioning for Outcomes – Using systems thinking to think about how to do it.”

Ultimately, I think Systems Thinking, as a complementary approach to Complex Systems Thinking is well placed to meaningfully support commissioning for outcomes. After all, the task at hand is to design and configure a system that has the capability to deliver the defined outcomes. Initially though, we just want to think about what it means and how to do it, and good quality literature and evidence on the subject appears to be rather thin on the ground. Questions we’ll be looking at include:

  • What does Commissioning for Outcomes mean?
  • How do we go about deciding what outcomes are important?
  • And if they can’t be easily measured quantitatively, how do we know whether they’re being achieved?
  • Even if we can measure outcomes and know they’re being achieved, can we attribute that success to any particular interventions? How do we approach the difficulty of proving cause and effect in this non-linear complex world?

We plan to use the Systems Thinking tools and approaches we’ve been learning about to look at these questions. Thank you to Jean, and watch this space!

BigLeeC Embraces Complexity

Here are some reflections from STA member BigLeeC on Jean Boulton’s excellent talk on 28th July.

The totality of an individual’s aims and expectations

“I found the session with Jean really useful in reframing my view of systems thinking, or at least giving it another angle of attack.  I think it could be easy to just think of our “systems” as hospitals, organisations, commissioners, providers etc, but forget the systems that exist around individuals.  This view really supports the work that we are doing with Personal Health Budgets and Integrated Personalised Commissioning (IPC), where we are seeking to capture that totality of an individual’s aims and expectations, not just on their health needs, but more broadly to capture social, housing, education and wellbeing needs.

It’s all about the Individual

One potential outcome of the IPC work could be that when we take a broader view that person’s individual system, we may together find inefficiencies, duplication, unnecessary activity and also get back to what is going to ultimately make a difference to that person. The further benefit of taking that broader system view is that it allows us to then evidence when an intervention or change in one area has made a positive impact on another. For example a person may have struggled to get the right support for depression and we, through a personal budget, may enable that person to access a weekly walking group.  Taking a system view may allow us to see that not only has that person’s wellbeing improved, but their physical health needs have also, and a result they attend their GP less frequently.  That ability to note the outcome of interventions across a system may help us to build the case for more significant change away from the traditional way of commissioning public services along paternalistic lines. “

Week 8 – VUCA Heavy, Not VUCA Lite

Written 27/06/2016

You can’t tame Wickedness by presenting a binary choice

Thanks to Jean Boulton for the title of this message.  She has very kindly agreed to come and talk to us on the 28th July, so please do put that in your diaries.

In my last message, when I joked about being in or out of the E.U., I promised that this wasn’t a political group or communication, and it isn’t.  However, I can’t not comment on the referendum  on Thursday and the events that have unfolded since though.  From a systems perspective that is.

I’ve been particularly struck by the “wickedness” of the problems we had to grapple with in making our “in” or “out” decisions.  The problems we have been trying to solve with the simple binary choice we were given of “in” or “out” are highly wicked in nature and encompass a huge amount of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).  If we remind ourselves of the defining characteristics of a “wicked problem”, I think that we can recognise all of them in the choice we were asked to make last Thursday.

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

I suppose this is why referenda are not a common feature in our decision making.  This one certainly seems to have been far too simplistic a choice to address the deeply complex social  and economic challenges we face and this binary, linear choice around a supposedly singular issue was created to address.

And now that a “right” or “wrong” decision has been made, what are we finding?  This simplistic approach to decision making has led to a situation where we have far more Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity through unintended consequences than we did before we made it.  That’s the nature of “wicked problems”.  Let’s now hope that a more systemic approach to dealing with the plethora of amplified and interlaced wicked problems we now face can be taken.

SCiO do VSM very well

So, back to normal service.  On Saturday, I went to London for a SCiO organised Viable System Model (VSM) training workshop.  It was excellent and I’m very glad I went.  I had found VSM slightly impenetrable and esoterically theoretical when I looked at it previously.  I was wrong to find it that way though.  It’s actually deeply practical and was explained in a way that made it immediately accessible and useable.  I’ll be very happy to talk to anyone about it and share my experiences if you would like.  I like my coffee black and without sugar.

Drawing a boundary is not easy

Thursday’s STA session was a productive one.  We reviewed our context diagram and discussed where we should redraw the boundary for our System of Interest.  This prompted interesting discussions and it became clear that choosing what should be in and what should be out makes a significant difference to the “purpose” of the system and how we view it.

Rabbit Hill - System of Interest

So, even though this is just an exercise and we are not trying to solve any real problem, it became apparent that when we do begin to use these approaches for designing and modifying services, we will need to pay careful attention to where we decide to draw our system boundary.  Serious thought about the implications of what we put inside and what we leave outside will be needed.  I think this is a helpful approach.

Thinking about how to think

Indeed, the interesting and powerful thing about this is that we are now thinking about how to think about problems.  We have inserted an extra step into our thought process and rather than just diving into trying to solve a problem, we are carefully thinking about what the problem is and how we should view it. That can’t be a bad thing.

As last week’s note suggested, now we have defined what our system is, we will now return to defining its purpose.  We are going to use a more thorough approach to doing so than simply using the 18 word statement as we have so far.

Affinity Diagram

We are going to use an Affinity Diagram to define the functional requirements (or sub-purposes) of the system and then use a Tree Diagram to structure them.  I’ve attached Stuart Burge’s papers on those diagrams for you.

Happily, our fellow Systems Thinker, Julian, has facilitated the building of Affinity Diagrams previously and has kindly offered to facilitate Thursday’s session.  He’s very enthusiastic about the usefulness of this diagram and it promises to be good session. We are going to follow the “in silence” version of the approach, so if you are going to be there, do please read the briefing paper in advance and also try to arrive on time as I think we will try to cover a lot of ground in the hour.

I hope to see you there.

Tim

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:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Embracing-Complexity-Strategic-Perspectives-Turbulence/dp/0199565260

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:

http://www.idiotfreezone.com/Politics/thinkers-anonymous.html

Tim

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.

http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf

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:

http://www.burgehugheswalsh.co.uk/Systems-Thinking/Tools.aspx

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.

Tim