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,