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

Systems Thinking
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:


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.”

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.

2 thoughts on “Week 18 Part 2: Where in the world of Systems Thinking are we?”

  1. Wow, the references out from this post are – well – impressive. Nice taxonomy of systems thinking appproaches over time; seeing the richness is interesting, but may be less useful in pinning down the smaller number of specific techniques that might be useful for your Commissioning challenges? And the blog article referred to…I’ve a big, extended desk top monitor, and I hesitate to count how many screenfulls it takes to scroll down to see it all! Mmmmm… yes, to focus now on SSM for a while might not be a bad thing!

    1. THanks Julian. Comments appreciated as ever.

      I agree, the map of systems and complexity approaches probably isn’t helpful to work out what approach to use in commissioning, I think the SoSM is though. My intention with the map, was simply to show the wide diversity of theories, schools and approaches out there, and that no one approach covers all that Systems Thinking is.

      SSM here we come.

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