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

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1.1 Modelling and value creation

The idea of a mental model enables a clear distinction between situations and systems. A key point in systems practice is not to confuse systems with situations. Do not confuse the map for the territory, to use an important adage from Alfred Korzybski (Korzybski, 1933).

Systems practice involves thinking in terms of purposeful abstraction. Conceptual constructs are abstracted from real-world, complex situations to improve the situation. An example of this can be provided in illustrating a model of strategy making.

The two models in Figure 1 illustrate the three constituent parts of making strategy (situations, practitioners and ideas). They are depicted in Figure 1 both as a simple mental model and as a conceptual model in the formal sense of the term used by what is called soft systems methodology. In both cases they are systems models because they depict activity serving some explicit purpose.

Figure 1 Models of making strategy: (a) mental model (b) conceptual model

The two models are drawn from my perspective. Neither provide complete pictures of reality but in their different ways they enable me to convey important components of strategy making. The models themselves can then be used as a baseline for debate on how to make strategy. Each of the five systems approaches referred to in this course use models of one kind or another. They are not physical tools like a hammer or a can opener, but conceptual tools. Figure 1 (a) illustrates this at two levels. At a first-order level, you can see the tools illustrated as part of individual thought bubbles. The tools making up systems approaches are themselves models used for understanding and practising in the real world. At a second-order level, the whole diagrammatic representation of Figure 1 (a) itself represents, as the caption says, a model.

This way of considering a situation will stop you feeling trapped and frees us from a sense of impotence. You will be less inclined to say ‘the system is against me’ and ‘how can I beat the system’. Instead, I hope you will see systems as opportunities for designing better strategy.