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.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

To Systems Map or Not to Systems Map is the Question

The previous post in this series on a Systems Practice approach to addressing plastic pollution in Bangkok, Thailand dealt with the transition from a collection of relevant factors in a spreadsheet to the creation of a type of systems map.

It is not expected to make any particular sense at this point. The spreadsheet which contains the same information is likely more sensible. Even with some exposure to systems thinking, perhaps through this blog, this particular form of systems mapping doesn’t communicate information as well as say a Causal Loop Diagrams map might. It is a necessary step, though, in the Systems Practice process.

This version of Systems Practice (SP USA) has been compared to the Systems Practice UK version. SP UK was, in my view, more philosophical in setting different schools of thought in contrast to each other. In that division between hard systems/ontological thinking and soft systems/epistemological thinking, one of the sides was chosen (the NCP Fantasy Systems Thinking Team).

Systems Practice (SP USA) is not a philosophy. It is a playbook. They actually have a playbook, Systems Practice Workbook Omidyar Group, which describes the process undertaken in implementing a Systems Practice approach to dealing with wicked problems (the impossible of the course’s title). It has no issues with taking from either of the different approaches that suits its purposes. Once again, let's repeat this blog is not intended as a substitute for the course.

Systems Practice is basically applied systems thinking. Systems thinking for me is thought experiments with pictures using alternative forms of cognitive navigation to steer through challenges, especially wicked challenges. The new thinking in navigation during the Age of Discovery, as told in How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson / Time (Emmy Winner) can serve for as a metaphor for Systems Thinking. This time in history was arguably a paradigm shift and as notable as modern man’s mission to the moon.

Returning to the map above, it was the means used to help determine whether particular factors were, using the SP USA analogy of upstream, which meant they were the causal or correlated influences on factors or effects downstream or whether they were instead downstream and the effect of those causal factors or correlated influences upstream. In truth, most were both, only a few were expressly one or the other. Team member Steve Kennedy had more luck with putting together the list on the spreadsheet, which was also a help.

The map was only a working model and the connections created might have easily gone in other directions but it gave a sense of how things flowed. Upstream and downstream are defined by connections with downstream at the end with the arrowhead. At this point, I did not have a truly systemic perspective. It would be extremely difficult to try and reverse engineer the process of putting the map together from the spreadsheet. There would be revisions to some of the assumptions made later in the process. It was the sketch before the painting. It is seen as having been correct because it and later maps were judged as being correct by others.

Each factor, in addition to being put into an upstream-downstream framework, was categorized by what the SP USA course called a Theme, groupings of factors that are meaningfully related (the list below the legend on the map). The consumer theme was the only one developed with a focus that stepped out by what Kumu categorizes as three degrees and what I am referring to as three causal steps. An upstream factor is one causal step or one degree away from the factor which is the effect downstream from it. Systems thinking pays attention to factors two, three, even more, steps separated.

The consumer theme was determined to be a primary focus of the map based on the factors that were developed. The consumer theme was able to feedback or close upon itself thus having the potential of becoming a loop of persistent causality or a causal loop diagram.

The team did not have the problem with understanding the systems map to which I am alluding to here as they helped build it or were at least familiar enough to follow along. It is communicating to others that is the challenge. There were discussions. It can be noted that so far this blog post has only mentioned either plastic pollution or Bangkok, Thailand. Thai Buddhist Festivals as a factor was seen as being an enabler (adding to plastic pollution), at least under the present circumstances. Steve had submitted the former Thai King and his love of nature as a possible factor, what about the current Thai King? The focus was on building the relationships making up the system.

This is my second experience with the SP USA course. The previous Systems Practice project on homelessness had more diversity in the initial outlooks, some of which I had not considered until later in the process but we found and agreed upon common ground. There was, as mentioned before, the issue that I had started systems mapping even before the course had begun.  The previous project also had a greater diversity of input in terms of mapping with at least three of us still working on our own individual mapping ideas at the finish of the course. In this current course, I was basically the only one doing the actual systems mapping portion of creating the overall project.

The map above was then developed into a Causal Loop Diagram map, a more advanced map that will be introduced in a future post.

Our newest team member Shawn would later write about it, " The mapping itself seems extensive and coherent, and it would be hard press for me to add much of significance."

I came to see a problem with having a map being seen as extensive and coherent, at least too early in the process. I began to see why the course leaves Kumu mapping until the middle of the course. Whether at this point in the process it was too early is debatable. 

The problem is that people can get the impression that maps, as presented, are complete and finalized. If extensive and coherent then the extensive aspect can be an issue in making the challenge seem overwhelming without boundaries or with endless divisions. As for the coherent aspect, if successful, can help give the impression that they are related but not necessarily how. Together though they can discourage additional input by giving a false impression of completeness.

If this is true of people taking the course, what of community members one might work with who are unfamiliar with systems practice and systems thinking? There is also the additional consideration that those others would have been more meaningfully connected if they had helped to build the map(s) themselves.

In my idealistic imagination, I would like to see the development of Systems Practice Maps that could serve as a template that could be used for further development in Thailand or anywhere with on-the-ground stakeholders.

It should be possible for anyone to contribute, but it would seem only with having to revise the entire map, at least with narrative links within related loops. With only a map wise, the insertion of an idea could be done simply by adding to the Factor and Theme spreadsheet. It is possible to create forms for people to respond to and tie those sheets directly into the Kumu maps. A group process then could be used to determine if and how the factor or element fits into the larger map.

Yeu Wen, the course catalyst, suggested thinking of themes and factors 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, said that we can think of the process in some ways as building a story. 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 as individuals. I would never have been able to create what I did without the knowledgeable input from everyone else. After that, it was like putting together a story but stories can take multiple pathways though seemingly becoming more restrictive further along in the process. The story has to do more than merely sound true to others, it has to be demonstrated to be true. 

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