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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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4.2 Commonly used criteria

In Activity 2 you were asked to draw a boundary round things that had something ‘in common’. That phrase was deliberately vague. You were not given any rules or guidelines for drawing boundaries, so you could see how you did it instinctively before you were given some commonly used criteria. For although these criteria can be very helpful, they can restrict ideas if used too rigidly. Often it is more helpful to draw the boundaries first and reflect on them afterwards, as in the exercise. But if this doesn’t generate new views, then try the following criteria:

  1. Interest and concern

    The boundary separates those aspects which are vital to you and those of secondary importance, but which may still exert an influence. In applying this criterion, you will find that you will have to think quite hard about your purpose by drawing the boundary. This point was at least partly dealt with by the second stage of Activity 2 when you were asked to write a brief title to the puzzle or problem you faced.

  2. Influence and control

    There are two ways in which this criterion can be used. First, boundaries can separate those aspects of the issue which are under the control of, or are strongly influenced by, separate people or groups. So, for example, this guideline can help you to become clear about the areas where you have power to make changes, and those which you have to accept as they are. Second, there will be times when there is a strong mutual influence between some aspects of the problem, but not others. Separating these two with a boundary will help to reveal that solutions to the problem will have to take account of the strong mutual influence.

  3. Time

    Boundaries can be drawn round aspects of the issue which raise short-term problems and those which have longer and more pervasive effects. This can help to reveal the limitations of solutions which only address the former.

In essence Activity 2 was trying to get you to draw what is known as a systems map of a situation, which is one way of representing a system of interest and is the subject of Week 4.