Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

1.4 Managing systems practice in contexts of sustainable development

Both of us value using systemic approaches to problems and situations and have often been struck by the fact that people without any formal training in systems intuitively adopt a very systemic approach to messy problems. Some managers instinctively ask penetrating questions about boundaries and stakeholders and perspectives and find ways to use models and metaphors to engage others in finding ways to proceed. We have revelled in the natural systems skills displayed by some politicians, administrators, businessmen and academics. For us they are all being systemic even though they are not espousing any particular systems thinking or method. When we ascribe systems practice to these people we may claim they are doing it naturally or implicitly. We are of course ascribing a purpose to their behaviour from our perspective – this is an example of purposive behaviour.

Of more interest here are the various ways in which systems may be used explicitly because only then can an individual take responsibility for managing their systems practice – for juggling the M ball. I (Jake) have used my systems skills for managing in three different modes:

  1. I have been invited into an organisation or situation to become involved as a consultant or advisor in a messy situation.
  2. I have used systems methods explicitly in various management roles. For example I used SSM with a management team in a small company whenever strategic issues became intractable or stuck.
  3. Finally I will use systems tools and methods without the involvement of others to gain insights into situations I am finding difficult. For example in business negotiations I often use rich pictures and influence diagrams to help me gain insight into other participants’ perspectives on the situation.

In many of these examples it is a reasonably straightforward process to identify the main stakeholders in an issue of concern. For example it may be a concern about a particular firm’s strategy for managing sustainability which is of concern to the Managing Director. There are other scenarios, such as managing commons issues, where it is not clear who the stakeholders are, or what processes might enable individuals or groups to consider themselves as stakeholders able to contemplate, and perhaps engage in, purposeful activity. In these situations the task of defining who stakeholders are and of bringing them together in some form of decision making or situation improving project is often very difficult. Examples include the management of whole watersheds; strategies for regional wildlife conservation; the forging of new national and international agreements and policies (for example climate change policies); managing sustainable regional tourist developments and so on.

In these contexts we would suggest that an aware systems practitioner has three choices in how they manage their engagement with stakeholders when pursuing any form of purposeful activity. These are differentiated on the basis of a particular model of power, with each position constituting an ethical choice. The choices are to:

  1. decide for other stakeholders
  2. decide with other stakeholders, or
  3. enable stakeholders to decide.

SAQ 3 Classifying examples

Classify the following examples into one of the three categories of managing the engagement with stakeholders:

  1. The approach used in Limits to Growth.
  2. My use of SSM with my management team.
  3. A public inquiry into a new road scheme.
  4. Location of out-of-town supermarkets and other businesses.


Classify the following examples into one of the three categories of managing the engagement with stakeholders.

  1. Limits to Growth

    The study itself involved a great deal of ‘deciding for others’. However the main thrust of the authors’ publications is to encourage others to make different decisions in the light of their analysis. In this sense it is an invitation to ‘decide with others’.

  2. My use of SSM with my management team

    A straightforward example of deciding with others.

  3. A public inquiry into a new road scheme

    Whilst this may appear to be a process for deciding with others, in fact the decisions are taken by an Inspector or Minister for all other stakeholders.

  4. Location of out-of-town supermarkets and other businesses

    Effects range from increased use of cars, to taking business away from small local shops, to the suggestion that Councils felt they had little choice but to grant planning permission. This seems to imply decision-making processes that leave stakeholders feeling the decision is not theirs, hence these are probably examples of processes where some ‘decide for’ others.

Activity 1 Considering learning in systems practice based on different ethical choices

Suggest some answers for the questions ‘Who learns?’ and ‘How will the quality of learning differ?’ for systems practice based on each of the ethical choices:

  1. deciding for other stakeholders
  2. deciding with other stakeholders
  3. enabling stakeholders to decide.

Now that you have tried to answer these questions let me try to clarify what we mean by these choices. A systems practitioner could manage their engagement as an intervention in which they took control of the situation and used their expertise to tell, or recommend to stakeholders what they should do. This would be an example of deciding for. In this situation the systems practitioner would have the most potential for learning about the issue and about their own practice. Alternatively, the systems practitioner could act as a facilitator for other stakeholders in the situation and participate in decision making with other stakeholders. This would be an example of deciding with. Based on my experience the role of facilitator could be conducted in a number of ways. The systems practitioner could facilitate and involve other stakeholders in using the systems approach but he or she may do so in a way that protects (rather than shares) their specialist knowledge and skills. In this case the outcome may be owned jointly by the participants but the process to achieve the outcome would not. In the longer term this scenario would be less sustainable because learning about the process has been limited to the ‘expert’ rather than residing in what Wenger (1998) describes as a ‘community of practice’.

Alternatively a systems practitioner as facilitator may go out of their way to ‘give away’ the particular systems approach they are using to those involved (including the thinking that underpins the approach) so that the participants may use it themselves in some future situation. Or they may explain what they see as the strengths and weaknesses of a particular method in a given context so that the stakeholders could choose for themselves (e.g. Midgely, Munlo and Brown, 1996). These are examples of creating an enabling process for stakeholders to decide. In this situation in my experience there is the potential for the Systems practitioner and stakeholders to become co-learners or co-inquirers.

The term ‘give away’ at the start of the last paragraph is used in a very colloquial sense – of course one does not give away ‘thinking’ but rather provides participants with experiences which might enable them to grasp both the practical and theoretical ideas that underpin a process design so that they themselves could base future designs on this experience. The reason we use ‘give away’ is because for us it describes the emotional basis of the engagement. If one approaches participants as if you were offering a gift, then it is often done in an emotion of caring and excitement.

Learning is happening in all of these situations but in terms of systems practice it will be qualitatively different for the stakeholders in the latter two situations (deciding with and enabling) compared to the former (deciding for). There are some other variations on the role of the systems practitioner as facilitator, which I will refer to later. These focus on the systems practitioner as a facilitator of a process design, which is enabling for stakeholders. Another example is that of a systems practitioner as participant in a collaboration to formulate a system of interest. This is an example of deciding with, but where the systems practitioner has no privileged role. Each of these situations requires a different set of skills for effective practice and will result in different capacities and potentials for learning. They involve juggling all of the B, E, C, M balls in different ways (further details in the unit A systems approach [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ).

Why is the question of ‘who learns what?’ important and why do I think it relevant to a unit concerned with sustainable development? For me (Ray) it is because I believe that aware practitioners, using systems approaches, are able to orchestrate a process of action research in which the key systems ideas of connectivity, emergence, communication and control are appreciated and in which multiple perspectives are valued. I see this as one of the key strengths of systems approaches. When I use the phrase action research I also mean action learning as I see research and learning as essentially the same process. This is a particular type of learning, which many have recognised as being a desirable pathway towards sustainable development. As a concerned citizen I am apprehensive about our collective capacities to respond quickly enough to the issues which sustainable development raises. I express my concerns in terms of who is able to take responsibility for managing sustainable development? Taking responsibility is a form of purposeful activity – willed behaviour driven by emotional and intellectual concerns. Taking responsibility starts when you engage with an issue in such a way that purposeful activity results. This involves learning in a particular way.

Let me now try to exemplify what I mean by asking you to complete a series of activities relating to your own systems practice so far in this course. You will be required to use your learning journal to answer these questions so make sure it is accessible before you start.

Complete the following activity before continuing with your reading of the unit – even if this is your first read through the material.

Activity 2 How have you used systems maps in the units so far?

I would like you to consider the way in which you have used systems maps in this course so far. Refer back to SAQ and activity discussions in your learning journal where you used a systems map.

Whose perspective informed your choice of boundaries and your naming of the system of interest? Find an example where a perspective other than your own was employed and outline how you achieved this.

In many of the earlier exercises in the course you were asked to create systems maps from the perspective of either the author of a case study or someone represented in a case study. Essentially you were being asked to put yourself in someone else’s position and construct a representation of the world from their perspective. Where you are not engaged with a problem or opportunity this is not too difficult a task, though you will inevitably miss aspects of the other’s perspective because not all their values, beliefs and circumstances can be conveyed in short case study material. However in situations where you are engaged – either as a consultant or as a stakeholder – then putting yourself in someone else’s position is much harder. This is because your own beliefs, values and history will be determining your cognitive processes. It is only by becoming aware of your own perspective that you can create a mental space from which to construct a version of someone else’s perspective. It is critical that you are willing to admit another view of ‘reality’ and not regard your own as in some sense absolute or correct.

One device that many systems practitioners employ to facilitate this, especially when working with stakeholders who may have different perspectives, is to encourage each to draw their own rich picture of a situation. The advantage of a rich picture is that everyone accepts that it is not a perfect representation of reality – it is not intended to be. There is thus an opening to accepting other people’s rich pictures where it might be more difficult to accept their verbal description of what they believe to be the way things actually are. The results of using rich pictures in groups can be dramatic because they often open up new types of dialogue, or give insights into different ways of thinking about an issue.

For example a colleague of mine was invited to assist resolve a disagreement between directors of a company who were negotiating a deal with a developer. After some introductory exercises he suggested that they each draw a rich picture of the situation as they saw it. One drew a picture in which the developer was a plutocrat driving in a Rolls-Royce and smoking a cigar, another drew the developer as a navvy with a pick axe and a flat cap and the third drew him as a gorilla stamping on all the various plans of the project. Since the project involved each of them negotiating with the developer, these differences in perception were, to put it mildly, significant. The rest of the day was spent discussing these rich pictures – no other tool or method was needed. (They resolved the situation by having just one of them conduct all the negotiations with the developer – the one who saw him as a plutocrat.)

Once I facilitated the Board of a company, of which I was a managing director, to explore strategies for increasing business using SSM. My rich picture was of a sheet of paper being torn apart by pressures from staff, members, legislation and the need to make profits.

One of my colleagues drew a picture of our company as a very small building surrounded by sky-scrapers representing fuel companies and government departments. The technical director drew a picture in which his team was being dictated to – by the Board, by legislators and by customers – all with conflicting demands. Someone else drew the business as an attractive woman successfully enticing punters to part with cash in return for our products. As you can gather these represent very different perspectives on the business in which we all worked! Sharing these perspectives and understanding how they arose and what it felt like in those perspectives enabled the group to develop a shared understanding of the richness of the situation as well as a sensitivity to each other.

SAQ4 Classifying the last two examples

Classify the last two examples of using rich pictures in terms of managing systems practice and the three modes of power sharing (deciding for, deciding with and enabling deciding). In each case who was learning?


Both examples are, in principle, ‘enabling deciding’. In each case the participants themselves were learning both a simple technique for expressing their perspective on a situation and learning to appreciate others’ perspectives on the same situation. There was not any explicit decision to be made by the process, but the increased understanding led to significant changes in the way that the group and the individuals acted in the future.

Having established a framework to consider issues of participation and systems practice I now want to examine another example.

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