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 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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