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

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9.8 Diagramming a complex situation

Diagrams are never an end in themselves. They have a purpose. They exist in relation to a situation and can be used to cast light upon aspects of that situation or to explain it to someone.

So, the next step is to look at the diagrams you have drawn and to ask yourself what you have learned about the situation. This answer may be in terms of a deeper appreciation of the situation. It may also be in terms of pointers towards possible interventions and some idea of the likely effects of such an intervention. The advantage of having a good set of diagrams to hand is it becomes possible to predict the likely beneficial – and detrimental – effects of changes that might be made.

Diagrams play a central role in systems practice. They allow the systems practitioner to impose some structure on a complex, and possibly problematic, situation. As you saw during the activities you did, it is possible to draw several of any type of diagrams and an experienced practitioner will often draw several diagrams of each type. Sometimes the variations will be in terms of perspective, sometimes they will explore different aspects of the situation. The systems maps will illuminate structures and relationships between structural entities in the situation. The influence diagrams and multiple-cause diagrams will illuminate the dynamic relationships between events, effects and structures, and the sign graphs will show something about sensitivities between variables.

Sometimes the insights gained from a few good diagrams are sufficient to give confidence in designing and making an intervention. It may be possible, for example, to predict the knock‑on effects of an intervention in a way that allows the risks and benefits to be evaluated.

Your responses to the next activity will probably be tentative (maybe they ought to be tentative) but the process of answering the questions will help you to develop further your evaluation of your diagramming efforts.

Spend about 15 minutes on this activity.

Activity 28

List any ideas for interventions you would like to investigate further in your Learning Journal.

Simply list ideas that have occurred to you during the drawing and afterwards in the reviewing.

What ideas would you like to explore further? Why do they appeal to you?

Do your diagrams give you any idea about any likely effects, both intended and unintended, that might occur as a result of your suggested intervention?

Don't worry if your answer is no. There will be further opportunities to explore situations in this way later in the unit.


What are the overall objectives of using diagrams in Systems case-study work?

What are the main outcomes you expect from each of the following diagram types?

  • Rich pictures

  • Multiple-cause diagrams

  • Systems maps

  • Control-model diagrams


The essence of using diagrams is captured in the idea of getting to grips with complexity. Producing a diagram enables you to explore your understanding in a dynamic way and enables you to identify patterns of interconnection. Notice I am attaching considerable importance to the idea of drawing the diagram. This is at least as important as, if not more important than, having the final diagram. The process of producing the diagram can be rather like a dialogue between your understanding and your representation. The diagram itself is like a captured piece of the complexity – captured by your understanding and capable of being interrogated about likely effects of intervening. Diagrams can also be used as the basis for exploring your perspective, perhaps by comparing your diagram with someone else's.

Rich pictures allow you to have the whole of the situation spread out in front of you. You can see all the components, as well as the events, facts, values, opinions, and emotions expressed by all the stakeholders. It allows you to check back at each stage of your further analyses to ensure you are not unintentionally neglecting important features of the situation.

Multiple-cause diagrams allow you to explore the origins of particular events or effects. This is especially effective where particular effects seem to recur, even when their most obvious causes have been removed. It may be that the immediate causes are reappearing because their causes have not been removed or because there are other, less obvious, causes in place. It also lets you explore unexpected effects such as when a well-intentioned intervention seems to have exactly the opposite effect to what was intended.

Systems maps allow you to structure features of a situation in a number of different ways. They allow you to find simple ways of thinking about multi-faceted situations by ordering features in hierarchies of systems with subsystems embedded in them. It allows you to say things like ‘If I think of this X as being a system to… then this other feature belongs to it as a subsystem whose purpose is …’.

Control-model diagrams allow you to explore what is needed if a system is to fulfil its purpose. It allows you to explore what transformation takes place in order to fulfil that purpose and what checks and controls are needed to find out whether it is doing that. It allows you to think about the necessary components and about the way they are connected. Control‑model diagrams are therefore a way of diagnosing a system that appears not to be working or working well, and they can also be used to design ways of making sure a system you are thinking of using will work as well as you hope it will work.