Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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Mastering systems thinking in practice

5 The systems practitioner and systems of interest

Systems practice may be carried out individually or as part of a team. In doing action research – which is a form of managing – an important question is: action research conducted on us or with us?

Described image
Figure 8 An unfolding network of conversation and relationships. ‘Managing’ involves maintaining a network of asynchronous relationships in the context of an ever-changing flux of events and ideas. As any manager engages in one conversation, others are engaged in different conversations. As individuals participate in different conversations a coherent network of conversations results (expanded from Winter, p. 67 and p. 83).

The answer to the question, whether the action research is carried out by an individual or a group, leads to different modes of systems practice. These modes of practice are related to the choices the aware systems practitioner has at their disposal (Figure 9).

The mode of practice also relates to whether the systems practitioner attempts to take an objective stance, by standing outside the system of interest, or whether they see themselves as a co-creator of a system of interest with stakeholders. This is portrayed as the aware systems practitioner stepping into the so-called ‘real world’ situation with another stakeholder in Figure 9. The latter is the approach outlined by Patricia Shaw in her intervention from a complexity perspective. It is also the way in which the systems approaches mentioned in Week 7 can be contextualised.

One additional challenge you may face in developing your practice is to allow for the emergence of new insights from the use of systems methods in their entirety (i.e. as conceptualised by their developers) as opposed to picking and using parts of them. Based on my own experience I would argue for attempting them in their entirety first and until they begin to feel familiar, or embodied.

Figure 9 The choices available to the aware (with switched-on light-bulb) and non-aware (switched-off light-bulb) systems practitioner with the four balls that need to be juggled for effective practice. The non-aware practitioner always acts in the belief that they are outside the so-called ‘real world’ situation using a more systematic style of systems approach. In contrast the aware practitioner acts from an understanding that there is no position external to the ‘real world’ – i.e. they are always in the situation, usually with others. In addition they can also act as if it were possible to stand outside the situation in an awareness of the ethics of doing so, thus varying the systems approach (As1 and As2) to the context and to their own reflexivity.

Activity 2 Looking back

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity.
  1. Look back through the notes you have made over the course of Weeks 1–8. Which ball(s) is the focus of which week?
Week 1 Systems thinking in practice
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Week 2 Systems thinking and complexity
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Week 3 Identifying systems of interest
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Week 4 Representing systems of interest 
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Week 5 Understanding multiple perspectives 
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Week 6 Key systems thinkers
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Week 7 Systems thinking approaches
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Week 8 Becoming a systems practitioner
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Comment

Weeks 1–4 deal more with being (the B ball) though not exclusively, with a shift to engaging (the E ball) in Weeks 5 and 6, followed by contextualising and managing in Week 7 (the C and M balls), returning back to being a systems practitioner in Week 8.

Week 1 Systems thinking in practiceB ball
Week 2 Systems thinking and complexityB ball
Week 3 Identifying systems of interestB ball
Week 4 Representing systems of interestB ball
Week 5 Understanding multiple perspectivesE ball
Week 6 Key systems thinkersE ball
Week 7 Systems thinking approachesC and M balls
Week 8 Becoming a systems practitionerB ball

In Activity 3 you are going to think about your possible next steps in mastering systems thinking in practice.

Activity 3 Looking forward

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity.

Consider the following questions and note down your answers in the free response box.

  1. What are the most realistic steps you can take next to master systems thinking in practice?
  2. Are you excited or daunted by what you set out?
  3. Can you see what type of systems practitioner you would like to become?
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