I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.✓
Hello, dear reader,
Boy, the weeks fly by! Increasingly, I’m only managing to get my posts half cooked by my self-imposed Tuesday afternoon deadline. So, this week’s newsletter should be read as a series of fragments that are still rolling around my brain in search of a narrative to hold them together. Hopefully you’ll permit me an indulgence, just the once 🙏🙏
It’s more complicated than calling it complicated
I have received a lot of feedback on the earlier issue of this newsletter that argued that all systems are complex systems. Feedback has broadly centred on whether simple or complicated problems can exist inside complex systems. We all, in our attempts to make sense of complexity, draw boundaries around particular problems or areas of exploration to make them meaningful and actionable. But, we should always treat those boundaries with a healthy scepticism. The overemphasis on closure that comes with calling something simple or complicated always leads to an understanding of the problem that underplays the role of the environment. In practice, this plays out in a number of ways:
Systems leadership involves organisations, including governments, collaborating to address complex issues and achieve necessary systemic transformations. So, if this is the case, how can systems leadership be helped by systems thinking?
Systems leadership is concerned with facilitating innovation by bringing together a network of organisations. These then collaborate between themselves and with other stakeholders to deliver some kind of service, influence a policy outcome or develop a product that couldn’t have been achieved by any one of the organisations working alone.
Recognising that a network of organisations can achieve something that emerges from their interactions involves a certain amount of implicit systems thinking. After all, the classic definition of a ‘system’ is an identifiable collection of two or more parts that has properties, or achieves outcomes, that can only be attributed to all of the parts interacting, not any one of the parts in isolation. These properties or outcomes may be intended (eg., a service, policy or product), unintended (eg., contributing to climate change), or both.
However, systems thinking, when pursued explicitly, involves much more than just recognising that a network of collaborating organisations is a system. It helps leaders review a wide range of opportunities for change by encouraging them to question the existing system – the boundaries of it, different perspectives on it, the relationships within it (and between it and its wider environment) and how the parts cohere into a system with particular emergent properties, achievements or impacts. Any or all of these forms of questioning could be relevant to addressing a complex issue and achieving a transformation.
Through systems thinking, leaders can generate deeper insights, guard against unintended consequences and co-ordinate action more effectively. Various systems thinking approaches exist. They can help guide (but should not dictate) processes of deliberation to improve complex problematic situations and develop more desirable futures.
Although each individual systems thinking approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, the true power of systems thinking comes from exploring the unique context at hand and designing a bespoke programme that draws on the best of many approaches. Principles and methods may be borrowed from one or more of the available approaches and creatively combined. Some of these are discussed below.
07 APRIL 2021
Adding is favoured over subtracting in problem solving
A series of problem-solving experiments reveal that people are more likely to consider solutions that add features than solutions that remove them, even when removing features is more efficient.
Tom Meyvis & Heeyoung Yoon
Foley M, Smead R, Forber P, Riedl C (2021) Avoiding the bullies: The resilience of cooperation among unequals. PLoS Comput Biol 17(4): e1008847.
Individuals often differ in their ability to resolve conflicts in their favor, and this can lead to the emergence of hierarchies and dominant alphas. Such social structures present a serious risk of destabilizing cooperative social interactions or norms. Why work together to find food when a more aggressive or stronger individual can take all of it? In this paper we use game theory and agent-based modeling to investigate how cooperative behavior evolves in the presence of powerful bullies who have no incentive to cooperate. We show that when individuals can choose their interaction partners, bullies do not always destabilize cooperation. Instead, cooperative norms survive as individuals learn to avoid dominant individuals who become isolated in the population. When competitive ability itself depends dynamically on past success, complex…
Besides attractors, constraints are an important way of describing and understanding dynamics in complex and emergent systems. There are different types of constraints and different ways these act in complex adaptive systems. What they have in common is that without any type of constraint, there would only be randomness and all possible outcomes would have the same probability. So, for any sort of order to evolve, there is a need for some sort of constraints. In that sense, constraints are the origin of both complexity and order.
Governing and enabling constraints
Constraints can either be governing or enabling. Governing constraints hinder actors to do something or only allow them to do it in a certain way. Enabling constraints make it possible for actors to do something that would not be possible otherwise (Juarrero, 1999). An example of a governing constraint would be a law that prevents companies from colluding, while an example of an enabling constraint would be legislation that enables people to establish companies which have certain rights and privileges. Governing constraints can also be physical, like walls or fences that prevent people from going somewhere; or they can be social like norms and taboos. An enabling constraint is for example kinship, as it enables humans to trust each other by binding them together.
Juarrero (1999:133) takes a physiological example to explain governing constraints:
Importance of socio-technical perspective in research and practice
What: A yearly workshop
Where: Trento, Italy / possibly online if needed
When: 14-15. October 2021
This year, the 7th International Workshop on Socio-Technical Perspective in IS development (STPIS’21) will take place in connection with the Italian Chapter of the Association for Information Systems (itAIS), in Trento in Italy. If travel is not possible due to COVID restrictions, or you prefer not to travel, we will be flexible and allow virtual presentations. If needed, STPIS’21 will be held virtually.
A socio-technical perspective sees an organization as a combination of two components – a social and a technical one. The real pattern of behaviour in the organization is determined by how well these parts fit each other. While analysing system problems of getting things done, adequate consideration should be given to technology as well as informal and formal interactions of people.
Despite that a socio-technical perspective has been around for over a half century, it is often forgotten in the IS discourse today. Consequently, many “new approaches” appear to reflect on IS systems problems, such as modern IT systems poorly adjusted to the external or/and internal environment (e.g. market, organizational culture) of organizations in which they are (to be) deployed. We strongly believe that it is high time the social-technical perspective took its proper place in IS research, practice and teaching.
The 21st UKSS International Conference will be online. The date is the 21st June 2021.
Please submit your paper to Systemist [email@example.com] where it will be refereed and considered for publication in the next edition. It is worth remembering that papers published in Systemist will be open access and with the copyright remaining with the author.
We wish you good Systems practice
President UKSS on behalf of the management team
Christine Welch, Ian Roderick, Gary Evans, Petia Sice
With the permission of Dr. Mike C. Jackson OBE, multiple blog posts that were published on LinkedIn have been reposted here, in the interests of scholarship. (A liberty has been taking with editorial paragraphing to introduce whitespace, in hopes of reducing reading fatigue).
The purpose of this article is to compare and contrast the two documents and to subject them to an initial critique using critical systems thinking (CST). Both are worthy of closer attention and I’m sure they will receive this in the future.
The GAPPS framework argues that governments, organisations, and individuals are increasingly perceiving themselves as confronted by VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environments. These environments arise from dynamic interdependencies, within and between systems, and the existence of multiple stakeholders with differing perspectives. The framework seeks to set out the competencies that leaders require to navigate in VUCA environments. The competencies identified are ‘performance based’ and describe the minimum acceptable performance a leader should exhibit in the workplace in “trying to get things done in the face of complexity”.
Lists of competencies are common in the ‘project professions’. The GAPPS framework draws upon previous work of this kind and a lengthy period of consultation and workshops involving significant numbers of experienced project professionals. Although not explicitly a ‘systems thinking’ document, it is reasonable to regard its underlying world-view as being that ‘complexity is the issue and systems thinking the way forward’. I should declare that my own systems thinking work was an input into the original ‘International Centre for Complex Project Management’ standards, upon which the framework draws, and my most recent book is included in the references of the GAPPS document.
At the heart of the framework are 5 ‘Units of Competency’ in the workplace, incorporating 22 elements of competency and 81 criteria of threshold performance.
The first unit, ‘Think Holistically’, is about applying appropriate systems approaches in the face of dynamic interrelationships and multiple perspectives, and emerging threats and opportunities.
The second, ‘Exercise Personal Mastery’, deals with the qualities a leader, confronted by complexity, should demonstrate in their personal behaviour, in building trust, and in leading sensitively.
The third, ‘Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action’, concerns maintaining strategic direction, setting the minimal rules necessary to enable action (providing scope for autonomy and self-organisation), supplying data needs, and establishing control systems that contribute to learning. This unit also requires leaders to ‘act sustainably’, taking into account the UN’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’. In particular, attention must be given to the impact of decisions on individuals and teams, the community, diversity, society, and the environment.
Unit four, ‘Respond to the Environment’, demands that leaders establish flexible structures and processes, and continually review their assumptions in the light of new learning.
The final unit, ‘Engage Collaboratively’, requires close engagement with stakeholders, working across boundaries to ensure open communication, and collaborative teamwork which respects diverse perspectives.
To many working in the ‘project professions’, used to mandates on how to manage the project life-cycle, integrate ‘systems of systems’, etc., this may all sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’. But the framework makes it clear that it is concerned to set out ‘what’ needs to be considered in dealing with complexity, not ‘how’ things should be done. For this, it is to be commended. Experienced project professionals may feel that they have imbibed most of the lessons the framework seeks to deliver through their practice. But it is still useful for them, and even more so for those learning the ropes, to have them clearly articulated in a manner which acts as a reminder and enables them to be enhanced.
The report is comprehensive, benefiting no doubt from the combined knowledge of the large number of contributors. It addresses the wide range of issues that CST sees as essential in managing complexity – strategic direction, responsiveness to the environment, stakeholder involvement, mutual understanding, sustainability, diversity, etc. That said, it also suffers from being produced ‘by committee’.
It sets out a long list of competencies which, despite the structuring around five ‘Units’, lacks overall coherence. For example, once the need to ‘Think Holistically’ has been established, the next unit, ‘Exercise Personal Mastery’, might have been more clearly related to this requirement. Further, from the point of view of CST, it fails to capitalise on the opportunity to show how the competence of fitting selected systems thinking approaches to the problem context can be realised. Although various systems approaches are mentioned, there is no explicit recognition that they have quite different strengths and weaknesses.
The competencies around ‘Provide Conditions to Enable Decisions and Action’ and ‘Respond to the Environment’ might usefully have been linked to the strengths of the ‘viable system model’ and ‘socio-technical systems thinking’; those around ‘Engage Collaboratively’ with soft systems approaches; and those concerned with ‘act sustainably’ to ‘critical systems heuristics’. Questions about how such a differentiated range of competencies can be exhibited together, might have been answered with some CST insight into how to work with different perspectives and manage a pluralism of systems approaches.
Finally, from the CST perspective, and the point has also been made from a complexity theory viewpoint by Dave Snowden (on LinkedIn), the list gives the impression that competencies are static, and that homogeneity is desirable. In the midst of a crisis, brought on by complexity, the appropriate leadership qualities are likely to be emergent rather than fixed and those dealing with the crisis better served if they display a diversity of competencies.
The EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre field guide advises decision-makers how they can best make sense of the world during crises and respond effectively. It therefore differs from the GAPPS framework in being praxis oriented. Its world-view is that complexity is the issue and decision-makers are better placed to navigate complexity if they employ a sensibility and methods derived from complexity theory. The field guide was written by Dave Snowden and Alessandro Rancati, and inspired by Snowden’s Cynefin framework. This ensures a certain coherence but means that other complexity and systems perspectives receive little attention. These include natural science variants of complexity (such as developed at the Santa Fe Institute or derived from Prigogine); social science variants (interactionist, radical change, postmodern, critical realist, etc.) developed during complexity theory’s promiscuous crawl through social theory; and cybernetic, soft systems, and critical systems approaches.
The Cynefin version of complexity theory is a ‘naturalising’ approach which seeks to be relevant to social- or anthro-complexity. It wants to bring ‘good science’ to bear to understand how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. Snowden is critical of existing science-based variants of complexity theory when they reduce the complexity exhibited by humans. Humans are not the same as ants, birds or crystals, he insists. Any complexity theory worth the name, and seeking to address anthro-complexity, must take account of human identities, values, intentions, and cultural practices. It is a difficult feat, I will argue, to remain ‘scientific’ while embracing those features of human systems that have been subject to multiple interpretations in the social sciences, leading to the paradigm wars with which other forms of complexity theory have had to become engaged.
Cynefin is about multi-ontology sense making but, as the field guide is concerned with ‘times of crisis’, its emphasis is very much on the ‘un-order’ domains of ‘complexity’ and ‘chaos’. Decision-makers are advised to navigate through crises by adopting a 4-stage approach – ‘Assess’, ‘Adapt’, ‘Exapt’, and ‘Transcend’.
‘Assess’ starts with a state of confusion which involves deciding whether an apparent crisis can be managed using existing protocols or will demand radical change. If the latter, it is important to gain some initial control by adjusting the ‘constraints’ that are operating. In the case of Covid-19 (and this example is used to good effect throughout the document), this would translate into tightening them by closing borders, insisting on confinement, and encouraging social distancing and remote working. At the same time, it is crucial to start to move away from bureaucracy and conservative practices by delegating decision-making, creating more flexible boundaries to improve communication, and empowering informal networks. Decision-makers should start ‘journaling’ – capturing in notebooks, using sketches as much as possible, the principles they are applying and the new relationships that develop.
‘Adapt’ is about managing ’emerging evolutionary possibilities’ (definitely not about designing some ideal future). This will require loosening organisational constraints and any narrative constraints which stand in the way of a wider variety of ‘stories’ coming forward. Overall co-ordination must be maintained but the organisation needs to become a distributed ‘human sensor network’ in which informal teams and various specialised ‘crews’ seek to reframe the problem space from diverse perspectives, react to weak signals, and seek out new opportunities. Prototyping of innovative solutions can begin but the overarching mantra is to keep options open. Journaling is essential as a means of recording lessons learnt and sharing insights. Decision-makers may still be uncertain what to do but a sense of urgency builds. At some point there is an ‘aporetic turn’, confusion begins to dissipate, and it becomes possible to produce a ‘map’ showing possible changes and how their impact can be monitored. Potential solutions are evaluated, and resources allocated to the most promising.
The third stage, ‘Exapt’, sees action begin in earnest. ‘Exapting’ is a process of “radical repurposing of roles, processes, paradigms, values”. On the basis of a thorough knowledge of the present, intervention strategies are designed which will create new processes and structures, and the new ‘conceptual scaffoldings’ necessary for the organisation to transform itself. To ensure that the questioning of existing practices and conceptual boundaries is radical enough, it may be necessary to temporarily enter the domain of ‘chaos’. Multiple contributions should be encouraged and orchestrated so that agreement is reached on actionable ideas which can be carried forward and tested.
By the time the ‘Transcend’ stage is attained, the organisation is likely to have changed dramatically. It is necessary to consolidate and establish greater stability. The ‘new normal’ must build on the freshly developed activities, the shared learning that has been obtained, and the narratives and stories that correspond to and give coherence to the new present. People will be acting more in concert but must still maintain the ‘requisite diversity’ necessary to respond to the next crisis. They will be stronger for having learnt from past failures.
I am conscious that in summarizing, tidying up even, the field guide’s account, I have lost some of its dynamism and much of the technical vocabulary. In the original, the stages overlap, and myriads of concepts and methods compete for the reader’s attention, sowing a degree of confusion. Being generous, I imagine that this is meant to convey the urgency and creativity that must accompany an appropriate response to crises. But it’s now time to stand back and put on CST glasses.
In broad outline, we have an account of an organisation responding to changes in environmental circumstances by shifting from a mechanistic management system to an organic and then back again (Burns and Stalker, ‘The Management of Innovation’, 1961). The description is enriched with complexity theory concepts. The field guide also provides the 4-stage methodology, and many accompanying methods, for achieving such transitions. This is a significant advance for complexity theory. While systems thinkers have usually been willing to accept that complexity theory has introduced many novel ideas that help improve understanding of the VUCA world, they have been quick to point to the lack of overt methodologies for putting the ideas into practice.
In fact, the 4-stage approach closely resembles the methodologies developed by systems thinkers for translating systems ideas into practice. John Mingers (‘Systems Thinking, Critical Realism and Philosophy’, 2014) provides a generic version of such methodologies (‘appreciation’, ‘analysis’, ‘assessment’, and ‘action’) into which the field guide’s stages could be fitted without too much distortion.
In this respect, it is interesting to speculate whether Ralph Stacey, for example, would regard what the field guide presents as complexity theory at all. From his interactionist perspective (‘Complexity and Management’, 2000, with Griffin and Shaw), he would likely see it as too influenced by systems thinking and as falling into the contradiction of regarding decision-makers as acting on the basis of ‘rationalist teleology’, trying to manage complexity, while treating the organisation as subject to ‘formative teleology’, evolving according to a pattern set by some hidden order.
Returning to the main critique, the Cynefin approach echoes CST by insisting that there are no context-free solutions, that use of a variety of methods is necessary, and that no automatic assignment of particular tools and techniques to the different stages of a methodology is sensible. For example, attention to narratives and stories is essential throughout, as is continuous learning supported by journaling, and the maintenance of ‘requisite diversity’. The inevitable question arises, therefore, of why well-established systems approaches are absent from the toolkit offered by the field guide, even when they seem to offer the most obvious and proven resource for helping decision-makers with ‘managing complexity (and chaos) in times of crisis’. The primary ‘constraints’ the field guide concentrates on managing, throughout the 4-stage process, can be classified into the organisational and the conceptual.
The organisational issues of ‘coherent heterogeneity’, central co-ordination of delegated decision-making, balancing adaptability and stability, reallocation of resources, etc., are exactly those which Stafford Beer’s ‘viable system model’ (‘Heart of Enterprise’, 1979) can offer advice on and structure discussions around.
Conceptual matters, such as encouraging diverse perspectives, explicating existing narratives and challenging them, reframing the problem space, developing new archetypal stories, etc., fall into the arena of soft systems approaches such as Peter Checkland’s ‘soft systems methodology’ (‘Systems Thinking, Systems Practice’, 1981) and of ‘strategic assumption surfacing and testing’ (see Mason and Mitroff, ‘Challenging Strategic Planning Assumptions’, 1981). The idea of ‘journaling’ as a means of promoting continuous learning would benefit from Checkland’s concept of ‘rich pictures’ and the method of continuously up-dating ‘Analyses 1, 2 and 3’ during a project.
There are, it seems to me, two plausible explanations for why the contributions systems approaches can offer are ignored.
First, there is a tendency for complexity theorists, when extending their ideas to the social domain, to want to claim that complexity theory is something new, different, and a step beyond systems thinking. Ralph Stacey describes his version of complexity theory as a radical alternative to the systems approach; a “decisive move away from systems thinking”. Dave Snowden, the originator of the Cynefin framework, has similarly sought to position complexity theory as a “new and emerging body of theory and practice”, based upon more up-to-date science, that is leaving systems thinking and cybernetics behind (on LinkedIn). In original formulations of Cynefin, systems thinking was identified with system dynamics and pinned to the ‘complicated’ domain. This allowed complexity theory to present itself as a new answer to the challenges posed by the ‘un-ordered’ domains. That said, Snowden has readily acknowledged the influence of Ackoff, Beer, and Checkland upon his thinking and so it is strange that the field guide fails to make any use of their tried-and-tested approaches to managing complexity.
Here, I think, the second reason comes into play. Snowden insists that Cynefin is a ‘naturalising approach’ – bringing good science to the understanding of how humans interact with each other and engage with the world. In other words, although he rightly insists that anthro-complexity is different, that humans aren’t the same as ants, birds, and crystals, he doesn’t see that this requires a radical shift in epistemology. By contrast, the soft systems tradition of work has abandoned natural science as a model for gaining understanding of and seeking to intervene in human systems. Geoffrey Vickers, for example, argued that the components of human systems, active individuals using ‘appreciative systems’ to attribute meaning to their situation, makes it impossible to study them using the natural scientific approach. Following Vickers’ insights, and drawing upon hermeneutics and phenomenology, Checkland rejected any attempt to understand problematic social situations in scientific terms, and developed ‘soft systems methodology’ as an approach that works with different perceptions of reality and facilitates a systemic process of learning that can lead to purposeful action in pursuit of improvement.
Snowden talks a lot about narratives, micro-narratives, and stories, and sees them as crucial constraints and enablers but, from his naturalising perspective, understands them and responds to them completely differently to soft systems thinkers (or second-order cyberneticians for that matter). [And, although it does not make an appearance in the field guide, the same argument holds for Snowden’s SenseMaker].
His approach is to invent a whole new technical language of concepts, derived from complexity science, which he hopes decision-makers will learn and come to understand the world through, thus responding to it more effectively.
Soft systems thinkers proceed, by contrast, by enabling decision-makers, and other stakeholders, to express themselves better (more openly and systemically) in their own language in a way that addresses the problems as they see them. The rationale is that change will come when they understand each other better and reach mutual understanding about what they decide it is feasible and desirable to do. For soft systems thinkers, providing decision-makers with better science will not get you anywhere because there is no ‘science’ of human systems.
To take an example, the field guide pictures narratives as acting as ‘strange attractors’ which bring human beings into coherent interaction and lead to co-ordinated action. I suppose this is a nice metaphor, but it is shared appreciations, values, and intentions, at the level of meaning, that actually leads human beings to act in consonance, not some weird compulsion. The attempt to understand anthro-complexity with concepts and tools drawn from the natural sciences acts as a significant constraint on the argument of the field guide.
As other complexity theorists have found, the very different epistemologies found in social theory are essential to relate complexity thinking appropriately to human systems. I have made the case for the ‘interpretive’ sociological paradigm underpinning soft systems approaches.
An even stronger case can be made for ‘radical’ sociological paradigms which point in the direction of conflicts of interest, the exercise of power, systemic discrimination and disadvantage, etc., none of which make an appearance as issues in the field guide. Systems thinking has a methodology, ‘critical systems heuristics’ (Ulrich ‘Critical Heuristics of Social Planning’, 1983) which can help draw these matters to the attention of decision-makers and other stakeholders and suggest how they might be addressed.
Dave Snowden needs social theory to really get to grips with social complexity and the easiest way he can improve the field guide is to recommend systems approaches which have already translated the insights of the different epistemologies offered in social theory into practical methodologies. His naturalising approach to anthro-complexity is currently preventing him from seeing their value.
Readers of this article may want to know more about the CST which underpins this critique of the two reports. Details can be found in my 2019 book ‘Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity‘ (use code ENG21 for a discount if ordering directly from Wiley). The main element of CST employed here is second-order critique – revealing the blind spots of particular systems and complexity approaches by comparing them to other systems approaches (accepting that the other approaches will also provide limited perspectives).
That concludes the LinkedIn post by Dr Mike C Jackson OBE on February 22, 2021.
For those interested in continuing discussion (82 comments, as of April 11), look further towards the bottom of https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/critical-systems-thinking-overview-gapps-eu-science-jackson-obe/
Since Dave Snowden publishes his own blog on the open Internet, readers are encouraged to jump to …
Naturalising narrated | Dave Snowden | March 21, 2021
In that article, Dave Snowden also refers to a lecture:
Webinar: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity | Professor Michael C. Jackson | Cranfield Webinar Series on Complexity and Strategy | 22nd March, 2021 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zJZDIA5UCxw
“This talk discusses the nature of complexity, the development of systems thinking, the emergence of critical systems thinking, and how to conduct interventions on the basis of critical systems practice. The world has become increasingly networked and unpredictable. Leaders of international bodies such as the UN, OECD, UNESCO and WHO, and of major business, public sector, charitable, and professional organizations, have all declared systems thinking an essential leadership skill for managing the complexity of the interrelated economic, social, and environmental issues they face.”
Dave Snowden specifically posted on his blog on the open Internet for “more permanence”.
Dave is right to see the nub of the debate as being about the adequacy of his ‘naturalising’ approach to sense-making in the domain of ‘anthro-complexity’.
I will seek to clarify my concerns with reference to a seminal paper from the systems thinking tradition – Kenneth Boulding’s ‘General Systems Theory: The Skeleton of Science’ (1956). Boulding provides a nine-level hierarchy of real-world complexity stretching from structures and frameworks, through mechanical and biological systems, up to people and socio-cultural systems. He notes that the characteristics of lower-level systems can be found in those at higher levels (e.g., feedback control) and so models developed to understand the behaviour of lower-level systems are still relevant at higher levels. Each higher level, however, presents emergent properties that cannot be understood simply in terms of the theoretical concepts employed successfully at lower levels – hence the need for new disciplines like biology, psychology, and sociology as complexity increases. A key issue that confounds understanding and predicting system behaviour at higher levels is the intervention of ‘the image’ into the chain of causality. As we ascend system levels, brains develop and organise information into images. Behaviour results from the structure and setting of the image rather than directly from some stimulus. Human images are extraordinarily complex and, furthermore, have a self-reflexive quality. People not only know but know that they know.
As Kant argued, in his ‘Critique of Practical Reason’ (1788), as ‘phenomena’ humans are subject to causal determinism. However, as ‘things in themselves’ (noumena), they are beyond the reach of scientific knowledge and it is legitimate to regard them as possessing freedom. Of course, we know much more nowadays about constraints on that freedom. Nevertheless, the basic insight remains sound and, at the people and socio-cultural levels of complexity, a quite different kind of understanding of behaviour is necessary.
Boulding advocates taking advantage of what he calls the ‘inside track’ – the fact that “we ourselves are the systems we are studying”. This nod in the direction of phenomenology and interpretive social theory had a decisive influence on Geoffrey Vickers, who knew Boulding well, and through him, on the development of Peter Checkland’s ‘soft systems methodology’.
How is this relevant to the debate?
First, it reminds us that any ‘naturalising’ approach is in danger of reductionism; of employing a level of theoretical analysis below the level of complexity of the system of interest. Dave is well aware that humans are not ‘ants, birds or crystals’, and sharply criticises those who build models on the basis that they are, but he cannot easily escape the charge of reductionism himself. This is my issue, for example, with ‘strange attractors’. The concept has a precise definition in the natural sciences which does not do justice to the complexity of human systems where, as I previously argued, it is shared appreciations, values, and intentions that actually lead people to act in concert. We need soft systems approaches, operating at the level of meaning, to help us construct and challenge shared appreciations.
Second, while Dave does indeed make extensive use of social science [My statement that “Dave Snowden needs social theory to really get to grips with social complexity” was too loose.], there is still a question about the type of social science he privileges. In his view, social science, to be valuable, must follow the model of the natural sciences. Crucially, explanations should be testable and “critically your experiments” must be capable of validation by other scientists. This criterion of repeatability is hard to apply in the social domain. Social situations tend to be unique and, of course, change as soon as you experiment on them. The examples Dave provides, studies of ‘inattentional blindness’, ‘exaptive practice’, and modern cognitive science, fit his naturalising perspective. Dave is seeking to use methods from the natural sciences, proven to yield knowledge about systems lower in Boulding’s hierarchy, to gain insight into systems of greater complexity. This is justifiable, in Boulding’s terms, because higher level systems do exhibit some of the same characteristics. It is important because it identifies constraints on the way humans behave. But it risks missing the ‘emergent properties’ that arise at higher levels of complexity. To put it crudely, we all possess physiological, biological, and cognitive limitations, but we adhere to quite different values, create widely divergent cultures, and create organisational forms of many varied kinds. It is with these matters that soft and emancipatory systems thinkers engage. They have abandoned the methods of the natural sciences and developed methodologies based upon interpretive and radical social theories which pay direct attention, respectively, to appreciations, values, and intentions, and to the exercise of power, systemic discrimination, and disadvantage.
To be clearer, my critique is not that Dave does not draw upon social science but that his commitment to a naturalistic approach prevents him from paying attention to the range of epistemologies available in social theory which are essential for getting to grips with ‘anthro-complexity’. By contrast, CST seeks to employ a set of epistemologies that, as ‘world hypotheses’ (Pepper, ‘World Hypotheses’, 1942) or ‘experiential gestalts’ (Lakoff & Johnson, ‘Metaphors we live by’, 1980) have proven useful to the human species over generations. And it is able to take advantage of different systems methodologies based on the variety of epistemologies available. It is true that this makes validation and evaluating interventions difficult but there are ways and, in a world of divergent beliefs and values, pervaded by inequalities, this difficulty can hardly be avoided. It certainly cannot be overcome using criteria apposite to the natural sciences.
I can now turn to Dave’s bullet point analysis of my review and pick up on what I see are important issues (Dave’s original numbering):
2. I argued that complexity theory has a promiscuous relationship with social science, attaching itself to any social theory going. Dave believes that it is allowing us to re-examine “a lot of the sterile debates of social science”. But the fact that there are as many versions of complexity theory as there are social theories suggests it is failing to resolve them. The ‘sterile debates’ are winning, not complexity theory.
4,5. I mentioned the apparent resemblance between the 4-stage methodology of the field guide and John Mingers’ ‘Appreciate-Analysis-Assessment-Action’ account of the generic structure of systems methodologies. I was seeking to highlight the novel (for complexity theory) methodological element in the guide. Dave is right that the resemblances are superficial in other respects.
8,9,10. Dave argues that systems thinking has had an impact in only ‘isolated pockets’ and that we have to take advantage of “new insights and understanding from science” to move forward. It might be argued that systems thinking was ahead of its time and people are only now recognising its usefulness. Perhaps its day has come. That is how it seems to me. Of course, we must acknowledge developments in science, but it would be wrong to think that these all favour complexity theory. For example, Carlo Rovelli, the well-known physicist, relates his version of quantum theory to the worldview of Alexander Bogdanov, an early Russian systems thinker (see ‘Helgoland’, 2021). Further, the new insights from science have failed to resolve the disputes in social science – perhaps because of the complexity of the social domain and perhaps because there is more than mere explanation at stake. CST engages with these disputes as long as they are relevant to practical concerns.
I do need to concede that the development of many strands of systems thinking has stalled. Systems engineering is in a quandary about how to extend its scope beyond purely technical problems; the ‘viable systems model’ attracts more devotees than innovators; very few are seeking to up-date and improve the soft and emancipatory methodologies. This leads to an unhealthy tendency to raise the works of certain systems gurus to the level of scripture. As in Soviet Russia, an apt quotation from a supposed authoritative source is seen to end all debate. It is hardly surprising that outsiders get the impression that the most exciting contemporary work is based on complexity theory. It is time to re-establish some rigorous systems thinking research programmes.
11. From a naturalising perspective, it is understandable that Dave feels the need for a sophisticated technical language that can help decision-makers grasp the nature of the world and act better on it. From an interpretive viewpoint, which sees actors as constructing their own social reality, it is important to remain close to the way the actors themselves see the world and articulate their own values and concerns; assisting them with achieving clarity, with understanding taken-for-granted assumptions, and explicating possible implications. Dave raises Heidegger’s thinking on the role of language in ‘world-disclosure’ to support his position. For me, there is an interesting debate to be had about whether Dave’s technical language is more ‘enframing’ than ‘revealing’. Although he diverged from his mentor Husserl, Heidegger remained a phenomenologist and I suspect that he would have agreed with Husserl’s late career conclusion that:
14. I do think Dave would benefit from engaging with the full range of social theory brought to the table in CST. CST is pluralistic and is not restrictive in terms of the social theories it engages with. It has a place for the naturalising approach, that Dave regards as essential, and much else besides. The only criterion for inclusion it employs is that the theories should make a difference to practice when translated into action through systems thinking/complexity theory methodologies.
15. The difficulty of scaling soft systems approaches can be exaggerated. Peter Checkland’s involvement with the ‘manufacturing function’ department of the Shell Group (‘Soft Systems Methodology in Action’, 1990) involved several hundred people. It would nevertheless be disingenuous to claim that this is not an issue. The solution for soft systems thinkers, however, must be consistent with their own philosophy of encouraging the most direct participation possible of those involved in a change process. It cannot be found by resorting to the statistical analysis of worldviews. There is work ongoing on scaling Beer’s ‘team syntegrity’ approach and there must be synergies worth exploring between the way soft systems methodologies and citizens’ assemblies operate.
As to Dave’s final point, I did make suggestions about systems methodologies that could support the intention of the Field Guide – the ‘viable system model’ for issues around organisational constraints and soft systems methodologies to address narrative constraints. I would add a rider here that they need to be used in a manner consistent with the philosophies they embrace. But that means they would explode Dave’s naturalising approach. So, perhaps I am not being particularly helpful. For me, of course, it is only CST that provides the theoretical and methodological variety to match the variety confronting leaders/managers in times of complexity.
I am conscious that, in trying to deal with difficult matters in a short article, I leave myself open to misinterpretation (my fault). And the same will be true for Dave. It is also the case that Dave’s most recent thinking, and mine since my 2019 book, is not yet readily available in written form in the traditional outlets. I would, therefore, welcome an open debate among those interested that would further clarify contemporary Cynefin and CST thinking and practice, and help us build from both the genuine similarities and real differences.
The key assumption of ontological design is this: when we create the objects and contexts that surround us, we are in fact designing our very selves. In other words: first, we design our tools, and then they design us in return.
This feedback loop is ontological design’s central idea as a discipline. It constitutes its chief operative principle. Here’s how it unfolds:
Systems architecture has been considered as both an art and a science. The systems architect uses heuristics, stories, and models to communicate complex architectural concepts to stakeholders. Since the earliest times, master building architects have developed their skills broadly across the technical, business, and fine art domains. Why should engineering be different? Principles and practices of systems architecture are exhibited in the creation of film scores, fine arts, and building architecture. Why not teach art as a core skill of the systems architect? In this work, we explore a formal competency model linking art, systems thinking, and systems architecture. We associate competencies across these domains with the concept of elegant design. We explore formal education in the arts as a way to bridge the communication problems that technical architects have with their stakeholders. The goal is to improve the competencies of systems architects and systems thinkers by bringing the methods of the art studio class to systems education.