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.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Systems Practice versus Thinking pt 2

The last post returned to the Systems Practice course begun earlier this year and defined certain of its operational terms, such as factors, forces, and themes as pieces in the creation of a system puzzle or map. This post will continue explaining the systems practice process of putting those pieces together contrasted more generally with systems thinking and with Kumu mapping. The question that will remain on hold, for now, is how does this apply to alleviating homelessness? This must be addressed first to effectively apply the methodology. 

In Kumu mapping, factors are elements. It is the Kumu connections forming relationships between elements that represent forces.  Similar to gravity as a force only occurring when two or more bodies are in relation to each other. A theme, or collection of commonly related forces, is not quite yet a Causal Loop. To be a loop, those forces and themes need to be organized into a persistent feedback configuration. Until then these themes organized into connected forces are what I call causal influence pathways. One such pathway or theme could then be "cost of living” which might consist of a number of different enabling and inhibiting forces among them  "community bonding" as the interaction of which served as a means of stabilization that lessened the negative impacts that occurred when the cost of living increased because households within a community decided to share resources.

An interim step particular to Systems Practice before finalizing the creation of feedback loops is S.A.T. or Structural, Attitudinal, Transactional analysis. The purpose of SAT  is again to assist in being holistic in the analysis by avoiding focusing solely on those things best known to one's own particular background such as an economist tending toward only economic forces or a social worker focusing only on social forces.

SAT classification is supposed to help make sure that your group is taking a holistic approach when identifying factors and building loops by identifying causes and effects, as well as later in the course when the focus is on leverage points for building a strategy on how to more readily change the system. Once, however, these loops are woven into a systems map there is no longer a need for the formal labeling of SAT and it can fall away as a separate artifact.

There isn't any formal connection between SAT and  Kumu mapping. SAT according to Rob the course's instructor, can be thought of as scaffolding and the Kumu map as the building. The scaffolding helps one in constructing the building but then as said falls away when you are done. I have the same metaphor in mind when applying systems thinking to participatory democracy. It is a means not an end in of itself.

A common systems thinking tool that I believe could be related to SAT analysis and be useful in helping those not familiar with the methodology is the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. It could be introduced again early in the course and definitely prior to SAT. The Iceberg Model as a meta-perspective of the system does not fall away as does SAT but maintains direct correspondence with the Systems Practice components aligning factors to events, aligning loops and themes to patterns, both SAT and the Iceberg has a structural component, and finally the attitudinal aspect of Systems Practice corresponding to the Systems Iceberg mental model level. 

Another subsequent step that systems practice takes, as part of a dynamic and holistic analysis in identifying feedback loops through putting the pieces together is an Upstream-Downstream analysis. Following any factor or element in the direction of its connecting arrows to another factor, which denotes cause, defines downstream relationships and any arrows connecting into any factor from another factor, denoting effect, defines upstream relationships is the basis for Upstream-Downstream analysis.

The Upstream-Downstream analysis becomes the "seeds" or relevant puzzle pieces in the process of loop building by identifying a few important connections to start the process of identifying persistent patterns. Moving from an Upstream-Downstream analysis to actually building feedback loops though is not a one to one transition. The loops, once created, take on an importance of their own moving beyond what was captured in the Upstream-Downstream analysis. By the time one gets to the Upstream-Downstream analysis, and then subsequently to creating the feedback loops, any distinctions one might assume between enablers and inhibitors tends to break down. 

The course's concepts of upstream/downstream or cause/effects are then arguably dependent on which element was the starting point.  Because a feedback loop (A —> B —> C —> A, etc.)  of forces or dynamics are circular upstream-downstream analysis is artificial because if you travel far enough along a closed loop, any upstream factor will also be downstream.  Start at B then A is upstream and C is downstream. "Happiness" could be seen as a driver and as an enabler for “Wealth,” which could then become an enabler in turn seen to drive “Happiness”.

Overly simple loops though, those with just two factors such as, “Wealth" > “Happiness” —> “Wealth" indicate a need to zoom in and ask what is it about wealth that leads to increased happiness? Is this always the case? Does wealth sometimes lead instead to depression and unhappiness? If so, why? What other factors explain why these patterns vary?

In assembling loops, factors need to be worded as nouns that can be scaled up or down. The "level of corruption" is a more appropriate factor label than is a "high level of corruption". There isn't  a correlation though between how specifically worded a factor is or how elaborate a loop is for the potential of that loop to produce insights into how to engage a system.  The most powerful loops of three to four factors having both profound meaning and being simply worded can be termed “elegant,”

From a non-technical, more social perspective, similar to one provided during Systems Thinking Certification, factors could be thought of as characters in a novel interacting with other characters with arrows showing causal connections and forming sub-plots through loops. Taken together, these subplots will form a plot and eventually a rich story or novel through a dynamic system map. 

All of this leads to reassembling or stitching together or I would suggest quilting together a systems map. First though is determining what was then referred to as the Deep Structure of the system from the myriad of enabling and inhibiting themes and forces that ended up becoming loops. This will be revealed in the next post.

As one of our teammates said, an advantage of drawing Kumu maps is finding dependencies and loops where they were not necessarily obvious. This is the main outcome of connecting many different feedback loops into a systems map. It is according to Rob the interconnection among the loops that surface dependencies and more importantly, areas of possible leverage for making longer-term systems change. 

A further question arose, in creating a Kumu map, as for whether the more granular we can get the more likely we are to find unseen things. Rob used examples from the financial crisis to come up with factors such as debt, rich people hoarding money so it's not available to the economy, bad institutional practices by bankers and others. However, going deeper into technical details like derivate pricing likely would not help in coming up with a useful solution. He asserted, if however, we identify that the prevailing market economy doctrine is not based on scientific fact but has rather become something more like a religious paradigm, we then add a substantial insight into the whole picture. That is a tremendously large step though to take a group through unless they are already inclined, perhaps in some cases too inclined, to such a view.

This brings me to yet another suggested systems thinking based resource and that is Donella Meadows' Twelve Leverage Points as at least a background resource. 

As I have said before, using the development of the concept of time in navigation as a metaphor, I see Kumu mapping as a means of longitudinal thinking in relation to the more common linear or latitudinal thinking that together help in making a global complex perspective more possible.

I started, as I usually do, directly mapping relationships after creating a few experimental maps to test out some ideas, identifying factors from there and developing loops directly and building the map from there. Again, I have to admit that a result of my approach was that it allowed narrowing the focus to an overly limited path. Others, using the Systems Practice approach, with limited or no systems thinking background, provided important insights, like being able to look at the picture on the puzzle box blown up but perhaps not having the necessary pieces themselves.

The course's instructor Rob had spoken of the difficulties of mapping in a fifth-week video.  I could see his point if I had followed the Systems Practice procedure from the beginning as it was very different from my usual approach. 

One of the primary issues that systems thinking seeks to address though is the tendency of people to only look at factors in immediate or near immediate approximation. What then may be an enabling force in one loop may become an inhibiting force in another related loop. In this aspect, systems practice may be a bit weaker for those with less experience in systems thinking.

Instead of considering enabling and inhibiting forces, I focused on adds to or moves in the same direction and detracts from or moves in the opposite direction of Causal Loop Diagram building, letting the system tell me what was enabling or inhibiting over an extended number of degrees across the system. This becomes all the more important when transitioning from abstract mapping to applying the lessons learned to the real world wicked challenge. Because I do not want to see this process be a “one-off” in community empowerment, I will add, even recognizing it is far more involved, one other suggested systems thinking resource to be included and that is systems thinking archetypes

This completes the critique of the system's practice process from a first time, limited understanding perspective. It is undoubtedly necessary to take the course oneself to verify what has been suggested but we can get some further idea of its utility. How then did we map out the specific challenge of addressing homelessness?

Systems Practice versus Thinking pt 1

Since January 31 of this year, I have been involved in a course titled Systems Practice but haven’t written about it since February 4.  For myself, there were three objectives in taking this course. One, come up with some useful insights for Jo Foraker's endeavors to create the Last Mile Food Truck as a sustainable system to provide nutritious food to the unsheltered homeless living in camps around Portland, Oregon featured in the blog series Modeling the Last Mile to Feed the Homeless parts 1 to 6.  Next, in doing so, to demonstrate the potential of systems thinking to assist in coming up with practical solutions. Third, to do so through real world interactions with nine other individuals, though still online, group process. It has to be admitted that there have been some challenges with all three. 

My involvement in the Last Mile Food Truck concept has been in existence through two other Philanthropy University / Acumen courses, Financial Modeling and Social Impact. Those courses demonstrated that what the Last Mile Food Truck project was attempting to accomplish, finding effective means of addressing homelessness, was far more complex than might first be assumed

The course seeks to answer three questions beyond the specifics of any particular challenge. One, how does the environment within which you work operate as a complex, dynamic system? The course helped with this by taking a distinct approach to systems thinking. Two, how will your strategy engage the system in order to have a highly leveraged impact? The course endeavored to assist here as well though that depends on the level of achieved leverage. Three, how will you test your assumptions and hypotheses so you can learn and adapt effectively was considered though not really addressed at least not by our efforts.

Something first needs to be established before proceeding further. I will have to declare here that systems practice both significantly informed the approach I contributed over time and induced me to substantially change it in ways during the course that I would not have if I had worked solely on my own. 

Second, this analysis will be abstract, looking at meta-issues related to homelessness. The decision to make the tangible effort to feed the unsheltered homeless or any act of social contribution is not based on how viable or sustainable a system to do so is. It is based on moral conviction which can be a driving force even under conditions of impact which are exceedingly limited or even diminishing. Any inability to establish a viable, sustainable system does not lessen the worthiness of the effort. There are, however, realities that have to be met to establish such systems. 

One suggested insight that arose from past explorations is that the human etiology of homelessness, especially chronic homelessness, could be defined as community-lessness, not a lack of physical shelter, as bad as that obviously is but the lack of truly viable community that arises from being in that situation. Qualitatively, in terms of psychological well-being, this is a far more detrimental situation compared to someone who is poor but still has a home and is still part of a community. Even if a community is destitute, it often has systems in place to help its members cope. Social support systems in this country may be created for the very low income but more for those who still fit within society’s framework. The homeless for the greater part do not, so programs need to be specially designed for them. The homeless instead need to adapt to the system as it exists, the system does not adapt to them and even upon adapting, the homeless still remain outside the system which is often more interested in control than it is in true integration.

The most viable long-term social community-based solution to homelessness may be the creation and provision of permanent housing, as the aforementioned study coming out of Calhoun County, Michigan indicated That though will take an extended amount of time and the homeless, in the meantime, need food for sustenance and nutrition to maintain health. Our current food systems, however, are not well designed to assist the homeless, especially those who are not in shelters.

This post and the next are meant to look more specifically at the process of systems practice and how it relates to systems thinking because I don't believe they are quite the same thing. It took awhile though to realize that the differences were due to systems practice's attempt to focus on group interactions in coming up with solutions. Despite having finally come in line with the systems practice way, there are still a few things I would like to see be done differently. 

I had some background in systems thinking but came with my cup perhaps too full. In some ways, I had been working backward until about more than halfway before coming in alignment with the course and with the team. I had a personal problem with the advertised use of Kumu mapping not occurring until after the third week. Personal, because I started using Kumu just a little before the beginning of the course which put me out of alignment with the course or perhaps more accurately with the others on the team.

Many people taking the course were more likely familiar with the usual linear reductionist approach to understanding which means breaking things up into smaller pieces for ostensibly better control. The challenge then is developing a means of helping them to cross over to a more holistic, systems thinking or in this case a systems practice perspective through a group process. I don’t believe, however, that there was a strong enough foundation in systems thinking provided at the beginning of the course and introducing Kumu at the very start could have helped with that.

Systems Practice introduced terms such as factors, forces, enablers, inhibitors, and themes as parts of their approach to systems thinking.  Unfortunately, these operational terms were not defined either adequately or precisely enough, at least in my view, often being exchanged with other terms generating some confusion and necessitating questions raised by one of our teammates. Those questions provided a substantial amount of information for what is written in this critique. The terms are all intended to result in the end in the creation of feedback loops (Causal Loop Diagrams) familiar to systems thinking but prior to that Systems Practice has a few unique steps of its own. It wasn't clear until later in the course but thanks to the questions asked by one of our teammates and others, we can start with defining what is a factor?

In Systems Practice a factor, according to Rob Ricigliano the course instructor, is "something, a person, an environmental condition, an attitude, an institution, a phenomenon, etc., that makes other things happen or has agency." What in terms of map display Kumu calls elements. That one thing or a factor changing another thing could also be thought of as a driver, which according to the course could be categorized as either enabling or inhibiting within the system under question.

The first step then in the Systems Practice mapping process is brainstorming as many factors as possible related to the system under review, based on a previously established mission focus through what the course calls the Guiding Star, Near Star and Framing Question created prior by the group. Skipping this earlier part, for now, this stage then is only a collection of factors at this point in the mapping, presumed to be part of a system but with no real understanding as of yet of the relationships, like cutting up a picture for pieces of a puzzle. To emphasize the point, a collection is not a system, it requires dynamic or purposeful assembly.

The course then has participants collect factors or drivers together into separate clusters as either enablers or inhibitors. It is necessary now to stop and insert the System Practice concepts of forces and themes. These served supposedly as an intertwining path or steps that resulted in confusion for me as to how they all relate to the overall Systems Practice process. 

Taking a step back with the benefit of some hindsight, they are part of the dynamic assembly mentioned above occurring after factor collection. We spoke before of factors being drivers as either enablers or inhibitors. Enablers and inhibitors can also be thought of as forces. In the process of separating enabling forces from inhibiting forces, it is also possible to subsequently combine such forces into various themes or collections of common ideas. 

So a collection of related enablers should become a cluster of enablers or an enabling theme and the same is done then with inhibitors. Similar, it would seem, to the practice of separating outside, edge puzzle pieces from inside pieces or sky pieces from the ground ones. 

It is presumed to be less confusing for a group if the clusters are made up of either all enablers or all inhibitors but it can result in getting clusters with the same names on both the inhibitor side and the enabler side such as enabling factors that drive the cost of living down alongside inhibitors that drive that same cost of living up. It will then end up being suggested doing two different types of loops based on a particular thematic cluster, one on the dynamics that drive the cost of living down and then one on the dynamics that drive the cost of living up. 

Another reason for separating forces into two groups of enablers and inhibitors is to ensure that the group is putting sufficient attention not only on those that make things worse but also on those factors that make things better before merging them into loops. The tendency had been for groups doing the mapping to focus on what was not working, what was making things worse, giving too little attention to the things that stabilized the system or could even make things better. It is hoped that focusing on enablers and inhibitors separately gets groups to put significant attention looking for those "forces" or phenomena that aren't thought about in the first place, particularly on the enabler side of the equation. I believe that this also should have been made more explicit earlier in the course. 

So the group has various collections of factors organized into different themes bringing up the image of a puzzle party, though a closer analogy would be if instead of puzzle pieces each person brought their own photos of their particular perspective to create one common collage. Now it is a matter of putting them all together.

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