This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Systems Thinking - Looking for Something Concrete

In the last blog post, what should have been a fairly straightforward process took longer because it was felt necessary to go back over some previous work, grapple with questions raised by myself and others, and determine how to incorporate all of this into the larger new community paradigms system. One question raised on a LinkedIn discussion was perfectly natural and to be expected, yet induced a good deal of thinking. The question was, “Is there an example of a concrete result brought about by systems thinking?”

Being a novice, just taking my first official course, I didn't have any personal examples involving a concrete outcome to systems thinking. Appeals by others to the course instructor for some concrete examples of applied systems thinking also came up short. He said that it was the difficulty of working through ten years of private consulting in implementing systems thinking solutions that became the motivation for creating the Enabling a Better Tomorrow approach.

A further appeal on the same topic by the same instructor to the Systems Thinking World community on LinkedIn revealed a prevalent hurdle to expanding the mainstream application of systems thinking. Too often the problem can come from established systems thinkers getting into discussions on "metallurgy in watch building" or the reality of the fourth dimension when asked what time something should happen. To be truthful, this is most apparent on discussion forums. Still, the original question on what fellow system thinkers had done with systems thinking was quickly diverted to other obtuse topics.

The challenge of coming up with examples then proved harder than expected. It also leads to a question often put forward on systems thinking forums. Why hasn't systems thinking made more and deeper inroads into mainstream policy making and management? From a new community paradigms perspective, this may be akin to the idea that war should not be left up to the generals. Even without this tendency, systems thinking is not an intuitive process to implement, especially among a group or groups required to work together under top down command and control management systems. Perhaps we should examine some possible assumptions behind the question more closely.

First, we need to clarify the meaning of the word concrete in context. The word 'concrete' could apply to the application of Systems Thinking as a process to a specific situation or it could apply instead to a concrete outcome or successful solution as a result of systems thinking that could in turn be used in other situations. This blog used the word in the first sense in a previous post, in contrast to approaches where ideas are dictated from above or perhaps generated en masse but simply piled on with the expectation that the best will rise to the top.

A systems thinking approach can be antithetical to the top down command approach seen in so many institutions. There are a number of aspects to the systems thinking peg which make it a troublesome match to the square hole of complicated command and control management.

One mismatch is that systems thinking models, as said in two different previous articles, are always wrong and moreover, they are never the actual solutions that are implemented in realistic situations. They serve as conceptual maps to test out ideas before one makes a commitment which cannot be easily reversed. The actual implementation of a solution though is a different matter. Systems thinking could help devise a solution to an automotive engineering problem but it will be the knowledge and skills of automotive engineering that will implement the actual solution. Systems thinking alone then is never enough to come up with a concrete solution that is actually implemented but without it one could be wandering in the wilderness following false prophets.

Real world situations take place in the context of a particular environment and in the broader collective context of each participants motivation for taking part in the situation as it applies to their particular area of interest. This makes understanding stakeholders in a system not only very important in systems thinking but also challenging as they do not always move in the same direction, nor do they have the same goals, nor are either always fully known. From a new community paradigms perspective, it is not only essential to understand them, it is also important to engage and even empower them.

Systems thinking, therefore while a concrete process or means, does not necessarily result in a concrete end or solution that could be exactly applied to other situations. It is a matter of doing and once done should be started anew and tested again in different circumstances.

This is because systems thinking is a process focusing more on means than ends and that its application will be different in each unique situation. Systems thinking is neither the map nor the territory. It is a process for exploring or mapping out unexplored territory. The adage that the map is not the territory has its applications and needs to be appreciated. However, to get through unknown territory from point A to point B, you sometimes need a map and you want that map that reflects the best information possible and does not merely speak of “Monsters be here”. Better yet, you need to know how to build your own map and not depend upon those who supposedly came before. Better yet still, is getting others to build their own maps of what they know of their own territory.

So as to determine how to incorporate all of this lets take a few steps back and remind ourselves of the difference between analysis and synthesis and of the basic systemic relationships we have developed between those stocks of stuff with which we are concerned, the fundamental and inherent means by which they can be changed and, the arising conflicts between stakeholders as to the outcomes of those changes. All of which can be played out in a myriad of different situations and which in turn can be illustrated or modeled in different manners though with but three basic underlying structures.

While there are myriad of different situations there are also, because of the different possible combinations of the three basic structures, a number of systems archetypes that consistently arise providing another useful and, I‘ll say it, concrete resource. These are covered in the next segment, Systems Archetypes . There are far too many to cover here so I created a rich picture model to cover the primary systems archetypes for further development in the future.

The systems archetypes are a set of standard diagnoses for systems. Donella Meadows proposed twelve points of leverage, which can be seen as a set of prescriptions and which were included in the last two models created for Enabling a Better Tomorrow through new community paradigms. They are, however, holistic health based prescriptions requiring greater patient organization participation to implement the more comprehensive and permeating health regiments. Standard management systems look for the right pill to take, systems thinking calls for life style changes. Here is a rich picture model that summarizes the twelve step process but the original article and related sites available on the newly created wiki-page are better than anything I could summarize on these pages. Each of the archetypes then could be applicable to a variety of situations that may arise and each could be addressed through one or more of Meadow's twelve leverage points depending upon specific circumstances.

The Systems Archetype segment also provided a real world example of a concrete systems thinking process being implemented, Improving Acme Product Quality (a real laboratory company, not the coyote and roadrunner one) by Rebecca Niles of Leverage Networks. Any actual concrete outcomes though still remains the responsibility of the effectuating organization. There are also examples out there of others using systems thinking. I surprised myself finding more examples of systems thinking in the California public sector than I expected. The California Department of Health Care Services is using ‘Leadership Skills for Leading Microsystems’ by Thomas P. Huber. The California Department of Public Health is applying systems thinking through Mobilizing Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP). The California Department of Education looks to transportation with a systems thinking lens, no local examples yet found though.

In my view most of the multitude of proposed solutions to our current community challenges are destined by their own inherent limitations to fall short on their own, including systems thinking, with each needing to be shored up with other approaches. Systems thinking offers a particularly useful means, I believe, of organizing those different approaches into a cohesive whole which can be made more analogous to a gothic cathedral than a pile of stones. As a result of the foregoing, I am not going to be trying for any particular end goal, instead I am endeavoring to create a platform on which to continue incorporating systems thinking into new community paradigms.

Past Posts