What is a situation? Here and now is a situation, in fact every moment of every day is a situation that exists and as people we are, as Ison says “always in situations, never outside them” (Ison, 2017, P39). What is in our control is our ability to engage with that situation or simply to seek a new position or to disengage to collect our thoughts.
We have choices, how we seek to engage with a situation, if we chose to see the situation as a system or as part of a system, and if so, whether the situation needs containing, is ever present or a situation that could explode. The word ‘system’carries various connotations, it has become a ‘catch-all’ word for seeing the interconnected nature of our lives. Financial systems, health and well-being systems, electrical systems, even stereo sound systems, all of which carry with it the view of some systematic process, a single cause and effect and a way of engaging with a well-defined entity. We must break this generic mode of thinking and instead think in terms of the abstract, of flows, of impacts beyond events to outcomes driven through purpose, to limited and the unlimited capacity, to leverage and feedback, to synergy and beyond.
Systems are the envisioned domains of the practitioner, defined by them through a narrative that highlights the constraints and limitations of the system and reflective of the practitioner’s worldview. Even the purpose of a system carries with it multiple ways to frame it since, as the saying goes “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Purpose is as subjective as the boundaries in which it lays. If we extend a boundary into the environment or narrow it, becoming more niche, we modify the very purpose and categorically change the way the elements interact with each other.
When working with businesses I use the Business Model Canvas (BMC) because it neatly displays the components of a business, which I see as a system, into nine building blocks. As a systems thinker I relate these blocks into a design thinking narrative of how the business works now, how it could work in the future and how we might test, learn and implement change. I am looking for points of leverage, those places which self-generated feedback loops can be embedded, loops that then create the capacity to scale. You can see the BMC as a reductionist tool, a systematic process driven model, but it is not until you apply systemic ways of thinking that the colours of the canvas come alive. It helps, as the practitioner, to use this framework, since it is visually neat, intuitive and therefore easy for all business owners to place their situation within it. It is diagrammatic allowing for immediate understanding and commentary, support Ison in his views that “the diagram ‘captures’ someone’s thinking and ‘mediates’ communication about this thinking with others” (Ison, 2017, P44).
The purpose to all this is to avoid the reductionist thinking of the past, to stick with the ‘same old, same old’ and expect a changing world of the future. If we want to establish growth within a business, we must constantly visualise new ways of working. As Morris, cited by Ison, alludes to it is essential that we establish where the boundaries are, define clearly the success criteria from the perspective of all stakeholder groups, and use this to communicate a shared vision (Ison, 2017).
Systems are not just these visualised entities they are also how we think about situations, thinking them through ‘systemically’ and in doing so embarking on an inquiry. As the practitioner we view the situation as a joyous piece of complexity to engage with as we strive to create a learning experience.
To do so the practice has a meaningful dynamic where the heuristic places the practitioner as a constant learner and observer of the situation, someone who stands within it and outside of it, bringing with them a framework of thinking driven from experience and a collection of methods to help bring sustenance to the enquiry. It is this reflexive aspect that brings the depth to the process as practitioner engages with the concept of what they do as and when they do what they do, this second order thinking then drives the learning.
How we define a system of interest is by first defining a boundary that captures the situation in such a way that there is a good chance that any improvement can be achieved through those elements captured by the system. By doing this we are clearly articulating a system as opposed to an environment. The practitioner will no doubt have very different boundary judgments to that of another stakeholder. Ison suggests that the defining of a system of interest is itself a systemic practice since it facilitates change by articulating what needs changing, it identifies social relations that are important and qualifies what the difference in purpose might be from all stakeholders. This transitioning of mindset and framing that alternates between seeing systems as bounded entities to systems as a process is often hard to accommodate (Ison, 2017, P54). We must do so if we are to move the current short-comings to a more engaged means of thinking through complexity, a key facet of which is the relational thinking and reasoning that we must incorporate. Here we are assessing the line of thought looking for synergies that explain the way a relationship may unfold, it is an important facet of the general model of practice. The practitioner cannot be a practitioner without the framework which itself depends upon the models we use and all of which is determined by the situation of interest.
Systems practice is not the sole domain of the practitioner, the domain of the practitioner is to make systems practice fall into the domain of everyone. That brings in the interesting question of who are the current high-flying system thinkers, where do they exist and if they do, how would we know that is what they are?
Ison is looking to make clear what effective system practice looks like so that we can make these sorts of judgments. It is by establishing, in his view, the ‘ideal type’ he is looking to open the debate to the public arena. This ideal representation stemmed from his years of experience in the field and came as a response to the reflexive question “what is it that we do when we do what we do?”
Before I go onto understand his thinking I will establish my own thoughts. I believe it is someone who places long-term ahead of the short-term, who thinks of sustainability and has a care for people, planet and the universe. Someone who brings to their own skill base a means to constantly reevaluate and remodel their own existence whilst maintaining the core of their purpose, who can be aware of the whole but not to be consumed by it. Systems practitioners are creative andhumanistic, lovers of complexity and hungry for knowledge and eager to experience. They are emotionally intelligent, and emotionally connected seeing this as the greatest differentiation between humans and the ever-growing systemic world. In the end the systems practitioner is someone who embrace people for what they are and what they can be. Systems practitioners cannot afford to be judgemental, since this assumes a predetermined mindset, closed to choices and sealed to engaging with complexity. They believe that it is our humanity that must carve out a path for people in this ever developing systematic and process driven world.
Ison, R,. (2017) Systems Practice: How to Act. 2nd Ed. Milton Keynes, Open University Press