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.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Using Systems Practice to Unravel Complexity (Hands on)

The previous post dealt with some of the more conceptual aspects of managing complexity through a group process. Week four of the SP UK course, which this blog is addressing after week 5, deals with the more hands-on aspects of creating different types of systems diagrams or systems maps, what they can do and why to use them. The course describes a systems diagram as simply a special arrangement of words, symbols and lines of one sort or another that expresses someone’s thinking about what has happened or about how certain things are or about how they might be. It is meant to help to express one’s thinking about some situation or some system.

Writing and speech are the usual means of expressing thinking, systems thinking adds systems mapping or systems diagraming providing a more visual mode. The SP UK course sees all three as means to basically the same thing with the capacity to convert one to the other, highlighting different aspects.

Text (or speech) can run linearly along a line of print in a single dimension. So branching of complex ideas requires navigating complex grammar but such arrangements of words are hard to take in and hold in the mind. One reads or hears one phrase at a time, followed by the next in an algorithmic step-like fashion, requiring holding the overall structure of a description in one’s head making important interconnections difficult to pick out and to express. This often necessitates that text contains lists, sub-sections, and tables in some hierarchical format. The NCP Wiki follows such a format as does this blog, while the NCP Kumu Map does not (being closer to an influence map).

Diagrams can be very different from text or speech, expanding in dimensions on a visual basis making working with complex connections easier. It is arguably easier to comprehend the ideas of other people, especially in a group setting, by displaying the ideas in a diagram and then discussing them, than it is with either only speech or writing. It is scanned more easily by a group of eyes when projected on to a screen, messaging information to the eye based on its shape even before fully decoding the details.

Drawing a diagram can serve as a simple representation of a situation to help sort things out for one’s own use or a diagram can be a draft statement, as a basis for explaining what you think to other people. A diagram can also be created by several people working together, displaying differing viewpoints, allowing new common perspectives to emerge, conflicts to be discussed and expert knowledge of different members to be harnessed.

Another advantage a diagram has over especially text is that the phrases or flow of information in a diagram can be followed in different sequences triggering new insights, suggesting creative viewpoints and making holistic interpretations. One can choose to start following a path within a diagram from anywhere to anywhere it may lead. As one finds out more about a situation and understands more, one can add things at the fringes of the diagram or in between existing components of the diagram.

Drawing a diagram though, can according to the course, often require two different, difficult but still related tasks. First is getting the thinking straight and knowing what it is you want to express. The second is choosing an appropriate way of representing those thoughts

The SP UK course asserts that a diagram is never finished nor completed, but merely accepted as being the most useful representation so far, again echoing George Box. In truth, putting in too much should be also be avoided. It is far too easy, for myself included, to put everything into a diagram, losing the fundamental point of saying something clearly and economically.

A diagram is a compromise between breadth of scope, depth of information and clarity of presentation all of which should be kept in balance according to the SP UK course. One should try to focus on the purpose, what it is trying to achieve, by adding a title that sets out what the diagram is all about. The layout of a diagram is as important as the composition of a picture, using as a picture does different colors and sizes to differentiate between kinds of things.

Here is the somewhat summarized course instructor's set of diagraming best practices, and as admitted by him, not necessarily exhaustive. Diagrams can take several endeavors to help one’s thinking and understanding in learning about a situation, expect new insights and expect to redraw to incorporate those new insights. A diagram is not just words and lines but space as well. Cramped diagrams are always unclear, spread out. Use recognizable diagram types, especially if unfamiliar. Each diagram should have a title describing the type of diagram it is and its purpose. Use a key to explain different sorts of lines or label the arrows, if the meaning of lines and arrows is not fairly self-evident. However, diagramming is not an exact science but a craft skill with a distinctly personal element, developed through practice. Clarify your own purpose in drawing a diagram. What aspects of the issues you are considering are you trying to represent? This is essential when you are to choose an appropriate type of diagram within which to work, though this is sometimes a challenge having started the exploration before knowing the destiny.

Below are various types of systems diagrams or systems maps. Systems Maps seems a more general term, essentially a snapshot of the system and its environment at a given point in time. The main use of systems maps is helping one to decide how to structure a situation and to communicate to others your perspective of that system. A map may convey no more information than a list of components but because it can be easier to grasp it can have more impact. The different types of systems diagrams or maps listed below seem to move along a continuum of increasing complexity and information robustness. A distinction can also be made between focusing on issues of structure, with spray diagrams, systems maps and influence diagrams which sometimes include 'agents' or stakeholders but little or no detail on their precise 'agency' and focusing on issues of agency, multiple cause diagrams, causal loop diagram and stock and flow diagrams, illustrating the agency (the process) of change. Various causes of a certain event or situation are represented, and relationships between variables in a given situation are investigated. The definitions are taken from the SP UK course and other sources. Different uses, among many, of systems mapping, include Kumu Systems Mapping, An Introduction to System Mapping by FSG and Systems Mapping Disruptive Design.

Spray Diagrams are used to represent the structure of an argument, encapsulating relationships between the ideas of others or for note-taking. A simple fast technique for getting ideas down without being concerned about details of the structure.

Rich Picture Systems Diagrams, explore and express situations through diagrams to create a preliminary mental model, helping to open discussion and to come to a broad, shared understanding of a situation.

Influence Diagrams serve to represents the main structural features of a situation and important relationships existing among them. Influence diagrams can be developed from a systems map by adding arrows or as the starting point for a multiple cause diagram by determining a clearer definition of the type of influence.

Multiple Cause Diagrams explore why a given event happened or why a certain class of events tends to occur or why something went wrong or keeps recurring so that steps can be taken to prevent its recurrence. While not intended to predict behavior, it may be able to develop a list of factors to be aware of when considering comparable future circumstances. A multiple cause diagram, focusing on actual causes over a period of time showing the causes themselves and how they are interlinked, goes a step further than an influence diagram which describes the capacity of structural components to exert weak and strong influences at any one time.

Before going further, there is a need to confess that any critiques, implied or not, concerning the course's approach to complexity, especially dynamic complexity were not warranted. The course is intentionally designed not to deal with a level of dynamic complexity, especially as envisioned by the recently completed Complexity Explorer course. The SP UK course, therefore, does not include either Causal Loop Diagrams (CLDs) or Stock and Flow Models (SFMs) as both of these are seen as being tools more for Systems Dynamics.

Causal Loop Diagrams consist of four basic elements: variables (Kumu elements), links between them (Kumu connections), with signs showing how they are interconnected, and loops with signs showing what type of behavior the system produces, representing problems or issues from a causal perspective, making one more aware of structural forces producing puzzling behavior. The difference with multiple cause diagrams, as far as I can discern, is that causal loop diagrams involve reinforcing and balancing feedback loops which arguably would make the system persistent over time.

Stock and Flow Diagrams are also used in system dynamics modeling. Dynamic behavior is thought to arise due to the Principle of Accumulation, more precisely, this principle states that all dynamic behavior in the world occurs when flows accumulate in stocks.

These two aspects of addressing the complexity of situations and systems could be seen as different sides of the matter. There could also be seen to be a chicken and egg relationship in developing an understanding with a better understanding of one enhanced by the other, which comes first though is another question. An unaddressed question is what dynamic tools are out there to assist in this endeavor? The two are Kumu and Insight Maker though there are many others.

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