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.

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