Systems practice: Managing sustainability
Systems practice: Managing sustainability

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Systems practice: Managing sustainability

2.4.2 Developing briefing notes for your local authority ‘simulation’

I now want to return to the simulation I described earlier. In completing the following activity please keep these points in mind:

  1. All the material you need to answer the activity exists in the unit and its accompanying readings (however your answer is likely to be more convincing and meaningful to you if you know something about your own local authority situation).
  2. I am more interested in your ‘design’ of a process using SSM, than in the specific detail of your local government situation (though clearly in a ‘real-world’ situation the two are inseparable).
  3. It should be possible for you to pass this course without developing your systems practice to the level of sophistication required by this activity. However, if you are unable to engage with the thinking involved in this activity then it might be difficult for you to do extremely well in the course.

I would expect this activity to take no more than an hour.

Activity 12 Using SSM to structure a presentation to your local authority

You have been asked to make a presentation to your local authority elected representatives (the council) and the senior non-elected management team of the local government authority by the Sustainable Development Officer (SDO) which is a relatively new role. You have been asked to describe how, from your perspective, the local council might go about designing and implementing a participative, sustainable development strategy using Mode 1 and Mode 2 SSM (i.e. the presentation is about a process design for moving towards sustainable development, not about what sustainable development is).

Your role is not paid consultant or advisor in the typical management consultant sense, because you work for a charitable non-government organisation (NGO). The NGO that pays your salary specialises in helping organisations to develop participatory approaches for managing sustainable development. Your organisation’s primary ethos is to foster local democracy.

Please note that I am not asking you to develop a presentation, but to outline your preliminary thinking on the matter based on what you have learned in this course so far about SSM. Specifically I am asking you to prepare a set of notes, including relevant diagrams and models, written for you (the systems practitioner), as a basis for your presentation. These notes should be seen as the product of structuring your thinking about the task at hand. Your answer should be written in your learning journal. I do not expect your answer to amount to more than four handwritten pages but equally do not feel restricted by this limit. Your notes may comprise a series of models that are commonly used in SSM.

Because this document is written solely for you, not your future audience, then you are free to use the language of systems thinking that has been introduced to you in this course. I make this point because some systems practitioners find it best not to talk explicitly in systems terms when engaging with their clients – but this is always a judgement the practitioner has to make.


Starting off

I am going to treat the process of developing my answer to this activity in the same way as I would go about the ‘real thing’. I often start by writing or modelling in some way that is divergent. My first thought was to use spray diagramming as a means of auditing those experiences of my own which seem relevant to the task of developing and presenting a briefing as well as the substantive content of the briefing. I rejected using a rich picture because at this stage I have not engaged with my own local authority situation and am not aware of some of the potentially messy issues that might exist and which might be captured by a rich picture. (On the other hand I do not need to engage with my local authority to imagine that most people will not be familiar with systems thinking, SSM and its language and possibly will not be tuned into process thinking, so these issues could have been depicted in a rich picture). My spray diagram is shown in Figure 20.

My colleague comments:

Lack of knowledge about a situation when doing SSM may be an advantage, particularly in the early stages, rather than a constraint and this can be built into a rich picture. A rich picture should not be static and merely done at the beginning but should be adapted and built up as the inquiry proceeds. The sequence of updated rich pictures can be a useful reminder of your learning about the situation.

Figure 20 A spray diagram used to audit my own perceptions of my experiences that seem relevant to the task at hand

Do not worry if all of the points in the diagram do not make sense to you (remember it was developed for me). What is important in process terms is that by doing this it has reminded me about what my own strengths are and where I am not so confident with respect to the task (doing a partial SWOT analysis may have revealed similar things). With respect to the latter, the process of developing the spray diagram made me realise that initially I had been thinking of my potential role as leading or developing the whole process design. I have concluded that this is a potential trap and that I should explore

  • i.whether one or more other systems practitioners might be involved in making the presentation with me;
  • ii.whether the approach I was going to advocate was ‘design for’, ‘design with’, or ‘enabling design by’ and
  • iii.whether it has to be a traditional presentation, or whether space and time would allow something more creative and experiential?

This reminded me of the experiences of Patricia Shaw. She and her colleague won a contract because they admitted they did not know what the answers were but convinced the clients that they had the skills to work with the stakeholders to develop action which was relevant. (Answers to these questions will depend on judgements about context but also on ethical considerations.) It also reminded me (for the purposes of the simulation) that I was not out to get a consultancy per se (and to earn money) but that my NGO employer had a particular value position with respect to people’s participation in managing sustainable development. Just how it has come about that I am in the position to advise the Local Authority is unclear (but in a real situation this would be open to investigation). I do know that the new Sustainable Development Officer has been involved which has implications for whom I consider the client to be. So, in summary, I have this important opportunity and I want to make the most of it and be as professional as I can.

Formulating my system of interest

At this stage, given that the terms of reference specifically call for a design based on Mode 1 or Mode 2 SSM I thought I had better focus on how I thought SSM might be relevant in this context. I envisage that this will be a necessary first step before I consider how best to present these ideas or who to involve in this process. (I am being pragmatic here and recognising that whether I involve other systems practitioners or not, it would be helpful to get my own ideas sorted out – as long as I do not fall into the trap of defending my own position at all costs). Before doing this I decided I would use a systems map to look at my potential system of interest (Figure 21; ‘ss’ is sub-system).

This is my second iteration systems map. Although I wasn’t initially sure what system of interest I wanted to map, I found myself exploring ‘a system for presenting a process design for managing sustainable development in my local authority’ and that is what I have depicted in Figure 21. It is a snapshot of what I imagine the ‘real’ elements to be. In developing this model my main concern became where other key stakeholders should be placed – were they inside or outside? (note that key stakeholders are those who I considered would have to be involved in any workable strategy for managing SD in my local authority. I have also identified another group which I have called ‘other stakeholders’ – those that may be seen to have a legitimate stake but may not be involved for various reasons). At this stage I have left this as an open question but have made a note to explore whether it might be possible to have representatives of other stakeholders present for my presentation.

Figure 21 A systems map of my potential ‘presentation to the Local Authority system of interest’;

My systems map was initially helpful but only went so far. It has not helped me think about what activities might need to occur for the would-be problem owners (the CEO, the elected counsellors and possibly the SD Officer, me and my employer) to be able to judge that my presentation was successful? In my thinking I have arrived at the point which Checkland and Scholes (1990, p. 48) describe as

... making the ‘problem-solver’ one possible ‘problem owner’ often means that the first relevant system looked at is ‘a system to do the study’.

However, in my case I am thinking of it as ‘a system to do a successful presentation’.

My colleague comments:

You could see ‘a system for presenting a process design for managing sustainable development in my local authority’ and ‘a system to do a successful presentation’ as two relevant systems or conflate them into one system. This is part of the learning when doing SSM.

Analysis One, Two and Three

Engaging with the thinking associated with Analysis One has reminded me of some of my own research that places importance on relationship building as a precursor to collaborative or participative inquiry. This was also something Attwater did in the early phases of his inquiry in the Thai vignette. So I have decided that it would be a trap to go into my presentation cold – that I need to speak with as many of the Local Authority key stakeholders (see Figure 22) as soon as possible and explore with them:

  1. their own traditions of understanding in relation to sustainable development, including illuminating where possible my appreciation of their values, beliefs and circumstances;
  2. the history of engaging with sustainable development by the Local Authority and individuals within it either as employees or consultants;
  3. the expectations they might have for my presentation (if any) and the criteria by which they might judge it to be successful.

I would use the thinking and ideas in Analysis Two (the Social System Analysis) and Analysis Three (the Political System Analysis) to help me (see Appendix A). I would plan to carry this out by conducting semi-structured interviews with a range of people in the Local Authority and I would probably supplement this with ‘random’ conversations (e.g. in the tea room, at the photocopier etc). I recognise that doing this will give me a lot of data. I will have to decide how to best use that data and my learning from the experience of collecting and interpreting it. I have to also judge whether there is time to do all of this, and if there is not, whether I am prepared to proceed.

Having decided to interview personnel before my presentation has made me aware that I will have the opportunity to construct many rich pictures. I have made a note to myself that I could use these as part of my presentation. Or I could invite those present to develop their own rich pictures of the situation as they see it – or about the ‘messiness’ that exists that prevents them moving from where they are now to where they would like to be. I am conscious of my growing conviction that a traditional presentation is my least favoured option, so I will need to explore the feasibility of doing more of a workshop than presentation.

Root definition and CATWOE

I have developed an expanded root definition, CATWOE and activity model below of my ‘system to do a successful presentation’. My learning as I went through the process of developing this revealed a number of things:

I initially thought that it might be profitable to explore ‘a system facilitated by me that enables the key decision makers in the local authority to move towards implementing a participative and inclusive approach to managing sustainable development’. In doing this I was stepping back from the assumption in the terms of reference (ToR) that a presentation is the best and only way to proceed. I was also assuming that there would be room to negotiate around the ToRs but even if there was not, that my presentation would be potentially more convincing and relevant if I understood more about the context in which decisions will be made about a sustainable development strategy.

I then remembered from my conversations with more experienced SSM practitioners that their experience was that transformations built around the verb ‘enable’ [also ensure, empower] were often not very productive lines of inquiry. So I decided to ditch the verb ‘enable’ from my root definition.

Root definition: a system facilitated by me [and others] that results in the key decision makers in the local authority agreeing to move towards implementing a participative and inclusive approach to managing sustainable development.

  • C key decision makers in the local authority;
  • A me, possibly other systems practitioners, local authority personnel; possibly other key stakeholders;
  • T not agreeing to move towards implementing a participative and inclusive approach to managing SD to agreeing to move towards implementation of a participative and inclusive approach to managing SD;
  • W that a participative approach is desirable and potentially effective;
  • O someone – yet to be decided – in the Local Authority, or possibly me;
  • E limited capacity for systems and process based activity which can sometimes demand more time (than people are prepared to devote).

My colleague comments:

Your inclusion of ‘agreeing to move towards implementing’ in your root definition is a bit the same as staying with ‘enabling’ – it is not ‘deciding to implement’; it is not ‘agreeing to implement’ but it is agreeing to do something that might one day enable or ease implementation. Why not go for: ‘a system facilitated by me (and others) to persuade key decision makers in the local authority to implement a participative and inclusive approach to managing sustainable development’. The CATWOE for this root definition is:

  • C decision makers A me (and others)
  • T ‘undecided decision maker’ to ‘decided decision maker’
  • W participative/inclusive is desirable so key decision makers have to be persuaded
  • O me
  • E none specified In the root definition but could be included

Logical analysis of the Transformation

Analysis of the transformation required shows that:

  • Do P by Q in order to contribute to achieving R (what to do, P; how to do it, Q; and why do it, R)


  • a system that results in the key decision makers in the local authority agreeing to decide to move towards implementing a participative and inclusive approach to managing sustainable development by participating in a process (or presentation) facilitated by me.


  • P = key decision makers agree to decide;
  • Q = participating in a process facilitated by me;
  • R = an approach to managing sustainable development.

My colleague comments:

Your root definition has changed from ‘agreeing to move’ to ‘agreeing to decide to move’. At this stage it should not change. For me P = persuade key decision makers to implement ...; Q stays the same and R = managing sustainable development in order to support Sustainable Development Officer, though your R is a new idea or variation and is illustrative of the learning that occurs in the SSM process.

Activity model

The three E’s (any model builder ought to decide what the criteria would be for these):

  • E1 efficacy (does the means work?):
  • E2 efficiency (amount of output divided by amount of resources used):
  • E3 effectiveness (is the Transformation meeting the longer term aim?)

The following figure (11.9) was my first attempt at building an activity model for my system of interest. I found it helpful to use the house painting example in Appendix A as a check on my own logic.

I was not satisfied with my first iteration (Figure 22) so quickly moved on to do another one based on what I had learnt from doing the first. My second attempt is given as Figure 23. My main concern became where the activity ‘criteria to be met so that stakeholders can decide’ was located. As you will see I have it feeding into the monitoring and evaluation activities in Figure 23. I then wondered if an output of the ‘engaging with key stakeholders sub-system’ might not be an input into Activity 8 (‘appreciate criteria to be met so that stakeholders can decide’ subsystem). I decided that it would be, so I added an arrow to indicate this.

I then contemplated what constituted the three ‘Es’ for my activity model as well as ‘ethicality’ which I consider to be very important in this domain. I decided on the following:

  • Effectiveness: does the process lead to agreement on implementation of a participative and inclusive approach to managing sustainable development?
  • Efficiency: can this be done without loss of commitment by key stakeholders?
  • Efficacy: are the criteria to be met recognisable as appropriate for a strategy to manage sustainable development?
  • Ethicality: is the process likely to be inclusive of sufficient stakeholders’ perspectives and will these stakeholders feel their contributions have been considered?

By this stage I began to realise that I probably would not learn a lot more by staying at this level, and that to move on in the planning of my own actions it might be helpful to move down a level in some of the subsystems (to explore some ‘hows’ of my original ‘whats’). I envisage that this will produce new insights about specific actions that it might be worth considering taking. However, I have not done this here, nor would I expect you to as part of your answer unless you particularly wanted to. Also, because I am using SSM in ‘design mode’ I have not had occasion to use the techniques available for making comparisons between the elements of my activity and the ‘real world situation’, e.g. the procedure described in Figure A6 in Appendix A. In the past I have found this an important part of taking improvement action when using SSM.

My colleague comments:

E3 effectiveness is also expressed in R if you use PQR. I also want to comment on your use of the Es in relation to the root definition that you have been working on. When talking about Effectiveness you have moved from ‘agreement to decide’ to ‘agreement on implementation’. You have to stay rigorously consistent with language and any variations need to be noted and explicitly considered as it is part of the learning. I would also suggest that Efficiency is the cost of achieving agreement. Your statement about Efficacy would be OK if the R covered something like this.

I would also take issue with you about the models you have developed (Figures 22 and 23) in relation to your root definitions. Figure 22 is actually a model of another root definition, not the one you described in the section headed ‘Logical analysis of the transformation’. If the modelling has suggested another variation on the theme then the root definition needs to be changed – this is the process of iteration. For example Activity 6 (Explore how flexible my TOR are) in Figure 22 is not in your root definition. For me the model in Figure 22 is of a concept concerned with identifying a process within TOR constraints that meets stakeholder needs. That in Figure 23 is about providing a ‘setting’ of a particular kind especially relating to a range of stakeholders and TOR.

Figure 22 My first activity model for my system of interest
Figure 23 My second activity model for my system of interest

You need to model one of the different concepts with consistent root definition/CATWOE but don’t hide all of these variations – being conscious of them and thinking of the implications of the differences is at the core of SSM’s learning process.

My colleague Sue Holwell is a more experienced practitioner of SSM than I am. I have included her comments throughout the text to demonstrate how she would do things differently and also to encourage you to experiment in your use of SSM. It really is a case of where practice opens up more choices. Sue’s comments in no way negate my own learning from using SSM but they do point to ways that I could sharpen my practice.

SSM and its associated techniques can be very powerful in all sorts of settings, so you might like to use them to help you make sense of other situations you experience as complex.

Figure 24 Open to opportunities but feeling somewhat dwarfed by the situation!
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