Yvonne Agazarian developed a theory of living human systems and its systems-centered therapy and training (SCT) (Agazarian, 1997). As Anne Alonso wrote on the back cover of Yvonne’s 2006 book (Agazarian, 2006):
Dr. Agazarian has done what few of us have dared. She has developed, watered, weeded and grown her own theory of systems and groups, and woven her work into a broad-based training environment that spans the globe… We could ask for no better gift to the Academy, or for all of us trying to know and help people in groups.
Yvonne’s seminal work has been anchored in the field of group psychotherapy, yet it has far-reaching implications that go beyond group per se to a theory that helps us work with our common humanity. Her theory can be applied to any living human system—as small as a person, a couple, a family, a therapy group, a work group or team, a whole organization or even as big as a nation. The heart of her theory posits that discriminating and integrating differences is the major change process by which all living human systems survive, develop, and transform.
Critical Systems Thinking (CST) has traditionally sought its philosophical underpinning in the work of German theorist Jurgen Habermas. We suggest that CST need not necessarily be informed by Habermas, and present the thought of Michel Foucault as one possible alternative. This paper traces the historical development of the relative positions of Habermas and Foucault and examines the differences between the two with regard to systems. Our aim is to spark and inform debate within the systems/OR community as to the relative merits of each as a basis for CST.
Today i am #WorkingOutLoud to share more of the emerging illustrations from the Quiet Leadership work: this one explores the ‘Organisation as Ecosystem’, a theme i have circled around from a number of directions in my broader work, but which i position at the centre of this journey.
The premise is that, beyond the formal structure, our Organisations behave like ecosystems, with each piece both drawing upon, and impacting upon, the others. Through these myriad interactions, meta-effects emerge (like ‘culture’). The ecosystem idea also allows me to bring in a central context of individual vs collective responsibility: we can each, through gentle action, care for one part of the forest, but none of us can tend for it all. Or to put it another way, all of us tend to it all: we can only sustain a healthy ecosystem if our energy and activity is aligned within…
A creative methodology for software developer un-bias
Kelsie Nabben & Michael Zargham 14 November 2020
“Wisdom is knowledge about certain principles and causes.” — Aristotle, 350 B.C.
The origins of infrastructure matters in relation to the social outcomes it supports, enables or undermines. Yet, as emerging technologies become more enmeshed in everyday life — and more powerful: it is rarely highlighted how crucial it is for technology developers to be aware of the values in which they imbue into their creation
Model-dependent realism is a view of scientific inquiry that focuses on the role of scientific models of phenomena. It claims reality should be interpreted based upon these models, and where several models overlap in describing a particular subject, multiple, equally valid, realities exist. It claims that it is meaningless to talk about the “true reality” of a model as we can never be absolutely certain of anything. The only meaningful thing is the usefulness of the model. The term “model-dependent realism” was coined by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in their 2010 book, The Grand Design.
The simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.
The aphorism strikes me as so profound and relevant that I have often tried to verify its attribution. Conquest was a renowned historian of the Soviet Union, so his opinions on the politics of organisations carry considerable credibility.
Several readers have asked me for Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of politics. As best I can remember, they are:1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.2. Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.3. The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.
The problem with this is that the second of these three laws appears to come not from Robert Conquest but John O’Sullivan, a former advisor to Margaret Thatcher.
In March 2019 the PCP established a mental wellbeing network to explore and learn about mental wellbeing in their community in order to surface and engage with leverage points for change. The work is ongoing and currently focused on engaging with young people to better understand their needs and ambitions, particularly related to social connectivity and mental wellbeing for communities impacted by drought and bushfire. Tiana and Glenn will share about their journey in systems thinking and using the systems change framework to improve outcomes for mental wellbeing in their community.
Essential genes are often thought to be frozen in evolutionary time — evolving only very slowly if at all, because changing or dying would lead to the death of the organism. Hundreds of millions of years of evolution separate insects and mammals, but experiments show that the Hox genes guiding the development of the body plans in Drosophila fruit flies and mice can be swapped without a hitch because they are so similar. This remarkable evolutionary conservation is a foundational concept in genome research.
But a new study turns this rationale for genetic conservation on its head. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle reported last week in eLife that a large class of genes in fruit flies are both essential for survival and evolving extremely rapidly. In fact, the scientists’ analysis suggests that the genes’ ability to keep changing is the key to their essential nature. “Not only is this questioning the dogma, it is blowing the dogma out of the water,” said Harmit Malik, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator who oversaw the study.
“This work is so beautiful,” said Manyuan Long, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Chicago. “The researchers found that rapidly changing heterochromatin drives the evolution of new essential genes. Just amazing!”
Metafuture is an educational think tank that explores alternative and preferred futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. Through presentations, workshops and research, Metafuture helps local and global organizations and institutions create alternative and preferred futures. It is hosted by Sohail Inayatullah and Ivana Milojević.
To work toward an integrated social system based on shared political and cultural values, economic democracy, decentralization and sustainability.
To advocate for just political, ecological and economic reforms, through organizing movements, workshops and conferences; publishing articles and newsletters; conducting research and developing policy proposals.
The whole-systems understanding of the world acknowledges that a whole is always more than the simple sum of its parts, paying attention to the diversity of elements, the quality of interactions and relationships, and the dynamic patterns of behaviour that often lead to unpredictable and surprising innovations and adaptations.
Many of the interrelated problems we face, as change agents in the transition towards a more sustainable human presence on Earth, have their root cause in a way of thinking that has not paid enough attention to whole systems and their dynamic interconnectedness, dynamic relationships and context.
Experts and specialists are important contributors to most sustainability projects, but we also need integrators and generalists who can help to put the contribution of each discipline into systemic relationships and help to contextualize the contributions made by the specialists.
Whole-systems thinking has to be a transdisciplinary activity that maps and integrates relationships, flows and perspectives into a dynamic understanding of the structures and processes that drive how the system behaves. Experts and specialists are important contributors to most sustainability projects, but we also need integrators and generalists who can help to put the contribution of each discipline into systemic relationships and help to contextualize the contributions made by the specialists. Too often we employ limited progress indicators or inadequate measures of success based on the dominance of a particular discipline or perspective.
One way to define the word ‘system’ is as a set of interconnected elements that together form a coherent pattern we can refer to as a ‘whole’. Such a system exhibits properties of the whole that emerge out of the interactions and relationships of the individual elements. This systems definition could be applied to a molecule, a cell, a human being, a community or the planet. In many ways a system is less a ‘thing’ than a pattern of relationships and interactions — a pattern of organization of constituting elements. The Greek root of the word system is ‘synhistanai’ and literally means ‘to place together’.
We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts.
Systems thinking and systemic intervention is a possible antidote to the unintended and dangerous side-effects of centuries of focusing only on reductionist and quantitative analysis informed by the narrative of separation. Yet, it is important to maintain the awareness that the systems view itself is also just another map that, as Alfred Korzybski put it, should not be confused with the territory. We can reduce the world to a whole just as easily as we can reduce it to a collection of parts. Neither the whole nor parts are primary; they come into being through the dynamic processes that define their identity through relationships and networks of interactions.
One of the most important questions in any systemic approach is to ask ‘what is the system in question’. In doing so we define boundaries that provide us with the necessary ‘enabling constraints’ to make sense of a situation. Yet, these boundaries are themselves a way of seeing that make a distinction between the system in question and its environment. We should regard the boundaries that delineate one system from another as places of connection and exchange rather than barriers that separate or isolate.
Whole-systems thinking invites us to see complex issues from multiple perspectives, to suspend our judgement by questioning our own assumptions, and to honour insights from different disciplines and different ways of knowing.
In more general terms, whole-systems thinking invites us to see complex issues from multiple perspectives, to suspend our judgement by questioning our own assumptions, and to honour insights from different disciplines and different ways of knowing. Thinking in this way helps us to pay attention to the fertile ground of synergistic, whole-systems solutions. It can help us to more clearly see the opportunities in the multiple converging crises around us.
Whole-systems thinking stops us from seeing ecological, economic and social constraints as irreconcilable challenges. It invites us not to view different stakeholder perspectives in a competitive, win-lose frame of mind, and encourages us to explore win-win-win solutions that improve the overall health and sustainability of the system as a whole.
Whole-systems thinking is living systems thinking. I believe that a systemic understanding of processes by which life continuously regenerates conditions conducive to life offers a pathway to creating regenerative businesses and organizations within a regenerative economy as enabling factors of a regenerative culture. We will explore many examples in subsequent chapters. Here are some questions to contemplate when dealing with systems:
What is the system in question and how are we defining what belongs to the system and what does not?
What is the wider context that the system in question operates in?
What are the key agents whose interactions and relationships define the system structure and drive the system’s behaviour?
How is our perspective of the system in question shaped by our worldview and value system?
What are the key ‘emergent properties’ of the system that could not have been predicted by simply looking at the individual ‘parts’ of the system?
How does our participation in the system and our way of describing it affect what we are observing?
Daniel Christian Wahl — Catalyzing transformative innovation in the face of converging crises, advising on regenerative whole systems design, regenerative leadership, and education for regenerative development and bioregional regeneration
Daniel Christian WahlDaniel Christian Wahl originally trained as a biologist and holds degrees in Biology (BSc. Hons., Univ. of Edinburgh), Holistic Science (MSc.,Schumacher College) and Natural Design (PhD., Univ. of Dundee).
When I joined The Children’s Society I was quickly swept onto the systems change journey. The simple concept of creating more positive impact for young people in need, by improving and changing the systems that repeatedly fail them made sense to me.
Systems change was a journey The Children’s Society had chosen to embark on. Our organisation’s strategy had made an intentional move to design services and programmes that would purposely shift the focus from the child to the systems around them. We wanted to grow our systemic thinking and needed a way to test and learn more about this way of working and new (to the organisation) approaches. The Children’s Society knew that it alone could not make the fundamental changes needed to ensure positive impact for disadvantaged children. Working systemically and ensuring greater collaboration would be essential — Peter Grigg’s blog explains this well.
When I ventured into the School of System Change I likened my own developing understanding of systems change to an old fashioned coffee percolator. The slow drip, drip of content, theory, practice and talk of change, reflection, experiment and futures slowly altered my way of seeing the world. Initially I was overwhelmed by it all — sitting with emergence, not having the answers, shifting the way I was approaching problems. I found it emotional and hard, but eventually clarity begun to prevail. I see similarities here with the way in which the learning from the Systems Changers Programme has become part of The Children’s Society’s DNA.
In 2018 The Children’s Society, in partnership with The Point People and funded by Lankelly Chase began to adapt and develop the Systems Changers Programme for application in the youth sector, with those working directly to provide support services. I’m not going into the detail of what and how we did it over the 9 month Programme, that’s contained in our learning report, written by Caitlin, which is purposely lengthy to share all we’ve learnt about creating and delivering the programme. A short learning synopsis is also available.
We didn’t directly lift the Systems Changers Programme on completion in 2019 and implement it within our practice base at The Children’s Society. Instead we worked to adopt the principles and approaches to our work.
This blog contains my reflections, as a participant on the journey, of some of the impact of the Systems Changers Programme on our organisation. This is not impact we have quantified, these are reflections I’ve noticed — the patterns that have emerged since the programme began. I note my own bias, increasingly I’m leaning towards systemic ways of thinking and being — attracted by the possibility to make change. I’ve been encouraged by my colleagues to pause and celebrate this significant personal shift in my own thinking and being. As a person renowned as a doer, a fixer, working at pace to deliver actions, I found it really hard to slow the pace, reflect and think even bigger and systemically.
Beer’s Principles For Good Government in the COVID-19 Crisis
As of this writing, there are 1.75 million confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus, and 105,000 people are confirmed to have died of the virus. Many statistics and maps about the COVID-19 pandemic are available online from Johns Hopkins University.But looking at the rates of infection in various countries throughout the world, we know that those nations with accurate reports are reporting exponential growth until adequate measures are taken, and that many authoritarian regimes, such as Brazil and Russia and Hungary, are seriously underreporting the number of cases. Moreover, there are not the means to test in the Global South, so the numbers there could be considerably higher than reported.
In Britain and the USA, the response to the crisis would be farcical if it weren’t so cruel. Denialism during the crucial weeks between the outbreak of the crisis and when it started to kill people in those countries in large numbers meant that, after weeks of bluster, these economic powerhouses of late capitalism are scrambling to do damage control for how they have responded to the crisis; a damage control that barely addresses the health crisis, and instead focuses on the crisis of legitimacy incited by the miserable way their regimes have failed to protect their own citizens.
The Words We Use Can Change Our Reality – Shifting to a Systems View
This morning I spoke to a highly accomplished, bi-lingual woman who works in software. We agreed that the words we use when we work can have an enormous impact. For example, in her environment, the word “project” has acquired a stigma because of the pain associated with it so now she talks about “initiatives”. This small changed has helped.
The fact is that we create our reality through language. The words we use express and reinforce our mental models. They reflect a culture and a worldview.
When we want to introduce change it’s important to support the effort with the words that will encourage new behaviours. At Intelligent Management we help organizations introduce and adopt a systems view so they can improve and accelerate all the flow, from the input of suppliers and the market all the way through to their products and services and the feedback they receive from customers for continuous improvement and innovation. Working with a systems view means having the words that help you to do that.
To sum up the key terms that indicate how we can work within and on systems and the field of knowledge required, we produced a word map to accompany our glossary for ‘The Decalogue’ methodology that encompasses the approaches of W. Edwards Deming and the Theory of Constraints. That was a few years ago. It’s time to add a new “line” to the map; since we produced it we have continued to evolve ‘The Decalogue’ and true to our scientific origins, we have looked to science for our basis. Here we look at some new terms to add to our word map.
Working with a systems view: Complexity, networks, emergence
Nature is not homogenous. Most of the universe is complex and composed of various subsystems — self-contained systems within a larger whole. Microscopic cells and their surroundings, for example, can be divided into many different subsystems: the ribosome, the cell wall, and the intracellular medium surrounding the cell.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics tells us that the average entropy of a closed system in contact with a heat bath — roughly speaking, its “disorder”— always increases over time. Puddles never refreeze back into the compact shape of an ice cube and eggs never unbreak themselves. But the Second Law doesn’t say anything about what happens if the closed system is instead composed of interacting subsystems.
New research by SFI Professor David Wolpert published in the New Journal of Physics considers how a set of interacting subsystems affects the second law for that system.
“Many systems can be viewed as though they were subsystems. So what? Why actually analyze them as such, rather than as just one overall monolithic system, which we already have the results for,” Wolpert asks rhetorically.
The reason, he says, is that if you consider something as many interacting subsystems, you arrive at a “stronger version of the second law,” which has a nonzero lower bound for entropy production that results from the way the subsystems are connected. In other words, systems made up of interacting subsystems have a higher floor for entropy production than a single, uniform system.
All entropy that is produced is heat that needs to be dissipated, and so is energy that needs to be consumed. So a better understanding of how subsystem networks affect entropy production could be very important for understanding the energetics of complex systems, such as cells or organisms or even machinery
Wolpert’s work builds off another of his recent papers which also investigated the thermodynamics of subsystems. In both cases, Wolpert uses graphical tools for describing interacting subsystems.
For example, the following figure shows the probabilistic connections between three subsystems — the ribosome, cell wall, and intracellular medium.
Like a little factory, the ribosome produces proteins that exit the cell and enter the intracellular medium. Receptors on the cell wall can detect proteins in the intracellular medium. The ribosome directly influences the intracellular medium but only indirectly influences the cell wall receptors. Somewhat more mathematically: A affects B and B affects C, but A doesn’t directly affect C.
Why would such a subsystem network have consequences for entropy production?
“Those restrictions — in and of themselves — result in a strengthened version of the second law where you know that the entropy has to be growing faster than would be the case without those restrictions,” Wolpert says.
A must use B as an intermediary, so it is restricted from acting directly on C. That restriction is what leads to a higher floor on entropy production.
Plenty of questions remain. The current result doesn’t consider the strength of the connections between A, B, and C — only whether they exist. Nor does it tell us what happens when new subsystems with certain dependencies are added to the network. To answer these and more, Wolpert is working with collaborators around the world to investigate subsystems and entropy production. “These results are only preliminary,” he says.
Many systems are composed of multiple, interacting subsystems, where the dynamics of each subsystem only depends on the states of a subset of the other subsystems, rather than on all of them. I analyze how such constraints on the dependencies of each subsystem’s dynamics affects the thermodynamics of the overall, composite system. Specifically, I derive a strictly nonzero lower bound on the minimal achievable entropy production rate of the overall system in terms of these constraints. The bound is based on constructing counterfactual rate matrices, in which some subsystems are held fixed while the others are allowed to evolve. This bound is related to the ‘learning rate’ of stationary bipartite systems, and more generally to the ‘information flow’ in bipartite systems. It can be viewed as a strengthened form of the second law, applicable whenever there are constraints on which subsystem within an overall system can directly affect which other subsystem.