Reflections on Systemigrams

Hello Systems Thinkers,

As promised last week, here is a post containing an blog comment and then email dialogue I had with STA friend and regular commenter Julian Johnson.  If you want to look him up, here is a link to Juian’s LinkedIn profile and here is a link to the website for his consultancy business, holistem.

The conversation is about what a “Systemigram” ought to be, and how that differs from an “Information Model”.  Julian has very kindly put together some slides showing how the canteen Systemigram we produced is actually an Information model, and another set of slides showing what a Systemigram might actually look like.  So, here are Julian’s slides showing how:

  1. The canteen set-up might be expressed as an Information Model – here
  2. The canteen situation might be expressed as a Systemigram – here

And here is the dialogue we’ve had.  It’s well worth reading. Thanks Julian.

Comment Julian left on STA blog week 27 on 3rd December 2016.  Here.

Tim, another great post from you, very interesting and thought provoking. A couple of (again I hope constructive) observations:

  1. On the nature of your systemigram: When I look at what you have above, this seems to be a less a systemigram (Boardman et al), and more a conventional information model (IM). So what is a conventional IM? Basically it identifies concepts in the domain of interest, and declarative relationships between them. It isn’t really about influence relationships, which is arguably the essence of a systemigram. In fact, if I take your diagram, and replace ellipses by rectangles, and arrows by (depending on notation) lines with a directed annotation label (UML class diag) or labelled ‘lollypop’ line (STEP modelling language), AND ellipse-in-ellipse by the appropriate supertype-subtype notation (open triangle notation in UML class diag), I’m about there. Its not that the diagram is wrong in any way, (in fact it appears very useful), it just (to me) seems to have moved from a systemigram underlying paradigm, to something else (IM paradigm).
  1. Pick your time comment: Cannot agree more. It often seems to higher up the organisation you go, the less attention span we find (rightly or wrongly), and the more things have to be reduced to primary colours. We’re talking seriously low end of ‘magic number 7 +/- 2’, if you know what I mean. However, in my experience, when getting something that can appear complicated / complex in a single diagram over, it is better not to through the whole diagram at the audience at step 1, and then explain all the elements, but more to build up the diagram on the blank paper / screen, so you end up with the whole picture, but you have brought an audience along, step by step. In fact, this is partly why some tools, like Insight Maker, have a storyboard capability…

Hope that helps…

Tim’s email response on 5th December 2016

Thanks Julian.

I do appreciate these comments!

I must admit that my head is now in my hands though (metaphorically).  I couldn’t quite get Rich Pictures, so I had a go a Systemigrams, and it turns out I’ve not “got” them either.

I wonder, reading your explanation, are Rich Pictures and a Systemigrams much the same thing, or rather serve a similar purpose form a similar perspective, but obviously produced with different media in a different environment?


Julian’s email response on 5th December 2016


“my head is now in my hands though”. Oh dear.

“I wonder, reading your explanation are Rich Pictures and Systemigrams much the same thing, or rather serve a similar purpose from a similar perspective, but are obviously produced with different media in a different environment?”

If I can interpret your question, there appear to be two parts to it:

  1.   That Rich Pictures and systemigrams are much the same thing, serving similar purposes and/or from a similar perspective;
  2.   They are produced with different media (notations) in different environments (tools).

First to respond to 2:

They could indeed be produced with the same tool, for instance, pen and paper / flipchart etc. (But so could any diagram regardless how ‘well formed’.) In terms of computer based tools, it would then start to depend how flexible the tool is. Basically both Rich Pictures and systemigrams could be said to be essentially node-and-link diagrams (essentially a visualisation of a ‘graph’, in maths of computer science speak). However, systemigrams appear to be stricter to the node-and-link paradigm, than Rich pictures, because they are essentially about one item (node, semantically a concept) being linked to one or more other items (nodes) via links (representing relationships). Systemigrams have another type of relationship, type-of, represented by the ellipsi inside another ellipse layout. Anyway, any computer based tool worth its weight that allows you to put diagrams together will have some awareness of the underlying ‘paradigm’. For instance, on a data flow tool, it would not allow you to connect a flow line directly to another flow line, only a flow line to a process bubble, or a process bubble to a flow line etc. We can see this when we use Systemitool, which only allows certain diagram constructs to be connected to certain others. I guess the nearest we can get to a rich picture tool is only something like powerpoint that generically has a large pallet of icons, symbols and various connector types, but is pretty free about where you put things.

As to 1:

Rich pictures and Systemigrams are similar to each other in that they are both pictorial views that a) help a group of people represent and communicate an understanding of a domain and b) are both used for early phases tackling complex / complicated or chaotic systems, often social technical, where ‘conventional’ systems development approaches tend to struggle. However, they differ (as representations) in that a) systemigrams are rather more constrained than rich pictures in the strict node-link metaphor above and b) rich pictures allow carte blanche in types of symbols, AND how they are placed. For instance, having a symbol representing a group of people labelled ‘project management’ and a second symbol representing a group of people labelled ‘engineering’ in some proximity on the diagram, and a drawing of a brick wall between them usefully communicates: these groups don’t talk. There is no explicit node-link construct, it is the simple placement that we see as a pattern.

My comment below: “…identifies concepts in the domain of interest, and declarative relationships between them. It isn’t really about influence relationships…” is the essence in a sense of difference between an IM view, and a systemigram view. This email is already too long, but if it helps [for your understanding], I’ll happy try find / create some examples to try to illustrate my expectation of the difference of typical IM and systemigram examples.


Julian’s follow up Email on 12th December 2016

I’ve backed up from the week 27 canteen ‘systemigram’, given my observation that it appears closer to an information model than an systemigram, by building up an information model applicable to a canteen/ meals on wheels domain.

Attached is the result, which is basically a step by step build-up of a fledgling information model. I say fledgling as:

  •     I’ve not been explicit about capturing either requirements of what we are trying to achieve with such a model, nor with the use cases;
  •     I’ve not elaborated the nature of relationship ordinality (one-to-many, many-to-many etc)
  •     I’ve not elaborated many attributes that one would need to make the model ‘useful’.

However, you will see by the time you get the slide 8 which has the ‘full’ model (subject to caveats about AND any entity should have a definition) that the result is very similar (ignoring boxes rather than rectangles for concepts/entities, and straight versus arcs for relationships, and subtype representation is different) that there is much similarity; indeed I then hand marked with red ticks my paper copy of your systemigram, and may be 80% of items in your diagram are ticked (=covered).

In a separate response I’ll look at how my expectation on a systemigram would actually focus on how well (or poorly) a given canteen works (or doesn’t work) and it part why (or works or doesn’t work).

Hope this is of value to you… let me know!

Julian’s final email on 13th December 2016


Not hampered by tackling a real example, I’ve just tried to speculate a potential canteen and some of its issues. Attached is a slideset, where two of the slides are a prose explanation of some aspects that are ‘challenging’, and then the build-up of systemigram fragments. As you will see in the last slide, I came across some interesting issues, which probably means I need to (completely) read Boardman’s book properly, rather than just wing it. Anyway, I learned something by doing this anyway…

Hope it perhaps moves you a step closer to practical systemigrams, or at least, the distinction of systemigram to (say) information model?

Let me know if you go something (anything) out of this material…


Julian Johnson, BSc, PhD, CSEP MINCOSE
Director, Chief Scientist, Holistem Ltd.
+44 1254 209421
+44 797 442 8697


Week 27: Systemigram to Root Definitions – The next step

Hello fellow Systems Thinkers,

We had a good meeting yesterday.  It ended up being a session of two halves.  In the first, we discussed the Systemigram  that resulted from the previous week’s meeting.  In the second, we began to venture into creating Root Definitions for the “purpose” of the system.

Systemigram time

To kick off, I asked what the group thought of the Systemigram I’d worked up based on the Rich Picture drafting we’d done in the previous week’s session.  To remind you, here it is:

Manorwood Canteen Systemigram
Manorwood Canteen Systemigram

The feedback was positive. Apart from one initial comment that is. Namely, Jan said;

“oh, it looks quite messy and confusing.”

This is a fair comment.  It does look messy, and this is the kind of reaction I’ve received when I’ve put similar system models in front of other people.  It’s a problem we systems folk have when trying to communicate.  Diagrams and models are a great way to express the richness and complexity of a situation in a coherent and understandable way, but they can still look complex.

Complexity is scary

However, once she’d spent a moment looking around the diagram and getting her bearings Jan took to it without any worry and was very positive about it.   I think a lesson for us is to think before putting these kind of things in front of people. Some love them, but many don’t, and I think we need to pick our moment.  i.e. when they have the time and space to sit back and engage with it, not when they’re in the middle of something else.

It’s funny, many people say they really like visual material and prefer it to wordy documents.  Hence the proliferation of infographics and pie charts in reports.  But when it comes down to it, some of those same people recoil when you put a systemigram, an admittedly complex looking visual aid, in front of them.   

My feeling is that what many people actually like is something simple that hides the complexity of reality.  They prefer to not have to think too hard.  There’s something comforting about a colourful infographic or pie chart. That’s fine, but the world and problems we deal with are complex, and there is no way to avoid that if you want to make a positive difference.  So the question is what can help us to understand and deal with complexity.  I think a Rich Picture or Systemigram is a very good way to do that.  But we need the right audience, at the right time.

Iterate between Rich Picture and Systemigram

Anyway, back to our Systemigram.  We felt it does a good job of expressing what’s going on within our “System of Interest”.  It perhaps doesn’t contain the information about how well things are working, what the motivations of actors are, and where the tensions are that a Rich Picture would, but it gives a good foundation to explore those things with.  I can see how one might initially get the stakeholders around a table to create a Rich Picture, but that it would be messy and ragged, and all of the relationships not fully formed.  It would need to be redrafted and redrafted iteratively.  This Systemigram format could be a good way to do that.

We spent some time discussing things we might add, remove or change about the Systemigram based on the reality of the situation it was trying to express.  I think this is an endorsement of the format.  It prompted discussions about the “problem space” and pushed us to explore further and identify areas and things we weren’t sure of.

Into the Root Definition

In the second half of the session we moved on to begin to explore the CATWOE mnemonic for drafting a system Root Definition.  What’s a Root Definition then?  It’s essentially a description of the “Purpose” of a system.  I’ve already referred you to Stuart Burge’s excellent paper on SSM, which gives a good definition of it, so here’s another source.  It’s a set of slides put together by a couple of chaps I’ve had some communications with. They’re good slides, with some nice examples. I like them. There’s a lot of them though, so take some time and have a browse through.


We’ll be working on Root Definitions using CATWOE for a number of weeks I think, so I won’t’ go into too much detail tonight.  Yesterday, we began by thinking about and identifying the stakeholders our Systemigram had uncovered.  They will fit into the Customer, Actor, or Owner, in different combinations depending on what Transformation we are looking at within the system.  We’ll get into that all in much more detail in the coming weeks.

Where’s the W in Prison?

For now, I’ll just highlight the importance of the Weltanschauung, or Worldview as we’ll probably refer to it (although Sandra may have a view on that).  This is about the point of view from which we view the purpose of the system.  Not just who the stakeholders are, but what their motivations and beliefs are. This extracted slide from the slide set above give a nice example of different Ws for a prison:


There are lots of possible Ws at play in our canteen/meals on wheels system.  They might include the Local Authority’s desire to comply with statutory requirements on it, a belief in the social value of providing decent rest and food facilities for staff, a sense of duty to care for immobile people in the community, etc, etc, etc.  We’ll dive in further next week.

OK, that will do for now.  I wish you an excellent weekend.


Week 26: A Systemigram of the Canteen

Hello Systems Thinkers,

A little bit of front end skiving

I hope you’ve had a good week.  We had an enjoyable, but brief session yesterday.  Only four of us could make it, and the room we use was occupied by others having what looked like a very difficult meeting for the first 30 mins of the session.  We could have turfed them out, but left them to it and had an enjoyable and laid back discussion about the similarities and differences manufacturing and healthcare organisations.  We’ll follow this up in the future.

A Rich Picture…..

When we finally got going with our session, the four of us stood around a flip chart and worked on creating a Rich Picture to express our “system of interest”.  That being the dynamic situation that exists for the combined staff canteen and meals on wheels operation based in our office building now that a “posh” food retail outlet is about to open across the road.  It was an enjoyable exercise and it certainly got us discussing what’s going on and the potential dynamics between the stakeholders and system elements.

…..ended up being a Systemigram

By the end of the session, I realised I had reverted to my usual bubble and arrow type of diagram, and that it probably resembled a Systemigram more than a Rich Picture.  Because of that, I spent some time last night using “Systemitool” to work up and develop a bit further the work we did as a Systemigram.  Here’s the result:

Manorwood Canteen Systemigram
Manorwood Canteen Systemigram

It’s not too dissimilar to a Rich Picture and does pretty much the same job.  Perhaps this format doesn’t go quite as far in exploring and expressing how the relationships and activities feel.  For example, where there are tensions, and what motivates people.  We can take this and work on it further to do that.  It’s also a bit of a no no to use software to draft a Rich Picture, as it kind of limits expression and group participation in a way that paper and pens don’t.

We’ve made an assumption about where our system boundary is with this, and that’s something we’ll need to revisit.  Should we include the canteen’s food suppliers for example?  Should we include other local dining options?

Have we unpacked the complexity sufficiently?  I’m sure there are lots of relationships, incentives, motivations, dynamics, tensions, frustrations, etc. we haven’t uncovered here.  We’ll explore further and make some judgements about what matters to us in exploring this problem.

Perhaps next week we’ll print off a copy and then take a pen to it to express those things.  For now, I think we’ve made a good start on exploring and expressing the “problem space”.

Boardman & Sauser

A little background on Systemigams.  I know about them as our friend Gary Smith (a previous special guest) suggested I look at them.  They have been developed and pioneered by John Boardman and Brian Sauser. They wrote this book, which I bought and read earlier in the year.  It’s pretty good and gives a nice overview as to why Systems Thinking is helpful for approaching, understanding and solving complex organisational problems; and then explains and shows how to create Systemigrams.  Their own creation.  Let me know if you’d like to borrow the book.  For now, here’s a google image search with lots of examples.

So, that will do for today. I wish you a restful weekend,


Week 24: The Restaurant Experience Rich Pictures

Hello Team STA,

This was a good week.  The subject of Rich Pictures seems to have clicked much more securely than it had last week.

Thanks to our friends Stuart and Julian

I want to thank Stuart Burge for his guidance last week and suggestion of using a previous restaurant experience as the basis for a Rich Picture.  I also want to thank regular blog reader and commenter Julian Johnson for getting in touch last weekend with an example of his own experience of taking his family out for a meal the night before.  Very helpful Julian!  And to anyone out there who reads the blog and has thoughts on what we’re doing, please don’t be shy.  Just comment in the fields at the bottom of posts.

The central thing I took away from these pointers is that one need not get too caught up in the correctness of what a Rich Picture is.  The important thing is to tell a story of what happened, or what is going on.  A regular process flow, but with richer information about how well the process is working and how it feels to be in it, is OK.

It’s easier when  it’s familiar and personal

Apart from the obvious fact that we’re now a little bit more experienced and practised than we were last week, I think another reason things were better this week is because of the example we used.  The restaurant example certainly felt more real, personal and easier to engage with than the Five Year Forward View example we’d been grappling with the previous week.  That’s something to bear in mind, and as we’ll see, has informed the case study we’re going to use.

Jan is this week’s star

We don’t have prizes for Systems Thinker of the week, but if we did, it would surely go to Jan.  She only joined the group a month or so ago, but has taken to the work with flying colours.

Jan, Lee and I had decided to get together for lunch the day before our STA session to work on a joint Rich Picture.  When we met, it turned out Jan had cracked on and already produced one for her own memorable restaurant experience.  A meal in a high end hotel restaurant in Amsterdam to celebrate an important wedding anniversary.  Here is her picture:

Jan's memorable anniversary meal
Jan’s memorable anniversary meal

So good was this, that we decided not to create another, but had a very good discussion about her experience, how she had expressed it and we carried on to get into how one could use this to start understanding how the restaurant operated from a systemic point of view, and also what the requirements would be to create another restaurant able to replicate this type of experience.  In her brilliance, Jan had already put some thought into decomposing this into various functions and activities. Here’s her sketched notes:

How the restaurant works
How the restaurant works
Deciding where to take the family

We continued this discussion in the group session yesterday.  We also had a look at a Rich Picture Matt had kindly draft and let us have, even though he couldn’t be at the session.  His depicts the decision making process that was involved in his family deciding where to eat at the end of a happy day out at the seaside.  Here is is:

Where to take the family to eat
Where to take the family to eat
It’s hard to integrate multiple viewpoints

I won’t recount all of the discussions we had, but in short we explored where we think we can still improve in creating these pictures.  Taking into account multiple viewpoints was expressed as one thing that’s difficult to do and we will need to hone our abilities in doing that.  We spoke about the next stage in the process of deciding where to draw our system boundary and then begin to create “Root Definitions” for the overall system of interest and then the sub-systems within it.  We’ll move into all of that in much greater detail in the coming weeks.

We’re going downstairs to the canteen

Finally, we spent some time discussing what we should do for homework and an idea for a case study to work on with SSM in the weeks to come.  Sticking with the the theme of restaurants, we’ve decided to use the staff canteen in our building as the example.  It’s something we’re all reasonably familiar with and have personal experiences and views of. It is also relatively contained and straightforward to look at.  This might mean it’s not ideal for SSM, which is designed to deal with social complexity in a situation, but there is enough complexity for it to be a good example for we beginners to start with.

The original purpose of the facility is/was actually to prepare meals to be delivered out to the community as part of the “meals on wheels” service.  The provision of meals for staff is actually as secondary activity.  Further to that, across the road from the office is a petrol station that previously sold relatively low quality sandwiches etc. and also had a fast food outlet in it.  This is currently being refurbished and instead, a premium food retailer will operate from there and one assumes there will be a higher standard of lunchtime options available. What will be the effect of this changing competition on the staff canteen?  The problem does at least look mildly wicked.

So, get you paper and pencils out

So, the task for this week’s homework is to create Rich Pictures that express this situation.  It will be interesting to see how we get on.  We’re not necessarily trying to answer a specific question or to make any particular improvement or change, so this might make the exercise a little unfocused, but it will be interesting to find out if that is the case.  It’s a good starting point.  Let’s see where it takes us.

Enjoy your weekend,


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,


Week 22: Our First Rich Pictures – The NHS Five Year Forward View

Hello STAers,

We’ve been drawing

This week we broke out our artistic skills and created Rich Pictures.  Of course, the point of creating a Rich Picture is to explore a situation, find out what is going on from a variety of perspectives and tease put problem areas, rather than demonstrate artistic prowess.  Having said that, I think we did both.

If you recall, last week’s homework was to look at the “problem” the Five Year Forward View (FYFV) is trying to solve and to create a Rich Picture to express it.  This was a fairly artificial exercise in that we referred to the problem statement within the FYFV rather than primarily exploring it from personal experience and it’s also a case of working backwards as the “solution” is already in place in the form of the FYFV.  Nonetheless, it was a useful and interesting exercise and gave us an opportunity to practice creating Rich Pictures.

Presenting our Rich Pictures

We had a total of 3 Rich Pictures in our session yesterday.  One by Sam, another by Lee and the third a joint effort by Mary and me.  Each is quite different.  I think I can safely say that my artistic capabilities are the worst of the bunch.  I don’t mind though.  It was good to move beyond any self consciousness about lack of artistic talent, and just get on and have fun doing it.  I must admit I sometimes found it hard to think of a visual representation for something, and reverted to words, bubbles and arrows, but I think that’s OK.

The important thing is that we explored the problem and practised how to express it through visual means.  Have a look at the pictures below:

Lee's interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Lee’s interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Mary and my interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Mary and my interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Sam's interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
Sam’s interpretation of the problem the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.
So, what did we learn?

We need to keep practising.  We need to explore the relationships between elements and problem areas more.  Simply putting arrows linking things is OK, but the nature and effect of those arrows/relationships needs to be expressed.  How does the relationship feel.  What is the experience?  Remember, Systems Thinking is as much about the relationships and interactions between things, as it is about the things themselves.

We also need to involve more people.  It’s ok for us to sit in solitude and create a Rich Picture, but when we get into using them in real life problem situations we will need to involve a variety of stakeholders in the creation process.  This is important to make sure the true “richness” of the situation and interactions within it are captured and understood.

It also became clear this is an iterative process and it’s never really complete.  We all wanted to go away and redraft our pictures to capture things we’d not expressed, or to refine the things that we had.

What next?

We’ve decided to keep practising with Rich Pictures.  In next week’s sessions we will firstly spend a little time showing and discussing the work we’ll be doing for homework this week.  We will then cover the table in paper and get down to collaborating to create a large group Rich Picture.  It’s going to be fun.

So what is the homework?

We’re splitting up into sub-groups and each will take a different aspect of the big problem and create a Rich Picture for it.  Lee and Jan are to look at the relationship and roles played by health care and social care.  Sam and Matt are going to look at the role the changing population profile is playing, and Mary and I are going to look at the provider and commissioner space.  If those of you who didn’t make it to the session want to drop me a line, we can work out what aspect you might look at.  It’s well worth having a go at this.

I’m really looking forward to seeing what we come up with!

Enjoy your weekend,


Week 21: Drafting a Strategy – Literally

Dear Systems Thinkers,

What is Strategy?

This week we discussed “strategy” and the role “Rich Pictures” might play in developing them.  Well, we only touched on Rich Pictures at the end of the session really, but we’ll be spending a lot of time talking about and also doing them in the coming weeks.

The main topic of conversation was the Richard Rumelt paper about what makes good and bad strategy.  This one:


Bad Strategy

To summarise, his view is that most of what is called strategy is in fact “bad strategy”.  He categorises bad strategy into the four following types:

  • Failure to face the problem
  • Mistaking goals for strategy
  • Bad strategic objectives
  • Fluff – i.e. empty platitudes and buzzwords
Good Strategy

On the other hand, he says that good strategy must contain the following 3 elements:

A diagnosis: an explanation of the nature of the challenge. A good diagnosis simplifies the often overwhelming complexity of reality by identifying certain aspects of the situation as being the critical ones.

A guiding policy: an overall approach chosen to cope with or overcome the obstacles identified in the diagnosis.

Coherent actions: steps that are coordinated with one another to support the accomplishment of the guiding policy.

The Kernel

He says these 3 elements for the “kernel” of a good strategy.  I really like this approach.  For me it feels right.  Why?  Largely because it’s honest and real.  It’s about being honest and real about your situation and the problem and challenge you want to overcome.  It’s about being honest and real about what is within your gift to do about it.  It’s about being focussed.  About making decisions.

So why are we looking at strategy anyway?  What’s it got to do with Systems Thinking?

SSM as an approach to strategy

My proposition, is that a Systems Thinking design process is essentially a process that can be mapped over Richard Rumelt’s view of what makes a good strategy.  I am proposing that approaches such as Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) can be used to great effect when trying to “do” strategy.  After all, strategy is a response to complex problem.  And with Systems Thinking, we are in the business of dealing with complex problems.  

This is something we’ll explore over the coming weeks as we get into SSM.  I just wanted to make the point that it’s a valuable, practical and useful approach and can be used in our work to help us avoid producing “bad” strategy.

The strategy in our lives

Conversation in the session ranged across all kinds of experiences we’ve had with strategies in our organisational lives, both good and bad.  The big one we all have sight of at the moment is Five Year Forward View. Here it is:

Five Year Forward View

It is the official NHS strategy for “transforming” the way health services are commissioned, configured and provided.  It’s a response the the various challenges the health service is facing.  When we discussed it with reference to Rumelt’s “kernel”, we felt it was probably not a fully formed and rounded strategy.  It feels like it is probably a “guiding policy”.  The problem it’s trying to solve is intimated and briefly discussed, but not is sufficient depth for the policy it puts forward to solve it to necessarily have a logical link back, and there is little in the way of a coherent set of actions for delivering it.

Where’s the problem?

Having said that, I do have a good amount of respect for it, and what Simon Stevens is trying to do.  Although it doesn’t stand up to Richard Rumelt’s view of good strategy, it is far better than many others and is short on the “fluff” and “failure to face problems” that so often dominates strategies.  We wondered whether the work currently being undertaken around the country to produce Sustainability and Transformation Plans (STPs), are in effect going to the the “coherent set of actions” to deliver the “guiding policy” that the Five Year Forward View is.

The one piece of the jigsaw that is missing in this view is the “diagnosis” of the problem.  It does discuss the problem it’s trying to solve, and the themes are very familiar to all of us. The space given to discussion of the specifics of the challenges facing us are relatively brief and light weight though.  Only a few pages, and many of the problems are discussed in terms of solutions.  I think that’s partly the nature of publicly available strategies. It doesn’t necessarily do to well to give warts and all accounts of the problems you have.  Particularly in politically charged areas like the National Health Service.  

Let’s get drawing

So, as we want to get into creating Rich Pictures to explore and express complex problems, a good starting place would be to use the problem/s the Five Year Forward View sets out to address as an example.  That is to be our homework.

Please come to next week’s session with a sketch of a Rich Picture of the problem/s the Five Year Forward View is trying to solve.  You can do it on your own, or buddy up with others to do a joint one.  I don’t mind.  To remind yourself what the “problem” is,  read those first few pages of the document.  To be honest, it’s the kind of stuff we talk about day and day out. An ageing population.  Increasing complexity of multiple conditions. Public sector spending cuts.  A fragmented model of service provision. Etc.  

It would be great if we could uncover some other relationships and contributing problem areas not described in the Forward View, but don’t worry for now.  Keep it pretty high level.  Don’t get caught in in detail or trying to create something perfect at this point.  The purpose of this exercise is simply to have a go at creating a picture and using the notation Stuart burge puts forward in his paper.  Yes, the one you rea for last week’s homework.  You did read it, right?  In case not, here it is again:

Rich Picture Paper

Have fun, and I can’t wait to see what you come up with!