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.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Every Systems Puzzle Tells a Story

In Systems Thinking, things or factors are dependent upon what is around them and can change over time.

Yoel Ben-Avraham, the team leader for our Jerusalem Vision Systems Practice project, provided the viewpoint of a 67-year-old Jewish man with a good sense of historical perspective. Yoel brought up the idea of ”targeting” and asked, ”Who's ’forces’ are we going to explore?” Though I initially agreed with the idea of ”targeting,” I came to realize that our use of the term was being misapplied.

People can sail to different ports by “targeting” their destination and using the existing knowledge of wind and currents to get them there. It is a matter of performance. However, somebody had to first study those winds and currents to understand how they would influence ships and write that down for others. It is then a matter of exploration and learning. Our mission at this point in the process was not to paint targets on the wall but rather examine the forces that lead to those “targets”. Systems Thinking, especially the early stages of Systems Practice is set in the explorer stage. The questions of "how to" would be dealt with separately, later in the course and would need to be even more so, after it.

We started to express some of the factors and influences or as the Systems Practice course termed it forces that affect the system. Not in an attempt to reconfigure the system, in this case, Jerusalem, into a desired state, or target certain factors to change into a shape we believed to be better but endeavoring to understand the forces that constitute the system in its present form purposely avoiding coming up with hypothetical enablers. We were seeking to understand what creates the forces which maintain the system in its current configuration without passing judgment on either side.

One should then, from an overall perspective, take a system in its totality so one side isn’t predetermined as being more important than another in the maintaining of that system. At the same time, both sides, all sides need to be understood from their own perspectives.

We would do this partially through the S.A.T. (Structural Attitudinal Transactional) analysis of factors which provides another lens on understanding the system, and its component causal loops, under inquiry. Examples and explanations of a general nature were provided in the previous post. We also needed, among others, the perspective of a 24-year-old Palestinian man trying to raise a family and recognize what he sees as reality or truth. Not to prove it right on its own but to recognize it as a force perhaps Attitudinal in nature and perhaps arising from Structural forces or influencing or causing Transactional forces. Unfortunately, we had to attempt to imagine it rather than actually obtaining it.

Within a current system, each factor would play the role of cause or effect and usually both but that was not being determined at this point. What was initially attempted was to determine whether a factor could be seen as enabling the system or inhibiting the system.

One of the primary issues though, in my experience, that Systems Thinking seeks to address is the tendency of people to only look at factors in immediate or near-immediate approximation. The Systems Practice course does not seem to emphasize this enough, at least in my opinion.

The cause-effect or causal links between factors then can be repeated in extended upstream-downstream relationships. Systems Practice seems to want to establish this prior to actual mapping which I have admitted is not something that I am adept at. Each upstream factor identified has to have at least one and perhaps more downstream factors related to it, it has to be upstream to something. It is the upstream cause to some downstream effect.

One could ask the question the other way. The test of downstream is whether it is the effect or result of something upstream. Choose a downstream effect and ask what are the upstream causes of it but don't stop there, ask what are the upstream causes of that, then again ask ”And?”.

In many instances, if one goes out far enough, one discovers that the connections circle back onto their origin. So factor A connects to factor B which connects to factor C which then connects back to factor A. People may be paying attention to A and B but not to C and therefore not understand why things are not improving since A increases B, not realizing that while B may also increase C, C decreases A. What we have then visually under Kumu is a loop, in this particular case a balancing loop as discussed in the Donella Meadows “Thinking in Systems” series.

There is now a causal loop that is persistent which means that every factor in the loop could be considered both an upstream cause and a downstream effect depending upon the designated state of the system.

Kumu refers to these causal linked factors as degrees and defaults to being able to extend three degrees or three causal steps though one can go out further connecting factors within different loops together. It is by getting past immediate or near-immediate causal relationships by which Systems Thinking can provide greater insight. Systems Practice does this through a collaboratively constructed vision.

Both upstream and downstream factors involve change through causal steps that are either positive in that it results in an increase or negative in that it results in a decrease of something. Whether that change is positive in a good sense or negative in a bad sense depends upon context. Loops are, however, more than just their factors, including their connections can result in emergent aspects within themselves and within the system overall.

This configures into what I think of as patterns of persistent causality. These loops or patterns of persistent causality can be thought of, to my mind, as system entities the same as factors also having an influence on the rest of the system in their own right beyond their component factors.

We want to then label factors with names that are neutral in terms of increase or decrease so that we can determine a direction based on the factors influencing them, so as to be able to discover emergent forces and what the course calls the deep structure of the system which is highly unlikely if one is stuck with a particular perspective from the start.

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 somewhat weaker for those with less experience in Systems Thinking because they don't extend their inquiries far enough or openly enough.

A philosophical argument can be made whether connections need to truly be a causal relationship with 100% correlated mathematical certainty or it if they could be highly but still qualitatively correlated. Systems Dynamics would lean, heavily, to the former, Systems Thinking would arguably allow for the later being more open to qualitative inquiry. The question is how strictly does one define causality. Is it only 100% proven correlation or do we explore first with less rigid criteria and then endeavor to prove with more stringent?

The course also organizes these factors into Themes, another partial lens. A theme is a collection of commonly related factors and forces. Themes do not necessarily have a causal connection between the factors making them up, they are part of a group for other reasons thought relevant to the system. They are often not quite yet Causal Loops. To be a loop, those forces and themes need to be organized into persistent feedback configurations. Causal steps, however, according to Donella Meadows, “Thinking in Systems” do not have to feedback to be a system. Causally linked thematic pathways then can connect different causal loops together in my view.

Kumu does not have a direct translation for Themes but it can visually represent Themes by classifying factors (and connections) by type or tags and assigning a particular color or size when defining the view for that systems map.

In the Systems Thinking Certification course, factors, from a more social perspective needed to persuade others, could be thought of like characters in a novel interacting with other characters with arrows showing causal connections and forming sub-plots through loops. The themes and causal loops together can form subplots which will form a plot and eventually a rich story when put together through a dynamic system map. Yeu Wen, the course catalyst for the Plastic Pollution Thailand project, suggested thinking of factors themes and as nouns and verbs in a sentence (well maybe adjectives, adverbs and nouns with connections as verbs). Rob Ricigliano, the course instructor, in one of the course’s videos, also said that we can think of the process in some ways as building a story, a deeper story that is inclusive of all.

We cannot fully tell the significance of a specific factor or idea until we see how it plays in the entire system map (story). I doubt that we can fully do it for all factors as individuals with, especially complex systems. From a Systems Thinking point of view though, the supposed facts on the ground, especially if they can be continuously debated, are not necessarily the most important factors. The different mental models held by different groups can be of even greater importance. Overcoming those mental models is perhaps the most significant impact Systems Practice can have.

Monday, December 24, 2018

The Systems Thinking Iceberg Model helps with Understanding Systems Practice S.A.T. Analysis

So far we have dealt with Guiding Stars, Near Stars and Framing Questions as well as dealing with factors as either enabling or inhibiting in upstream/downstream patterns into different Themes of the system being explored. During this Jerusalem Vision project, a S.A.T. analysis, unique to Systems Practice was again conducted. Factors involved in cause/effect or upstream/downstream relationships can, according to the Systems Practice course be categorized as Structural, Transactional or Attitudinal.

It is a way of looking at a system so as to avoid focusing on only what is obvious and allowing for a deeper understanding of the system overall. By rigorously looking at all the cause and effect relationships, within a system, according to this set of categories, one has a better chance of illuminating the most important causal drivers in the system. This will be only a cursory explanation though, for a more complete one it will be necessary to take the course.

The course provides examples of the three categories of S.A.T. - Structural, Attitudinal or Transactional rather than definitions. The three, as presented by the course, can be seen as being distinct from each other.

There is though arguably an interrelationship between them that can be explored. This is based on a hypothesis that the Structural components or factors of a system help to determine Transactional factor patterns upon which both together Attitudinal factor perspectives are based which in turn support, oppose or acquiesce to those Structural components, which in turn, influence Transactional patterns.

This proposed interrelationship between the S.A.T. categories also suggests correspondence with another Systems Thinking meta-model, the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. I explored the potential for these ideas with the Kumu project Implications 101 of Systems Iceberg and Systems Practice S.A.T. (Forked).

The Kumu project is based on fundamental Systems Thinking principles in the construction of Causal Loop Diagrams. More specifically, on five examples, of a more general and abstract nature, developed by Gene Bellinger for use in his still-developing interactive learning platform And! It's All Connected. Gene conducted the Systems Thinking Certification course I took. The ”Forked” in the title means that I had permission to make a duplicate of his work and modify it for my own purposes. As I told the And! It's All Connected Facebook group, ”Without a firm foundation through Gene's original maps, I would not have the same degree of confidence”.

Using Gene’s work as a basis, I first extended upon his ideas by adding new loops and then created new perspective (view) on the issues using S.A.T. categorizations. Gene, it should be noted created an advanced Kumu view to define his design. Mine created for the S.A.T. analysis was far more simple but it did, it can be asserted, support and expand upon the ideas below.

According to the course, the Structural category of S.A.T. includes the physical, whether natural such as air quality or drought or the built environment, say housing stock or the transportation system but it also includes the non-physical such as the social environment in which people live; including political, social and economic institutions.

Different types of institutional infrastructure could be considered either physical or non-physical e.g., legal system, economic policy, labor unions, church associations. In many cases, there will be a combination of both physical and non-physical aspects. The physical court building in which the non-physical legal system is practiced. The examples provided by the course could be considered as formal structures, some significant. Systems can give rise to factors that can serve as the structural components within that system helping to define it despite a lack of formal recognition.

The structural category of S.A.T. can be related to the structural level in the Iceberg Model. Structures are built and or are maintained by individuals that they are established by, working transactionally in concert but they are something more than individuals and are capable of persisting beyond individuals.

There is a structural component arising from the interaction of factors and forces which if changed could potentially change the system but to be adequately effective would likely need to be seen as a structural replacement.

Factors, at the Structural level of either the S.A.T. model or Iceberg model, can be considered as stocks both physical, whether natural or built environment and non-physical following Donella Meadows’ definitions.

The Principle of Accumulation states that all dynamic behavior in the world occurs when flows accumulate in stocks. Stocks can be increased or decreased but not instantaneously, 

“a stock takes time to change, because flows take time to flow”.

”A stock, then, is the present memory of the history of changing flows within a system”. 

Transactional factors of the S.A.T. can be seen as combining into the events and patterns of the Systems Thinking Iceberg Model. Events become patterns when they are repeated in a systematic enough manner that allows them to be forecasted or their cumulative effect influences the larger system. Transactional factors are set within the Structural framework(s) of a system and are constrained by it.

Transactional is the process of interactions but for me has a slightly different definition from that used by the Systems Practice course. The course seems to limit the definition to key people or the leaders at all levels as they deal with important social, political and economic issues whether they be essential negotiations, violence, problem-solving, influence, or leadership. Examples of key Transactional factors provided by the course include lobbying by human rights activists, the influence of a community elder, mediation by a member of Parliament, or extreme political rhetoric by a religious leader. I don’t see a reason to limit the definition to Grass-tops and not include Grass-root efforts even if they must often occur at a more aggregated level to make a noticeable impact.

What is implied but not made explicit, or at least I will assert that it should be, is that transactional factors involve at least a two-sided interaction though not always apparent. That the interaction must be iterated to become a pattern and that will invariably occur within, through or be supported by some Structural factor or factors.

Those Transactional factors unsupported by Structural factors will be far less sustainable than those that are and far less likely to reach a persistent pattern. It should be noted that an iterated persistent pattern does not mean repeated exact copies, patterns of transactional factors can be modified and systems can evolve.

A Transactional example of extreme political rhetoric could be effective not because it directly changed the structure of a system but because it influenced Attitudinal concerns of the populous which in turn brought changes to the Structural factors of the system though that would have to be through Transactional factors.

Transactional factors do not accumulate as stocks but can define the inflows into and outflows out of stocks. Transactions cannot be a stock. Subsequent transactions may reinforce a pattern of transactions but they replace the previous transaction. Transactions can only influence flows into or out of a stock.

Attitudinal factors are akin to the Mental Model level of the Iceberg, encompassing the attitudes, beliefs, morals, expectations, and values, which are often subconscious or unconscious. They are set by means by which people adapt or acquiesce to the patterns of transactions which if unchecked or unquestioned then allow those established structures to continue functioning through the same continuing pattern of transactions.

The category Attitudinal within S.A.T. relates to widely held beliefs, values, norms, and intergroup relations that affect how large groups of people think and behave e.g., ethnic tensions, social capital, fears, group trauma, religious beliefs, and attitudes like trust in government or a belief in “rugged individualism” and can be non-physical stocks. However, these invariably arise from the Structural and Transactional factors and can be in turn applied to them as well.

If Attitudinal shifts cannot bring changes to Structural factors through a shift in Transactional patterns or vice-versa then that Structural factor may make the system, to use a term used before, entrenched requiring far greater leverage from factors that may not exist as of yet. This can be true even if the Structural factor is not formal or even apparent.

There is a difference between individual social beliefs or what the course calls Attitudinal and what might be termed structural norms of institutions which are not human. All belief is human and although individually based can be aggregated. The later structural norms are not as dependent upon individuals in regard to short, mid-term or sometimes even long-term existence of the system. This is part of the reason why many institutional systems can become entrenched.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Systems Practice Factors and Themes As Pieces of a Systems Puzzle

Systems Practice introduces certain operational terms such as factors, forces, enablers, inhibitors, and themes as components of their approach to Systems Thinking. These are in addition to the basic Systems Thinking terms and concepts introduced in the series on Donella Meadows’Thinking in Systems” which although not necessarily essential for application is part of providing a deeper foundational understanding.

The Systems Practice course defines these operational terms for the creation of a system map or in the early stages perhaps more like creating pieces of a puzzle. Unfortunately, these operational terms are not defined as adequately or precisely as they might be so what follows is my interpretation of them. The understanding of each concept can be dependent upon the understanding of other concepts, often introduced later in the course, ideally creating a holistic perspective by the end.

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."

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 the previously established mission focus through the Guiding Star, Near Star and Framing Question created prior by the group.

A Google spreadsheet, such as Factors Themes Grouped used with the Plastic Pollution in Thailand project can be provided to collect the team member’s suggested factors for the system. The Google sheet created for the Plastic Pollution project consisted of six columns. Who suggested the factor, the factor itself and the four different forms of categorization that could be applied to those factors.

  • Author 
  • Factors 
  • Inhibitor/Enabler 
  • Themes 
  • Upstream or Downstream 
  • S.A.T. 
The Google Sheet for the Jerusalem Vision project was modified both during and after brainstorming for factors and was more of a deliberative process than with Plastic Pollution. The Google Sheets then become the source of content for the relevant Kumu systems maps to be made.

What the Systems Practice course calls factors Kumu systems mapping calls elements and they are by default the filled circles on a map which can be sized and colored as desired (or even made different shapes or images). Kumu elements are the visual graphic representation of Systems Practice factors. This involves another transition in thinking, moving from text-based linear, what I have labeled longitudinal thinking to graphics based latitudinal thinking which can be more holistic but still requires certain rules to be followed based on Systems Thinking concepts.

Our Jerusalem Vision team began expressing some of the factors, or influences or as the course termed it "forces" that affect the system. The collected factors are also considered as “drivers” by the Systems Practice course. A driver is the idea of one factor or thing changing or causing an effect to another thing.

Our approach was endeavoring to understand the forces that constitute the system in its present form, in this case, Jerusalem, not to try to reconfigure the system or targeting certain factors to change into the shape we believed to be better though at times we had to again remind ourselves of this.

In saying that we should be endeavoring to understand the forces that constitute the entire system in its present form I should explain my understanding of the Systems Practice concept of force. It is the dynamic causal relationships between two factors. One factor, the cause, has an effect on another factor. 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. These can then be categorized according to the course as different types of forces, either as enabling or inhibiting within the system under question.

At this stage then, prior to actual mapping, there is only a collection of separate factors presumed to be part of a system but with no real understanding as of yet of their relationships, like cutting up pictures for pieces of a puzzle and putting them in a box. A collection though is not a system, it requires dynamic and purposeful assembly.

The Systems Practice approach, as it will be shown, disaggregates factors and then seeks to develop fresh connections between them to provide new insights. This also enhances complexity, unrealized at this point and potentially to be made more coherent by the Systems Practice process.

The course then speaks of forces between the factors, basically connoting causality or correlation. As I explained above, it takes two factors to create a force. Kumu represents these forces graphically as connections between the elements. In the course, the format used is + and - signs. This is where categorization of factors as either upstream or downstream and very often both.

A connection originates with either a plus sign meaning an increase in that factor (cause/upstream) or a minus sign meaning a decrease in that factor and ends in either a plus or minus sign to the connecting factor (effect/downstream). So an increase/decrease in A can lead to an increase/decrease in B and all the combinations possible. It can also mean moves in the same or opposite direction as in when A moves in a certain direction B moves either in the same direction or the opposite direction.

Again, any actual connections between factors representing causal relationships or forces have not been established at this point. Factors are grouped together first as either enablers or inhibitors and then categorized under a set of common characteristics or what the course called “themes”.

Taking a step back with the benefit of some hindsight, themes are part of the dynamic assembly mentioned above occurring after factor collection, separating enabling forces from inhibiting forces and then subsequently combining such forces into various themes or collections of common ideas. Themes illuminate the related forces at work within the system.

My own Systems Practice approach avoids lumping factors or blending them together by a common label to make them more homogeneous even though based on different aspects or perspectives, instead emphasizing a diversity of ideas across themes.

Factors under Systems Practice hopefully then retain a certain independence or isolation from being made to specifically serve solely one side of the system conflict or the other until their influences within the larger system are determined. They are often shown to have counterparts that they were either influenced by or that they influenced or as said above more likely both.

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

It is presumed to be less confusing for a group if the clusters are made up of either all enablers or all inhibitors. There can be enabling factors that drive the cost of living down alongside inhibitors that drive that same cost of living up. It will be suggested then doing two different types of loops based on a particular thematic cluster, one for the dynamics that drive the cost of living down and then another one on the dynamics that drive the cost of living up when creating systems maps with Kumu.

Another reason for separating forces into two groups of enablers and inhibitors is to ensure that the group is putting sufficient attention on those factors that make things better in the current system configuration before merging them into loops and not only focusing on those that were making things worse.

The tendency had been for past 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 that could have even made 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. Sometimes this might require taking a second look.

So the group has various collections of factors organized into different themes bringing up again 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 photo collage. What is being sought is moving from talking about things to creating a story.

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