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, May 6, 2018

Systems Practice Crossroads, Is It Worth the Effort?

The current effort has come to a crossroads, so some territory will be gone over again. The purpose of this blog series on Systems Practice was not to persuade anyone unfamiliar to use either Systems Practice or Systems Thinking. The systems map displayed in the last blog post would have discouraged that, a collection of colored dots connected with swirling yellow lines. One might have discerned that the color of the dots corresponded with different categorizations, the Systems Practice themes and that the connection between different dots formed some type of relationship. At this point, it was merely that one dot (factor) was roughly upstream (cause) or downstream (effect) of another. The why, not only of individual connections but of the larger complex structure rising out of those connections is far less apparent. At this point, it would be impossible to unravel the myriad of decisions that went into that particular final configuration.

The effort was instead to test certain ideas that have been featured on this blog as well as to evaluate the Acumen Systems Practice course for a second round. The first round considered not to be a proper assessment since the program wasn't followed, jumping too soon ahead with systems mapping. The approach was undertaken again in an attempt to assess how Systems Thinking and especially Systems Practice could be utilized in a system of community governance based on direct, or both participatory and deliberative, democracy. Such an approach has been examined more theoretically with the blog post, A Map for Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking, related Kumu map, Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking and the Kumu presentation, Using System Thinking for Better Deliberative and Participatory Democracy.

Special attention was paid to how community groups might use Systems Thinking to develop projects and programs that could potentially be of benefit to the entire community. As an extension (or as an appendage of), a system of Community Based Virtual Collaboration was also explored in the blog post NCP + VSI = A Potential Path for Meaningful Community Change.

The crossroads is the transition from an upstream-downstream systems map to a more comprehensive Causal Loop Diagram map that more explicitly expresses the different multiple relationships making up what has been deemed a Plastic Pollution Production system, specifically in Bangkok, Thailand.

It would seem that while not quite as early as with the first attempt at the course, I still started systems mapping too early, at least there is an argument for such. I touched on this argument in the last post.

There may be two reasons for this splintering between what the course calls for and my own natural inclinations. First is my natural inclination to map a system in question to better understand it. Trying to conceptualize the upstream and downstream relationships of the collection of different factors we had collected together as a team would have been frustrating for me if I couldn’t map. Second, the Systems Practice approach seems to be more suited to teams that are physically in the same location.

Our current efforts were not a good example of Virtual Systemic Collaboration. With the Homeless Food Truck Systems Practice Project, the team members were primarily in the United States so time differences were less of a factor. Communication being not only asynchronous but also far more distant geographically made communication too difficult this time. The Homeless Project also had a larger team to start with, offering a greater diversity of ideas, and more people not only came up with ideas but also contributed their own systems maps. I worked both the group and, as mentioned before, had started with my own systems maps on the topic.

Arguably, I still started too early with systems mapping this time. My interpretation of the Acumen Systems Practice group approach is that far more time is spent on working with the factors as components prior to solidifying them into a system that can be mapped out. My contributions to the collection of initial factors regarding plastic pollution in Bangkok, Thailand were overly generic in my view. The others made far more precise and applicable contributions. I then took those and came up with the systems map cited above.

Analogies help understand the difference in approaches. I created a root system for the Causal Loop Diagram maps that I would go on to make. The more official Systems Practice approach seems more akin to building an automobile. Everybody in the group brings in what could be used as parts and discussed together how they could best be fitted together.

With the Systems Practice Homeless Project, I could argue that my individual approach was better suited for deeper analysis. Too often, from my personal perspective, online collaboration efforts try too hard to come up with solutions that satisfy everyone regardless of how inviable a solution it may actually be in the long term. Unintended consequences are deferred in favor of current compromise. Systems Thinking that stays true to its principles has a way of telling people what they often don’t want to hear. One, in particular, is how very, very hard it is to permanently change entrenched systems, especially entrenched, legacy derived, institutional systems or the systems arising because of them.

The creation of a root system for the Plastic Pollution Production system would likely define to a great extent the specifics of the type of system that would grow from it. Doesn’t mean what grows from it is wrong but it does limit possible and potentially better solutions. More maps using both the organic method and the construction method to be evaluated together would seem to be a better approach.

Unfortunately, the MOSS team was not able to hold together. Dohn at this juncture had decided to pursue his real world academic pursuits. Shawn joined too late after the Causal Loop Diagram maps had been largely developed, and as discussed in the last post felt unable to make any meaningful contributions. A result perhaps of having created a far too solid appearing system structure. Steve (and Sander) had been communicating that the projects which with they had been working were demanding more of their time. This Systems Practice project was only to be a possible part of that larger project for which they were responsible. My understanding was that the Systems Practice project was not the primary purpose. Both Steve and Sander presumedly then pursued their primary purpose and stopped participating in the Systems Practice project.

So I began creating the causal loop diagrams from the root of the aforementioned upstream-downstream systems map and continued on until it reached what I felt was a state (actually states) of completion. I continued to proceed in the effort despite not being able to obtain any feedback. Systems mapping becomes more of an internal process based on logically building upon previously established factors, connections, links, and loops.

Basically, what I was doing was creating a story or play based on the factors, let's think of them as analogous to characters, props, scenes in a play, given to me by the others. There seems to be a positive albeit passive acknowledgment of the story that was created. I received a few likes and positive comments but not really any critique.

Even with the best of intentions, there are a number of errors that can arise in developing a Causal Loop Diagram map intended to explain or elucidate some particular system or component of a system. I could have misunderstood the factors or could have placed them into an incorrect configuration. I could have gotten both correct but made wrong inferences when developing the relationships further.

Even if I am right in all of these aspects, my approach could still be suspected by many. My satellite-oriented vantage point of the larger system took, I believe, a Systems Practice perspective of looking at the system’s health rather than devising some path to mission accomplished, understanding the patterns comprising that system and endeavoring to find the means of change internal to the system rather than imposing from the outside. As I said elsewhere, “However, none of the causal loops directly cause plastic pollution as their intended purpose”. Three different systems, capable of existing independently on their own came to be seen as being subsystems of the larger Plastic Pollution Production system - Retail Market, Business Perspective and Governance Environment. (This effort has long held that there is a difference between government and governance.) Any perspective taken solely from any one subsystem vantage point might very likely miss insights required to understand the entire system.

This then brings us to the real question behind this effort. Is it worth it? Does systems thinking and its practical application Systems Practice make a difference that is worth the effort that a group needs to put into it? That question has still not been answered.

I create systems maps of any kind first as an explanatory vehicle for myself then as an explanatory vehicle for others. It is the later, explaining to others, that is obviously the greater challenge, especially for complex systems. Using Systems Thinking means that others must not only become familiar with changing from solely longitudinal thinking to also incorporating latitudinal thinking but also delving deeper into both the content and context of the system in question. People, however, often desire to be persuaded rather than to convince themselves by taking the time to develop a deeper understanding. A simplified and persuasive explanation often does not have the necessary explanatory power needed to understand how to make changes to a complex system that don't have detrimental unintended consequences. Understanding is easier if they have participated directly in building the relevant systems map. It can still be possible by taking them through a guided tour using Kumu presentations. The following presentation is the first attempt to find that balance, Addressing Plastic Pollution in Bangkok, Thailand - Essential Factors Pathway (Deep Structure).

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