Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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Mastering systems thinking in practice

1 Distinctions between messy and difficult situations

Situations we face vary enormously in their complexity and seriousness. They range from minor upsets through to near-catastrophes, from temporary hitches to persistent, gnawing ‘tangles’, ‘puzzles’ or ‘problems’ through to interesting ‘challenges’ and exciting ‘opportunities’. Just listing all these different words also highlights that the language we use or the metaphors we employ in conversation can colour our thinking about a situation.

Although there are these many different words that we use to describe situations, you may find it helpful to be introduced to a particular distinction: the course shall refer to simpler, more limited sorts of situations as difficulties, and the nastier more taxing ones as messes, a term first coined by Russell Ackoff (1974), who recognised that problems are taken up by, not given to, decision makers and that problems are extracted from unstructured states of confusion or complex situations (you will learn more about Russell Ackoff in Week 6). The reasons for making this distinction will become clear as you work on through the course, but in essence the reason is that messes aren’t just ‘bigger’ than difficulties; they have a number of features that make them qualitatively different. As a result the sort of activity needed to tackle them is very different.

Activity 1 Thinking critically about situations

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes for this activity.

The purpose of this activity is to help you think critically about the material that follows in relation to your own experience. But ‘your own experience’ is too vast and vague; so you should do some preliminary work selecting and reflecting on parts of it likely to be relevant to the discussion. If you tackle the questions posed below before you read on, it will help you to identify those aspects of your life that ‘cause you problems’; and it will provide you with material to help your studies. You should spend ten minutes on this first stage of the activity; you will need to return to your notes in other activities later in the week.

  1. Note down at least three simple situations you have faced recently; and then note down three (or more) of the most complex situations you have ever faced or been involved in tackling.
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  1. List the ways in which the simple and complex situations differ. What are the characteristics of the major, nagging situations that distinguish them from the more limited ones? You should aim for a list of at least half a dozen points.
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When you have finished writing out your lists watch the following video to compare your notes with my views on difficulties and messes discussed there.

Download this video clip.Video player: mstp_1_week2_section1.mp4
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Although everyone expresses the differences between difficulties and messes in their own terms, the distinguishing features that people come up with can usually be grouped under one of two headings.
The first of these concerns the scale of the situation and covers all the ways in which messes tend to be ‘larger’ than difficulties with more serious implications. More people are likely to be involved. Messes usually have a longer time-scale, are more difficult to tackle, and more complicated.
The second group of key features come under the general heading of uncertainty: with messes there is much more about which one is simply unsure. In fact, this uncertainty starts with the situation itself: a difficulty is fairly clear cut; it’s quite easy to put a label on it, or to explain to someone else what the problem is. But a mess is hard to pin down; it’s difficult even to say what the problem actually is, and yet things are not right. With a difficulty I know roughly what a solution will look like; with a mess, I’m not at all sure about solutions. Indeed, with a mess it usually doesn’t make much sense to talk about ‘an answer’. It’s more a matter of coping with the circumstances as best one can.
With a difficulty I can take for granted the overall context and purpose of the activity; it’s simply a matter of how it can best be done. But a mess calls into question my priorities and assumptions; I am not sure how much weight to give to different considerations, whether particular goals are realistic or should be abandoned. Moreover, with a mess more aspects are beyond my direct control. With a difficulty I know what factors are part of the situation or relevant to it, and what aren’t: I can disentangle it from the broader context of my work and address it as a more or less discrete matter. But a mess is fuzzy; it’s hard to say who and what is involved in the problem and who and what isn’t because the different elements in it are closely tied to other areas of activity. Finally, with a difficulty I either know enough to tackle it or I know what I need to know. With a mess I don’t know enough and I’m uncertain even what I need to know.
The single idea that best captures the difference between difficulties and messes has associations of both scale and uncertainty: it is the idea that difficulties are bounded while messes are unbounded. In saying that a situation is bounded, one implies not just that it is fairly limited, but that one knows roughly where those limits are. By contrast an unbounded situation is more extensive, but quite how extensive one can’t say. Most of the qualities of difficulties and messes referred to earlier clearly relate to this bounded/unbounded distinction.
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