InDevelopment – INCOSE UK Bristol Local Group Systems Thinking Problem Solving Group Learning Event

Review of the InDevelopment Event on 30th Jan 2017

On January 30th 2017, the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) Bristol Local Group (BLG) staged a new type of working group event called InDevelopment. It was originated and organised by me, and BLG regular Richard Bray, an independent Requirements Engineer.  This blog follows the journey from concept through to putting the event on, and discusses what worked well and what we will change for future events.

I wrote a shorter piece for the INCOSE e-Preview magazine, so if you have been directed here from there, welcome.  I will use much of that piece, but wanted to expand on it with more information about the evolution and concept of the workshop.  I’ve also included all of the materials we used, which you can download at various points within this post.  Anyone interested in staging a similar kind of event, as other INCOSE Local Groups might, can essentially use this as an instruction manual.

Multiple inspirations

InDevelopment came about through the combination  of two distinct ideas Richard and I had for new BLG events.  I had been inspired by attending Systems and Cybernetics in Organisations (SCiO) Development Days. The format is simple, it runs from 10:00 till 16:00 on a Sunday.  Typically, between 6 and 12 people turn up, each bringing a problem they’re working on and want input with, or a general topic of interest they want to use Systems Thinking to unpick.  At the start of the day, each person tells the others what their problem/topic is, and a schedule for when each will be discussed is drawn up.  Then one by one, the topics are discussed, and everyone uses Systems Thinking approaches, and in particular, the Viable System Model (VSM) and General Systems Theory to gain insights and to help to expand the understanding of the problem/situation.

I have found these Development Days to be brilliant.  Both for expanding my own knowledge and understanding of Systems Thinking, and also for developing connections and community.  I’ve learned so much, whether we’re working on a problem I#ve proposed, or on someone else’s.  The bringing together of the various perspectives and experiences of those present is quite powerful.  I wanted to try this out in an INCOSE environment.

Richard, had been inspired by two  recent BLG talks. The first, by Gary Smith of Airbus, on the subject of using the Systems Tree model he developed with Brigitte Daniel-Allegro, to better understand and approach the deadly medical condition, Sepsis. The other, by Kevan Boll of Atkins, on the work of Daniel Kahneman and in particular the idea of Thinking  Fast and Slow.  This involves two distinct and competing thought systems that come into play in decision making, he calls System 1 and System 2. Richard had gone away and read Kahneman’s work and wanted to see if we could put together a kind of Learning Group for interested INCOSE people that would meet regularly to learn and gain insights in application.

The development of InDevelopment

Paul Handisides, the BLG Chairman, saw an opportunity to combine these two different formats and brought Richard and I together.  After some discussion, and consultation with local members, it was agreed we would be best sticking with our regular weekday evening timing for events, rather than a weekend daytime.  It was also felt better to predetermine and, prepare the problems/topics to be worked on rather than having people turning up with them on the day.

In merging and accommodating our two ideas for an event, Richard and I identified four core outcomes we both wanted to achieve.  They were:

  • Collaborative problem-solving: Collectively investigate a potential framework for learning from experience using anonymous examples based on real-life challenges.
  • Shared learning: Create a learning experience for all present, not just those whose topics are being worked on.
  • Decision support: Increase awareness of how people make decisions and consider the related benefits of systems thinking.
  • Community Building:  To allow local group members to get to know one another better through a format that provides for more interaction than the normal presentation format.
    Adapted for our audience

We decided we would run the event over the course of 3 hours on a Monday evening.  We would loosely structure the format on the “World Cafe” method, and tackle 3 separate topics/problems in small groups and then include a wider feedback session at the end. Here are some notes Richard prepared in advance to help in briefing the committee and also the event facilitators.  I think I’ll just mention at this point how much I enjoyed working with Richard on this.  It was great to work with someone who independently shared a similar vision, but who was also highly thorough in his approach to the planning and staging of the event.

Download (PDF, 223KB)

Download (PDF, 231KB)

Looking for problems

In early December, we emailed a request to the local membership for three topics to be used at the event.  Submissions were reviewed, and three chosen and then further prepared to maintain commercial discretion.  Each offered a different type of organisational problem, and they were generic enough for most people to be able to relate to.  You can download the short briefing descriptions of each of the topics/problems below.

  • Integrating MBSE into a mature organisation – process vs pragmatism

Download (PDF, 282KB)

  • Removing bottlenecks in ‘brownfield’ infrastructure

Download (PDF, 343KB)

  • Transforming mission-critical health services

Download (PDF, 366KB)

Setting the scene

On the evening, we began with Richard giving a short presentation, setting out the systems methods we were employing, the “problems” we would be working on, and the format of the discussion groups.

Here is a copy of the slides:

Download (PDF, 1.95MB)

Everyone was also given a selection of handouts relating the the systems approaches we were referring to.  You can view and download them at the bottom of this post.

The fun begins

The 15 of us participating then drew 3 pieces of  numbered paper from a bag to determine which of the 3 groups we would be in for each of the 3 rounds.  The group members were switched around between each round depending on the number they’d drawn, in order to keep everyone on their toes and the energy levels high.  A trio of flipcharts were placed in the centre of the room with their backs to each other, then each of the groups stood with their nominated chart and began exploring the problem.  Keeping everyone on their feet and keeping each of the 3 topics tightly time bounded resulted in a real sense of energy in the groups.  A facilitator in each group wrote ideas up on their board as they emerged.

After 25 minutes of work, the groups reformed into their new configuration to work on the next “problem” and then after another 25 minutes the groups changed again, and the final problem was tackled.  Momentum was maintained through all of the discussions and the facilitators didn’t need to encourage people to come up with ideas, insights and perspectives.  We’ve typed up the notes and you can download view and download them at the end of this post.

Once the 3 cycles of problem exploration/solving had taken place, the flipcharts were put aside and the 3 groups recombined and a feedback discussion took place.  Each of the 3 topics were discussed and specific learning points and insights put forward. This was a rich discussion and each of the people who had proposed a “problem” were impressed with the insights gathered and that they were able to take away.

Reflecting together

As well as discussing the specific problems, we reflected on how our own thought processes had been working during the sessions.  We realised that deciding (too) quickly pushed us into what Kahneman calls System 1 thinking.  A more emotionally driven, less rational and considered thought process.  It was fascinating to reflect and see this had been at play. Most of our thinking though had been in the more rational System 2 mode and this enabled us to generate lots of useful insights.

Having said that, one interesting insight that was mirrored across the groups, was that when we discussed the NHS “problem” (Topic C), we seemed to have a job shifting out of the “faster” thinking “System 1”.  We thought this might be because of our familiarity with the health service and that we all bring our own emotional experiences in relation to it into the discussion. Here is where I as a facilitator might have stepped back and asked better questions to guide the thinking and conversation.  I think the “problem” itself was also more complex and and less well bounded and needed more detail to be filled in, and this probably meant the time frame was a little tight to really get into doing System 2 thinking and gaining the types of insights we had on Topics A & B.

Possible changes to the format

Indeed, one of the comments that came out of our subsequent committee meetings was that we might be better off focussing our time on just 1 rather than 3 topics, and giving more space for it. This would certainly give greater opportunity for gaining deeper insight.  The flip side though, is some of the energy of the evening and the approach might be lost.  We’ll debate this and think about it before staging the next InDevelopment.

Some notes I took during the final group feedback session are at the end of this post.

Positive feedback (I didn’t get any negative)

The feedback from those who attended was very positive.  Here are are some comments:

“It was tremendously worthwhile.  I instantly gained powerful insights into ‘systems thinking in action’ across a diverse set of practitioners as the workshop played out and returned to the office the next day with useful material for the whole team!”   

“Really interesting to experience how other people think whilst trying to do it yourself.”

“Exploring Systems Thinking in practice at InDevelopment’s INCOSE BLG session encouraged me to think about the NHS in a different way.  The analysis of MBSE was interesting – to unpick the obvious expertise of the participants from the facilitated discussion about how to apply the techniques” 

The BLG committee have taken on board the feedback, along with their own views and the intention is to make a few adjustments to the format and then make InDevelopment a regular, recurring fixture of the BLG calendar.

My own reflections

My own reflection, is that as a group facilitator, it would have worked better if I’d had a firmer grip on the the various models and approaches we were referencing.  I’d have been able to ask better questions, tried to make sure we stayed in “System 2” thinking, and drawn in more from the models we were referring to.

I think for future events we might need to either reduce the number of approaches, perhaps focussing on a single one (the Systems Tree for example) at an event, and then using a different each time we run it.  Another way to improve this, might be to pull together a small sub-group to form a Learning Group to get to grips with the material, and then this group forms the core facilitators for InDevelopment events. There was an appetite to do this, but there’s just not been the time to make it happen this past couple of months.  Then again, I think this wasn’t a big issue, and I’m sure we facilitators will naturally improve as we run these events again.

Any other Local Groups interested in staging this kind of event should get in touch with the Bristol Local Group, or directly with me here, and we will be happy to assist and guide.  An advantage of InDevelopment is it can be run solely by local Local Group members and doesn’t require a specific speaker, thereby increasing the number of events a group is able to run over the course of a year.

So, if you’d like to know more about the event, and/or would like to have a go at running one yourself, do just get in touch.


Supporting handouts:

Download (PDF, 189KB)

Download (PDF, 456KB)

Download (PDF, 1.34MB)

Download (PDF, 340KB)

Topic A – Integrating MBSE into a mature organisation – process vs pragmatism flipchart transcriptions:

Download (PDF, 222KB)

Download (PDF, 45KB)

Download (PDF, 223KB)

Topic B – Removing bottlenecks in ‘brownfield’ infrastructure flipchart transcriptions:

Download (PDF, 38KB)

Download (PDF, 221KB)

Download (PDF, 194KB)

Transforming mission-critical health services flipchart transcriptions:

Download (PDF, 33KB)

Download (PDF, 210KB)

Download (PDF, 194KB)

Final Group Session Notes:

Download (PDF, 49KB)


NiteWorks Architecture Process & INCOSE UK Architecture Working Group

A quick post to let you know about an upcoming talk being put on by the Bristol branch of INCOSE on Tuesday the 08th of November.

The speaker, Mike Wilkinson, former INCOSE UK President, will give a presentation on the NiteWorks Architecture Process.  Mike is Technical Director at NiteWorks and he has oversight of all NiteWorks projects and outputs.

Mike will also provide a short update on the activities of the INCOSE UK Architecture Working Group, which has been very influential across many business domains. Mike will be free to answer questions from the audience.

The evening will start at 18:30 for a 18:45 start.

Presentation Details
Meeting Title:     NiteWorks Architecture Process and an update on the Architecture Working Group
Presenter Names:    Mike Wilkinson
Date:            8 November 2016
Time:           18:30 – 20:15
Venue:           Atkins, 500 Park Avenue, Aztec West, Bristol, BS32 4RZ
Cost:            Free – Non-members welcome

You can book here:

Here is a flyer with the event info:



Lots of Opportunities

Written 10/06/2016


Do remember the INCOSE talk on Monday evening.  You will all  be very welcome.  It’s free, it’s going to be a good talk and they’ll be an opportunity to network with Systems Engineers and Systems Thinkers alike. People who do this stuff as their day job.

SCiO Development and Open Days

I’m not sure if I’ve told you about SCiO (Systems and Cybernetics in Organisations) in a previous email, so apologies if I’m repeating myself.  They are a membership organisation for Systems Thinkers.  There are a small, organisation and have something like 150 members and many of them are management consultants, working on complex organisational problems.  Memberships costs a staggering £25 per year and for that you get to attend their development days for free.  I joined back in January and went to their Winter Development Day and then Open Day in London. Their open days are open to all, including non-members and only cost £10 to attend.  Again, staggering value.  The days consist of 4 talks and lots of networking opportunities.  This is actually where I heard Jean Boulton speak.  There’s one coming un at the start of July and if you’re interested, here’s a link to the details:

SCiO Viable System Model Training Day

There is also a Viable System Model training day being held in just a couple of weeks, on a Saturday.  Again, amazing value, at just £20 for members:

I’ve booked to go to the upcoming development and Open days, but am now wondering if I might go to the training day instead.  Join me.


INCOSE Systems Thinking Training Day

Written 16/05/2016

Hello Systems Thinkers,

INCOSE Training Day

I thought I should let you know about an upcoming Systems Thinking Training day.

It is part of a larger training day event being run by the International Council on Systems Engineering (INCOSE) on 8th June at the Lydiard House Conference Centre near Swindon.

INCOSE are an excellent organisation and if you’re interest in all things systems develops, I can recommend membership, which I think is excellent value at £105 per year.

Here is a link to information about the overall event and the five different courses on offer:

And here is information about the Systems Thinking 1 day course:

Stuart Burge

It is being delivered by Stuart Burge, who’s excellent bite size Systems Thinking resources we are using.

I really wish I could get to this, I’ve heard excellent things about Stuart’s courses, but have already self-funded several development days this past year and this one is a stretch too far for me.  If you are in the fortunate position of having a training budget you can use, then this is something you might consider.