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Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction
Managing complexity: A systems approach – introduction

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8.2 Stakeholder traps

I've found it's not at all uncommon to discover I have a stake in a situation. Complex situations often spread their tentacles into all sorts of areas, so that the number of people touched by them can be very large. This increases the chances of an individual acquiring a stake, even an indirect or second hand one. The human capacity to empathise draws me into a situation so that I form pre-judgements about fairness, blame and so on without really trying. In many ways this is to be welcomed – a direct stake can, for example, mean I have access to additional information.

But stakeholdings can also set traps. The principal one of these is the trap of getting caught in one perspective. If I am to be able to respond to a situation in a way that respects its complexity, I have to be able to see the situation from more than one point of view. Any view is always a view from somewhere. Staying with one viewpoint will mean some aspects of the situation will remain hidden. I have to move between viewpoints.


Imagine some friends read the case study and they recorded their initial reactions as follows.

Jane: I've experienced exactly what this is all about. I've had no end of problems ever since Billy's father left. And the CSA has been no help at all.

Martha: Mmm! It doesn't really seem fair that fathers who've been very responsible and have met all the conditions of their court orders should suddenly find themselves having to pay out much more than they'd planned for.

Pete: This is all motivated by the government's drive to save money. It's fundamentally dishonest to dress it up as help for families.

Liam: I don't really have an opinion. If people chose to have children then their problems are all of their own making – and nothing to do with me. I just have to pay up through the tax system.

How would you help your friends to identify any traps to do with their first thoughts before they start to think more systemically about the situation? Hint: Whether your friends’ reactions are right or wrong, in your opinion, is not important.


Jane may be in the trap of thinking she knows all about it. She is certainly likely to know lots about it from the point of view of someone in her situation but this is not the same as knowing all about it. She may get trapped in her own perspective too. This perspective already seems to include the conclusion that the CSA is ‘no help at all’. She may need to make a conscious effort to include other perspectives as fully as possible and be open to seeing alternative views of the CSA.

Martha may need to make sure she is open to alternative opinions, even ones that could change her mind.

Pete seems to be identifying a single source for the problem. This is a trap. He is also making a judgement about a component in the situation, and that too makes him less open to seeing other perspectives on the problem. He may be right, he may be wrong, but moral judgements of this sort tend to obscure the multiplicity of motivations and issues that make up the situation.

Liam does have an opinion. It seems to be a strong one too. He's also a stakeholder, through the tax system. He may find he gets stuck in the trap of feeling disengaged, by being engaged in what seems to be a ‘blame story’ that attributes the whole problem to parents. This is a pre-judgement that will get in the way of thinking clearly and systemically about the situation if he is not aware of it.

The next activity asks you to make notes of traps you think may be inherent in your initial evaluations of the situation. The notes you make will serve as an alert as you continue to work through the case-study material. Often, simply being aware of initial evaluations and being determined to treat them sceptically and open-mindedly is enough to avoid them becoming traps. Be prepared to change your mind.

Expect to spend about 15 minutes on the next two activities.

Activity 15

Identify traps that may arise from your initial evaluations of the situation, for example, traps set by stakeholdings or identification; the ‘core issue’ trap; the ‘unacknowledged feelings’ trap; the ‘gut-reaction solution’ trap, all discussed above.

Make notes on any traps you identify as a result of studying your notes from Activities 13 and 14.

Finally, having done all this, you can locate yourself in the rich picture. Take a few minutes to do this in Activity 16.

Activity 16

Locate yourself in your rich picture.

Decide how you are going to represent yourself in your rich picture. Where do you stand in this situation? You might, for example, see yourself as a student, eager to see what can be done to improve the situation. You may want to represent yourself avoiding traps (or using some other metaphor, you don't have to use mine). You may want to represent yourself as a lone parent. Give it some careful thought but also listen to your instincts, and be prepared to change or add to your representation later.