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.


1 thought on “Week 27: Systemigram to Root Definitions – The next step”

  1. 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 undelying paradigm, to something else (IM paradigm).
    2. 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, got to go, home calls…

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