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

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4 Summary

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That's how the light gets in

(Cohen, 1993)

The Leonard Cohen verse was used at the beginning of the first part of this course. I thought of the bells that still can ring as tools collectively constituting the five systems approaches. To some extent they are disembodied and externalised. You can learn the techniques of ‘bell ringing’ through practicing with the use of systems tools in your own area of practice, and in so doing make use of them as a practitioner.

But behind the techniques in any situation there are the bell ringers. Not only do they have the experiences that they bring to bear on the skill of bell-ringing (tool use), but also the uniquely human qualities that determine how and why they do it as they do, and that allow them to enjoy and appreciate it. Such practitioners are the users of the tools – including myself, you and others studying this course. Practitioners are what the People stream is about, as it takes a look at how people think, how their thinking differs, and how they wield the tools.

Thinking strategically in practice requires prime attention to the present context and the foreseeable future. I have emphasised the importance of relationship between:

  • situations of interest (in areas of practice) as raw material for using tools
  • practitioner or tool user attempting to improve the situation
  • actual tools used.

The term ‘tools’ is used in a generic sense to incorporate the systems thinking and systems practice ideas embodied in the systems approaches introduced in this course. Other ideas from outside the systems approaches can provide an additional source for reflecting upon the use of systems tools. Systems thinking and systems practice provide conceptual tools for dealing with three features of complex situations of change encountered when thinking strategically:

  1. making sense of countless interrelated and often interdependent variables
  2. engaging with multiple contrasting and often conflicting perspectives
  3. dealing effectively and constructively with boundary tensions arising from inevitable uncertainty about interrelationships and interdependencies and conflicts between contrasting perspectives.

The five approaches were chosen because of their respective pedigrees in supporting strategic decision making in different and changing contexts. Each approach embodies all three imperatives of systems thinking and systems practice summarised above. But each approach also has an historic slant towards one imperative. System dynamics and the viable system model are particularly significant in dealing with interrelationships among variables. Strategic options development and analysis, and soft systems methodology are particularly significant approaches in dealing with multiple perspectives. Critical systems heuristics is particularly significant in dealing with boundary tensions.

The important point to take forward if practising any of the five systems approaches is to continually reflect on how the approaches and their respective tools can enrich your existing capacities for thinking strategically in dealing with present messy situations in order to improve them for the future.