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)


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,


Acknowledging we have “Wicked Problems” – Week 1

Originally written 05/05/2016

Hello Systems Thinkers,

Today’s inaugural session went very well I thought.  I thoroughly enjoyed the discussion and can see we’re going to be able to help one another with our “wicked Problems”.

We’ve Got Wicked Problems

Before I recap on what we did and agreed today, for those who couldn’t make it, I want to point out what the homework is for next week’s session.  We’ve agreed we’re going to read the linked paper on “wicked problems”.  It’s excellent and will help us gain an idea of what these complex problems are, that they’re the types of problems we’re faced with as commissioners, and why standard linear problem solving techniques aren’t enough on their own.

We’ll Meet Weekly

We’ve decided we’re going to meet on a weekly basis and try to keep the sessions to just 1 hour.  It’s appreciated not everyone is going to be able to make it every week, but we thought it worth trying to build some momentum and cover some ground.  It will be good to get through a reasonable amount of theory quite quickly so we can get on with working on real example projects together and even helping one another with real commissioning issues.

Learning Materials

Stuart Burge, a fellow INCOSE member and founding partner of the Burge Hughes Walsh Partnership has made available loads of resources detailing how to then do the various aspects of systems thinking through his website.  Have a look here:

Our thinking is that we’ll pick a different download from the list each week, and read it before we meet and then discuss how to apply it in the group and work on examples together.  It might be that we need to take several weeks for some of the bigger concepts/tools, but that’s fine.

Before we dive into that though, we’ve agreed to spend next week’s meeting discussing “wicked problems”.  They’re basically the starting point and the reason we need to employ systemic approaches.  As mentioned above, we’ve some homework to do, so please do read the attached paper.

OK, I look forward to seeing you next week.  In the meantime, please do feel to ask me any questions.