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.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Approaching a Systems Practice, Yet Again

Before getting started, it seems important to recognize upfront that New Community Paradigms or NCP doesn't have any answers, only possible pathways to answers. The resources or results of explorations and experiments are only road signs or markers that could hopefully prove useful when others create their own pathways.

Another pathway or in this case, online course has been found and started. This one is Mastering Systems Thinking in Practice from the Open University in the UK, taught as far as I can tell by Professor Andy Lane. As usual for this blog, this is not meant to be a substitute for the course. The order here will often be different from the course and differences in perspectives will be noted.

This will be the second systems thinking course, actually third if you count the Systems Practice course but there are still some issues with that course that need to be dealt with which is part of the motivation to take this one. There is also a desire to extend my systems thinking knowledge to better address wicked problems by including a better understanding of the role of complexity.

The course asserts that “complexity becomes frightening when we assume we ought to be able to ‘solve’ it” but then can't. An approach which is deeply entrenched in Western culture. This is in agreement with what has been asserted before on these pages, “Traditional management frameworks and methodologies are based largely on ‘machine" analogies’ taking a reductionist approach to complexity”.

It is an approach that seems natural and obvious to anyone brought up or educated in a Western culture as being the way to tackle complex situations but while the approach is appropriate for many situations, it’s useless for others. Systems thinking according to the course makes complexity manageable by taking a broader perspective instead of breaking down situations into their component parts. The course seems to largely put ‘Systems thinking’ in an organizational setting, though it encourages personal connection as a means of bridging to larger concepts.

The course highlights UK entities such as PwC, NESTA, Forum for the Future, Advice UK and Oxfam. Systems thinking has been used in UK policy making at both the local and national government level. Here in the US, there is the Waters Foundation, the Institute for Systemic Leadership, and the Donella Meadows Institute as well as several educational institutions, book publishers and reports such as this one from the World Health Organization. It has influenced the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on the Circular Economy and is thought to be an important facet of the 17th Sustainable Development Goal that deals with bringing the work on all other 16 goals together as part of a global partnership.

A good deal written here will be based on questions asked by the course such as, “How do you see the role of systems thinking?”. I now see systems thinking as analogous to aspects of a global navigation system for understanding our world using one of my favorite PBS shows, How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson / Time (Emmy Winner) as the analogy. Sailing by longitude in straight-line fashion can be seen as a step by step analytical process found say in writing blog posts. Systems thinking allows one to think more broadly sailing by latitude but this takes new ways of thinking. Both together allow though for a far more expansive view of the world.

The course is presumed to be advanced but seems often to assume minimal systems thinking background. The course seems to be following a system of embeddedness in presenting the material, working from smaller concepts to larger. This blog will sometimes follow an opposite path because it will connect with past learning.

Systems thinking, according to the course respects complexity, realizing that understanding is often incomplete and that we don’t always know what is and is not included in an issue. Any view is partial and provisional and others likely have a different one. It means resisting the temptation to simplify issues by breaking them down. It also means there is more than one way of understanding the complexity of an issue.

According to the course, Systems thinking focuses on connections or relationships between things, events and ideas, giving them equal status. Fundamentally, it is about relationships and processes, it is a framework for understanding inter-relationships.

Patterns become important and the nature of the relationships between a given set of elements may be: 

  • Causal (A causes, leads to, or contributes to, B); 
  • Influential (X influences Y and Z); 
  • Temporal (P follows Q); or 
  • Relate to embeddedness (M is part of N) and there are others. 
According to the course, “Thinking systemically about these connections includes being open to recognising that the patterns of connection are more often web-like than linear chains of connection”.

I like that the course explicitly differentiates between causality and influences or what I see for the later as correlation. Relationships between things, events and ideas mean patterns of connection giving rise to larger wholes, and in certain cases, giving rise to emergence.

Some seem to wrongly assume that systems thinking only addresses well-understood problems, with one best answer to that problem and the path to finding that answer being linear. Others believe that systems thinking involves making changes to a system that will lead to the elimination of a problem identified within one of the system components.

Systems thinking does not attempt to model reality. One's mental image of the world is a model, a partial representation of reality based on partial knowledge of the external world. An important facet of systems thinking in practice is context.
Each individual's perspective on the world can take one of three vantage points : 
  1. Ignore the incompleteness of one’s viewpoints and representations. 
  2. Recognize that one’s viewpoint is limited and because it is only partial may be misleading. 
  3. Always carry an awareness that one will never know the world or fully the implications of the world’s unknowability. Therefore we must always be trying to account for our own role in perceptions of the world. 
These are all general concepts concerning systems thinking. The course begins constructing a specific understanding of systems thinking by starting with a simpler concept, accessible to being, if not fully understood at least recognizable, “messes” as defined by Russell L. Ackoff’. More on that in the next post. Russell L. Ackoff was the one who admonished us to Never improve a part of the system unless it also improves the whole. It was also Russell L. Ackoff who considered, Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking. There are two basic reasons according to Ackoff, one the fault of the organizations and one the fault of systems thinking or more precisely systems thinkers.

This was a typical organization, one in which the principal operating principle was "Cover your ass.” Application of this principle produced a management that tried to minimize its responsibility and accountability. The result was a paralyzed organization, one that almost never initiated change of any kind let alone innovation. It made changes only when a competitor made it necessary for it to do so.

We are an introverted profession. We do most of our writing and speaking to each other. This is apparent on examination of the content of any of our journals or conferences. To be sure, some communication among ourselves is necessary, but it is not sufficient.

The course goes on to cite C.W. Churchman (1971), as one of the first people to write about what systems thinking might mean in practice, who said, ‘there are no experts in a systems approach’.

NCP has recognized that a systems thinking approach can take a significantly different path than one dictated by a command and control management approach. A systems thinking approach can call upon the stakeholders of the system in question to take from an investigation resulting from a preceding exploration, found points of leverage so as to craft a strategy which will address the current situation in a manner that is beneficial to the whole system by changing stakeholder and organizational behaviors and avoiding unintended consequences to the greatest extent possible.

NCP sees volunteering through civil society as important to a community because the political institutions and market institutions cannot be expected to be able or to be trusted to fulfill all the needs of the community, especially in addressing Wicked Problems. Our challenges are increasingly complex. Our responses to these challenges cannot be merely simplistic but need to be coherently complex which requires systems thinking.

For the course then at the heart of systems thinking: Essentially it is about using practical frameworks for engaging with multiple perspectives.

The first step in doing this, according to the course, is understanding the difference between dealing with difficulties and dealing with messes.

Past Posts