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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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6 The practicalities of diagramming with other people

As well as the ethical issues involved in diagramming with other people it is also necessary to pay attention to the practicalities involved. A major purpose of diagramming together is to build up a shared picture of a situation by combining the knowledge and perspectives of different people. All the advice given in Week 4 for drawing diagrams by yourself also applies to drawing diagrams in groups. The main difference is that you have to be aware of the dynamics of the group and ensure that you are working constructively together and not destructively.

The notes that follow deal with various aspects of this problem. But you will not learn how to deal with the problem just by reading the notes. This sort of learning is very much learning by experience, and the primary purpose of the notes is to encourage and help you to learn from your experience when you do face working on diagrams in a group.

Activity 2 Advice on diagramming

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity.

But before you read my notes on working with others spend five minutes noting down the key pieces of advice on diagramming which you looked at in Week 4.

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Here is my not necessarily exhaustive list.

  1. Most diagrams take several attempts to help your thinking and understanding. The whole point is to learn about the situation, so expect new insights and expect to have to redraw to incorporate these new insights.
  2. A diagram does not just use words and lines. It uses space as well. Cramped diagrams are always unclear. Spread them out.
  3. Don’t depart too far from recognisable diagram types, especially if you haven’t made much use of diagrams before. However, diagramming is not an exact science. It is a craft skill with a distinctly personal element, which develops through practice.
  4. The first thing to clarify in drawing a diagram is your own purpose: what aspects of the issues you are considering are you trying to represent? This is essential if you are to choose an appropriate type of diagram within which to work.
  5. Each diagram should have a title which describes what type of diagram it is and its purpose.
  6. If the meaning of lines and arrows is not fairly self-evident, use a key to explain different sorts of lines or label the arrows.

You may already be thinking when reading this list that some of these points may not be as easy to follow if there are several people all contributing to the development of a diagram as their knowledge of the technique, their disposition towards it and expectations of what will come from it will be different. Equally this all depends on the relationships involved and whether you are a ‘manager’ who is part of the situation or a ‘researcher’ who is an observer of the situation (you will return to this point in Weeks 7 and 8).

Involving others with diagrams comes in two main forms: co-creation of a collective diagram and using a diagram as the focus for a mediated discussion of the situation that the diagram represents. Both techniques can be very powerful in helping those involved to gain a shared understanding of a situation as it draws out the different perspectives they may have and also for developing a negotiated set of actions for moving on (although in many cases, the fact that thinking has been changed can lead to changed action and behaviour without the need for it to be made explicit in a set of written action points). An example of using a diagram as a focus for a mediated discussion is shown in the videos in the OpenLearn course Systems explained: diagramming [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .