CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

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A general framework for systems methods

Expanding the iceberg metaphor for systems

System ontology and epistemology       Last week I used concept mapping to show the relationships between two systems models: (1) a general ontological system model using the iceberg metaphor (in yellow); and (2) a general epistemological (inquiring and design) system model to show the importance of three systems concepts viz. inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries (see post here). The idea came after watching the iceberg video of Dena Hurst. From one thing comes another so yesterday I figured I should more clearly distinguish between the two models. I called the first one ‘systems’ (and how they behave) and the second one ‘thinking’, i.e. about systems (see concept map below). People are special in the sense that they live and work in systems, but also do all the thinking about them.

Homo systemicus     In fact, referring to the human species as Homo sapiens (“wise human”) is a misnomer. It would be much better to use the term Homo systemicus, instead. We derive our brains from millions of years incessantly designing systems. One of the first designs was that of fire (efficacy, efficiency, reliability, safety, logistics, ergonomics, symbolism, applications, e.g. in cooking, agriculture or torture). The best designers survived. This doesn’t mean that our designs are flawless, which is why we should not be called ‘wise‘. Systems design is difficult, confusing, and wicked problems define the ‘condition humaine’. This is even more so if one doesn’t know what systems thinking is. Now, fire is probably a design by Homo habilis (see reconstruction on the left), 2 or 3 million years before homo sapiens. But systems thinking as a field of study only emerged in the 20th century AD. And it has flourished since then, creating many branches. By now, the field is so confusing that it becomes difficult to understand, even to people who are much more intelligent than Homo habilis. Hence this effort to bring some order.

 The framework core      … is the part with the bold red frame around it. I started describing it in the first paragraph of this post by saying that there is a systems part and a thinking part, roughly corresponding to the ontological and the epistemological aspects of systems thinking. It must be emphasized that it is impossible to make a clear distinction between these two aspects. So it may even be better to speak of ontological and epistemological poles of systems thinking, somewhat similar to bipolar magnets, where every part of a magnet, even the tiniest particle, has two poles. In the core of this ‘magnet model’ we see how the iceberg model of Dena Hurst (and many others) and the fundamental systems concepts of inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries must be combined to obtain a complete framework of systems thinking. The next step was simple.

Systems methods       …. can now be linked to a part of the systems framework core. But beware, they wouldn’t be systems methods if they would only operate on a small part of the core framework. The linking parts are more like entry points or a focal essence by which one systems method can be distinguished from another. A good overview of methods can be found in Systems concepts in action (see below) or Wicked Solutions (see below).

Unfolding is of the essence      ‘Unfolding’ is systems shorthand for a process of inquiry aimed at understanding the implications or relevance of one part of a system for another part. In fact, much of what is called systems thinking is applying one method of inquiry or another. Particular systems methods correspond to particular inquiring systems and all of them have some form of unfolding, whether tacitly or explicitly. This means there can be considerable overlap between systems methods. But they can also complement each other, which suggests that a combination of methods is best. Gerald Midgley and Michael Jackson give many examples in their works. In fact, Wicked Solutions could be considered a more recent, highly accessible example of such a combination.

The systems approach        … has my particular interest (see bottom right of the concept map). Critical heuristics is a special application of its principles. The entry point in the systems framework core is ‘boundaries’, which stands for system boundary issues (or boundary choices or boundary suggestions etc.). System boundaries are essential in system redesign or systemic intervention design. System redesign is in fact a redesign of the system structure with a view to changing the system activities in such a way to stop patterns that can be perceived as problematic from emerging. Similar descriptions can be made for all the other systems methods. Give it your best.

Boundaries lack assurances      Another way of explaining how the systems approach (or Churchman’s dialectical systems approach) is special is by looking at its fundamental idea, which is that system boundaries lack assurances, yet we must seek them, implying an endless virtuous cycle. In the 1950s Churchman had been one of the pioneers of operations research, a discipline that uses system dynamics or other mathematical methods to model (business) reality. After having written (in 1957!) the first textbook ever on the subject, he turned his attention to the problem of justification of human action (in business, war, etc.), because no matter how sophisticated the models and associated decision-making, questions about its justification kept creeping in. Over the course of the next two decades he developed an iterative, teleological framework for critical inquiry of the assurances needed for justification. The framework uses twelve categories of assurance, four of which devoted to the four main actor roles in any goal-oriented decision-making process: beneficiary (or client), decision-maker (or politician), planner (or consultant) and the designer of the rational, goal-oriented decision-making process itself: the systems philosopher. This framework, its underlying principles, and the ways in which it is to be used are what makes the systems approach special, effective and foundational. For more information, click here.

Williams, B., & Hummelbrunner, R. (2010). Systems concepts in action: a practitioner’s toolkit. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
http://www.sup.org/books/title/?id=18331 https://gpreview.kingborn.net/806000/93bdcb8d81b74d1cb5d77a5ed9571204.pdf, http://books.google.nl/books?id=3ee7IXvZ5HgC

Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams.
http://gum.co/wicked (PDF, 12$)

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The iceberg metaphor for systems

A simple model for system ontology and epistemology

Two systems intertwined      In the posts of the CSL4D website I combine concept mapping with systems thinking for greater clarity of understanding of the latter. The concept map in this post is one I wish I had made six years ago. It came to me after watching the Systems thinking iceberg video of Dena Hurst. In the concept map below I roughly follow her explanation. I just added a few things of my own to show the relationships between two systems models: (1) a general ontological system model using the iceberg metaphor (in yellow); and (2) a general epistemological (inquiring and design) system model to show the importance of three systems concepts viz. inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. The models are complementary. One doesn’t make sense without the other and vice versa. So, perhaps, with some additions, the iceberg model turns out to be the philosopher’s stone of systems thinking.

iceberg model for systems

The ontological model       …. is depicted to the right. It explains what the system is. You can also watch Dena Hurst’s video, which takes only 10 minutes of your time. A system can be anything, from an office or a business to a development project or a country, even the world. Let it be clear that we are talking here about systems with humans involved. These human-inhabited systems are designed to produce value of some kind, but hardly ever do they only do as or what they are planned to do. All sorts of things are happening in them or as a result of them, some positive, some negative. Some of the negative ‘events’ may form patterns that may start alarm bells ringing. The first reaction is often to suppress the pattern. Suppression may have a number of negative consequences of its own: (1) requiring additional effort; (2) producing its own negative by-effects; or (3) causing the original pattern to morph into a different shape and timing, which requires more suppression, possibly starting a cycle without end. If the alarm bells are loud enough, it may be wise to look under the surface to see what causes the pattern. See e.g. Meadows or Kim. Often the patterns are the result of unexpected interactions between design elements of the system, such as policies, processes etc., or informal or emergent system characteristics. Or they may result from interference between two or more systems. The underlying mental models shape our worldviews and give meaning to all our activities and decision-making. They include biases, beliefs and assumptions (see e.g. Mitroff), some of them hindering good judgment.

Systems thinking       … looks at system structures and their underlying mental models to improve overall system performance. Structures can often be quickly redesigned or adapted, whereas changing mental models is usually a much more difficult process. None of this is easy, but it may be worth it if it can ensure adequate levels of competitiveness, sustainability or effectiveness.

The epistemological model     … is depicted on the left. It explains how the system can be understood. The model is needed to inquire into the inter-relationships between the designed or emerging structures and the resulting patterns. This may seem simple, but it isn’t. Experts suffer of biases as much as anybody else. One of the difficulties is that perspectives tend to ignore tacit knowledge and the underlying mental models. Tacit knowledge is difficult to identify and express. This means that for full and proper inquiry we need complementary perspectives. Therefore we need approaches for carefully contrasting and scrutinizing them. Some of the best approaches are critical and dialectical in nature. Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is a good example.

The mental pole     … of systems thinking is indicated in green. It links the system ontology and epistemology. People have particular perspectives of system structures because of particular mental models. Redesigning the structures may require (some) people to adjust their mental models. For them to do so, they must first be conscious of these models and see the relationship with some of the negative effects of the systems they are part of, be it as planner, decision-maker, employee or beneficiary (which, in a negative sense, may include people that are harmed by the system). Or even as systems thinker.

The IPB table     What remains now is to see if we can make a simple IPB table for Sally, the Tuesday latecomer in Dena Hurst’s story. IPB tables use the three fundamental systems concepts of inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries to arrange system observations and choices in a clear and simple way:IPB table - inter-relationships, perspectives, boundariesBoundaries are critical         From the IPB table it is clear that we need to look at inter-relationships and perspectives to understand what is going on in a system, but the really critical part is formed by the boundary issues: what is included in a system and what is not. In the case of Sally the question is whether her life system (‘she has a life, you know’) should be part of the work system or not. Or rather, should a proper work-life balance of employees be of concern to an employer? This issue touches also on bigger systems: an imbalance of work and life is believed to be one of the causes of the aging of Japan or the shrinking population of Germany. This in turn touches on even bigger systems: is it a good thing if Germany decides to make up for the birth deficit by immigration? What about the impact of EU immigration rules on The Netherlands, for instance, where the population doesn’t shrink at all, while the place is already very crowded with an extremely tense housing market in most of the country? These questions show the other end of the boundary issue. On the one hand it makes sense to expand system boundaries to make responsible and effective decisions, but one doesn’t want to expand them so much that no sensible decision can be made any more. More information about IPB tables and boundary critique can be found in Wicked Solutions.

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Von Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity concept

And its possible relevance to systems thinking

Von Clausewitz, the seminal 19th century Prussian military theorist, famously wrote that war is merely “the continuation of policy [with the addition of] other means” (mit Einmischung anderer Mitteln). This suggests that war is essentially about politics. Clausewitz also spoke of the so-called trinity in war of people, army and government, suggesting that Clausewitz’ ideas mainly apply to nation states, a concept that itself is now under attack because of the rise of non-trinitarian wars involving non-state fighters as in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Mali. The question is of course whether these countries were fully developed nation states (well, probably not) in the first place, and whether the nation state as a concept is in decline as suggested by current theorists such as Van Creveld. Clausewitz also used a second trinity – passion, chance, and reason – for his analysis of war (Fleming, 2013). All very fascinating stuff, but let’s first concentrate on the Center of Gravity concept, since it seems – to me at least – to have potential as a useful complementary concept in the systems approach. It may also hold the key to understanding Clausewitz’ trinities as incompletely developed systems categories, but that’s way beyond the scope of this post and this blog (for now).

Between “is” and “ought”    I am not the first to suggest that there is a link between systems thinking and Clausewitz’s Center of Gravity (CoG) concept, witness e.g. The center of gravity, systemically understood (Rowe, 2013). The CoG concept kindled my interest, because the phrasing itself in the context of warfare is suggestive of a general systemic principle that may apply to complex, dynamic, conflictual situations in urgent need of redressing. Churchman’s equally general set of principles as embodied in his dialectical systems approach facilitates inquiry of the “is” situation and can be very helpful in designing an improved “ought” situation, but it may not always be clear how to get from “is” to “ought”. The CoG concept, properly understood, may come in handy.

Center of Gravity   … is a fundamental concept in Clausewitz’ ‘On war’ (Vom Kriege), which he wrote after the Napoleonic Wars between 1816 and 1830. Clausewitz died of cholera before it was finished, so the book was published by his wife, in 1832 to be precise. Clausewitz was influenced by Kant through the intermediary of Kiesewetter, so it comes at no surprise that Clausewitz opts for a dialectical approach in his analysis of war strategy. And he was looking for principles rather than guidelines. One of the principles centers around the notion of ‘Center of Gravity’ (CoG), a concept hitherto largely ignored in US military’s warfighting doctrine (Echevarria, 2002), probably because it was not well understood. Echevarria emphasizes time and again that the concept may never be reined in properly.

The first principle     … is this: “To trace the full weight (Gewicht) of the enemy’s force (Macht) to as few centers of gravity as possible, when feasible, to one; and, at the same time, to reduce the blow against these centers of gravity to as few major actions as possible, when feasible, to one.” (Vom Kriege, pp. 1009-1010, quoted in Echevarria 2002, p. 9) We can conclude that the number of CoGs can be between zero and multiple, preferably one for each adversary. A CoG is defined by ‘interdependent unity’ (rephrased by me as ‘systemic unity’ in the concept map). This unity derives from the presence of certain ‘centripetal forces’ (Clausewitz uses a model derived from the mechanical physics of his time. He also use a Randomly Oscillating Magnetic Pendulum to illustrate the trinities and the inherent unpredictablility of war). Now, “the unpredictability of war makes action imperative. Oftentimes, the bold, sweeping action is the safest course. Sometimes, such bold action is necessary even when it opens nasty cans of worms we’d prefer to avoid, if those cans are likely destined to be opened anyway and under less favourable conditions.” The CoG concept is intended for understanding how and where swift, bold action should be applied.

The concept map        Part of above concept map has been explained in the previous paragraph. In addition, if the CoG concept is to be applied successfully to a situation, there must at least be two CoGs, one for one’s own activities and for those of the enemy. One must understand both of them to see their strengths and weaknesses and how they interrelate. The CoGs are likely to be different, with the one of the enemy having at least one fatal flaw. There are no fixed rules; determining a CoG is a wicked problem! For its proper application, a sense of innovative surprise (or serendipity) is required. In Clausewitz mind only a military genius has the necessary capability (Napoleon was a good runner up, but didn’t quite make it to genius status). For this he needs all sorts of qualities (balance of character & intellect, not too bold, brave, prudent, bull-headed intellectual, rash or impulsive). A good strategists can see how different actors and conditions can act as ‘focal points of systemization’ to (self-)structure and focus the different power systems. These power systems in turn draw their raw power from e.g. a population base (recruits or strong popular will to vanquish the enemy), food supply or an  industrial base.

CoG and the systems approach         The concept of CoG is much more like the concept of system than one might suspect at first sight. Only the system is adversarial, in a two-system or multi-system configuration (that’s the nation states view, which nowadays is replaced by the international relationships view, which is – still – resisting a mutually exclusive civilizations view). The CoG is what structures a configuration of the enemy’s ‘power’ in a particular way. It is configured to project maximum ‘danger’ to its perceived adversary. To avoid (more) war it needs to be reconfigured. The first step often used to be victory, be it in a destructive or neutralizing sense. The next step reconfiguration (incorporation etc.) in a friendly, neutral or adversarial sense. At this stage, we are well beyond any situation where Clausewitz’ CoG would normally apply, but where the systems approach could be very useful. So, the systems approach may well serve a complementary function. Perhaps there is even a way to avoid fighting a war.

CoG as a complementary tool       The systems approach is well suited for understanding an actual situation ‘A’ and a hopefully improved situation ‘B’. The question remains: how to get from A to B? The simple answer is: B will replace A. But there is often some form of resistance to prevent it. Where mutual agreement fails, something else may need to be done. The adversarial CoG perspective could well help to identify and deal with unwillingness in a way that the non-adversarial systems approach can not. CoG may also complement framing in the systems approach method of Wicked Solutions. Instead of say three one- or two-word statements of what a particular wicked problem or situation is about, CoG may express the centripetal force from which the situation derives its unity or stability.

Some final guidance     Echevarria provides a few simple guidelines for applying the CoG concept in strategic analysis: (1) appropriateness: determine whether identifying and attacking a CoG is appropriate for the type of war one is going to wage; (2) connectedness: determine whether the adversary’s whole structure or system is sufficiently connected to be treated as a single body; and (3) identifiability: determine what element has the necessary centripetal force to hold the system together. These seem sufficiently general rules or steps to apply – judiciously – to the transformation of wicked problems generally. Echevarria further emphasizes that use of the COG concept should have a unifying effect–pulling  all tactical and operational efforts toward the strategic end. Some of the lower-level principles of strategy include: defense is stronger (this must be understood in a Machiavellian sense: all else being equal, the course of war, will tend to favor the party with the stronger emotional and political motivations, but especially the defender); superior numbers; concentration, strategic reserve, economy of force, surprise, perseverance, turning movements, and culminating points. Clearly, these lower-level principles are less general in nature, so they are unlikely to apply as such in many non-war situations. But they may inspire the serendipitous emergence of more appropriate strategic approaches.

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A basic conceptual framework for systems learning

Inter-relationships, boundaries, and perspectives revisited

Last week I was struggling with three systems concepts: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries (IPB). All I was trying to do was to fill out a so-called IPB table to summarize my understanding of the stages in a systemic process as described in Wicked Solutions. A free example of such a table in Spanish can be seen here (English versions are available here, here and here). In my case boundary ideas cluttered my perspectives column, while processes intruded in my boundary column. Somehow I failed to distinguish clearly between one concept and the other. So I went back to the drawing board (in my case concept mapping) to see if I could clarify my understanding. In the process I came up with a novel basic conceptual framework for systems learning generally and the systems approach, specifically. The main source of inspiration has been Wicked Solutions.

Inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives      … are the three key concepts that a group of systems and evaluation experts after three days of deliberation had come up with to enable systemic evaluation without evaluators having to adopt, accommodate and learn specific systems methods. The underlying reason was that the pathway of evaluators learning all the necessary systems methods and methodologies had been demonstrated to be impossible. The meeting took place in Berkeley in the mid-naughties (2004 or 2006, I believe), i.e. very near to where C. West Churchman did most of his work (6th floor of the Space Sciences Laboratory). It had been sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation, because it had recognized that wicked (i.e. systemic) problems hampered much of their work on programs for optimal child development. The three concepts have made it into Kellogg’s 2017 evaluation manual, be it only just. Bob Williams was one of the experts present and he has been promoting the three concepts vigorously ever since (see here). Last week, in one of my efforts to better understand how this might work in practice, I gave the three key concepts centre stage in a novel conceptual framework, be it in a slightly different order: perspectives, boundary choices, interactions.

The conceptual framework       … in one sentence: perspectives help explore boundary choices that may transform the interactions, patterns and processes of a problematic situation to enable stakeholders to better pursue their interests. These situations or problematiques typically do not have clear boundaries. Hence the need for a formal or informal (or even partly conscious) boundary debate, whether individually, in teams or in parliaments. In their potential sense, boundary choices are systemic planning options. Planning is what stakeholders do to pursue their interests. In any complex, systemic human problem situation different stakeholders pursue Continue reading

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Policy argumentation

Mitroff’s operationalization of Churchman’s systems approach, part 2

I ended my previous post on Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST, based on Mason’s and Mitroff’s ‘Challenging strategic planning assumptions’)  with a paragraph on policy argumentation in which I explained that “claims are the supporting foundation of any policy, plan, or strategy. Every assumption that underlies a policy is a claim. Once a policy claim is articulated it is proper, even mandatory, to call it into question, which in turn calls for an argument, resulting in argument chains. These are anchored at the bottom by two things: facts and judgments. Policy argumentation is a conceptual framework for dealing with claims, facts and judgments in a dynamic, innovative policy-making environment, thus bringing order out of the chaos.” I promised that I would explain this in more detail in the next post, i.e. this one.

SAST    The SAST methodology and the Toulmin argumentation scheme adapted by Mason and Mitroff are linked. Any policy statement is based on a series of assumptions made about stakeholders. One implicit warrant in any major policy argument is that all the stakeholders are properly identified and their assumptions properly specified. The backing for this warrant is the theory of teleological systems (the systems approach) and that the SAST method has been properly conducted. The systems approach (i.e. the theory of teleological systems) has been dealt with extensively elsewhere in this blog (e.g. see here).

Relevance     The implication of the fact that Churchman’s (dialectical) systems approach is a key part of the warrant in any major policy argument is that it must somehow be incorporated in or combined with any policy argumentation scheme. That’s quite a strong statement. Yet, all considered – particularly Churchman’s philosophical inquiry of the policy problem as well as his long and profound experience as a management scientist and operations researcher, see also my summary of ‘The Systems Approach’ – I am inclined to agree. But then I am probably biased, because I have struggled with the systems approach for about 5 years. And anybody who devotes 5 years to a topic has a non-negligible bias, not to say a kind of craziness. I am OK with that qualification as long as people recognize that it must have something in common with Churchman’s motivation and insight that generated such a strong interest among Berkeley’s students and Nobel prize winners alike. Time has come to rekindle that interest. I suggest that Mason and Mitroff – both students of Churchman – are part of that rekindling effort. If Wicked Solutions is such an effort, then SAST and policy argumentation are excellent candidates to beef up the methodology, especially towards its final design phase.

Claims     Let’s start off with the concept of the ‘claim’. Many real-life issues in government policy and business strategy emerge from the complexity that results from the systems that we organized in our attempts to improve our lives. This organized complexity produces a cloudy policy decision situation Continue reading

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Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST)

Mitroff’s ‘operationalization’ of Churchman’s systems approach, part 1

In table 12-3 (p. 301 of Mason’s and Mitroff’s ‘Challenging strategic planning assumptions’) major approaches to business problem solving are compared, including the systems approach and SAST (strategic assumption surfacing and testing), but also analytic modelling (typical of operations research), the case method (widely used, but lacking in objectivity), structured approaches (e.g. PIMS and its many derivatives, often failing to look at key non-quantifiables). The problem with the systems approach is that it is difficult to operationalize (although it could be argued that Wicked Solutions solved that problem). The problem of SAST may be the unwillingness of participants to lay bare their assumptions. This is a general problem in all approaches where we want to leave no stone unturned (as assumptions, e.g. about people’s motivations, lurk beneath them). In this post I will argue that SAST can be combined with the systems approach to improve both. By the way, Mitroff and Barabba wrote a 2014 update of “challenging strategic planning assumptions”, which was entitled “Business strategies for a messy world”).

Organized complexity     Mitroff and Mason start their book by describing something they call “organized complexity”. “Organization is usually considered the route to the solution of a complex problem. In reality, however, organization in complexity can become an insurmountable barrier to the solution of a problem” (p. 5). “Three factors – separability, reducibility and one-dimensional goal structure – mean that simple problems can be bounded, managed, and as Horst Rittel (1972) put it, ‘tamed.” Rittel was the first to identify and describe the ‘wicked’ problem in the mid-1960s. Mitroff argues that in the past complexity was much more disorganized and could be managed statistically. However, people, organizations, and facilities have become more and more tightly woven, increasing the risk of disastrous crises. This line of thought explains Mitroff’s later and continuing preoccupation with crisis management (see previous post). Mitroff and Mason add 6 characteristics for “wicked problems of organized complexity” to the 10 identified earlier by Rittel (see elsewhere in this blog): (1) interconnectedness; (2) complicatedness; (3) uncertainty; (4) ambiguity; (5) conflict; and (6) societal constraints. One fine day I will combine all 16 factors in a single concept map. To deal with these challenges, new problem-solving methods are required that are (a) participative; (b) adversarial; (c) integrative; and (d) managerial mind supporting. The last requirement means that managers and policymakers need to achieve a better insight into the nature of the complexity. This also means that managers and policymakers must be deeply involved in the process.

The SAST planning process      In chapter 3 (p. 35-57) Mason and Mitroff describe the essentials of SAST. At the end of it the management or policymaking team is “well informed about the strategy they are following and the assumptions that support it.” They have sufficient reason to believe that they have constructed an effective (model of) reality from which to proceed. A decision with regard to a plan or policy has been made. Key assumptions were not ignored but rather surfaced, challenged, and monitored over time. This is the purpose of the SAST process. In the example the SAST process involved five steps: (1) group formation; (2) assumption surfacing; (3) dialectically debating and ranking these assumptions; (4) further debating and results and negotiating the statements of assumptions; and (5) synthesizing results, arriving at a consensus, establish information requirements and guidelines for the final decision. I created a little concept map to summarize the steps, which I will very briefly discuss one by one, with some references to the systems approach of C. West Churchman, on both of which I have posted a lot earlier in this blog.

Group formation     No single mind is able to adequately grasp complex problems fully, so key stakeholders must be swept in to benefit of their insights. A single group of stakeholders is unlikely to develop the dynamics necessary to accommodate complexity, so multiple groups are needed Continue reading

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Crisis management and the systems approach

The need for instilling crisis management capability in organizations

Nobody has been promoting Churchman’s systems approach as well as Dr. Ian I. Mitroff. He did so in a variety of (indirect, practical) ways, but his most sustained effort is in the form of promoting crisis management as an essential management capability. Crisis management is: (1) reacting in the best way possible after a major crisis occurs; from which follows (2) preparing in the right way for reacting in the best way possible; and, best of all , (3) preventing major crises from happening in the first place. Mitroff has an author page at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Ian-Mitroff/e/B000APLBDA) and a website of his own organization at https://mitroff.net/. I recently came across two 3-minute video’s (1, 2) in which Mitroff explains what crisis management is all about. I took the liberty of producing a concept map of my interpretation of both short video’s and adding some notes to it.

Key points      1. There are always tell-tale signs that crises are looming, which is why we can and must proactively improve matters and try to prevent them from happening; 2. the causes of crises are wicked problems or messes; 3. we often operate on assumptions that cause crises; 4. being alert to crises and preparing for them is good business; and 5. we are not taught in schools about wicked problems, only about ‘exercises’, thus turning us in certainty-simplicity junkies that are incapable of dealing with crises, wicked problems and messes.

Proverbs for paranoids     “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, then they don’t have to worry about the answers.” (Gravity’s rainbow). In fact, there is nothing new about this: Theodore Roosevelt claimed to have used a similar trick when starting the construction of the Panama Canal without the approval of the US Congress. The quote has a more insidious meaning here, in view of key point 5 above: most people have been so thoroughly trained in non-messy problems (e.g. algebra or physics or chemistry exercises) that they cannot imagine asking “the right stupid questions” about messy, wicked problems, leading directly to the fundamental problem of trying to “Solve the Wrong Problems Precisely” (Mitroff 2010). This is perhaps the main reason why most people ignore the signals that are send to warn us of a looming crisis, even if the signals are shouting in their faces. Nothing paranoid about that. It happens all the time.

Crisis management       …. does three things: (a) respond to crises; (b) prepare for crises; and (c) prevent crises. The Romans already knew that: “nulla calamitas sola” or ‘disaster never comes alone’. One crisis entails another. Crises are inter-connnected. That’s why Russ Ackoff – Churchman’s long-time co-worker – appropriated the term ‘mess’ “to stand for a dynamic, constantly changing system of problems that so highly interconnected and bound together that they can’t be separated either in principle, practice, or in their basic existence” (Mitroff et al, 2013) . That’s also why Churchman formulated the principle of non-separability: we simply cannot Continue reading

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