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

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3 Your area of practice

Thinking strategically always begins with the situation – context matters. To appreciate the value of each approach it is helpful to have situations embedded in:

  • a common area of practice for applying any or all five approaches
  • an area of practice that is of particular interest to you.

In applying systems thinking in practice, you may like to choose an area of practice that prompts situations of interest to you.

Five important criteria can help you to choose an appropriate area of practice:

  1. interest – the area must invite your own personal interest, which may usefully be an existing or aspiring professional area of practice, but which may alternatively be an area of more general interest
  2. practice – the area must have an associated central element of practical change, signalled by an adverb or doing word such as control, regulation, management, or reduction
  3. scope – don't define an area of practice too narrowly (perhaps use ‘immigration control’ rather than ‘checking passports’), and try to include different hierarchical levels (practice may have local, national or international ramifications, or practice may include elements of policy planning, management planning and operational planning)
  4. perspectives – the area of practice should invite different viewpoints
  5. uncertainty – there should be significant possibilities of unforeseen change.

Some possible areas of practice are listed below, chosen because I think they match the criteria, but feel free to consider others that may be of more interest to you.

  • local community service support
  • financial regulation
  • drugs control
  • education assessments
  • health support for the elderly
  • reduction in child mortality
  • poverty reduction
  • ecological sustainable development.

Activity 5 Developing ideas for an area of practice

Nominate an area of practice, indicating why it is of interest, and then choose one situation of interest associated with the area of practice, and suggest two systems of interest that might be developed in order to strategically improve the situation.

Table 1 provides an example of the distinction made between ‘area of practice’, ‘situation of interest’ and a ‘system of interest’.

Table 1 Areas, situations and systems
Area of practicehospital managementgeneralised role or area of responsibility, identifying generic types of concerns
Situation of interestcurrent concerns about funding at Mouseville hospitalmore specific area of concern, situation or event that is perceived by someone as calling for some kind of intervention
System of interestsystem to manage resources at Mouseville hospitalparticular arrangement of activities associated with a situation designed to achieve a particular purpose

The relationship between three factors associated with strategic intervention context, people, and tools − can be represented by a systems map that identifies boundaries between the three factors.

The diagram below illustrates the map in relation to the way in which The Open University course TU811 ‘Thinking Strategically: systems tools for managing change’ was conceived. The course aimed towards taking participants on a Tools stream of learning based on gaining practical experience in using and adapting tools from the five systems approaches. A parallel People stream of learning was created enabling critical reflection in the use of the ‘tools’.

Figure 6 Systems map of Tools and People streams

Three important boundaries are located in the systems map:

  • The major boundary is between the system of interest and everything else – everything else being the context. It is partly a marker to indicate the issue currently of interest. It is also a reminder that beyond it is a world of all manner of unpredictable influences, and the world is also likely to be affected by whatever the system of interest does. This outer area is often called the system's environment. Among many other factors the environment for this module consists of the area of practice that you choose to work with.

  • Another boundary marks out the practitioners. I've placed it inside the system of interest. Of course any real human practitioner is part of a great many systems of interest, so I could have put the practitioner blob half in and half out of the system of interest, to indicate this other life out in the environment.

  • The third boundary marks out the tools the practitioners use. Again, I could have put it half in and half out, because there are all manner of conceptual tools available, in addition to those associated with the five systems approaches.

The distinction between the two latter subsystems is reflected in the separation between the Tools and People streams.

Activity 6 Context Matters

Read the beginning of section 1.2 and continuing into 1.2.1 in Introducing Systems Approaches [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Then read the final section of 7.3 ‘Context Always Matters’ from the Systems Approaches Epilogue. The first reading provides a description of three media stories of 2009 – the Hillsborough football stadium tragedy in the UK, sea piracy in Somalia, and protection of Orangutans in Indonesia; all three of which encapsulate ‘messy’ situations. The second reading provides a brief sketch of possible uses of tools from each of the five systems approaches in dealing with each of the three situations. The reading describes the three stories in terms of:

  • i.key inter-related variables
  • ii.different perspectives
  • iii.boundary conflicts.

In reflecting on your own area of practice (e.g. your own professional practice or an area of practice that you may have an interest, such as health, business management, education, sustainable development, family welfare etc.) make some brief notes on:

  • a.some key interrelationships between variables
  • b.some contrasting perspectives
  • c.some possible tensions among practitioners regarding levels of uncertainty or conflict in perspectives.

From your brief introduction to systems thinking in practice in this course, describe how systems approaches might offer support towards designing systemic strategies to improve the situations that you have noted.


In this introductory course you will not be expected to have gained know-how in the application of any of the five systems approaches introduced. But generically, you hopefully will have gained some appreciation of the potential in your chosen area of practice for systems tools to provide:

  • i.a more holistic picture of the variables and their inter-relationships
  • ii.a means of depicting perspectives as systems of interest using different modelling techniques (SD, VSM, SSM, cognitive mapping, CSH reference systems…)
  • iii.a means of resolving issues of conflict by making boundaries of what’s in and what’s out explicit – countering claims of holism, and making boundaries of perspectives (viewpoints) explicit – countering claims of pluralism.

The context of using systems thinking in practice involves not just the variables (complicatedness), perspectives (complexity), and boundaries (conflicts) in the area of practice, but also your own experiences and enthusiasms drawn from whatever background or tradition of practice that you may come from. Systems tools – whether from the five systems approaches or other approaches – are not necessarily introduced as yet another alternative set of tools, but rather a complementary set of ideas that may help enhance your existing practice.