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, October 21, 2018

Systems Practice - Practice Can Mean Making Mistakes and Repeating to Learn from Them

The latest Systems Practice project ”Jerusalem Vision” dealing with Jewish Palestinian relationships has been approached from around the edges in the last post and the two preceding. With this post we will begin zeroing in. As always, this blog is not intended as a substitute for the course. Instead, it takes more of a bird's eye view to see how it might relate to other aspects of new community paradigms.

For me, Systems Practice is basically applied Systems Thinking, thought experiments with pictures (graphic systems maps) using alternative forms of cognitive navigation to steer through challenges, especially wicked challenges. This again needs to be recognized as a sizable cognitive shift for many. Though it can be far more intuitive than might be expected. A favorite metaphor of mine for this new thinking is navigation during the Age of Discovery, a paradigm shift as notable as modern man’s mission to the moon as told in How We Got To Now with Steven Johnson / Time (Emmy Winner). We still need all of our existing “sailor skills” but we are adding a new layer of mapping skills based on a new way of looking at the world.

I still consider myself as having a limited background in Systems Thinking. Many if not most people taking the course though were even less familiar with Systems Thinking and far more familiar with the usual linear reductionist approach to understanding which means breaking things up into smaller pieces for ostensibly better control. The challenge then is developing a means of helping others to cross over to a more holistic, Systems Thinking approach or in the case of a systems practice approach through a group process. I still don’t believe that there is a strong enough foundation in Systems Thinking provided at the beginning of the Systems Practice course and introducing the systems mapping tool Kumu at the very start could help with that. Those with less experience in Systems Thinking may have problems with Systems Practice but those with that do have that experience will still need to be open to taking different perspectives.

Despite any issues raised in the last post with the article A Systemic View of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and its related systems map, its author David Peter Stroh is also recognized as the author of ”Leveraging Grantmaking: Understanding the Dynamics of Complex Social Systems”, concerning the Calhoun County, Michigan study, which used Systems Thinking to address homelessness. The report was cited in the blog post Learning to Apply a Systems Practice to the Wicked Problem of Homelessness and has also been cited in the past when discussing Collective Impact and other times since then.

The Calhoun study looked at the “whole system," not one system for funders, one for providers and another for everybody else. The community’s incentives structure existed to provide quick fixes to address the immediate problem, rather than creating sustained change. One study observation was “The most ironic obstacle to implementing the fundamental solution was the community’s very success in providing temporary shelters and supports.” Systems Thinking was used to determine where intervening with higher level approaches such as housing first could effectively occur. This approach worked even with rising unemployment in the area. Stroh also wrote an insightful article on “Exposing the Hidden Benefits of Business as Usual: Why the Status Quo is So Difficult to Change,” which can also be seen as being applicable to a Systems Practice effort.

This is the third completed Systems Practice project. Waiting this time until the end of the Systems Practice course before blogging allows for a bird’s eye view of the entire Systems Practice process. It also allows inclusion of the other past Systems Practice projects found in the New Community Paradigms Systems Practice wiki-page, which include “Addressing Homelessness in Portland, Oregon” and “Addressing Plastic Pollution in Thailand” as well as looking at Systems Practice from a more philosophical perspective categorized as ”Systems Practice UK”.

The SP UK course’s more philosophical indoctrination did help to realize some important insights more fully. One is appreciating the difference between people finding themselves in a complex system and those finding themselves in complex situations, recognizing that these aren’t mutually exclusive. People in the actual applicable problem situation will have different perspectives from those considering the relevant more abstract system in which those situations arise.

The project Plastic Pollution in Thailand and the UK Systems Practice more philosophical perspective gave rise to my own perspective that Systems Practice (SP USA) is not a philosophy. It is a playbook. They actually have a playbook, Systems Practice Workbook Omidyar Group that describes the process undertaken in implementing a Systems Practice approach to deal with wicked problems (the impossible of the course’s title). It has no issues with taking from any of the different Systems Thinking approaches, whether ontological, epistemological, soft or hard explored in the Systems Practice UK series that suits its pragmatic purposes.

The “Addressing Homelessness in Portland, Oregon” project was an extension of the ”Financial Modeling and Last Mile Homeless Food Truck” project and I was the team leader. With ”Plastic Pollution in Thailand, I joined a group, with an already established focus, which unfortunately broke up before the end of the course though I still brought the project to a conclusion. The most recently completed project was the one most in line with the ideas behind ”Direct Democracy and Systems Thinking.” The topic Palestinian and Jewish relationships in the City of Jerusalem was chosen democratically among the eight members of the group out of nine possible topics.

The greatest value the previous two Systems Practice projects brought to the Jerusalem Vision project is what was done wrong or went wrong in those projects. Before the first Systems Practice course, I had worked solo and still tend to do that. Systems Practice though significantly informed and induced me to substantially change the approach I took when working with a group.

My first mistake with Systems Practice was creating a systems map using Kumu far too early in the process before the course had barely started. I came with my cup perhaps too full, putting me out of alignment with the course and with being able to collaborate with the others on the team I was supposedly leading. It took a while to realize that the differences were due to Systems Practice's attempt to focus on group interactions in coming up with solutions.

A primary issue that Systems Thinking seeks to address, because of a tendency of a reductionist approach of breaking systems into smaller components, is to only look at factors in immediate or near-immediate approximation instead of following causal pathways further out to discover hidden relationships. What may be a positive causal force at one point of the system may then become a negative causal force at another point. Systems Practice does address this though perhaps not explicitly allowing its process to reveal any Systems insight.

This doesn’t mean the analysis by reductionism is completely abandoned. The first assignment of the SP course, USA Plastic Pollution in Thailand had us present our system challenge through a Complexity Spectrum, consisting of selecting within spectrums of polar choices.

  • Level of Understanding: Well understood vs Not Understood
  • Engagement: Consensus vs Diversity of Opinion
  • Environment: Stable vs Dynamic
  • Environment: Self-contained vs Interconnected
  • Goals: Small Scale vs Broad Change
  • Goals: Short-term vs Sustainable

Although any relational mapping with Kumu was delayed, using a different mapping program, Plectica allowed for the creation of a map which reflected the Complexity Spectrum’s hierarchical nature and that provided spaces for each of the members of the team to provide their individual input. It fitted rather well with the course assignment proving in this instance, more helpful than Kumu.

The latest “Jerusalem Vision” project didn’t repeat this Complexity Spectrum but we still had an analytical perspective brought to the team through our team leader Yoel Ben-Avraham who has a background as a Systems Analyst. With the latest Jerusalem Vision project, we used RealTime Board as suggested by our team leader Yoel. It had some features similar to Plectica and despite being spread across the globe, we were able to witness the movement of the different factors we had gathered into common themes while collaborating together in real time.

Factors and themes, as well as forces, enablers, and inhibitors, are among specialized terms Systems Practice introduces to help define their group-oriented approach to Systems Thinking. Before, however, getting into that the course first had us establish some common visions of the challenge we were about to address.

Past Posts