Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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Mastering systems thinking in practice

2 What are systems diagrams for?

The audio track in this section provides an explanation of why diagrams are important tools in systems practice and some things to consider when drawing them. After you have listened to the audio track you are asked to draw a diagram that you may have encountered before – a spray diagram – to summarise the points that are made. So you need to be prepared to do this activity and I suggest that you gather together some sheets of paper of at least A4 size. You will also need either a softish pencil that is well sharpened and a soft rubber or a good pen before starting the video. I would advise against trying to draw diagrams on your computer or tablet until you have mastered the conventions and purpose of the diagram first. If you are unfamiliar with spray diagrams you can read the Diagram guidelines [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Indeed, whatever your familiarity with spray diagrams I suggest you read these guidelines before starting the video.

Activity 2 Drawing a spray diagram about diagramming

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Once you have read the Diagram Guidelines on spray diagrams listen to the following audio track on ‘what are systems diagrams for?’ Take notes while listening and then try drawing a spray diagram that summarises much of what I have been saying about diagramming, adding any other points that you feel are relevant.

Before you start you may want to look again at the conventions for a spray diagram. Also you should start your diagram around the middle of the sheet of paper. I mention that because most people automatically start writing in the top left hand corner and that’s hopeless for diagrams. It’s important to break the habit and to spread your diagram out as far as possible. In addition, don’t be surprised if you want to add to or change your first attempt. So, you may want to start afresh on a new sheet if you find that helpful.

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Transcript: What are systems diagrams for?

I want to begin with some very basic questions. What are systems diagrams? What can they do for you? Why do we use them? Good answers to these questions will give us a sound foundation for everything that follows.

First, a systems diagram is simply a special arrangement of words, symbols and lines of one sort or another that expresses someone’s thinking about what has happened or about how certain things are or about how they might be. It follows that in creating a diagram what I'm basically doing is attempting to express my thinking about some situation, some issue or whatever, through the use of words, symbols and lines, and the way these are arranged or spaced apart.

Now, the other main ways of expressing thinking are speech and writing. So it follows that these three are all different ways of doing basically the same thing and it should be possible to convert one to the other, which is indeed the case. However each way can highlight different aspects of the same thing.

The idea that creating a diagram is a way of expressing one's thinking has an important implication. It implies that in drawing a diagram you face two different and often difficult tasks. The first task is that of getting your thinking straight, of knowing what it is you want to express. The second task is that of choosing an appropriate way of representing those thoughts. In practice, the two tasks are usually intimately related.

Second, what can diagrams do for you? Well, a diagram can be something drawn for your own use, a simple representation of what you pick up from a situation in order to sort things out and get the hang of it - so it can be quite private. A diagram can be your statement about what you think and then it becomes a vehicle for explaining your thinking to other people by showing them the diagram and discussing it with them. Alternatively, a diagram can be created by several people working together. In the making of such a joint diagram it may well be that differing viewpoints emerge, conflicts can be discussed and the expert knowledge of different members can be harnessed.

Third, why do people draw and use diagrams at all? Well, to begin with, text is linear; it runs in only one dimension along the line of print. Complex branching of ideas needs complex grammar but complicated arrangements of words are hard to take in. Basically, you can only read or hear one phrase at a time, then the next and so on, trying to hold the structure of a description in your head. The many all-important interconnections are difficult to express and even harder to pick out. That is why text may contain lists, sub-sections, and tables even.

But a diagram can be really different from text. It is two dimensional for a start; complex connections are much easier to work out in your mind with the help of a diagram to look at. As a picture it's easily scanned. It gives a message to the eye through its shape even before you read it fully. Are the connections in a ring or a starburst form? Is something isolated on the edge? Does the situation fall as if it were into two halves with poor interconnection?

The layout of a diagram is as important as the composition of a picture, and like a picture you can use colour to differentiate between various kinds of things. And as you find out more about the situation and understand more you can add things in at the fringes of the diagram or in between existing components. In my view a diagram is never finished, but merely accepted as being the most useful representation so far. Always be prepared to redraw a diagram to get a better result by selecting the most important aspects.

A further advantage of a diagram over text is that the phrases on a diagram can be read in different sequences to trigger new insights, suggest creative viewpoints and make holistic interpretations. You can choose to start to read a diagram anywhere, even if you have been directed to one particular start point.

Any diagram is a compromise between breadth of scope, depth of information and clarity of presentation. Try to keep these in balance. It's easier to get carried away by putting everything into a diagram but losing the whole point of the exercise which is to say something and say it clearly and economically. For each diagram you use, you should try to focus on its purpose - what it is trying to achieve. And this is best done through adding a title that sets out what the diagram is all about.

End transcript: What are systems diagrams for?
What are systems diagrams for?
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I hope this activity has not proved too difficult. Certainly do not worry if your spray diagram contains less information than my example shown in the video. As with any skill it takes practice to improve and the main aim here is to show how a diagram can help with sense-making.

Download this video clip.Video player: Drawing a spray diagram about diagramming
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Transcript: Drawing a spray diagram about diagramming

You can see right away why this is called a spray diagram. You start at the centre with a topic that interests you or one that you need to be concerned with; write it in a blob or box, add some four to six related main ideas or thoughts branching outwards from the box. Move further outwards with branches setting out additional ideas in a fairly free style, finishing with twigs, dealing with detail.
If you now study my spray diagram more closely you will find that it says more than I have discussed so far. As it was drawn from my perspective I have added elements I find relevant such as the branch starting with the other diagramming materials on OpenLearn that I mentioned at the beginning of this week. I am sure that your diagram is different. That does not make it wrong as your diagram is to help you make sense of something from your perspective. Reading mine may make you think once again about yours if you were going to develop yours further. My example was a quick first pass to help me plan this session. I found it sufficient to help my thinking this time but in other situations I might want to draw it again.

End transcript: Drawing a spray diagram about diagramming
Drawing a spray diagram about diagramming
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