Critical Systems Thinking, GAPPS, EU Science Hub / Cynefin Centre | Mike C. Jackson | 2021/02

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).

Originally published on February 28, 2021 at

A Critical Systems Thinking overview of the ‘GAPPS’​ and the ‘EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre’​ guides to leadership in times of complexity

Dr Mike C. Jackson OBE
Centre for Systems Studies

Two reports have recently appeared (February 2021) aimed at improving the capacity of decision-makers to lead and manage in the face of complexity and crisis.

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

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
  • “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”.

On Linkedin @antlerboy published a link at that (as of April 11) had 52 comments.

On April 8, Dr Mike C Jackson published a rejoinder on LinkedIn at .

Cynefin and Critical Systems Thinking (CST): A further contribution to the debate

Dr Mike C. Jackson OBE
Centre for Systems Studies

I recently wrote a CST review ( of the EU Science Hub/Cynefin Centre Field Guide to leadership in times of complexity. Dave Snowden has written a detailed and considered response ( ), for which I thank him. It has helped me gain a clearer understanding of his ‘naturalising’ approach to complexity and of our differences. This contribution to the debate is meant to further mutual understanding.

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.

This concludes the April 8 rejoinder by Dr Michael C Jackson. Continuing on LinkedIn at , there are 31 comments (as at April 11).

#cynefin, #mike-c-jackson-obe

Web roundtable on careers, systems thinking, 2020/06/12

Careers roundtable on June 12 2020, 12:00 noon ET with @Mykigai on #Ageism in the Workplace.

New platform led by @lauraminquini (a Gen-Xer building connections across generations) at the Centre for Social Innovation, Toronto.

Free event, register at .

MYKIGAI Careers - Round Table, June 12, 2020, 12:00 noon Eastern Time

From the Chronicle of Experts:


David Ing has a lot of impressive job titles—systems scientist, business architect, management consultant and marketing scientist. He put in 28 years at IBM. He has an MBA from Kellogg and a long and impressive list of academic papers and citations. Last year Ing published a book on Open Innovation Learning, dealing with issues of open sourcing software. He has taught in Finland, Japan and China and is in process of a PhD at Aalto University in Finland. 

Then, this year, at the age of 62, he made the radical decision to turn his job search over to his four “millennial” aged sons. And next week he starts his new job at what he describes as an “entry level.” He is actively “downshifting his career.” Ing will join the MYKIGAI career round table this Thursday, June 12 at noon to discuss his unusual career path, what he hopes to learn at his new job, and the misconceptions of aging in the workplace.

He cites his “systems thinking” way of looking at the world to explain his job search strategy. “In behavioral psychology, you look inside yourself and dig around to understand the world. The other way, in systems thinking, is ecological, which means looking at how you are in the world and appreciating how the world is changing.” The tech world has changed, he says, now that 50 percent of the workforce at his old alma mater IBM is in the millennial age range, he concluded he should take the advice of his similar-aged sons. The world operates their way now: “That tells me the millennials are right and I’m wrong. It’s simple market logic.”

He had sent out his resume, and got back crickets, nada. But when his third son stripped the resume down to “hard skills” and took all that experience and made it less than a page, he started getting calls back from recruiters. 

The non-traditional, non-linear arc of Ing’s earlier career—“I started at the top at IBM in headquarters as a planner, and worked my way down, to technical sales” also fits his current circumstances. Ing is more interested in what’s new and what’s next, and less interested in traditional markers of a climb to success, such as money and title. Life, he says, is about finding purpose. “I’m excited,” he says, “about trying something new. I can look at all the aspects of the company as an MBA and a former management consultant. But I want to keep moving, and learning.”

AGEISM IN THE WORKPLACE – MYKIGAI Careers Round Table on Friday, June 12 at Noon.


What is Systems Science? | Dec. 2018 | IFSR Conversation

In Dec. 2018, a @incose_org @ISSSMeeting report “What is Systems Science” by @garyrobertsmith @makar_jennifer #HillarySillitto @garysmetcalf #GeorgeMobus #SwaminathanNatarajan following the April 2018 IFSR Conversation was released.

A group of systems scientists and systems engineers met for about a week in April 2018 in Linz, Austria for the biannual IFSR Conversation. This event is sponsored by the International Federation for Systems Research (IFSR). This group was investigating the question “What is Systems Science?”.

Systems Science Working Group (INCOSE-ISSS collaboration)
Our team included Gary Metcalf, George Mobus, Swami Natarajan, Jennifer Makar, Hillary
Sillitto and Gary Smith.
Our team included Gary Metcalf, George Mobus, Swami Natarajan, Jennifer Makar, Hillary
Sillitto and Gary Smith.

1 Why the question of “What is System Science?”

Gary Smith / Jennifer Makar
● The purpose of the conversation
● Patterns of thought
● Ambitions for integration

2 A diversity of world views on systems

Hillary Sillitto
● (Why do we see systems and live in systems.)
● Why do people have different viewpoints of what systems are and what are the advantages of these?
● Bridging the schism

3 A diversity of knowledge about systems

Gary Metcalf
● Utility of General Systems Theory
● Isomorphism across knowledge bases
● Appreciating the value of diverse philosophies

4 What is useful from “Science” and what would System Science be useful for

George Mobus
● Key questions for system science
● Complications and Patterns
● Bringing things together

5 Ontological Foundations for Systems

George Mobus
● Naming the things that exist
● How the universe organises itself

6 Reflections on the nature of Systems

Hillary Sillitto
● Real world observables and model world abstractions
● Is “Systemness” a fundamental organising principle of nature?
● A grand sequence of systemicity and emerging periodicity

7 Reflections on the nature of engagement with systems

Swami Natarajan
● Purposes of engagement and pattern of practice organization
● Worldviews: Six dimensions
● Systemology: The nature of engagement with systems
● 4 worlds: Observing, understanding and modelling systems. The formation of knowledge
● The scientific method: Developing validated knowledge
● Challenges in developing validated models for complex systems
● Knowledge Integration

The power of frameworks
Gary Smith
● Foundational knowledge in chemistry
● Analogous thinking for “systemry”
● Utility for system science of such a framework

8 A Knowledge Framework for System Science

Swami Natarajan
Structuring, using and testing a knowledge framework for system science
● Basic structure of a system science knowledge framework
● Tests to determine whether an entry is right
● Consistency relationships within the framework
● Intended uses

9 Enabling System Science

Gary Metcalf
What is the path to create a systematic enterprise for system science?

10 Reflections on the experience and conclusions

Jennifer Makar / Gary Smith


Gary Smith, Jennifer Makar, Hillary Sillitto, Gary Metcalf, George Mobus, Swaminathan Natarajan, “Report on IFSR Conversation in April 2018 on ‘What is Systems Science?'”, Systems Science Working Group (collaboration between INCOSE and ISSS), Dec. 2018 at

#ifsr, #incose, #systems-sciences

“The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality” | Jakob Nielsen | 2006

Summary: In most online communities, 90% of users are lurkers who never contribute, 9% of users contribute a little, and 1% of users account for almost all the action.

Participation Inequality, Nielsen (2006)

All large-scale, multi-user communities and online social networks that rely on users to contribute content or build services share one property: most users don’t participate very much. Often, they simply lurk in the background. 

In contrast, a tiny minority of users usually accounts for a disproportionately large amount of the content and other system activity. This phenomenon of participation inequality was first studied in depth by Will Hill in the early ’90s, when he worked down the hall from me at Bell Communications Research.  

When you plot the amount of activity for each user, the result is a Zipf curve, which shows as a straight line in a log-log diagram.

User participation often more or less follows a 90–9–1 rule:

  • 90% of users are lurkers (i.e., read or observe, but don’t contribute).
  • 9% of users contribute from time to time, but other priorities dominate their time.
  • 1% of users participate a lot and account for most contributions: it can seem as if they don’t have lives because they often post just minutes after whatever event they’re commenting on occurs.


“The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities” | Jakob Nielsen | 2006 | Nielsen Norman Group at

#lurkers, #pareto, #participation, #zipf-curve

Reinvigorating Quality of Working Life Research | Grote + Guest | 2017 | Human Relations

Since the 1981 publication on #QualityOfWorkingLife by #EricTrist, perhaps it’s time for a revisiting.  #GudelaGrote (ETH Zurich) and #DavidGuest (King’s College) wrote:

We will make and substantiate five claims in this essay:

  • (1) the initial QWL movement of the 1960 and 1970s offers an early model for evidence-based policy-making and managerial practice resulting from interdisciplinary social science research that provides useful lessons for contemporary practice;
  • (2) contemporary developments in work and in society more broadly justify a renewed focus on QWL;
  • (3) recent research relevant to QWL has been conducted with increasingly narrow disciplinary foci and overly optimistic assumptions regarding the compatibility of individual and organizational interests, which has limited its policy impact. Researchers need to address the challenge of competing perspectives in this regard;
  • (4) a revised list of QWL criteria and an associated analytic framework, that take into consideration both relevant developments in society and advances in research can serve as a basis for a renewed QWL research agenda;
  • (5) QWL researchers need to (re)learn how to create policy impact by working to an interdisciplinary, stakeholder-focused and intervention-oriented research agenda.

This kind of QWL research agenda should benefit evidence-based policy-making and interventions in organizations, but also academic research itself by rebalancing its rigour and relevance.

We will conclude with some remarks on where we hope a discussion provoked by this essay might lead us as a scientific community concerned with improving QWL [Grote and Guest (2017), pp. 150-151, editorial paragraphing added).

Although the researchers see a return to the scientific approach back to interdisciplinary, the political and economic environment in 2017 is seen as unfavourable towards QWL.

Table 1. Changing frames for quality of working life (QWL) research.
Original QWL movement QWL research from the 90s to today Proposed future QWL research
Orientation towards practice Normative; evidence-based intervention Creating an evidence base for practice Normative; creating an evidence base for practice and
evidence-based interventions
Research focus Relevance Rigour Relevance and rigour
Scientific approach Interdisciplinary Disciplinary Interdisciplinary
Level of analysis Meso to macro Micro to meso Multi-level
Promoted employment relations Collective agreements Individual agreements Combining collective and individual focus
Political and economic
Favourable towards QWL Unfavourable towards QWL Unfavourable towards QWL
Social impetus Emphasis on collective emancipation as a route to societal prosperity Individual proactivity for personal emancipation Emphasis on individual and collective paths to emancipation

The employment relations are no longer on just collective agreements, but on combining the individual and the collective.

After revising a list of quality of working life criteria (adapted from Walton (1973) and Walton (1974)), the researchers propose a framework.

In Figure 1, we outline an integrative framework that incorporates all criteria in the classification.

Figure 1. An integrated framework for future quality of working life research.

Figure 1. An integrated framework for future quality of working life research.

At its heart (level 1) is the individual worker and their job, reflected in Individual proactivity and the Development of human capacities, implying a focus on job content, decision-latitude and employee

In the first band around this core (level 2), reflecting the organizational context of work, we locate organizational HRM policy-related criteria including Adequate and fair compensation, Safe and healthy working environment, and Social integration.

The outer band (level 3) covers issues related to the world outside work including Consideration of the total life space, Social relevance and Flexible working, although the latter potentially cuts across all three levels.

The boundaries between the different levels of analysis are likely to vary in strength and there is inevitably some overlap. Specifically, Growth and security is placed at the boundary of level 1 and 2 and Constitutionalism, that is the protection and promotion of employees’ rights and mechanisms for representation, sits between levels 2 and 3.

Outside the sphere of QWL we locate national and international institutional and legislative arrangements and the wider economic and financial systems that facilitate, prescribe and also inhibit QWL activities [Grote and Guest (2017), pp. 156-157, editorial paragraphing added).

The researchers then propose four research approaches that will have impact.


Grote, Gudela, and David Guest. 2017. “The Case for Reinvigorating Quality of Working Life Research.” Human Relations 70 (2): 149–67.  Alternate search on Google Scholar.

Trist, Eric L. 1981. The Evolution of Socio-Technical Systems: A Conceptual Framework and Action Research Program. Occasional Paper 2. Toronto, Canada: Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre.  Alternate searches on Google Scholar and on Worldcat.

#quality, #quality-of-working-life, #trist

Cross-border impacts of cannabis legalization in Canada

With cannabis legalized in Canada today (Oct. 17), can we compare socio-political aspects to the U.S. Prohibition laws 1920-1933?  Daniel Francis, a historian in BC, was reviewed.

For Canada, America’s federal Prohibition law, in effect from 1920 to 1933, was a miraculous economic benefit. Canadians were free to manufacture and export liquor. The American customers who took possession of it in their own waters or on their own soil assumed all the risk. Big-money people weren’t the only Canadians cashing in, for the little guy prospered as well. A case of whisky bought in Quebec for $15 could be sold in New York State for $120. “There wasn’t any job in Canada that paid that much for so little work,” Francis writes.

“Prohibition in U.S. led to exciting times in Canada (review of Closing Time by Daniel Francis)”  | Marcel Martel | January 2, 2015 | Vancouver Sun at

Closing Time: Prohibition, Rum-runners and Border Wars | Daniel Francis | 2014 at

Closing Time, Daniel Francis


#canada, #cannabis, #legalization

Connectivity and complex systems: learning from a multi-disciplinary perspective | Turnbull, Hutt, Ioannides et. al | 2018

Understanding complex systems from different disciplines, writes @Ecohydrology et al., requires appreciating the standpoints of …

  • (i) defining the fundamental unit for the study of connectivity;
  • (ii) separating structural connectivity from functional connectivity;
  • (iii) understanding emergent behaviour; and
  • (iv) measuring connectivity.

Here’s a table (detailed text removed from the original article) that compares disciplinary approaches.

Table 1:
Summary of connectivity challenges across different disciplines. Extent to which connectivity challenges are an issue:

    • * do not present a challenge;
    • ** presents a challenge but progress has been made;
    • *** presents a major challenge.


Fundamental Unit (FU)

Separating Structural Connectivity (SC) and Functional Connectivity (FC)

Understanding Emergent Behaviour

Measuring Connectivity

Systems Biology










Computational Neuroscience















Social Network Science





Recognizing Structural Connectivity (SC) as different from (but not exclusive from) Functional Connectivity (FC) is a big start.

Fig. 1 Network-based representation of structural and functional connectivity

Fig. 1 Network-based representation of structural and functional connectivity. Illustration of ways in which structural and functional connectivity within a multitude of systems can be conceptualised using a network-based approach across Systems Biology, Neuroscience/Computational Neuroscience, Geomorphology, Ecology, and Social Network Science


  • Connectivity and complex systems: learning from a multi-disciplinary perspective | Laura Turnbull, Marc-Thorsten Hütt, Andreas A. Ioannides, Stuart Kininmonth, Ronald Poeppl, Klement Tockner, Louise J. Bracken, Saskia Keesstra, Lichan Liu, Rens Masselink and Anthony J. Parsons | Applied Network Science | 2018, 3:11

#complex-systems, #connectivity, #multi-disciplinary

Google Plus (for consumers) shutdown | Oct. 8, 2018

The shutting down of one online venue for #systemsthinking on Google+ is inconvenient, yet a possibility that we have forseen.  In headlines, see:

The Systems Sciences community on Google+ at is still working, on the day after the announcement.

Gabriel Asata asked:

Any idea about how to maintain ourselves in contact and keep the production and publication of this community after Google+ shutdown?

… to which I responded …

The Systems Sciences community on Google+ should acknowledge that an open community for systems thinkers worldwide has been provided at no charge by Google, as a commercial enterprise, for many years.

In partnership with Benjamin Taylor, our community has been prepared for the possibility that Google+ might not persistent in a supporting such a platform. In January 2018, we partnered on the Systems Community of Inquiry stream at . This is an open collaboration site hosted on WordPress.COM that could be moved to an alternate provider, and is backed up on the Internet Archive (you can check at*/ ).

If you prefer to just receive headlines, syndicates to .

If you don’t like Twitter, and would like to experiment on an open source platform with a gradient of intimacy (i.e. like Google Circles), you might follow me (as an individual) at . If a critical mass of individuals sign up on that platform, perhaps we can encourage that open source platform to flourish.  (I’m also on Diaspora at , but haven’t seen much action there in the past 3 years).

This is part of a longer story, at ..

Since the original explorations in 2015, we can now see “The Federation refers to a global social network composed of nodes that talk to each other. Each of them is an installation of software which supports one of the federated social web protocols” at .  Here’s a snapshot of popularity at October 2018.

The Federation, Projects

Mastodon (which didn’t exist in 2015, as did Diaspora) now appears to have been growing in popularity.

#diaspora, #federated, #google-plus, #mastodon, #shutdown, #social-network

Systems practice – unpacking the juggler metaphor | OpenLearn

From the Open University, excerpted from a free course on “Managing Complexity: A Systems Approach”:

Many well-known systems thinkers had particular experiences, which led them to devote their lives to their particular forms of systems practice. So, within Systems thinking and practice, just as in juggling, there are different traditions, which are perpetuated through lineages (see Figure 7).

A model of different influences that have shaped contemporary systems approaches

Figure 7: A model of different influences that have shaped contemporary systems approaches

The OpenLearn course was surfaced on reading “The Role of Systems Thinking in the Practice of Implementing Sustainable Development Goals” | Martin Reynolds, Christine Blackmore, Ray Ison, Rupesh Shah, Elaine Wedlock | 2017 | Handbook of Sustainability Science and Research at .

Praxis support for implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs) based on systems thinking in practice at The Open University.

Praxis support for implementing sustainable development goals (SDGs) based on systems thinking in practice at The Open University. Source Reynolds et al. (2017). © 2017 The Open University

A complementary presentation was made by Martin Reynolds at the World Symposium on Sustainability Science and Research, Manchester, UK, April 5-7, 2007.
World Symposium on Sustainability Science and Research

Martin Reynolds is in the Applied Systems Thinking in Practice group in the School of Engineering and Innovation, at The Open University.

There are a variety courses when searching on “Systems Thinking” in OpenLearn.


#mooc, #open-university, #systems-thinking

Reflections on the paradigm of Ecological Economics for Environmental Management | Maurício Fuks | 2012

A concise history of ecological economics via Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Kenneth E. Boulding laying down foundations in the systems sciences, and their influence on Herman Daly and Robert Costanza.

Georgescu-Roegen (1971) pointed out that, according to the first law of thermodynamics we can neither create nor destroy matter or energy (Principle of Conservation of Matter and Energy) and consequently asked: What, then, does the economic process do? The answer is: it absorbs, qualitatively transforms low entropy and releases it outside the economic system in the form of high entropy.3 That is, the economic system is a subsystem of the finite global ecosystem, on which it depends to both extract low entropy and, when using it, release it in the form of high entropy (Ayres, Nair, 1984, Constanza et al 1997).

Figure 1 - Matter and energy flows through the economic system

This entropic perspective of the economic process is the opposite of the mechanistic view addopted by standard economic theory. Unlike the Newtonian worldview – in which a system is time reversible, remaining identical -, the second law of entropy indicates an irreversible and unidirectional qualitative change: The amount of bound (or unavailable) energy in a closed system increases continuously. To decrease the entropy of a system, we need to obtain energy from outside the system, which means increasing the global entropic deficit.

Living organisms are no exception to the second law of thermodynamics, since they survive by absorbing low entropy from the environment to offset the increase in entropy to which they are subject. Thus, although living organisms temporarily avoid dissipation, they increase the entropy of the system as a whole, i.e., of the environment in which they exist. In other words, the presence of life speeds up the entropic process (Georgescu-Roegen, 1971, 1993).


Kenneth Boulding, another thinker of huge influence in Ecological Economics was also adamant about the need for changing the economic behavior of humanity.5

  • Although Georgescu-Roegen and Boulding disagreed about the concept of entropy, the congruence between the works of these two thinkers is evident. The sharpest disagreement lies in that Boulding advocates the possibility of a closed system for matter without its dissipation and powered by solar energy. This difference makes Boulding’s view (potentially) less tragic than Georgescu-Roegen’s (see Cechin & Eli da Veiga, 2010; Cleveland, 1999; and Fuks, 1992, 1994).

“Reflections on the paradigm of Ecological Economics for Environmental Management” | Maurício Fuks | Estudos Avançados | vol.26 no.74 São Paulo 2012 at , CC-BY-NC at


#ecological-economics, #kenneth-boulding, #nicholas-georgescu-roegen

Open Systems Thinking, Online Discussion, Governance

Should an open (public) online discussion group espousing systems thinking be governed through (i) an open (public) group, or (ii) a private (closed or secret) discussion group?

This is a question being debated on Facebook, about the “The Ecology of Systems Thinking” public group, with the “Systems Thinking Network Leadership Group” (closed group, proposed to becoming open), and the “EcoST Admin ADG” (secret group, which has reset to “closed”, i.e. the members are visible, but the content is not).

On August 30, I was invited into the EcoST Admin ADG, and posted:

I am signing into this group to say that I will not participate in a group that is designated as secret.

Since I have spent 3 full years writing a book called Open Innovation Learning, it would be hypocritical for me to participate in an online community that doesn’t believe in open systems thinking.

Some offline private communications ensued.  On August 31, I responded to on a personal channel:

… if the official position of that Facebook group is that’s going to be “a private working space”, then I won’t participate. However, if I was feeling sufficiently mischievous, I would then create a public link to that group, saying how open systems thinking isn’t being practiced, and ask why.

On a question about online discussion group administrator-moderators “making mistakes”, I wrote:

If we are seriously designing a system that “learns”, errors (a rephrasing of [C…’s] mistakes) are an opportunity for group learning. This is covered in the Map of Ignorance, from the University of Arizona.

The behaviour of thanking someone for pointing out an error takes some getting used to. It’s at the foundation of Ontological Design, as encouraged by Fernando Flores.

<< some messages by others are omitted >>

My understanding is that a lot of people are intimidated by meeting Fernando Flores, because he will take you at your word. I had the fortunate opportunity to schedule an appointment to speak to him directly (in his home!) and I found him rather straightforward.

<< a message by someone is omitted >>

So, to follow though on the Flores thread, communicating via social media (as well a verbally, where he does a large amount of coaching) is a SKILL that individuals should learn and improve upon. That being said, talking into a mirror (i.e. a closed system) will only allow a limited amount of learning.

As those private comments were (with my concurrence) reshared onto the EcoST Admin ADG on August 31.  Responses to the thread led me to write a long response:

On the premise of setting the EcoSt Admin ADG as secret or private Facebook group: What systems school, research of philosophy are you basing this decision? I will argue for open systems thinking (and open systems theory), and can easily draw on whole community of systems luminaries to support my position.

From a systemic perspective, the issue should be discussed as a whole. To fit within the post limits of Facebook, this issue will be broken up into this opening, five points, and a closing.

(1) An open systems approach allows boundary critique, as described by Werner Ulrich at .

The quest for systemic thinking cannot alter the fact that all our claims remain ‘partial’ (Ulrich 1983), in the double sense of being selective with respect to relevant facts and norms and of benefiting some parties more than others. This is what boundary critique (Ulrich 1996, 2000, 2017) is all about; it aims at disclosing this inevitable partiality.

Having a Facebook administrators group as a closed system doesn’t “identify the sources of selectivity”; doesn’t “question these boundary judgements with respect to their practical and ethical implications to surface options”; and doesn’t include the ability to “challenge unqualified claims to knowledge or rationality by compelling argumentation”.

(2) An open systems approach embraces dissenting perspectives, as described by Gerald Midgley, “The Sacred and Profane in Critical Systems Thinking” | 1991 | Systems Practice at , cached at

Fuenmayor uses a metaphor of light and dark to describe this process of drawing boundaries. He asks us to remain aware that throwing light upon a system casts its ‘otherness’ into darkness. Through such an awareness we are able to retain the possibility of changing the boundaries of critique. In other words, awareness of ‘otherness’ is an effective remedy for ‘hardening of the boundaries’.

Any electronic forum that is a closed system doesn’t permit throwing light on how the boundaries are set.

(3) An open systems approach embraces fluid management (rather than solid aspects of management), as described by David Hawk | “System Cracks are Where the Light Gets In: Models and Measures of Services in the Benefit of Context” | 2001 | Proceedings of the 45th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the System Sciences, cached at

Cracks point a systems forces that were not being reconciled within the limits of the system. “Crackage” may also be a sign of systems reaching their limits. […] Such cracks can be seen as early indicators of larger problems looming for organizations.

A closed system doesn’t respond to environment, and thus doesn’t see signals of the system reaching its limits.

(4) An open systems approach embraces “unbounded systems thinking” as “the fifth way of knowing”, as described by Ian Mitroff | The Unbounded Mind | 1995 (scholarly excerpt at . This was originally described as a Singerian inquiring system by C. West Churchman. Here’s a quick summary by James F. Courtney, David T. Croasdell and David B. Paradice | “Inquiring Organizations” | 1998 at

The Singerian Inquirer
> Two basic premises guide Singerian inquiry (Churchman, 1971, pp. 189-191). The first premise establishes a system of measures that specify steps to be followed in resolving disagreements among members of a community. Measures can be transformed and compared where appropriate. The measure of performance is the degree to which differences among group member’s opinions can be resolved by the measuring system. A key feature of the measuring system is its ability to replicate its results to ensure consistency.
> The second principle guiding Singerian inquiry is the strategy of agreement (p. 199). Disagreement may occur for various reasons, including the different training and background of observers and inadequate explanatory models. When models fail to explain a phenomenon, new variables and laws are “swept in” to provide guidance and overcome inconsistencies. Yet, disagreement is encouraged in Singerian inquiry. It is through disagreement that world views come to be improved. Complacency is avoided by continuously challenging system knowledge.
> Singerian inquiry provides the capability to choose among a system of measures to create insight and build knowledge. A simplistic optimism drives the community toward continuous improvement of measures. However, the generation of knowledge can move the community away from reality and towards its own form of illusion if not carefully monitored.

An open systems approach with the fifth way of knowing allows new knowledge to be swept into the dialogue. Taking a poll is based on the second way of knowing, an analytic-deductive inquiring system.

(5) An open systems approach is a premise for Open Innovation Learning, where open sourcing WHILE private sourcing is recognized. The open access book at is based on 7 case studies of IBM between 2001-2011.

The label of open sourcing frames ongoing ways that organizations and individuals conduct themselves with others through continually sharing artifacts and practices of mutual benefit. The label of private sourcing frames the contrasting and more traditional ways that business organizations and allied partners develop and keep artifacts and practices to themselves. Many customers external to a private sourcing organization are uninterested in internal details about the whys and wherefores about how an offering comes about. Some constituents external to an organization prefer the transparency in open sourcing, both in self interests and mutual interests. [p. 5]

Those interested in an example a concrete struggle to maintain the spirit of open sourcing can refer to Appendix A.7.4 (c) “Open sourcing: Office Open XML approved as ECMA-376 on Dec. 7 2006” telling the story about Microsoft influencing industry standards organizations to endorse OOXML, and IBM threatening to exit those organizations as a result.

In this sense, I may be labelled a heretic. David Hawk writes “a heretic was one who raises questions about an entity’s most closely held beliefs. A heretic initiates institutional renewal by firming up its strengths while destabilizing its dogmas. In this way a heretic strengthens an entity”. See

I explicitly license the whole of these comments (i.e. the opening, 5 points and close) as Creative Commons CC-BY-ND David Ing 2018, which allows them to be reposted in whole by anyone, anywhere, as long as they are attributed to me. If you want to respond, your copyright will be preserved, but you might want to refer to “Do I Own My Photos and Posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram?” | Mihir Patkar | October 2017 at

The original formation of the Systems Thinking Network Leadership group on Facebook was based on the reformation of Systems Thinking World on LinkedIn, in October-November 2015.  The ideal (but technologically immature) direction would have been to move towards a federated social web.  Benjamin Taylor had moved to the platform (based on, now archived at ) before moving to in January 2018.

On September 1, Benjamin Taylor wrote on the EcoST Admin ADG:

I have a preference for what i believe David is advocating – everything should be *accessible* unless it really needs to be private. And we should keep the private to a minimum.

The purpose of this apart from the open systems principles is to allow genuine accountability – i.e. at a practical minimum, the different perspectives and arguments behind moderation decisions should be made visible.

IIRC, at the time a small group of people saved the LinkedIn group (which I had a part ownership of) and the Facebook group from [G…’s] destruction (plus the @systemsthinking twitter, which [P…] still has custody of, given we were never able to resolve what to do with it), I proposed (or supported) very open moderation, which is why I added many admin-types to the LI group, and created (or supported) the systems thinking network leadership group as an open forum for whoever was interested to weigh in and help make decisions on any governance or emergent issues from *both* the LI and the facebook group. I stand by that decision, and would suggest that we rename that as the more humble ‘moderation’ group, agree some decision rules, and try to work there.

This led Benjamin to a Facebook poll in the EcoST Admin ADG with a description:

I’m proposing:
1- close down this group and reconvene in the STN moderation group
2- I will make clear to everyone there the intention for it to be a platform for moderators to hold governance discussions and allow 72 hours for responses or complaints (to be debated there), then:
3- I will change the group status to open
4- I will delete every non-governance-related post currently in that group
and then:
5-any mega-decisions for either group be by vote of all members in the relevant groups (STN moderation a platform for open discussions only)
6-all moderation decisions discussed in STN moderation open group, then finalised by small group of moderators using the rules we are currently agreeing in the google doc)
7-delegate authority to all moderators to do a bunch of day-to-day stuff (as being agreed in the google doc)
8-escalation route from individual moderator – STN moderation discussion and moderator decision – all member vote if needed (to be agree in the google doc)
The results of this vote not to be binding on what we agree in the google doc – items 6-8 as they relate to the google doc be advisory in that context.

I support this position, and would be active in reforming the Systems Thinking Network Leadership (closed) group on Facebook into the Systems Thinking Network Moderation (public) group.

This is not the end of the story.  It’s a partial report of activities in an online community.

The Ecology of Systems Thinking group on Facebook

#facebook, #governance, #online-communities, #open-systems-thinking, #systems-thinking

The Power of Profit in Ecology | Timothy F.H. Allen | 2017 | TEDxMadison

Ecologists can learn from economists, says Timothy F.H. Allen, paying attention to return on effort.  This video is a refined presentation of ideas based in hierarchy theory and the collapse of complex societies, jointly researched with Joseph Tainter and published in Supply-Side Sustainability.

High Gain, Timothy F.H. Allen

[3:40] This is a resource that gives you a lot of gain for minimal effort. We call them high gain. High gain systems are wasteful. They’re local because they sit on the hot spot of the resource. They’re ephemeral because the hot spot doesn’t last very long. And they’re dynamical. You can describe them in terms of the dynamics of the situation. [….]

[04:18] … whereas tomatoes are all tomatoes all the way, basil consists of leaves — which you want — and these stalks and stems and flowers and things that you don’t. So we have to approach basil quite differently. We have to treat it as a low quality resource.

Low Gain, Timothy F.H. Allen

[04:40] It’s low gain. That is to say, you put in a lot of effort. You tend to be prudent. The resource is consumed in a dispersed way. The resource tends to be long lasting and structural.

[04:57] And so that in this way, basil is reduced down, processed, increased in quality, until we just have
the leaves. [….]

[05:30] I have a good colleague, Joe Tainter. He’s written a wonderful book in 1988 called The Collapse of Complex Societies. And his basic premise is that societies are problem-solving units, and they solve problems by complexifying. In the beginning you don’t get a lot of benefit for complexification. Then you get a lot. But in the end, there’s a diminishing return on effort. So over time, we consume a resource. It collapses. It becomes too expensive. We then indulge in some sort of a substitution.

Complexity, complicatedness: Timothy F.H. Allen

[06:07] Notice though that the cost over time keeps on going up. Relative complicatedness is a different manner. Notice the way that we get more and more complicated and difficult to deal with, but but then all of a sudden, you change your strategy.

[11:30] Remarkably enough, hardly any systems go prudent [in their consumption]. […] As long as there is a high gain resource in the vicinity, they will use it. All systems do that. All systems are wasteful. [….]

[12:15] We never look after our resources. Once you’ve gotten to this prudent use, then, all of a sudden, instead of living in your food, you move out to get the food and bring it back again.

Here’s an abstract from a similar talk from Allen, on “Introducing the Concept of Profit Across Ecology“, given in 2016 at the U. of Georgia.

Ecologists often speak of resource use, but not of profit. Return on effort is neglected. Ecologists are so doom and gloom because their systems are seen as going round a cycle from establishment to demise as resources run out. Sometimes they lead to death and extinction, but economists know better that resources do not run out; usually they just get more expensive in the next pass around the cycle. There are successive cycles of increasing efficiency. Some cycles are predictable from rate-dependent energy gradients (high gain), and whole other systems are predicted from rate-independent constraints on those flows (low gain). We have examples from ants, termites, birds, the Roman Empire and prevailing global ecology.


The Power of Profit in Ecology | Timothy F.H. Allen | 2017 | TEDxMadison at

“Confronting economic profit with hierarchy theory: The concept of gain in ecology” | Timothy F. H. Allen, Peter C. Allen, Amy Malek, John Flynn, Michael Flynn | 2009 | Systems Research and Behavioral Science at

“Insights into Service Coming from Biology” | Timothy F. H. Allen | ISSS 2012 San Jose at

“Insights into the Relationship Between Products and Services Coming from Biology” | Timothy F. Allen,  Duncan Shaw,  Peter C. Allen, James Spohrer | 2013 | Systems Research and Behavioral Science at

#ecology, #economics

C. West Churchman with Kristo Ivanov | 1987 |

Video is viewable through an online viewer, and downloadable in multiple formats (h264 MP4, MPEG2 VOB, OGG Video) on the Internet Archive at .  This recording was producted by the department of Informatics of Umeå University in the spring of year 1987, with C. West Churchman interviewed by Kristo Ivanov.

Kristo Ivanov, in interview with C. West Churchman (1987)

The opening title reads:


Universicy [sic] of California, Berkeley

Interviewed by professor
Kristo Ivanov
on April 30, 1987,
at the University of Umeå ,
Sweden – department of
Administrative Data processing.

The second and third slide read …

This interview was made during a visit of professor Churchman as guest lecturer at the University of Umeå , following his being rewarded a honorary doctor’s degree in economic science in the autumn 1985.

A summary of professor Churchman’s life and work is given at the end of the recording.

The background song “Der Lindenbaum” – music by Franz Schubert and text by Wilhelm Müller – is sung by professor Churchman himself!


#systems-approach, #systems-thinking, #west-churchman

Living Systems | James Grier Miller | 1978

The 1100+ page Living Systems book published in 1978 by the founder of Behavioral Science in 1956, James Grier Miller, became available as a softcopy on the Internet Archive in May 2017.

What is a living system and what does it do? Many scientists coming from diverse scientific backgrounds, when engaged in the search for general principles to integrate our understanding of the phenomena of life, have placed major emphasis on the notion of living systems composed of interrelated units. The various “systems theories” differ greatly in their concepts and definitions of basic terms. Their common goal is to organize the findings in some or all of the sciences of life and behavior into a single conceptual structure.

1. One general theory of living systems

The general living systems theory which this book presents is a conceptual system concerned primarily with concrete systems (see page 17) which exist in space-time. Complex structures which carry out living processes I believe can be identified at seven hierarchical levels (see page 25) — cell, organ, organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system. My central thesis is that systems at all these levels are open systems composed of subsystems which process inputs, throughputs, and outputs of various forms of matter, energy, and information. I identify 19 critical subsystems (see page 32 and Table 1-1) whose processes are essential for life, some of which process matter or energy, some of which process information, and some of which process all three. Together they make up a living system, as shown in Fig. 1-1. In this table the line under the word “Reproducer” separates this subsystem from the others because that subsys- tem differs from all the others by being critical to the species or type of system even though it is not essen- tial to the individual. Living systems often continue to exist even though they are not able to reproduce. Subsystems in different columns which appear oppo- site each other have processes with important similar- ities — for instance, the processes carried out by the ingestor for matter and energy are comparable to those carried out by the input transducer for information. In general the sequence of transmissions in living systems is from inputs at the top of Table 1-1 to outputs at the bottom, but there are exceptions. [p. 1]

A generalized living system interacting and intercommunicating with two others in its environment

Fig. 1-1 A generalized living system interacting and intercommunicating with two others in its environment.

Subsystems which process both matter-energy and information: Reproducer (Re); Boundary (Bo).

Subsystems which process matter-energy: Ingestor (IN); Distributor (DI); Converter (CO); Producer (PR); Matter-energy storage (MS); Extruder (EX); Motor (MO); Supporter (SU).

Subsystems which process information: Input transducer (IT); Internal transducer (IN); Channel and net (CN); Decoder (DC); Associator (AS); Memory (ME); Decider (DE); Encoder (EN); Output transducer (OT).  [p. 2]

Systems at each of the seven levels, I maintain, have the same 19 critical subsystems. The structure and processes of a given subsystem are more complex at a more advanced level than at the less advanced ones. This is explained by what I call the evolutionary principle of “shred-out,” a sort of division of labor (see Fig. 1-2). Cells have the 19 critical subsystems. When mutations occurred in the original cells, the mutant could continue to exist only if it could carry out all the essential processes of life of the 19 subsystems; otherwise it would be eliminated by natural selection. The general direction of evolution is toward greater complexity. As more complex cells evolved, they had more complex subsystems, but still the same 19 basic pro- cesses. Similarly as cells evolved into more complex systems at advanced levels — organs, organisms, and so on — their subsystems shredded out into increasingly complicated units carrying out more complicated and often more effective processes. If at any single point in the entire evolutionary sequence any one of the 19 subsystem processes had ceased, the system would not have endured. That explains why the same 19 subsystems are found at each level from cell to supra- system. And it explains why it is possible to discover, observe, and measure cross-level formal identities (see page 17). [pp. 1,4]

Shred out
Fig. 1-2 Shred-out. The generalized living system (see Fig. 1-1) is here shown at each level. The diagram indicates that the 19 subsystems at the level of the cell shred out to form the next more advanced level of system, the organ. This still has the same 19 subsystems, each being more complex. A similar shredding-out occurs to form each of the five more advanced levels — organism, group, organization, society, and supranational system.  [p. 4]

For each subsystem I identify about a dozen variables representing different aspects of its processes. It would be easy to identify more if one wanted an exhaustive list. Each of these variables can be measured at each of the levels, and the sorts of variation discovered can be compared across the levels. The interactions between two or more variables in a single subsystem or in multiple ones can also be observed, measured, and compared across the levels. This is how cross-level formal identities, basic to a general theory of living systems, can be examined (see page 27).

This book is an effort to integrate all the social, biological, and physical sciences that apply to structure or process at any of the seven levels. Physiology, biochemistry, genetics, pharmacology, medicine, economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and psychology are all almost entirely relevant. Physical science and engineering also contribute. Logic, mathematics, and statistics yield methods, models, and simulations, including some involving the relatively new approaches of cybernetics and information theory. [p. 4]


Miller, James Grier. 1978. Living Systems. McGraw-Hill.

#james-grier-miller, #living-systems

Behavioral Science, A New Journal | 1956 | James Grier Miller

The founding of Behavioral Science in 1956, with James Grier MIller as the founding editor, was sponsored through research into mental health.  This interdisciplinary approach was a precursor to the organization now labelled as the International Society for the Systems Sciences.

The remarkable growth of interdisciplinary interest in behavioral science duirng the last decade is the fundamental justification for this new periodical. [….]

Man’s most baffling enigma remains, as it has always been, himself. He has been unable to fathom with any precision those laws of human nature which can produce social inequality, industrial strife, marital disharmony, juvenile delinquency, mental illness, war, and other widespread miseries. [p. 1]

Many different approaches have been used in the study of behavior — mathematical biology, biochemistry, physiology, genetics, medicine, psychiatry, psychology, sociology, economics, politics, anthropology, history philosophy, and others. Though the term “interdisciplinary” is widely current, and for a long time efforts a t collaboration have been made, true unification of these fields still remains an unattained goal. And within each are various schools. Their approaches and skills are specific, but the problems are general. Can the scientific method solve the larger, more pervasive questions about man as well as the smaller, more particular ones? Is the tool with which man has won his victories over the physical world applicable to uncovering the laws which govern man’s conduct, the deepest causes of our strife and our harmony? If the fragments of multiple sciences were brought together in a unitary behavioral science and all the separate skills focused on the study of human behavior, perhaps the time required to find answers to these questions could be reduced. It is possible that inadequacies in the present studies of man could thus be avoided. The uniformities among disciplines could be recognized; better communication among them established ; generality of findings magnified; additional benefits derived from comparing theories in diverse fields, explaining both similarities and differences; and the validity and applicability of empirical work increased by planning individual studies as components of an explicit mosaic of research strategy. [pp. 1-2]

About 1949 a group of faculty members at the University of Chicago, some of whom have now moved to the University of Michigan, began to consider whether a sufficient body of facts exists to justify developing empirically testable general theories of behavior. This group used the term “behavioral science” to cover the diverse areas of their interests, primarily because its neutral character made it acceptable to both social and biological scientists.

Most of the participants were at first skeptical that our comprehension of these different areas had advanced sufficiently to justify such activity. The first meetings engendered a general hopelessness as the diversity of languages and the multitude of approaches to the study of man became increasingly apparent. But then we began to see among us certain commonalties of thinking, despite their many linguistic disguises, and this agree- ment gave us hope that our efforts were not unrealistic.

Members of this group have met intensively for several years as the Committee on Behavioral Science at the Universit,y of Chicago. Some are continuing this activity at Chicago; others went to staff the new Mental Health Research Institute, established in August, 1955, at the University of Michigan; and there they were joined by still others. The Regents of the University and the Legislature of the State of Michigan established this Institute on a permanent basis. [p. 2]

The aim is to conduct basic research; the expectation, that from such research will flow contributions, particularly in the field of mental health and disease, that will help to solve the many problems of human relations. Our understanding of mental illness is primitive compared with our knowledge of other forms of disease, partly because of the complexity of the problems and partly because research efforts have not been commensurate with their magnitude. Public interest in these issues is growing rapidly, as evidenced by the new or greatly increased appropriations for investigation by state legislatures and the Congress, and by additional support from foundations. [pp. 2-3]

In this area of behavioral science there are numerous schools with conflicting beliefs. No one as yet has seen how the insights of psychodynamics, the projective techniques of psychology, the facts of neuropathology, the discoveries of endocrinology, biochernistry, and neurophysiology , and the concepts of social science can be merged into a single framework for explaining the biological and psychiatric and social phenomena of mental illness. There is need now for renewed and exhaustive examination of these separate matters, and for creative attempts to integrate them, to test them empirically, and to apply them.

Such studies should be carried out at various levels. Our present thinking-which may alter with time-is that a general theory will deal with structural and behavioral properties of systems. The diversity of systems is great. The molecule, the cell, the organ, the individual, the group, the society are all examples of systems. Besides differing in the level of organization, systems differ in many other crucial respects. They may he living, nonliving, or mixed; material or conceptual; and so forth.

The strategy of the Michigan Institute’s work will emphasize identification of general principles, which extend across various levels of systems. We shall attempt to clarify and make precise both the general principles and the particular differences; and to test — in laboratories and in clinics, by group studies and by social surveys, with whatever methods prove appropriate — the validity and usefulness of such analysis. Research techniques will probably be derived from several areas, including the physiological, psychological, economic, political, social and cultural.

Although the Institute expects to pay particular attention to the similarities and dissimilarities among different behaving systems, this is only one of many legitimate approaches to behavior theory. Behavioral Science, as a journal with wider scope than any single Institute, will welcome articles which are constructively critical of this orientation or which advance other alternative strategies, as well as articles which present relevant empirical studies. [p. 3]

This is the official publication of the Mental Health Research Institute at the University of Michigan. As such it wil contain edited records of roundtable discussions on theory and reports of other activities involving the Institute. It is hoped that Ann Arbor can in the summer offer its facilities as a meeting center for scientists, many from other institutions, who are concerned with behavior theory or mental health or with related experimental and clinical work. Reports of such conferences and workshops will also be included in this journal. [pp. 3-4]

Other centers are carrying out closely related work. The Committee on Behavioral Science at Chicago, for example, maintains its original interests, and other universities are supporting or planning comparable programs. A particularly significant focus of activity is the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences established by the Ford Foundation and located at Stanford, California. This journal will welcome contributions from scholars a t these centers or elsewhere. It should serve as one channel of communication for members of the ever-increasing group engaged in advancing the sciences of man.

We are aware of no present journal with a primary policy of making its pages available to representatives of any field-the humanities, the social sciences, the biological and medical sciences, and the physical sciences — to discuss theory concerning behavior, and empirical studies clearly oriented to such theory. It has been rare for physicists, psychiatrists, political scientists, and historians to publish in, or even read, the same journal. We shall strive to achieve this end.


Franz Alexander
Alex Bavelas
David Easton
Ralph W. Gerard
Clyde Kluckhohn
Donald G. Marquis
Jacob Marschak
Anatol Rapoport
Ralph W. Tyler
Raymond W. Waggoner

Some this history is more fully explicated in the 2010 book The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory, by Debora Hammond.


Alexander, Franz, Alex Bavelas, Ralph W. Gerard, Donald G. Marquis, Jacob Marschak, James G. Miller, Anatol Rapoport, Ralph W. Tyler, and Raymond Waggoner. 1956. “Editorial: Behavioral Science, A New Journal.” Behavioral Science 1 (1): 1–5.

Hammond, Debora. 2003. The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory. University Press of Colorado. , or at a library near you.

Behavioral Science, A New Journal




#behavioral-science, #james-grier-miller