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

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2.1 Thinking strategically

The diagram below illustrates the dynamic feedback and interdependence between each of the factors. The three factors are evident in all instances of making strategy. One aspect of assessing strategy making is the relationship between the three factors, and the particular emphases given to the different domains. Starting with the situation, it is the relationship or dynamic between the actual situation, people involved, and tools used that determines whether strategy making may claim to be successful.

Figure 2 Influence diagram illustrating the three factors that affect the course of change

In thinking strategically it is always important to start with the situation. What is the nature of the context in which an individual or organisation needs strategic thinking? Is the situation perceived to be problematic to start with?

Activity 5 Situations requiring strategic thinking

Read and make brief notes on Introducing systems approaches [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  by Martin Reynolds and Sue Holwell. Read up to (but not including) 1.2.3 ‘Traps in conventional thinking’. This reading explores the nature of situations – the way of the world – that are part of daily life. Make notes on the common features of the situations described.

The need to think strategically is often associated with what is perceived to be a complex situation. Two conditions make a situation complex. One condition is the multitude of interrelated variables – the 'stuff' that needs attention. Another condition is the range of purposes associated with different perspectives among those involved and affected by the situation.

Figure 3 summarises the main constituents of different types of perceived situations you read about in Activity 5.

Figure 3 Components of difficulties and messes

Given the relationships between many variables, coupled with many perspectives among stakeholders, there is little hope of safely predicting outcomes in complex situations. Thinking strategically of course requires some appreciation of what the future might look or feel like.

This directs attention to two other related conditions that affect strategy making. One is the condition of uncertainty. By this I mean the uncertain condition of the number and relationships between variables, and uncertainty regarding the possible conflict of different perspectives. Making strategy involves working with uncertainty.

The second condition relevant to strategy making is that of change. The interrelationships among variables and the quality and multitude of perspectives in any given situation as depicted in Figure 3 never stand still. Relationships between variables and the perspectives are in a constant state of flux.

So how might systems thinking help make sense of, and contribute towards improvement of, such situations?

Joining things up implies looking at elements of a problem as part of a whole – a system. Since ultimately everything is part of other bigger systems, systems thinking poses problems of delineation (at what level to tackle the issue) and of measurement (how best to measure performance of a system, the NHS [National Health Service], say). But if concentrating on parts of the problem initially seems easier, it always ends in tears, adversely affecting the system as a whole, raising costs and making it harder and harder for managers to see the link between causes and effects.(Caulkin, 2006)

Clear systems thinking is one of the basic literacies of the modern world, not least because it offers unexpected insights that are not amenable to common sense.(Mulgan, 1997)

Geoff Mulgan was a government advisor in the UK government's Cabinet Office during the 1990s. His comments invite questions regarding what constitutes a systems literacy in making strategy. Box 1 provides one fairly succinct exposition of systems from one of my colleagues in systems teaching at The Open University.

Box 1 Systems for strategic thinking

Selected extracts from notes prepared by Dick Morris for the Anglia Schumacher conference (Open Systems Group, 2004).

This word system has become so much a part of our twenty-first century vocabulary, as in 'the transport system' (when it breaks down), 'the social security system' (ditto), a 'stereo system' etc., that we probably take its use for granted, and do not consider some of the implications of using it. Really to think in terms of systems is not necessarily so easy, but is an essential part of our outlook if we are to develop our world in a sustainable manner.

A classic example arose from the series of rail crashes in England in the first years of this century. Tragically, several people were killed, and the obvious 'cause' was problems with the rails. To avoid further loss of life, draconian speed limits were imposed on the trains and repairs to the tracks instigated. This no doubt reduced the chances of further rail accidents, but in the process, persuaded many people to abandon rail travel in favour of their cars. Given that the probability of an accident per kilometre travelled is a couple of orders of magnitude larger for car travel than rail travel, the decisions taken about the railways may actually have increased the number of travel-related deaths and injuries, rather than reduced them. A decision taken about the safety of the railway system may well have had completely the opposite effect to that intended when considered in relation to the wider transport system.

Similar examples could be drawn from any number of situations, highlighting the need to think beyond single cause–effect relations.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of the definition [of a system] is the subjective one – the collection of entities [associated with a system] is chosen by someone as a system. Different individuals may see different systems in a particular situation. For example, the Open University may be seen by students as a system to help their learning, and the bits of the system they would recognise might be course parts, their tutor, computer conferencing system, etc. To the staff, it may be a system to provide a particular livelihood, with an office, library services, particular computing facilities and, importantly, a financial subsystem to provide the pay cheque! Each view is defensible, but neither is complete, and action based on one version only could well produce unexpected and undesirable effects in the wider Open University system. Negotiating and choosing an appropriate system for debate and decision-making can be crucial.