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 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 19: Sam opens the door and shows us the way

Dear Systems Thinkers,

Guess what happened this week. That’s right, we didn’t do the Systemic Textual Analysis exercise.  I know, I know, it looks like we’re avoiding it intentionally.  We will do it, I promise.  Although actually, it won’t be next week as group member Sam is going to be talking to us about some work he’s been looking at involving a taking a systemic approach to challenges in public health.

So, what did we do this week.  Well, we have a pretty good excuse for not doing the Systemic Textual Analysis as it happens.  We had a very special guest who came to talk to us about the amazing work she’s been involved with.  Her name is Sam and she works for the MoD.  Over the past five years, she’s been deeply involved in rolling out a major programme within that organisation to develop its Systems Engineering/Thinking abilities.  Largely from an organisational and capability point of view.

Genuine trailblazers

I won’t go into details of the specifics of what they’ve been doing, but to say it’s impressive is an understatement.  I genuinely felt inspired.  For the team to have gained sponsorship at a high level for such a major programme is seriously impressive. They’ve been exploring how systemic approaches to understanding the problems and challenges they face as an organisation can be harnessed and embedded into all that they do.

The parallels between our organisations are substantial.  Both are large, hierarchical, command and control structured, public service organisations. Many of the challenges and issues Sam described facing on the journey of trying to develop and embed these capabilities totally resonated with me and the rest of the group.  It’s so impressive that they’ve persevered and continued to develop the credibility of these approaches.

Mix your methods

Sam describes herself as a “mixed-methods practitioner”.  She isn’t attached to any one tool, method or methodology, but picks up and uses whatever seems most appropriate for the given situation.  The two methodologies she finds the most useful in understanding and addressing complex organisational problems are Soft Systems Methodology and the VIable Systems Model.  I was pleased to hear this, as these are the two approaches I’ve identified as likely be most useful to us, so it was reassuring to hear her say that.

I’ve asked the group to give some feedback on the session, so you get more than just my perspective.  Here’s what I’ve had so far. I’ll add in more below when I receive it.

Matt’s Thoughts:

Some thoughts from me on a very enjoyable session:

  • It was helpful to look outside of our usual setting and see that some of the challenges are common to a similar public industry.
  • Sam gave a very reassuring pragmatic view on systems thinking around trying techniques and working out what works best for each situation and to pick the solution that fits. Think tool box rather than one dimension.
  • She also gave helpful advice about testing it on the right issues to help you and others gain understanding and confidence – don’t go straight at the most complex problem!
  • Some really good thoughts around having a taxonomy of terms and approaches to show what we mean in the phrases we use.
  • I really liked the description about seeking the ambiguity and not being afraid of it. Widening the problem also helps to widen the solutions!
Peter’s Thoughts:

“Approach (paraphrasing): 90% mindset change management, 10% tools/techniques.

Senior commitment: 5 years ring-fenced funding. How did they get this? What was it that made the decision maker commit?

(5 year comes across as a serious long-term commitment, but in MOD terms, this may not be considered long term – perhaps it is just my NHS-glasses)

Common sense realised: Focussing resource upstream to make better decisions, rather than applying systems thinking post decision – e.g Do we need a tank, rather than, how do we make a better tank.”

Ciao for now,

It was a brilliant session and I hope we’ll be staying in touch with Sam. She and her team have really blazed a trail and I just hope we can follow in their footsteps.  Further discussion is required!

OK, enjoy your weekend,


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

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: 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.

A Provocation: Jean Boulton Challenges us to Embrace Complexity

A very special guest

A couple of weeks ago, we were very fortunate to have Jean Boulton come to talk to us at Systems Thinkers Anonymous. These are some rather belated reflections on what was an excellent session. It was a real thrill and a pleasure to have Jean come. A real coup. For anyone who doesn’t know who Jean is, have a look at this previous post. In person, she is as charming as she is formidably bright and enthusiastic about her subject. Happily for us, that subject is directly relevant to our work.

I’d read Jean’s book “Embracing Complexity” earlier in the year and had heard her talk at the SCiO Winter Open Meeting, so was reasonably familiar with her approach and views on how complexity theory can help us better manage our organisations. It’s a different kind of approach to the prevailing school of thought in management and for me, it feels very right.

Embracing Complexity

An alternative to Reductionism and Determinism

We had about an hour and a half with Jean in total. She began by giving us a 15 minute whirlwind tour of complexity theory and the differing view it takes from linear scientific approaches, such as those influenced by Newtonian Science, before having an informal discussion. Not that Jean says there’s anything wrong with linear approaches, there’s a time and a place for everything. Holding that linear cause and effect view of all actions having equal and opposite reactions can lead us into trouble when we face complex problems in open systems though, and those are the types of problems we’re faced with in organisations everyday. In complex environments, what emerges when you take action is unpredictable and nonlinear. This is the world of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA). Our world.

To set the scene, I’ll recount the essential points of Complexity Theory as an alternative to the prevailing reductionist and deterministic approaches, before then giving my own reflections on what I’ve personally taken from it. Jean began by differentiating between two differing scientific viewpoints that have converged to dominate the management of our organisations, markets and societies. Those being the Newtonian, mechanical view where everything moves in a predictable, deterministic fashion, and Equilibrium Thermodynamics which see most situations as near equilibrium. This is extended to the belief that when things are close to equilibrium we can predict what will happen next as things tend to move back to equilibrium.

Jean argues that the mechanical worldview, a deterministic and reductionist one, has led to too high an importance being placed on design, control, prediction and measurement. It has come to dominate the idea of what is professional. Historically, in the West, we have been conditioned to believe that predictability and therefore control, measurement and structure are ‘scientific’ and hence professional ways of working. Management and professionalism have come to be about being “scientific”, where scientific means being singularly reductionist to the exclusion of also being systemic in enquiry.

Is it reasonable to reason?

A reductionist view believes that to solve a “big” problem we should divide it into smaller problems that can be solved. The solution to the bigger problem is therefore the sum of the solutions of the smaller problems. This is logical and seductive in its simplicity, but is actually simplistic, as it does not address the interactions between the problems. System Thinking still tends to involve dividing big problems up, but pays close attention to the relationships between the smaller components.

Reductionist and deterministic views of organisations assert that;

  • They behave like machines and are predictable.
  • The things that are important can be measured
  • Departments can be dealt with independently.
  • Change can happen top down
  • One method or “best practice” can work everywhere
  • The future is predictable and follows from the past
  • People behave rationally and like parts of a machine
  • Measurement leads to control and clarifies what to do next
  • Projects, functions, groups can largely be treated independently of each other (and indeed this is the best option) and can be made to follow a controllable process

This is the world of Budgets, Project Management Offices, and Strategic Visions of the future. In “machine thinking”, there is also an implicit assumption that organisations cannot learn, adapt, that nothing new can emerge and that the future is just a continuation of the present.

So what is Complexity Science?

To quote Jean:

“Complexity science is the study of the evolution of systems which are open to their environment. It explores how the reflexive interdependence of constituent elements leads to self-organisation and emergence of new characteristics in a way that is shaped by, but not determined by history.”

Jean explained to us that Complexity Science has stepped beyond Newtonian and Equilibrium Thermodynamics views of science and offers an alternative. It is grounded in Evolutionary Theory and yet emphasises that “survival of the fittest” is more like “survival of those most able to prosper in a given context”. It emphasises that what emerges is very much context/environment dependant. That which is a strength in one context, may well be a weakness in another, and the nature of contexts and environments are often beyond our control. They change in ways that are not random but not predictable either.

Complexity Theory says that the world and human systems and economies and organisations are types of ‘complex systems’, and that they behave more like living organisms than like machines. In a world that is increasingly fast-changing, things often do not go to plan, people and situations are individualistic, many things impact on each other, change can happen radically and rapidly. Thinking you can control things when you cannot can create more harm than good and lead to unintended consequences.

What does this mean for management?

Jean said that in her experience, public services are too often managed towards “economies of scale” and efficiencies are sought through hierarchical standardisation, and top down, “Command and Control”. She expressed her belief that we over measure organisations in the belief that it’s the right, professional thing to do, but the learning from these measures does not necessarily lead to better outcomes. She referred to the example of the British education system, which has been increasingly managed like a “machine”, with everything possible being measured, yet literacy and numeracy rates among British children have been decreasing and are right at the bottom of the pile compared to other developed countries. Something important is being missed.

Jean feels we need to work to understand what really matters to our customers, patients, service users, stakeholders, society, rather than simply measure what can be measured. She believes much more emphasis needs to be placed on “bottom up”, localised organisation rather than top-down machine like focus on “economies of scale” – albeit situated within clear principles and intentions, with strong review, learning and sharing processes.

So, what do I make of all this?

By and large, this all rings very true for me. I don’t think it’s a black and white case that we should forget about scientific reductionist and deterministic approaches to management and be purely systemic, as we’d end up in quite a pickle. And indeed, as Jean would point out, complexity thinking is a middle ground between thinking we can predict and control everything and thinking we know nothing. Complexity thinking is not advocating a laissez-faire approach – rather it is bringing our attention to the fact that many things are interconnected whether we like it or not – and to ignore that can bring failure.

After all, we have an enormous amount to thank scientific reductionist approaches for. I think the point though is we shouldn’t be blinded by their brilliance and in honour of their successes ignore their deficiencies and apply them inappropriately. There is a time and a place for all methods, including measurement. We just need to be careful and considered in our approach and try and ensure that the approach to measurement is fit for purpose.

As when anyone tries to argue against a status quo, in our discussion Jean took a fairly hard stance against the reductionist and deterministic approach and I know a couple of group members found this a difficult view to agree with. I think that was probably a symptom of us not having much time with Jean, as having read her book and having heard her talk more extensively, I know she values these approaches. She is after all a physicist by training. It’s just a question of finding the right balance and using the most appropriate approach for the situation and context we find ourselves in. I think it can also be quite shocking to hear someone say something negative about a “scientific” approach to management (or at least to question which ‘scientific approach suits the complex social world). I think the point though, is that there is nothing scientific about using a “scientific” approach inappropriately. And of course, complexity theory itself is a science!

Often, the things that really matter can’t be easily measured quantitatively

Something that stood out for me from Jean Boulton’s talk was that sometimes, the things that really matter just aren’t measurable. Or at least, are very difficult to define, monitor and measure. I think that’s probably the case with patient outcomes and it’s something to think about. There was a feeling among some in the group that Jean’s approach is one that dismisses measurement altogether. I’m don’t think that’s correct. I believe that for her it’s more about stepping back from measuring absolutely everything we possibly can (and then doing nothing useful with the data, apart from beating people with it) and instead really understanding what’s important and it may or may not be possible to measure that. That’s my interpretation, and also my belief. We need balanced approaches that rely as much on qualitative feedback as quantitative measurement. We need ways to spot and then monitor emerging trends and deal with multi-causal inputs and interconnected outcomes. Sounds difficult, but to me, it seems that to aim for anything less would be to let ourselves and those we serve down.

The question that “the things that really matter are not always easily measurable” is one that seems less relevant in business. That is to say, it is still true, but I wonder if it matters as much. In business, you gauge whether customer outcomes are being fulfilled by their willingness to pay you for your goods and services. It’s just so much harder in public services, where that customer supplier relationship and the direct payment for services doesn’t exist. Please don’t read that as a suggestion we privatise and introduce direct charging in healthcare services, it absolutely isn’t, it’s just a recognition of how difficult our job is in identifying and then knowing if we’re fulfilling the right outcomes for patients. Feedback may be more important than direct measurement, and the best feedback comes from open, honest and direct conversation. We need to be sure we are we having those conversations. Even then, cause and effect are often hard, if not impossible to attribute in our complex multi-causal world. Being too simplistic about what is measured and what is assumed to cause what, can not only waste money, but result in a dysfunctional “system” and unintended consequences.

We need to pay attention to context and complexity

Another point I took away from Jean’s talk was that the approach you use, hard or soft, tight or loose, reductionist or systemic depends on the stability of the environment and the degree of control you have. We need to ask ourselves where we sit on those continua. How Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous is our commissioning world? The approach, tools and methods we pick for doing commissioning will be influenced by the answers to those questions.

I think the answer to this will be constantly changing. I mean, even in my commissioning role and in the context of our organisations, some things are relatively clear, constant, simple and predictable, while others and most certainly not. Even then, these can quickly and easily flip and change to being more or less stable states. We need to be open to the possibility of change in our environment and honest about our ability to predict and control it.

Not only provoked, but also inspired

So taken were some of us with what Jean had to say, that we’ve been inspired to set up a small sub-group to work on a project together. We were particularly taken with the idea that “sometimes, the things that really matter can’t be measured”. This made us wonder what it means for us as commissioners and in particular, what it means for the Commissioning for Outcomes agenda.

We have resolved to write a paper titled something like, “Commissioning for Outcomes – Using systems thinking to think about how to do it.”

Ultimately, I think Systems Thinking, as a complementary approach to Complex Systems Thinking is well placed to meaningfully support commissioning for outcomes. After all, the task at hand is to design and configure a system that has the capability to deliver the defined outcomes. Initially though, we just want to think about what it means and how to do it, and good quality literature and evidence on the subject appears to be rather thin on the ground. Questions we’ll be looking at include:

  • What does Commissioning for Outcomes mean?
  • How do we go about deciding what outcomes are important?
  • And if they can’t be easily measured quantitatively, how do we know whether they’re being achieved?
  • Even if we can measure outcomes and know they’re being achieved, can we attribute that success to any particular interventions? How do we approach the difficulty of proving cause and effect in this non-linear complex world?

We plan to use the Systems Thinking tools and approaches we’ve been learning about to look at these questions. Thank you to Jean, and watch this space!

Week 10 – To Affinity and Beyond….

Systems Thinkers,

We’ve been to affinity

This week we went ahead and constructed our Affinity Diagram.  Julian led us though the process and made a very good job of doing so.  Thank you Julian, here’s pictures of us in action.

Affinity Pic 1

It was particularly interesting to do the exercise in silence.  I thought we worked together brilliantly in cooperative synchronisation.  We were like ballet dancers, gracefully and elegantly moving around one another sorting and structuring our system requirements into functional groupings.

A form of structured brainstorming

This method was essentially a structured brainstorming session.  Structured in that we started with a fairly tightly defined question:

“As an allotment holder, what do I require of the allotment system?”

We would have needed to have a less tightly bound question if we have a great variety of stakeholders present, for example the Council, who are landlords and also have statutory requirements on them to provide allotment facilities.  The Allotment will have a quite different purpose from their perspective than it will from an allotment holder’s.

Also structured in that once we had brainstormed our requirements, we sorted the requirements into categories.  This was an interesting process and there were some silent disagreements in the room over what level requirements should be categorised to.  Here is a representation of what we built, just click on it to expand.

Allotment Affinity Diagram
Allotment Affinity Diagram


Where’s our boundary?

One interesting reflection for me is that even though we spent a previous session trying to work out where on our Context Diagram we should redraw our System of Interest boundary, when we came to the Affinity Diagram exercise, we almost had to forget about where we had drawn that boundary and to brainstorm requirements as widely as we could.  Next week, when we structure requirements into the Tree Diagram we can revisit the Boundary question and decide what to include in the new diagram and where to draw our Boundary.  It’s an iterative process.

If we had been viewing yesterday’s requirements generating session from the perspective of a wider range of stakeholders, then part of the power and value of having created the Context Diagram and thought about where to draw our boundary is to help us understand which stakeholders to invite to a session to create an Affinity Diagram.  The Context Diagram does do more than that, it leads us to define flows between stakeholders and objects as well, but the identification of stakeholders is one useful feature.

It’s interesting that we’re beginning to see how these tools work together and compliment and help one another.

Happy faces – A job well done.

Affinity Pic 2


We’ll draw a tree

Next week we will take our categorised requirements and construct a tree diagram from them.  This will give us a structured understanding to the system’s purpose.  Once that is done, we could then look at the real life allotment and determine to what extent it fulfils our required purpose, or use it to identify alternative ways to fulfil the functional requirements.

I think we will probably refine and redraft out grouping headings as we work our way through this and probably have some debate about what the hierarchy or relationships between purpose, sub-purpose and requirements should be.  That’s good and is partly the point of the exercise.  It will push us to think hard and to take various views into consideration.

The Tree Diagram paper is here for you to read in advance of the session.

Julian is kindly going to type up our outputs from yesterday and we’ll use those as the basis to begin constructing our Tree Diagram from.

Enjoy your weekend.   I’m off to London to attend the a Systems and Cybernetics in Organisations (SCiO) Development Day on Sunday and then Open Day on Monday.  Really looking forward to interesting presentations and, conversations.  I’ll update you on the highlights and/or any particular insights.


Week 8 – VUCA Heavy, Not VUCA Lite

Written 27/06/2016

You can’t tame Wickedness by presenting a binary choice

Thanks to Jean Boulton for the title of this message.  She has very kindly agreed to come and talk to us on the 28th July, so please do put that in your diaries.

In my last message, when I joked about being in or out of the E.U., I promised that this wasn’t a political group or communication, and it isn’t.  However, I can’t not comment on the referendum  on Thursday and the events that have unfolded since though.  From a systems perspective that is.

I’ve been particularly struck by the “wickedness” of the problems we had to grapple with in making our “in” or “out” decisions.  The problems we have been trying to solve with the simple binary choice we were given of “in” or “out” are highly wicked in nature and encompass a huge amount of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).  If we remind ourselves of the defining characteristics of a “wicked problem”, I think that we can recognise all of them in the choice we were asked to make last Thursday.

  1. The problem is not understood until after the formulation of a solution.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong.
  4. Every wicked problem is essentially novel and unique.
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one shot operation.’
  6. Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.

I suppose this is why referenda are not a common feature in our decision making.  This one certainly seems to have been far too simplistic a choice to address the deeply complex social  and economic challenges we face and this binary, linear choice around a supposedly singular issue was created to address.

And now that a “right” or “wrong” decision has been made, what are we finding?  This simplistic approach to decision making has led to a situation where we have far more Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity through unintended consequences than we did before we made it.  That’s the nature of “wicked problems”.  Let’s now hope that a more systemic approach to dealing with the plethora of amplified and interlaced wicked problems we now face can be taken.

SCiO do VSM very well

So, back to normal service.  On Saturday, I went to London for a SCiO organised Viable System Model (VSM) training workshop.  It was excellent and I’m very glad I went.  I had found VSM slightly impenetrable and esoterically theoretical when I looked at it previously.  I was wrong to find it that way though.  It’s actually deeply practical and was explained in a way that made it immediately accessible and useable.  I’ll be very happy to talk to anyone about it and share my experiences if you would like.  I like my coffee black and without sugar.

Drawing a boundary is not easy

Thursday’s STA session was a productive one.  We reviewed our context diagram and discussed where we should redraw the boundary for our System of Interest.  This prompted interesting discussions and it became clear that choosing what should be in and what should be out makes a significant difference to the “purpose” of the system and how we view it.

Rabbit Hill - System of Interest

So, even though this is just an exercise and we are not trying to solve any real problem, it became apparent that when we do begin to use these approaches for designing and modifying services, we will need to pay careful attention to where we decide to draw our system boundary.  Serious thought about the implications of what we put inside and what we leave outside will be needed.  I think this is a helpful approach.

Thinking about how to think

Indeed, the interesting and powerful thing about this is that we are now thinking about how to think about problems.  We have inserted an extra step into our thought process and rather than just diving into trying to solve a problem, we are carefully thinking about what the problem is and how we should view it. That can’t be a bad thing.

As last week’s note suggested, now we have defined what our system is, we will now return to defining its purpose.  We are going to use a more thorough approach to doing so than simply using the 18 word statement as we have so far.

Affinity Diagram

We are going to use an Affinity Diagram to define the functional requirements (or sub-purposes) of the system and then use a Tree Diagram to structure them.  I’ve attached Stuart Burge’s papers on those diagrams for you.

Happily, our fellow Systems Thinker, Julian, has facilitated the building of Affinity Diagrams previously and has kindly offered to facilitate Thursday’s session.  He’s very enthusiastic about the usefulness of this diagram and it promises to be good session. We are going to follow the “in silence” version of the approach, so if you are going to be there, do please read the briefing paper in advance and also try to arrive on time as I think we will try to cover a lot of ground in the hour.

I hope to see you there.


Week 7 – Who’s In and Who’s Out…….

….Of the System of Interest (not the E.U. (this is a non-political group)).

Written on 17/06/2016

Our first model – A Context Diagram

So, this week we built our first model.  A Context Diagram.  Much of the Systems Thinking approach is about building models of various types, so this will be the first of many we build, and this particular one made for a very good starting point I think.

We created the diagram on a large piece of paper which we put in the middle of the table we were sitting around.  The conversation we had felt like a kind of structured brainstorming session and it was interesting to see the way it highlighted things that we didn’t know about our wider system and how it works.  For example, it became clear that I didn’t really know how our allotment association works and exactly who owns the land, what arrangements are, and even the legal form of the allotment association, of which I’m a shareholder and whether liabilities are limited or not.  I need to go away and find out more.

What’s our System of Interest

It also pushed us to make decisions about what our System of Interest is.  What was inside and what was outside.  This is where the “Thinking” in Systems Thinking comes in.  We are having to think not only about problems and solutions, but about how we are going to frame and view the problem/situation/thing.  I think this is an important point.  It’s the conscious and documented decisions we are making about what we are interested in and understanding how they affect the System of Interest if we leave them in or out, that is beginning to set this approach apart.

Things or Functions?

One possible trap we fell into was naming some stakeholders/things in their object, rather than functional form.  For example, we created a terminator for the Allotment Association and Committee and also for the Council.  If we we’re designing a new allotment, rather than exploring the situation as it is, it would be better to have a terminators for functions, rather than organisations, so instead have “management” and “ownership” for example, as they are functions that will need to be fulfilled, because at this stage we wouldn’t need to commit to “how” those functions are to be delivered.  But, we’re exploring the existing system as it is, so it’s OK to have done it the way we have I think, but this is something to remember for the future.

Cmap – Free and fun

Last night, I turned our drawn diagram into a computer based diagram using a program (or “App” for the younger and more trendy members of our group) called Cmap.  It’s an excellent tool and I’d urge you to have a look.  There are several similar free tools, including InsightMaker and Kumu, but I particularly like this one because it works as both an we based application and a downloadable computer based program and diagrams can be saved online in “the cloud” or on your machine.  It makes it a very versatile and practical tool.  It’s easy to pick up and use, and also to print diagrams from.  The printing of diagrams is a bit of a problem in Kumu and Insightmaker and some other tools.  They’ve been designed with collaborative working on/from a screen or projected image in mind, rather than with ability to print off diagrams.  Anyway, Cmap ticks all the right boxes for me, and is free, so have a look and play with it.  Here’s a link to the website:

And here’s  the model we built.

If you want to view a larger version, go here.

Context Diagram - Rabbit Hill

Here is another copy of the diagram.  I’ve redrawn a possible new  system boundary around what we thought was probably our System of Interest. Click on the picture to enlarge.

Revised Rabbit Hill Allotments System Boundary
Revised Rabbit Hill Allotments System Boundary

We started the exercise with the premise that the System of Interest is just the physical allotments and that everything else was outside of it and in the “context”.  It became clear as we built our Context Diagram that this boundary was probably inappropriate and we would need to include some of the key actors, including the allotment holders, association and committee and also the local Council within our System of Interest.

I think an argument could also be made that we should include services and transport infrastructure.

We’ll debate the boundary

I suggest we begin next week’s session by looking at this boundary and deciding what we want to put inside and what we want to leave out.  We’ll need to justify why we are happy to leave out the things that we do.  For example, suppliers of seeds and plants are so ubiquitous locally as physical shops and as online retailers and we don’t have any control or influence over them, it’s probably reasonable to leave them outside.  We need to consider, justify and document our decisions though. Again, we’re “Thinking”.

We can then draft a new Context Diagram with our newly defined System of Interest in the centre, and then any new stakeholders, functions, and things that become apparent.  There may not be any, or many, and this shouldn’t take long, but I think it’s worth doing to double check we’re happy with our new boundary, wherever that is.

Changing the boundary changes the purpose

Then, we can return to our other favourite subject, “Purpose”.  We will need to define the purpose of this new System of Interest.  The interesting thing here is that our decision/s about where to draw our system boundary will have an effect on the Purpose of the system.  We should take some time in the session to reflect on this.  And also, to think about why it’s important to define Purpose.  For one thing, we can never know if a systems is performing well or not, if we don’t know what it’s purpose is.

To help us define the Purpose, we can use our old friend, the “18 Word Statement”, but I’d like us to also start to get into defining the sub-purposes / functions.  Looking through Stuart Burge’s material, it looks as though the “Tree Diagram” is a nice way to do this.  He does recommend we put together an “Affinity Diagram” before doing so though, so this week’s homework is to read his papers on both.

The Affinity Diagram paper is here.

and the Tree Diagram paper is here.

I look forward to seeing you next week and picking this up again.


It was a bit VUCA, wasn’t it? – Week 6

Written 10/06/2016

Welcome to VUCA

Well, that was an interesting week.  In the spirit of her interest in the concepts of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA), Jean Boulton wasn’t able to get to us for our session on Thursday, so we had to respond by spontaneously improvising an alternative session.

Get your Wellies

The inspiration for what we should discuss came to me whilst I was watering the beds at my allotment on Wednesday evening.  The obvious system for us to start unpicking and understanding the allootments my plot is part of.  As we’re being anonymous here, let’s make up a name and call them Rabbit Hill Allotments.

What’s the Purpose of an Allotment?

We spent Thursday’s session returning to our favourite topic of trying to understand “purpose”.  We came up with 2 possible “18 Word Statements”.  They are:

“An allotment is a plot of land made available for individual, non-commercial gardening or growing food plants.”  (from Wikipedia).

“Community (council) owned accessible and fertile outside space for the growing of produce by those interested in doing so.”

A Path Through the Allotments

They probably need more work, and we will do that.  We’ve decided we will spend the coming weeks discussing the allotments.  Initially, we will gain an understanding of the Rabbit Hill Allotments as a system, and then move onto a case study looking at the situation that existed a few years ago in Anonymous Land when there was an acute shortage of allotment’s and waiting lists were bursting at the seams, resulting in much dissatisfaction and considerable coverage of the situation in the local press.  A wicked problem.  We’ll look at the problem and use systems approaches, probably SSM, to pull it apart and work out a solution.  Let’s see if we come up with the same solution the council did.

Welcome to Context Diagrams

Before we do that though, we’ll spend a couple of weeks further understanding the Rabbit Hill Allotments as a system and next week will draft a “Context Diagram” to understand the system boundary, stakeholders and inputs and outputs.  So, this week’s homework is to read Stuart Burge’s excellent paper on creating a Context Diagram, a copy of which is linked here.   Do have a go at drafting a diagram yourself in advance.

Something to think about is from what perspective we’re building the diagram and viewing the allotments, even in terms of the “purpose”.  I suggest we take the perspective of an allotment holder, as it’s probably closest to most of our experience, or ability to imagine.  I’ve not drawn a context diagram before, so don’t know how much it matters whether we take a certain perspective, or try to be objective in our view of the system.  I suppose it will make a difference to where we draw the boundary, but let’s find out!

Purposeful Functions

I think we may return to purpose and more specifically defining the sub purposes, or functions of the allotments the week after as I think we’ve more work to do on that.  Here are some “functions” I’ve just noted down:

Ground for growing

Water supply

Access to Site

Access to individual allotments

Car parking

Collection of rents

Allocating of allotments

Waiting list

Management of allotments

Supports social interaction

I don’t know whether they are necessarily all “functions” as some could be “means of delivering functions”, but we can discuss that and come up with a tight set of system functions.

Think back to Stuart Burge’s example of a toaster here and how he set out the functions / sub-purposes and then looked at different ways for delivering them.

It’s Raining

I wish you an excellent weekend.  Looking out of the window here, I can see it’s started to rain.  That’s very good news for me and my allotment.  I can have an evening off watering duties!  What a wonderful start to the weekend, for me at least.


What’s the purpose? – Week 3

Written 20/05/2016

Sorry I wasn’t there yesterday lunchtime, but I’ve heard from a few of you who were, that it was a good session and you got on with looking at understanding the “purpose” of a GP practice.

If no one objects, I think we should probably continue with that next week.

To compliment the reading and thinking you’ve already done on “purpose”, I’ve linked another Stuart Burge download.  This one is called “18 Word Statements” and helps us to refine our thinking around the purpose of a system.

Enjoy the weekend and don’t let your wicked problems get you down.