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Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice
Strategic planning: systems thinking in practice

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2 Tools, people and their situations

There are generally three factors involved with making an intervention (e.g. a strategic plan): firstly, the situations that need changing; secondly, people (stakeholders) involved with the change; and thirdly, tools or ideas for making the change.

Activity 3 Factors in managing situations of change

Think of some situation recently that was a problem for you in some way, where the solution wasn't immediately obvious, but you had to do something to try to sort it out.

If you can't think of a suitable situation, imagine one. It could be something like dealing with intolerably noisy neighbours, or coping with a cash-flow crisis in your local youth club.

Step 1

Situation. Write a brief ‘thumbnail’ note outlining the situation. Write two or three sentences, not a full case history.

Step 2

People. Who did (or would) this involve? Keep it anonymous or use fictitious names. If you were writing a story about what happened, what characters would need to be on the cast list? Not just the central characters, but all those who would directly or indirectly play a significant part in the story.

Step 3

Notions you drew on. You may well find this the most difficult bit of this activity, because so many of the ideas that inform how you see things and what you do seem so obvious that you don’t think about them. They may be habits and attitudes that are so deeply buried that you may not even recognise that you are responding to them. Nevertheless, have a go. You might find the following questions helpful:

  • What type of situation is it? Are you aware of other situations that seem to be similar in some way? Could you give a generic label? Does it fall into one or more particular categories?

  • What seems to you to be the cause or causes of this situation?

  • What do you regard as the rights and wrongs of this situation?

  • What is the right way to approach a situation like this?

Step 4

Changing viewpoint. Pick someone, other than you, from the list you generated at step 2. Now imagine you are that other person. Imagine they are describing the same situation. Both you and they might be responding to the fact that the people at No. 16 High Street play loud music at 4.00 am, which keeps the people at No. 14 – you – awake. However, they are responding from a different position within that situation – they might be one of the people from No. 16. Repeat steps 1–3 as if you were the other person. Notice how the description, cast list, and background notions change – probably quite radically.


The activity illustrates, for me, several important features of thinking and acting in situations in order to improve them. Firstly, it brings out the importance of the situation itself, to which the people using the tools must address. Secondly, there may be many people involved in a situation, each with notions or ideas built upon years of individual experience. This can sometimes provide a source of constructive inspiration but it also can sometimes be a source of conflict and frustration. Thirdly, the exercise illustrates how someone’s judgement or ideas on what might be the right and wrong course of action is a product of their individual life experiences.

The three factors of situations, people and ideas are always present but they are also always subject to change and flux. Moreover a change in one factor is likely to influence the other two. Try out the next activity as another thought experiment.

Activity 4 Consultant using tools for managing change

A young relative has just set up her own small business and is hitting all sorts of practical problems with money and people. She writes to you listing examples of the sorts of issues she is having with the business. She asks you if you have any general, life-skill advice about dealing with problems – perhaps some sort of 1, 2, 3 checklist?

  • a.What would your checklist have on it?
  • b.How useful do you think a general checklist would be? Would it be really just a matter of spending years learning about each of the innumerable different kinds of things that can happen? What is the relative importance of sound general principles as compared with local, detailed, specific knowledge?

Apart from illustrating how difficult it can be to sometimes appreciate the perspective of other stakeholders involved in a messy situation, Activities 3 and 4 illustrate the interdependencies between the three factors. Any change in one factor is likely to effect changes in the other two.

In Activity 4 an important question is raised regarding how much the tools available might become a hindrance rather than a source of support. Some guidelines for action might be appropriate in one context but perhaps be less appropriate in another. For example, having a procedure of inclusive participation involving multiple viewpoints on decisions might be worthy with respect to, say, funding of alternative energy supplies, but less worthy with respect to piloting a plane in a crisis situation, or in persuading your child not to harm the neighbour’s pet dog.

The aim of Activities 3 and 4 is to illustrate the relationship between a perceived problem situation and the means of making change. The identified problem situation is paramount because it leads on to deciding who might be responsible for, or otherwise involved in, the situation. That decision influences how the problem might be solved and what ideas or tools might be used to change the situation.

To summarise, the influence diagram in Figure 2 illustrates the relationships between the three factors of any human endeavour to make strategy:

  • situation – comprising the arena of change and real-world complexities
  • practitioners – people effecting change in the situation
  • ideas – conceptual constructs developed by people for effecting change.

I use the word practitioner here as a more focused term for people involved with managing change. I call the interrelationship between these three factors strategy making.