Systemic thinking

Earlier this year, I googled “building an audience for a blog” and got about 3 pages of very useful links, mostly free, though of course some enterprisig lads has set up shop selling the good news on how to do a blog. I found onw interesting person and read her material for 15 minutes, and then moved on, as you do, and didn’t come back. I didn’t bookwark the page, but I’ve held onto one thing she said – reference other people’s blogs. That simple action slips you into the networks of bloggers, and there lies your critical audience and with luck some of your collaborators.

So where do I start connecting? To people interested enough in the things I’m interested in to write about it in the public medium of a blog.

Megan Roberts has been doing some thinking out loud about systems thinking. She says she got excited by systems thinking at university and went into the evaluation field imagining clients would be totally into it too. Not so. How to make the space for systemic thinking, let alone how to do systemic thinking!! My colleague Moragh has been bold enough in the Systemic Inquiry into NRM governance to invite people to think systemically, and amazingly, they’ve showed up, of their own free will, for three workshops over the last eight months.

Megan asks: what kind of systems thinking are other practitioners finding valuable, practitioners that is in the middle of and intent in facilitating change in social systems? As her jumping off point, she cites a framework from the Waters Foundation.

Looking at that framework, I know right away that surfacing assumptions is where I often return. I learnt from Bob Dick that in any path of action there are assumptions about situation, goals and action, and that these are in play all the time, shaping action and being tested in action. That’s been enough to go on with for several years, but the Water Foundation framework covers a lot of the different kinds of thinking you do as you explore those situations.

However, I realised the language in the framework doesn’t inspire me. What I carry in my heart right now is a chapter  by Joan Fazey and Lisen Schultz in Allen and Starkey’s Adaptive Environmental Management: A Practitioner’s Guide, which reviews research on how adaptive people think. They cite seven attitudes to learning, and the language here resonates for me. Here are the four, and they feel like what I enjoy about learning:

To be broad and adventurous, with an impulse to probe assumptions and to tinker with boundaries;
To bring a zest for inquiry, an urge to find and pose problems, and a tendency to wonder;
To clarify and seek understanding, withy a desire to grasp the essence of things, and to anchor ideas to experience and seek connection to prior knowledge;
To plan and be strategic, setting goals, thinking ahead;
To be intellectually careful, with an urge for precision, a desire for mental orderliness;
To seek and evaluate reasons, pursuing justifications, grounds and sources;
To be metacognitive, self-aware and monitoring the flow of one’s thinking, and wanting to challenge oneself.

A zest for inquiry …. Wendy Wheeler has it in spades, in the most challenging article from my last couple of weeks’ reading,  creative evolution wendy wheeler. She draws on Charles Sanders Peirce, the late 19th century learning theorist who laid the ground for John Dewey and he for action research.

Tipping my hat to Megan’s inventive use of images to open conepts, here is Peirce on what he called “abduction”, paired with the equally fabulous mover, Kuniko Yamamoto, in Barrm Birrm.

Your skiff of Musement_1

What does social inquiry deliver?

It’s a stand-and-deliver world these days. What does social inquiry deliver? For those of us who have basically fallen in love with social inquiry, this question faces us out to the market place. What does social inquiry deliver?

The short answer is faster evolution of culture, that is of behaviour, beliefs and values.

The longer answer is that social inquiry brings wisdom and creativity to evolution, by engaging those who give a damn about each “how we live now” situation. Diversity is difference, and as Bateson observed, it’s difference that remakes understanding. Get those who actually have to deal with situations in the same room, talking, and you’ve got a whole lot of difference. Understandings in each person will shift. Actions will be different.

Somewhere along this path, the choices we face collectively will become clearer. Collective action will become stronger, better integrated across differences, and more creative in the possibilities it takes up.

Social inquiry is a way to articulate the choices in the way we do business around here. Does it serves us? What other ways might we open up?

These thoughts follow an email to a manager this week, in which I suggested that the cultural shift his organisation was seeking, whatever its current formulation, was essentially a shift to inquiry-in-action, between peers. Today’s aspirations for the organisation’s culture (and there are several of them about, as you might imagine) would soon ring hollow unless tested against the reality of what is actually happening in relationships in the organisation. Inquiry between peers is a way to do that. What I didn’t quite get to in my email was Stephen Denning’s imagine that….. Here it is now ……


Imagine that you could take issues about the way we do business around here into discussion amongst the innovators in any area of practice, then more broadly between peers.

Imagine that you understood and were trusted enough by the various communities of practice of your part of the organisation to raise matters you were concerned about, and have people listen and consider and discuss those matters.

What might happen? Action toward something new in the culture of your organisation might well be stronger, because people had the knowledge and
commitment of their peers behind them.

Moves towards that mix of responsibility and accountability that makes the organisation work better would be secured in practice.

There would be a readiness to keep thinking, keep testing new practices, bring them back into discussion and contention.

That’s social inquiry-in-action.

The proposal: social inquiry within communities of practice, building on the forms of dialogue already going on between peers, on matters agreed as to between practitioners and the organisation.

The benefit: collective action that’s stronger, better integrated across necessary differences, more sustained, and more creative in the possibilities it takes up.

One other use for a yammer network

Close to the Heart: Stories of Everyday Transformation is the working title of a project being designed by my colleague Moragh Mackay and friends. “Close to the Heart” is my gloss this morning, as I absorb the Riddells fire and our Sunday discussion in the coastal scrub south-west of Wonthaggi.

Close to the heart is about speaking from the heart, as you make your way through changes. Since most things are changing, that might as well read “as you make your way.”

The project’s interest is moments on the trajectory of change: moments where you realise you’re bound by assumptions that restrict you, that you might be able to step beyond; moments where you relax into the chaos and happy accident of events; the moments where you feel the call of what is waiting to emerge and step into it, unprepared. We each find ourselves at our own points on the roller-coaster of change.

In working on our design, I’m considering how digital tools can allow for me and you and us. I’m used to facilitating face-to-face interaction: what evokes and supports these three positions in digital space?  We’re imagining cycles of story-telling and reflection on stories, weaving digital interaction with face-to-face workshopping to carve themes out of the stories gathered, feeding this back into the stir of stories.

I’ve had the astounding (to me at least) observation that a yammer conversation can hold the documentation that provides the living material for reflection and then for the making of artefacts around the themes: film, stills, text and audio that draw together threads and feed this back into the story-telling.

Of course, in the first instance, yammer is a way to building shared understandings and move work along – what I’ve only just seen is how yammer conveniently holds documentation of the inquiry. Another ‘of course’: the value of the documentation depends entirely on the quality of the conversation – its honesty, poetics and precision.

First, describe the situation

After I finished my PhD, I was invited to a series of workshops for early career researchers, organised by Ray Ison of Monash and the Open Universities. These were wonderful events, that propelled me and others into what we were hoping for in becoming a researcher.

Amongst many other matters, Ray invited us to consider the difference between experiencing things as problems and as situations.

When you see things as problems, you’re already on the search for solutions, and headed toward implementation in programs of activity. That’s of course what most of us get paid for, and good solutions are indeed needed. But my ‘good’ may well not be yours, nor the good of those with quite a bit of say in what gets legitimated and funded. Political necessities pull policy solutions, as Kingdon observed.

The drive to solutions thrusts an instrumental logic through our governing, from policy to service delivery. We’re all working somewhere on the solution-finding/implementing spectrum, but we all provide a wider scope to our choices when we approach the way things are without a problem yet in sight, as situations.

Seeing things as situations brings an inquiring attitude to our understandings of what is happening, and why it’s happening, and a heightened sensitivity to what is being agreed is a problem (and what is being left out of the picture all together). It opens the frame.

Once the window is opened a little, it often becomes apparent that there are many invitations on offer: where you choose to pay attention shapes your trajectory and eventual end point. The forces with which you align yourself becomes the world you inhabit.

A focus on situations brings inquiry to the foreground and moves problem solving to the background. The latter will reassert itself soon enough; why not make the most of any chance to sit in the situation without a commitment to any particular problem, taking in the differing and distinctive views of those in the situation? I try for three different views, at least. Yours, mine, and someone with whom neither of us are familiar.

Producing our stories, with full voice, and listening to others’ stories, is one way to enter situations. Listening is an opportunity to perturb familiar framings. Attention to what surprises and disturbs is the start of rigour in inquiry. Openness to offers and invitations is the start of improvising solutions.

Let’s talk about methodology

“Let’s talk about methodology” – this rhetorical flourish could be the sub-title of the ALARA conference I’m designing with Susie Goff of CultureShift.

Let’s talk about methodology. As we dive into the exciting business of designing responses to social problems, let’s talk about methodology, so that we can dive deeper and wider and with more curiosity. Before we commit to the hard slog of actually implementing what we design, with its burden of project management , let’s talk about methodology.

The conversation about methodology is high value at the innovating edges of any domain. In the loose network of policy makers, and in the milling market place of policy developers, talking about methodology is gold. Create the space for critical reflection on methodology, and hold it, and you generate designs that actually get into implementation, and that work.

Talk methodology at the start of projects and you have a good chance of sidestepping knee-jerk responses. You’ll get into much more interesting territory. And you’ll meet a lot of interesting people, on their own terms (here, kudos to Kate Auty).

This will all play out in our timetable for the conference, of which more soon. In the meantime, the invitation to the ALARA conference, August 2014, is an invitation to consider methodology for three days. This invitation goes out to policy developers, to those who design and facilitate participatory inquiry – action reseachers, facilitators of action learning, and on and on out to our qualitative research cousins – and to those peoples taking charge of their collective life.

We lean toward policy research and development, and program design, as  collective self-determination, not just inquiry or rational fitting of means to ends.  We are for agency, and recovery of agency is a recovery of community: the two intertwine.

On meeting people on their terms

Kudos to Kate Auty, Commissoner for Environmental Sustainabilty, who travelled the State in conversation with community. She proposed a conversation about sustainability, and listened her way around the State. Returning, she observed (and I paraphrase): There’s a vibrant, informed and intelligent inventivenss at work in communities of place, that government just doesn’t get.

This terrible failure is one consequence of the methodological assumptions bought to policy development.

In holding a public discourse over 5 years, and sticking to her mandate, in less than favourable winds, Kate is for me an exemplar of public service. She made a place where the worlds of policy, science and people could speak, a place where the discourse was up for grabs and held open to other ways of speaking, and other ways of being.


See Kate’s lovely exposition of the unfolding of her methodology in her Many Publics report (see page 154, Appendix One). And read a chapter or two of the Many Public report, where people say ripping things like this (p 63):

a non Indigenous person, reflecting a comment made by a senior Indigenous man in the west of the state. said –

‘… Melbourne doesn’t know everything that is happening.’