Making sense of different systems
Systems Thinking – so what next? How do we make sense of systems? We can start by asking what sort of system are we dealing with: simple, complicated, complex or even chaotic.
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework offers a useful way to decide what sort of system we are dealing with and what tools or methods might be useful to help us understand it. The framework may look a bit mechanistic, but it provides a useful place to begin.
Cynefin suggests there are 4 types of system:
- simple (linear)
- complex; or
This Cynefin framework points towards tools and approaches we might use to understand and find solutions to system issues. These tools are analytical in relation to simple and complicated systems, but more concerned with building broad pictures or experimenting forwards, where complex systems are involved. We are still not sure how to deal effectively with chaotic systems.
EF Schumacher also suggests that solutions can be found where systems are simple and complicated because it is possible to ‘converge’ on a solution via analysis. But in complex or chaotic systems, where views diverge, where more than one right answer may be possible, analysis does not serve and other approaches are needed.
Try looking at some systems and fitting them into the Cynefin framework, working out how you might act in relation to them.
What are your assumptions and beliefs about the extent to which the world can be understood? This will be important in terms of how you look at systems.
Do you believe that, with sufficient analysis, any system can be understood and therefore solutions can be found? Or, do you believe the world is too complex to ever be fully explained and therefore it is better to treat analysis with caution, trying other ways to find solutions?
Michael C Jackson (2003) Systems Thinking, Creative Holism for Managers. John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK
Donella Meadows (2009) Thinking in Systems, a primer. Earthscan, London
Peter Senge (2006) The Fifth Discipline - The Art and Practice of a Learning Organisation. 2nd Revised Edition Random House
E F Schumacher (1974) Small is Beautiful, A study of economics as if people mattered. Abacus edition, Sphere Books, London
Ralph Stacey (2012) Tools and Techniques of Management and Leadership: Meeting the Challenge of Complexity Routledge, UK
Fritz, Robert (1989) The Path of Least Resistance - Learning to become the Creative Force in your own life Fawcett Columbine, New York, USA
Arie de Geus (1999) The Living Company - Growth, Learning and Longevity in Business Nicholas Brealey Publishing Ltd, London
Bohm, David ( ) On Dialogue
Harrison Owen (1992) Open Space Technology - A User's guide Abbott Publishing, USA
In-depth (bullet point summary from the video, above)
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework offers a way for understanding and approaching systemic problems, where systems may be simple, complicated, complex or chaotic.
Simple / Linear Systems
Right answer exists
Machine type process
Clear cause and effect
Service production lines
Total Quality Management (now 6 Sigma or Lean) e.g. Process definition, Flowchart, Fishbone diagram, Operational models
Cause and effect not obvious but discoverable
More than one right answer possible
Expert diagnosis required
Predictable – no unexpected emergent properties (it does what is expected unless it breaks)
System Dynamics (see Meadows and Senge references above)
e.g. Behaviour over time (including Statistical Process Control)
Stocks and flows
Causal Loops – positive and negative (balancing) feedback loops
Viable System Model (for more information see Jackson reference, above)
Simple and Complicated would be described by E F Schumacher as ‘Convergent’. In other words, capable of solution via analysis, where it is possible to converge on a single solution, which exists and can be found.
Differing worldviews, values, purposes
Unpredictable, non-linear, flux
No right answer or many possible answers
Challenge to power
Human social systems
Soft systems methodology (Checkland) (for more information see Jackson reference above)
Consider all aspects to create as rich a picture as possible
Include: feedbacks, human, social, political, cultural, elements, any sub-systems
Create root definitions to describe the system using CATWOE
Future base (Robert Fritz – Path of Least Resistance - see reference above)
which also leads to Scenario planning (see Arie de Geus reference above)
Action research/experiment (see next section of this site)
Dialogue (see David Bohm reference above)
No right answers
No point looking
No time to think
Many decisions to make
Tools to experiment with
Open space (see Harrison Owen reference above)
Dialogue (David Bohm On Dialogue)
Conversation (Ralph Stacey)
Complex and Chaotic would be described by E F Schumacher as Divergent, where there is more than one possible answer, which cannot be reduced to a single solution and where different worldviews may never be able to converge. Schumacher criticised many approaches to solving organizational and political problems because they attempted to drag what is clearly a divergent problem into the convergent, simplifying complex issues via analysis to try to arrive at a simple, one-size-fits-all solution when this is not possible, even dangerous.
Schumacher stressed the importance of recognizing when an issue is Divergent; of working out ways to reconcile divergent views, rather than trying to force convergence.