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:


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,


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 18 Part 1: Systemic Textual Analysis Homework

2 Parts this week:

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Well, what can I say, we’ve still not done the Systemic Textual Analysis.  I was on holiday for the two weeks preceding this one and the group had a break in the first week and then met last week to discuss an exciting project two group members are working on.  They’re looking to improve the lot of people in our community who are suffering from social isolation and have been using the approaches and methods we’ve been learning to guide their work.  I expect we’ll get a piece up here on the blog about it in due course.

I’m splitting this week’s post up into two. The first to give you this week’s homework in time for your Saturday morning email update.  I’ll then write up a summary of our discussion in this week’s session over the weekend.  So, if you’re reading this in your email update, then please do check the actual blog to see part 2 of the post.

We still need to do our Systemic Textual Analysis

This week, we met as per usual.  I’d wanted to do the Systemic Textual Analysis of our allotment, but I’d also wanted to take the opportunity to talk a bit about what Systems Thinking is and in the end, that took up the whole session.  We’ll aim to do the Systemic Textual Analysis next week, so please do the homework of completing the following template.

Systemic Textual Analysis

I’ve already inserted the Functional Requirements proposed by our friend and blog commenter Julian Johnson.  I think we should focus on trying to come up with the Non-Functional System Requirements and Non-Functional Performance and Implementation Requirements.  Give it a go, and then we can compare and combine our work and try to come up with a complete set.  Do also think if there are any Functional Requirements we’ve missed.  And in case you’ve lost the Stuart Burge paper we’re using for this, here it is:


I’ll get part two of this post up asap.  It discussed what Systems Thinking is, the variety of approaches and methodologies and why we’re going to take the direction we will over the coming months.

For now, enjoy your weekend,


Week 17 Part 1: What is it about plans?

Dear STA Procrastinators,

Oh dear, I don’t know if it’s me, or if it’s us, but we just don’t seem to be able to stick to a plan.  The intention had been to run through our allotment purpose tree diagram and take the “requirements” listed on it and run them through the Holistic Requirements Model.  The expectation being that we will have omitted requirements, miss-named functions, i.e. not used verb-nouns, and won’t have defined all of the performance and implementation requirements.  Perhaps we’ve been procrastinating in not doing that job, we were supposed to do it last week after all, but the conversations we’ve had instead have, nonetheless been rich and worthwhile.

So, to get to the point, we didn’t have the allotment requirements discussion yesterday.  There were only a few of us able to get to the session, including a new group member, Mike, who asked a few pertinent questions, which led me to give a bit of an overview of the topics we’ve covered so far.  He also pulled me up on something that I’d said to him quite some time ago along the lines of “increasing quality will reduce costs”.  As we have been discussing “requirements”, it seemed a good opportunity to explore this a bit further and in particular the relationship between requirements, quality and cost.  There is quite a bit to say about this and we had a very good conversation, so I think I’ll write it up in a separate post.  For now, I just want to get this post out in time for your Saturday morning newsletter, so you can at least see the homework for this week and start thinking about next week’s session.

With a bit of help from our friend Julian Johnson

Next week’s session is to get on with the exercise of correctly terming and categorising our allotment requirements.  They are set out on the tree diagram.  A kind man called Julian Johnson has been posting some very helpful comments below our blog posts from the past weeks giving us some guidance on how to correctly handle requirements.  See his comments below the blog posts here, and here.

He has also suggested we read this paper by Stuart Burge on writing and categorising requirements.  It’s very good and gives straightforward and clear guidance on how we can better develop our allotment requirements.  In a way, it’s no bad thing we didn’t attempt the exercise this week and will read this paper before doing it.


Julian’s Functional Requirements

Well, they’re the allotment’s actually, but Julian has provided them for us.  He has put together from our tree diagram.  I suppose it’s a bit of a cheat to give these to you in advance of the session on Thursday, but i think there is still a job to do in deciding if this is a complete set of functions and then working out what the associated non-functional requirements are.

Allotment Functional Requirements

manage the allotment

       manage social aspects

                   manage tenants

                   define rules

                   resolve conflicts

                   establish / maintain collective sense of ownership

       manage the site

                   manage space

                               manage utilities (water, power, waste disposal)

                               mark / maintain plot boundaries

                               define rents

                               collect rents

                               pay rents

                               manage costs v income

                               protect people

       manage physical environment

                   access the site

                               manage pedestrian access

                               manage car parking

                               manage cycle parking

                               manage / maintain road access

                               maintain bus stop

                               park a car

                               park a bicycle

                   access within site

                               access the plot (ingress, egress)

                               maintain secure storage

                               access the secure storage

                   maintain the growing climate

                               maintain fertile soil

                               maintain conducive topography

                               protect the crops

                   maintain wellbeing

                               establish / maintain contemplative space

                               establish / maintain peaceful environment

                               establish / maintain plot sense of ownership

This list of functions is not necessarily complete though.  Please do think about whether it is.  I think that will partly decide who’s perspective we view the allotment purpose from, i.e. what it’s Operational Requirement is.

Enjoy this long weekend fellow STA friends,


Week 16: Déjà vu with the Holistic Requirements Model

Dear STA gang,

It’s a winding road (back from holiday)

By now, I’m sure you’ve realised I’m no slave to a plan and am inclined to make up our path as we travel along it.  This week was no exception.  We had intended to get back to our allotment example and use the Holistic Requirements Model (HRM) to categorise the requirements we’d previously defined and tried using to put together a tree diagram.   We are now going to do that next week, which means the “Is Anything Worth Maximising?” session has been pushed further into the future.  

As a number of people had been away on holiday last week, but had now returned, and some of those who had come last week couldn’t come this week, I thought it worth repeating the HRM session again.  So that is what we did.

There were 8 of us in the session yesterday, which I was really pleased with.  We’ve now been going for approaching 4 months, so to have so many people attend in the middle of holiday season and to still be enjoying themselves is simply fantastic.  I want to say thanks to the group for sticking with it and putting in the effort to keep up with the reading and turning up week in and week out.

All credit to the learners

In this time of cut, or non-existent training budgets, I think it’s credit to all of you that you’re taking your personal development into your own hands and putting in your own time in the form of lunch breaks and evenings to plug away at learning something new.  I’m sure you will enjoy the fruits of your labours.  I’m positive you, our organisations and ultimately, our patients will and that makes me very pleased.  That, and getting the word out about the goodness of systems approaches and how their use could benefit health care commissioning is the reason I began this journey with you, so I’m thrilled we’re sticking with it and making tangible progress.  Thank you, and keep up the good work.

There’s nothing more to say

I wrote such a comprehensive report on our HRM session last week, that I don’t think there’s much more to report from yesterday’s session.  We basically covered the same ground again.  I found it really useful to do so actually and felt it helped me get a firmer grasp on the various types of requirements and how they work together.  Now we’ll have to put that to the test with the allotment example.

Apart from checking our tree

To remind you, here is the Tree Diagram we’d put together. Click it t expand it. Well, it’s actually one of two we produced, but it’s the more developed one.   Thanks to Matt for putting it together in electronic format. There’s still more work to do on it, and it will be interesting to pick that back up again, once we’ve fully defined out requirements with the HRM.  We had a helpful comment on an older post pointing out we’d not defined functions as verb nouns, so we’ll take that on board and be careful to remodel the requirements correctly.  Thanks for the comment julian Johnson.  It’s appreciated.

Allotment System Tree Diagram

What are Requirements anyway?

One thing I’m not sure we have covered here in the blog, is an actual definition of what Requirements are.  So here is one from the Systems Engineering Book of Knowledge (SEBoK):

Statement that identifies a product* or process operational, functional, or design characteristic or constraint, which is unambiguous, testable or measurable, and necessary for product or process acceptability.

*includes product, service, or enterprise.

It looks as though they have taken this definition from the ISO/IEC 42010:2007 Standard.  You may, or may not choose to look that up. 

The homework

The homework for next week is to individually think about how we might turn the definitions of categories of requirements into language that is more understandable and accessible to our colleagues.  Terms such as “Non-Functional Implementation Requirements” are going to leave people wondering what on earth we are talking about.  Whilst it might make us sound ever so clever, it would likely make people think we’re weird and talking unhelpful gibberish.  The challenge will be to find terminology that will be meaningful to people, but also manage to retain the specificity of the original.  Let’s see what we can come up with.

Enjoy your weekend,


Week 15: The Holistic Requirements Model…

Hello STA fellows,

…is more fun than it sounds…..

As you know, the path we’re following through the world of Systems Thinking is a winding one with all sorts of interesting diversions along it.  In the spirit of VUCA, It’s never linear or predictable. With that in mind, I’m going to confess immediately that we’re changing the plan for next week’s session.  We’d intended to talk about the Joe Edelman talk I sent out a link for last Saturday, but we’re going to delay talking about that until the session on Thursday 25th August.

…So much so, we’ll do more next week

Instead, those of us who could make it to the group yesterday decided it would be best to use next Thursday to continue our discussions on the Holistic Requirements Model (HRM).  There’s more to do in classifying the requirements for our allotment.  Actually, we barely began the task yesterday.

What did we do then, those of you who couldn’t make it will be asking.  Well, we actually had a very productive and enjoyable session.  It was a relief, as I’d been expecting it to be quite difficult, as I’d found the reading difficult to fully absorb and apply.  This is a more detailed, technical and conceptual approach than any others we’ve tried so far I think.  To remind you, here’s the HRM:

Holistic Requirements Model

Our dear friend, the toaster

We spent the session discussing the model, the different types of requirements and then running through the example Stuart Burge uses in his paper, our dear friend, the toaster.  This was a lot of fun.  A bit like doing a quiz and we got into a bit of a flow with it.  Here’s the toaster table we ran through including the correct classifications and reasons:

Toaster Functional & Non-Functional Requirements

Submitting to thoughts of functions

It was a useful exercise and we began to see ways we can use this model to gain a deeper understanding of the “purpose” of services we commission and the functions that make up those purposes.  It pushes us to think in terms of functions and constraints around those functions.  This is a very different way of thinking for us.  The advantage, we thought is it allows us to let go of thinking about solutions we’re predisposed to and makes us think about what functions are necessary to address the problem, or to use the ligo, Operational Requirement.  

It also challenges us to be more thorough in our assessment of what functions are needed, what our expectations are around performance and what the constraints are.  I suppose this kind of gets done in Project Management approaches, but not as thoroughly or in as structured a way I think.  The beauty of the structure, is it also highlights where you’ve missed something. It’s deeply logical.  We like this approach.

Watch your verbs

Language is very important in defining requirements.  Functional Requirements need to be constructed from a verb and a noun.  We looked at the different types of verbs Stuart says are “useful” for defining Functional Requirements and those he says are not and can lead to the creation of “pseudo functions”.  We had to laugh, as those in the “pseudo” category actually look a lot more familiar to us in the language we use than those that are “useful”.  Here’s a list of the types of words we’re not supposed to use:

Achieve Allow Appoint Conform Cope Enhance
Exceed Facilitate Improve Meet Provide Promote

Hmm, all very familiar.  And here are some examples of words that are “good”:

Absorb Accelerate Access Act Activate Actuate
Add Agitate Adjust Advise Alert Align
What’s the truth?

Sam pointed out that in our defence, the “good” verbs are “hard” and specific and can be difficult to apply in our human world of health services, where things are rarely clear cut.  We thought this might well be right and actually the not so “good” verbs might be more appropriate in our field, than they are in the design of products perhaps.

Now, are we just making excuses for ourselves, or is it much harder to use these harder, tighter verbs when talking about human centric services. Desirable outcomes are subjective and and it may or may not be possible to diagnose and treat?  I don’t know.  This is something for us to explore.  Now, if anyone reads this and thinks they know the answer, or simply have a view, please write something in the comments section.  We’re open to having a discussion here.

This talk of “hard” words makes me think about the distinction between “hard” and “soft” systems approaches.  The type of requirements classification we’ve been doing here seems to be found more in the area of Systems Engineering than Systems Thinking.  That is to say, it appears to be more often and more readily applied to “hard” rather than “soft” problems.  We haven’t really spent much time discussing the differences between hard and soft systems approaches, but we did touch on it in this session.

A glimpse of SSM on the horizon

We’ll explore this in much more detail in time and we will learn and use Soft Systems approaches, including Soft Systems Methodology (SSM), as they’re the approaches best suited for the world of wicked problems.  So far, we’ve been warming up for that and learning the basics of systems concepts to prepare us.  If you want to get ahead of the curve though, why not watch this 15min video of Peter Checkland, the originator of the SSM approach, talking about it’s origins.  It’s worth watching:

One thing I’ve been wondering about, and want to look into further, is how we integrate this approach to requirements modelling with a soft systems approach to defining system requirements and functions.  How do you accommodate the multiple perspectives and interests at play in a wicked problem situation and use this kind of structured method.  We’ll see.  It’s not the way it tends to be done, but I do like the HRM, so want to see how far it can used.

Back to the trees and the allotment

Back to yesterday’s session.  We began to look at our allotment Tree Diagrams towards the end of the hour and began to classify the functions and other requirements on them into the HRM format. We didn’t get far though because we ran out of time.  It became clear it wouldn’t be an easy task.  It’s hard to get your head into this fairly abstract world of functions when you’re so used to inhabiting the world of things, and when you already have a physical solution in mind.  I’m looking forward to picking it back up again on Thursday.  In the meantime, please reread the the HRM paper, and have a think about the functions of the allotment and how we should structure them.

I’ve realised I’ve not covered another important area of the model we discussed, that being its recursive nature and how you use it as you go down the layers of functionality within a system. It’s late though, and we can go into that again next week.

OK, enjoy your weekend!


Is Anything Worth Maximising?

Good afternoon Systems Thinkers,

More homework

My goodness, you are lucky.  I’ve got more homework for you.

Don’t worry though, this isn’t for this week, it’s for next (18th).

Yesterday, I picked up a tweet from @kailashawati that linked to a video presentation by Joe Edelman called “Is Anything Worth Maximising?”.  I really enjoyed it.

The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices

I’m aware of Kailash, from having read is co-authored book, The Heretic’s Guide to Best Practices.  Look here.  It’s a brilliant book and a favourite of mine.  It doesn’t talk much about “Systems Thinking” per se, but at the same time, it’s very much about systemic approaches to solving complex organisational problems.  I can strongly recommend it and believe we can all become better managers if we follow even a fraction of its advice.

Can we measure outcomes?

Anyway, back to the video, well, it’s just a talk really, but with some slides and graphics.  It’s about the way many organisations currently use metrics to drive their business that are not necessarily aligned with our, the customers’ real needs and desires, and gives some ideas about how this might be changed.

It really struck a chord for me and made me think about the work we’ve been doing in the group around “Purpose”.  The question is what is the “purpose” a customer, or patient in our case, is seeking from the system it’s accessing (YouTube, NHS, whatever…) and how do we know what “Outcomes” they are seeking from that service, and then how do we know we are fulfilling them.

For me, these are massive questions and go to the heart of what we’re trying to do with our group.  It also resonated with me after Jean Boulton’s talk last week, where she reminded us that organisations often over measure the wrong things and that often, the things that really matter simply can’t be measured.

I must admit I don’t know anything about Joe Edelman, but will find out more.  The talk is very good.

So, see what you think and what it brings up for you and our roles as health service commissioners.  I look forward to talking about it.  Here’s a link to the video:


or a transcript:


Please watch the video in advance of our session on the 18th August.  It’s about 45 mins long and covers quite a bit of ground, so do put some time aside to watch it.  Having said that, I listened to it while having breakfast with the children this morning, and seemed to manage both (although my family may disagree.  Sorry), but will need to watch/listen to it again for sure.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend,