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.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

NCP Fantasy Systems Thinking "A" Team - Ackoff and Argyris

The next two team members on the NCP five-member Fantasy Systems Thinking Team again consists of one the same as the SP UK course and one new as with the previous post. The difference is that this time the course choice is featured more extensively in the course material discussed on these pages.

Jay Forrester and Systems Dynamics added to the team in the last post, provided what was seen as a clear, straightforward, and relatively uncluttered perspective on the basic internal mechanism comprising a system without a need for any additional lens or any particular overlaid specialized procedures. No doubt there are limitations and levels of complexity increase rapidly but it is inherent complexity not imposed layers.

Russel L. Ackoff's career provides us with insightful, overall perspectives on our approach to systems. It was Ackoff who admonished us to Never improve a part of the system unless it also improves the whole. It was Ackoff, cited in the SP UK course, who had us consider, Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking, and who, as discussed in Approaching a Systems Practice, Yet Again, contrasted “messes” with difficulties.

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts …

Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Future of Operational Research is Past

He also discussed messes in the paper, Systems, Messes and Interactive Planning - Modern Times Workplace, which dealt with the evolution of systems at a paradigm level, as well as extolling the benefits of Participative Planning as something done not for or to an organization but by it, and listing the four attitudes towards planning, Inactive, Reactive, Pre-active and Interactive. There is also the four principles of planning practice that Inter-activists have extracted from their experience - participative, coordinated, integrated and continuous.

More Thinking on Mastering Systems Practice, Dealing with Messes contrasted the SP UK course’s concept of Ackoff’s idea of messes with, for this blog, the more familiar concept of wicked problems, questioning how are "messes" qualitatively different from"wicked problems”?

In Toward a System of Systems Concepts, Ackoff spoke of concrete systems meaning a system that contains at least two elements which are objects. A so-called concrete result then is a supposed state within a moment of time of a concrete system. Jay Forrester and Systems Dynamics seem especially attuned to these types of systems.

Many systems though, such as explored in Digging Systematically Deeper into Designing for a Public Participation Process are mostly abstract, meaning that they are composed of concepts which are defined in large part by the relationships between them and preset assumptions, axioms or postulates. Forrester and Systems Dynamics could still provide valuable insight but more has to be considered.

Such systems also have agents involved in them. They are a purposeful system, which Ackoff defined as one that can, “…produce the outcome in different ways in the same (internal or external) state and can produce different outcomes in the same and different states". More importantly, it can be also an Ideal-seeking system (Kumu) requiring consideration of differences between goals, objectives, and ideals and some concepts related to them. They are also invariably non-linear.

In Creating the Corporate Future 1981, pp. 26–33, Ackoff, as featured in Systems of Complexity, Complexity of Systems Part 1, asserted that for a set of elements to be usefully viewed as a system, it was necessary that the behavior of each element of the set should have an effect on the behavior of the whole set and that their effects on the whole set should be interdependent. Each subgroup, regardless of how they are formed, should have the same effect on the behavior of the whole and none should be completely independent. It was the phrase “usefully viewed as a system” or purposeful that is pertinent here in my view. The solely mechanical aspects of a car (running the engine) do not necessarily require all subsystems of the automobile to work in unison towards a purpose but as a (personal) transportation system, it could be argued that they are so required.

The outsider is Chris Argyris whose ideas on Ladder of Inference, as well as his theories of action, single and double-loop learning and organizational learning in, "Teaching Smart People How To Learn” were cited in Systems of Complexity, Complexity of Systems Part 2 and previously by New Community Paradigms in addressing meta-issues discussed in Dancing through the Complexities of Thinking Systematically about Systems Thinking.

Argyris has been more predominantly featured in the exploration and experimentation done first through Insight Maker models and then in Kumu maps. New Organizational Learning Inhibited through Bureaucratic Over Complicatedness & Corruption (IM-16192) is an Insight Maker model with three reinforcing, repeating single loops which, as defined by Argyris, twist the entire system into knots, entrenching the system into the larger environment. The storytelling format (use the “Step Forward” button at the bottom right corner) moves through the model to assert that institutions within entrenched systems can result in the “Corruption of the System” through a “Status Quo Politically Based Corruption of Entrenched Institutions” (R3).

This model was later revised in the Kumu map Inhibited Community Learning Entrenched Institutions which explored How Institutional Entities Created to Benefit Public Organizations Becomes Entrenched to Benefit Only Themselves.

Defending the institutional system’s continued existence in its current form which means maintaining the system in its current form and status of power does not necessarily mean benefiting those individuals in or coming to power. New players may be brought in but the system will be maintained regardless of any well-meaning but ineffectual attempts to change it. A system exists beyond the individuals which are a part of it, the momentum of ongoing processes, the legacy of historical structure and the conscious and unconscious mental models can thoroughly entrench a system, particularly an institutional one.

There is also the ability of institutions such as public sector institutions like city halls to impose legally sanctioned constraints that benefit the few rather than the system as a whole. This is corruption of the system going beyond the usual idea of corruption as an illegal or unethical act by someone. Corruption of a system here is seen as anything that prevents a system from fulfilling its espoused and intended purpose. Well-meaning regulations that result in unintended and unfailingly detrimental consequences are therefore also corruptions of a system.

More recently, the post Active Digital Citizens Seeking New Community Paradigms pt. 3 saw “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 community challenges are increasingly complex. Our responses to these challenges, therefore, cannot be merely simplistic but needs to be coherently complex.

The blog post Virtual Systemic Inquiry - GPS for New Community Paradigms? asserted that:

“Wicked problems have become so complex, incoherently complex, that they're broken down and perceived as complicated by not only the general public but also those tasked with addressing them with top-down complicated and reductionistic based management systems, sometimes tending to reach high levels of bureaucratic complicatedness."

There is still, however, the added value question regarding any additional complexity system thinking and systems mapping might have to a complex situation or system. It is not up to the system thinker to come up with the expert answer but to first facilitate the true community question and then have them provide the answer.

The Kumu mapping project Changing Assumptions was based on Argyris’ Ladder of Inference and involved both exploration and (thought) experimentation resulting in a presentation which while it still gets increasingly complex and remains hypothetical, hopefully, could be made to provide some helpful insights. It does not provide an out of the box, one size fits all answer, each community must find its own answer.

A systems thinking approach has the potential to take a significantly different path than one dictated by a command and control management approach. The systems thinking approach can call upon the stakeholders of the system in question to take an investigation resulting from a preceding exploration and craft a strategy which will use points of leverage to 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.

The perception is that systemic interventions will promote successful interventions and those successful interventions will result in a better world as well as promote the perceived utility of Systems Thinking.” (Ackoff?)

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The NCP Fantasy Systems Thinking Team - Forrester and Meadows

The last two posts attempted to span the distance between the practice of using graphic means and different methods to communicate the relationship of aspects, conceptual or real, of a situation or system, and understanding the complexity arising from those aspects themselves. The former, mapping is being used to assist in the navigating of the territory of the later with both being important. There is a higher level of mental organization still possible, the creation of an overlaying architecture to a systems approach. This arguably moves from a conceptual level to a more philosophical level.

The course provides in chapter 6 a sampling of the background of five notable figures in the systems thinking pantheon, each with a different approach or philosophy about systems thinking, Jay Forrester, Stafford Beer, Sir Geoffrey Vickers, Peter Checkland, and Russell Ackoff.

It was decided to come up with NCP's own Fantasy Systems Thinking Team. The first two selections have one the same as from the course and one new, Jay Forrester and Donella Meadows.

The NCP Wiki incorporates Systems Thinking as a primary component or wiki section, distinguishing between systems thinking approaches, which include systems dynamics programs and systems thinking applications for change-making efforts, featuring the Donella Meadows Project.

Though the course selected the man it did not select his methodology stopping short of incorporating Systems Dynamics. As reported in the blog post, Systems Thinking - Sailing through Wicked Problems on Complex Seas, the most adept advocate for Systems Dynamics is its creator, J. W. Forrester, Professor Emeritus Systems Dynamics at MIT who upended the conventional thinking in management and redefined what growth means through articles such as, System Dynamics: the Foundation Under Systems Thinking and Learning through System Dynamics as Preparation for the 21st Century. Professor Forrester was deemed The Prophet of Unintended Consequences.

Donella Meadows, primary author of Limits to Growth, was a protege of Forrester. She is also a favorite systems thinker given her own wiki-page in the NCP wiki. Even though both Forrester and Meadows were from the systems dynamics school of systems, Meadows from an organic, environmental background can be seen as often being more accessible than Forrester coming from an engineering background though both are just as disciplined.

As reported in the blog post, Advancing Racial Equity Through Collective Impact and Systems Thinking, systems thinking is seen as a means of addressing complexity. We want pragmatic solutions without wasting too much time on theory, looking for something concrete to build upon. This, however, brings about a counterintuitive trap raised by Forrester, who demonstrates how problems can arise when these principles are ignored.

Policy improvements in the short run often degrade a system in the long run while policies producing long-run improvements often initially degrade the system at the start. Though the short run is more visible and more compelling, calling for immediate attention, its impact is not really more concrete, rather becoming more what I have called entrenched, or in Forrester's words:

“However, sequences of actions all aimed at short-run improvement can eventually burden a system with long-run depressants so severe that even heroic short-run measures no longer suffice. Many problems being faced today are the cumulative result of short-run measures taken in prior decades.”

The post asserts that an ability to adopt different perspectives is important to relational mapping and to systems thinking in general. It can also be important to a system of both deliberative and participatory democracy. Essential in questions of equity, particularly those questions asked in terms of community economic and empowerment equity requiring answers of the larger community.

According to Forrester, in navigating between our concrete wants and our complex realities, our own individual mental models are fuzzy, incomplete, and imprecisely formed, continually changing with time, even in conversations. Even with only a single subject each participant in a conversation can employ a different mental model with different fundamental assumptions never brought into the open and different goals left unstated. Our thinking is not as concrete as we would like to think.

The George Box rule, stated before, still applies, all models (including computer) are wrong, but some are useful or on Forrester advice, it's not having a computer but how the computer is used to create the model that's essential.

“With respect to models, the key is not to computerize a model, but, instead, to have a model structure and decision-making policies that properly represent the system under consideration.”

“A good computer model is distinguished from a poor one by the degree to which it captures the essence of a system that it represents.”

As Forrester asserts, though a community system is complex, which means the data coming out of it is complex, this does not necessarily mean the answer is more data.

“The problem is not shortage of data but rather inability to perceive the consequences of information we already possess. The system dynamics approach starts with concepts and information on which people are already acting.”

Forrester demonstrates the paradox of complex systems in our society in that, “Generally, behavior is different from what people have assumed” and how System Dynamics models can help us understand how difficulties within actual social systems arise, and why so many past efforts to improve social systems have failed.

"The country has slipped into short-term policies for managing cities that have become part of the system that is generating even greater troubles."

"Rather than face the rising population problem squarely, governments try to relieve the immediate pressures by more policemen, financial aid, busing to suburban schools, and subsidized health facilities. As a consequence, increasing population reduces the quality of life for everyone."

With simple systems, causes are close, whether arising from different parts of the system and in time to where or when the symptoms occur. This can easily mislead us into believing our actions to alleviate the symptoms to be concrete in nature.

The Donella Meadows Project (formerly Institute) has been introduced previously in this Systems Practice series in Approaching a Systems Practice, Yet Again as an example of an US-based systems thinking enterprise along with the Waters Foundation and the Institute for Systemic Leadership and in discussions regarding uncertainty related to messes, particularly irreducible uncertainty, as suggested by Donella Meadows in More Thinking on Mastering Systems Practice, Dealing with Messes. The uncertainty that is inherent in the situation itself, most notably, complex stochastic output.

Meadows definition of “A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something…. a system must consist of three kinds of things: elements, interconnections and a function or purpose.”

She expanded upon these simple foundational steps to establishing open, positive interactions to bring about change through Dancing with Systems. More importantly, she identified points of leverage within systems in endeavoring to bring about the desired transformation. In a post on the US Systems Practice versus Systems Thinking it was suggested using Donella Meadows' Twelve Leverage Points at least as a systems thinking based background resource.

In the ABCD Conflict Consensus Debate and Systems Thinking posts, ABCD or Asset Based Community Development was seen as fitting the Meadows’ definition of a system. It is a system, a complex, human-based system, that must exist within, and by its purpose interact with the complicated, procedure-based institutional systems. It is a system though that focuses nearly entirely on the "territory" of community relations rather than more abstract issues of mapping. Institutions are also seen as being composed of multiple systems, with an espoused system often conflicting with the actual in-use system, or systems of administration contrasted with systems of organizational culture. The use of systems thinking is an endeavor to bridge these supposedly conflicting perspectives.

As discussed in Sailing Complex and Wicked Seas with Icebergs (Systems Thinking), there is always the question of what specific system are we defining? Are we all talking about the same system, in terms of scope, abstraction, complexity, understanding and potential action?

New Community Paradigms is seeking empowerment of community members from the bottom up through deliberative democracy, scaffolded by systems thinking, and other means. One means of understanding the world, featured before is the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. With the systems thinking iceberg model, we are not only speaking of combining different methodologies or perspectives but more importantly in terms of combining different mindsets. The use of Kumu mapping, as part of a systems thinking approach, is an attempt to take the deepest levels of the systems thinking iceberg model as well as the most effective interventions of Donella Meadows' Leverage Points with the intention of applying them to real world problems.

Past Posts