Observations on a Systems Thinking eTMA

Today is a bit of a landmark for me. It is the cut-off date for my first Post Graduate assignment. It’s all submitted now. The eggs have hatched… the birds have flown.

As regular readers of my blog will know, I am currently in the early stages of taking an MSc Systems Thinking in Practice with the Open University.

The module that I am currently working on is TU811 Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change. As someone who is completely new to Open University (OU) ,and distance learning in general, I thought I would take a little time to write up some observations on my experience so far.

Time is deceiving

Yes, yes. I know. This is one of those things EVERYONE warns about when it comes to distance learning courses.

I took this warning to heart and was fairly well-disciplined with my time. Plus or minus I was pretty on par with the recommended timetable provided by the OU. That is until I came to the actual TMA. Then all my carefully laid plans went right out of the window.

I didn’t realise how much rework I would end up doing. It appeared to me the last two weeks just became a blur!

The inherent danger in thinking about Systems Thinking

Turns out that all this holistic thinking is both a blessing and a curse. Messy topics are… messy. I found I needed a large amount of mental discipline (and the help of my long-suffering husband) to ensure I was keeping within the boundaries I had set for my topic. Boy am I glad of those boundaries! Without them my causal diagram would have been enormous! It would have looked much like this famous example that was dismissed as a PowerPoint fail in the New York Times.

Evidently keeping an eye on your topic is vital for these assignments. This leads me nicely onto…

Answering the actual question – not your version of the question

This is a big trap – especially for students that haven’t had the rigour of being students for a long time.

My main diagram went through 14 iterations before I was happy it actually identified the variables pertinent to the chosen situation (we will find out how well I did on that in a few weeks I guess!) I lost count of numbers of times I reworked my answers because I had disappeared off on some tangent.

Can you teach someone else what you have learned?

Seriously – I cannot advocate this one enough.

If you cannot explain your thinking process and your diagram to someone with no experience of Systems Thinking, then you probably don’t understand it yourself.

I ‘demonstrated’ my causal loops to several people. The first time I did this …it was HARD! I ended up questioning my own understanding of the methods. I realised that while I had read and applied the principles, I had not totally understood what I was doing. The diagram wasn’t actually wrong… I just couldn’t explain why it was right!

It was only once I could reliably explain the principles to several people, and they subsequently felt able to question and challenge some of my variables, that I felt confident in my workings.

The word count…the horror!

Okay – this one was a difficult one for me. I have always had problems with restrictive word counts. I am a fairly verbose person – and I write in a similar way to the way I speak. My blog probably shows ….

That approach is not going to work in one of these assessments. You need to get used to stripping out all the flowery language and keeping it concise. I wrote most of my TMA in Google Docs. I found the GradeProof AI app rather helpful with this as it provides helpful suggestions on ‘improving’ language.

I did all the word count and formatting in Office 365 however as the TMA needs a.doc file extension – you can get a student copy if you have a live student email.

Questioning yourself

I did this a lot towards the end of the assessment – had I answered correctly? Had I even understood the question? Did I have evidence or was it just my opinion?

Part of this is natural, but I think the course actually exacerbates this one somewhat. The People side of the course (which frankly I find fascinating) teaches you that you don’t ‘know’ as much as you think you do, and that your experiences colour your judgement. Knowing this made it much easier to get caught up over-examining your answers; are they ‘fact’ or just created by your perspective.

To conclude…

This was an eye-opening experience and it certainly was a shock to the system after being out of academia for so long. This being said, now that first TMA is submitted, it is onto the next one. I will have to wait another few weeks before I find out how well I understood the subject!

Systems Dynamics: Joining the dots

in Looping the Loops I introduced the idea of reinforcing and balancing loops, and some basic Systems principles, Now I feel I should try and put what I have learned into practice:

FYI: I used InsightMaker to create these diagrams after drafting them out (and moving things around a lot!) on a whiteboard! I haven’t even scratched the surface of what this piece of freeware can do – frankly the mathematics simulations options scare me! It is still great at laying out nice neat diagrams.

Looking at Reputation

To set a bit of context, I decided to use a scenario I am fairly familiar with: a retail company. I will try to look at this through the lens of a consultant looking at the high level ways that brand reputation impacts business growth.

Reinforcing: Growth through Reinvestment

My natural starting point for this loop was in thinking about Projects. I work on Projects every day. No project can work without funding. Therefore:

More Investment Funding = More Potential Projects


Less Investment Funding = Fewer Potential Projects

I then went on to think about where that investment funding came from, and what those projects did in terms of business growth. This is the resulting loop:



System Archetype: Limits to Growth

This type of loop is ripe for a ‘Limits of Growth’ systems archetype. This loop shows – in isolation – exponential growth. What it doesn’t show are the outside factors that could impact these variables.

If an unexpected variable changed from positive to negative due to a outside force – perhaps a new innovation from a competitor reverses Demand –  it is quite possible to see how exponential growth could turn into exponential decline if the business does not adapt with a new offering.

Lets look at the idea of adding some of those variables more closely…

Balancing: Being a victim of your own successB_cycle1

In a consumer culture, brand – and reputation – is the lifeblood of the business. You need to stand out from the crowd with a unique proposition. However, the higher you set the bar, the more your customers tend to expect from you.

For example – if a retailer’s brand is based on a reputation for excellent customer service, and then your customers can’t get a satisfactory resolution to a customer service query, the customers expectations have not been met. The result is the business reputation is damaged for that customer, thereby causing the customer to lower their future expectations (which may mean the customer goes to a competitor next time instead.)

Joining it together

Lets join these loops together and investigate a few more variables:


This diagram shows 3 reinforcing loops,:

  • growth through reinvestment of capital
  • business decisions taken through quality customer insights
  • improving value for customers

There are also 2 main balancing loops:

  • reputation impact on level of customer expectations
  • market share impact on perceived reputation

There is also a 3rd balancing loops (not noted on the diagram as I only noticed it afterwards!) that ties the previous two together:

  • market share impact on customer expectations.

Reflections on mental models

I will say right now that this is not exhaustive – working through this exercise has demonstrated to me really clearly that these diagrams could very easily get out of hand and turn into something enormous and unreadable if you don’t set yourself some boundaries and decide upon your perspectives.

At the start, I did set myself a perspective – but I am not entirely sure I stuck to it when mapping this out. On reviewing this piece before posting, I wondered to myself whether a Consultant would really start with the Projects that a company was running, or whether I only did that because that was familiar territory for me. Would a Consultant start with Sales or Profit instead perhaps? On reflection I suspect this was  probably my own mental model and understanding overlaying the subject – something I will have to be more wary of when trying to look at other peoples perspectives in exercises like this.

Systems Dynamics: Looping the Loop

A simplified idea of Systems Thinking is that there are consequences to every action; some predicted, and some unexpected. In Systems Dynamics this reaction is known as feedback.

A potted history of Systems Dynamics

System dynamics was created during the mid-1950s by Professor Jay Forrester of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1956, Forrester accepted a professorship in the newly formed MIT Sloan School of Management. His initial goal was to determine how his background in science and engineering could be brought to bear, in some useful way, on the core issues that determine the success or failure of corporations.

From hand simulations (or calculations) of the stock-flow-feedback structure of the industrial and corporate structures, Forrester was able to demonstrate how the instability of employment in a firm was due to the internal structure of the firm. These hand simulations were the start of the field of system dynamics.

Since this time, SD has gone continued to develop and refine through students of Forresters original principles; such as Donella Meadows and Peter Senge.

Reinforcing Loops (R)

A Reinforcing link indicates a situation where an increase in one variable, leads to an increase in another variable, On a diagram this is notated by the inclusion of a + sign on the linking arrow,

A Reinforcing loop (amplification) indicates a self perpetuating trend. A positive feedback loop demonstrates an acceleration of growth, a negative feedback loop indicates the opposite – an accelerated decline or reduction.

It is possible to spot a reinforcing loop because the outcome of the loop will include either zero or an even number of negative links (-).

Balancing Loops (B)

A Balancing loop operates whenever there is a goal-oriented behavior – it acts like a self-correction force.

  • If the goal is to be not moving, then balancing feedback will act the way the brakes in a car do.
  • If the goal is to be moving at hundred kilometers per hour, then balancing feedback will cause you to accelerate to hundred but no faster.

What makes balancing processes so difficult in management is that the goals are often implicit, and no one recognizes that the balancing process exists at all – this is frequently down to  corporate culture (‘something we have always done.’). Identifying these balancing processes is crucial for system dynamics modeling. 

It is possible to spot a balancing loop because the outcome of the loop will include a odd number of negative links (-).

A few tips for drawing feedback loops:

  • + indicates increase creates increase, or decrease creates decrease
  • – indicates increase creates decrease, or decrease creates increase
  • Use curved lines: it is easier to ‘see’ a loop if it looks like a loop. Rectangles are more difficult to ‘see.’
  • Minimise crossed lines; this may mean you will need to draw and redraw a diagram to find the best layout.
  • Keep it clean and uncluttered with extra stuff. It will just distract the message,
  • I use a notebook / whiteboard to draw out (and rub out) feedback loops before transferring it to paper – it is unlikely to be right first time around.

I found the following video online which uses an unexpected topic – Love – to describe some of the common Systems themes. its worth a watch to help visualise the themes:

Just call me a Mess Manager

Researching for the first chapter of Open University course #TU811, I came across the following quote by Russell Ackoff:

Manager’s are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations Messes. Problems are extracted from messes by analysis. Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.



While initially this made me chuckle – a mess is something I normally correspond with my son, a pot of Nutella, and limited adult supervision – I took a bit of time to think this through and its led me to the conclusion that maybe my job description should be changed to Environments Mess Manager

There are (primarily) two considerations when considering the complexity of an issue: number of variables, and number of perspectives.

Thus the levels can be mapped out on a table:

Single Perspective Multiple Perspectives
Few Variables A Difficulty A Mess
Many Variables  A Complicated Difficulty A Complex Mess

A mind-map may be a easier way to visualise the variables and perspectives to consider when deciding whether something is a Mess – here is one I knocked up in about 10 minutes using Mind42 (note that the term ‘Wicked’ Problem is another term that could be used in lieu of Mess. This term was coined by Rittel and Webber in 1973.)

The term ‘Complex Mess‘ could easily be applied in this context to such global issues as Climate Change, Deforestation, Terrorism or War. There are multiple perspectives and many variables which have coalesced to create a tangle of problems. Pull one thread and other knots appear. There is no single solution that will satisfy everyone – and indeed any solution that is taken could make the situation worse later as the variables are dynamic.

As I mapped this out though, I did find the the term ‘Mess’ is something that I could easily label to scenarios that I have seen in work – and to a lesser degree even within my own extended family at times!

As a Environments Manager, I have dealt with fragile legacy infrastructure (situation), teams working in silo’s (people), projects which don’t always seem to know what they are doing (thinking), companies resistant to change or with very set cultural norms (people), projects which span multiple departments or companies (situation, people and thinking)a mish-mish of methodologies (thinking) , lack of funding (situation)… the list can go on and on. The more of these type of variables I see in a project, the more I get that sinking feeling of unease that ‘something is probably going to go wrong’ and the more I tend to find I start unconsciously contingency planning.

Obviously variables and perspectives are not going to be the only factors at play in a mess; change and uncertainty are also big ticket items – but I would argue that these are categories of variables – albeit very big ones with giant flashing warning lights on them.

A question to ponder – are messes avoidable?

Systems Thinking arrives at my door…

A great deal of excitement and trepidation was in the air yesterday – all of my Open University study books arrived.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am starting on the path to a MSc Systems Thinking in Practice. – and now that I am on the verge of starting it, I thought I would take a little time to blog the thought processes and initial impressions behind why I chose this particular path, as opposed to one of the may others I could have taken.

I figure it will be an interesting exercise to look back over the next few (no doubt extremely busy) years to remind myself of my original plans and motivations, and to see how these change over time.

Why am I taking a Masters?

This is a good question. I do not really need it for my job – though I have no doubt that it will be useful. The overly competitive sibling part of me admits some base jealousy of my sister who passed her Masters a few years ago (thought that is certainly in no way a over-riding factor – even I am not that crazy!) I would say my primary motivation is curiosity and challenge. My background is in Art (believe it or not), and this piece of higher education sits squarely within the Technology and Innovation sector.

I have heard – and at times even been nominally part of – various slightly ambiguous exercises at work which I now realise were loosely related to various methodologies and forms of Systems Thinking. I always approached such things with a degree of cynicism – which leads me to now recognise that I was actually part of the problem. And – at the end of the day – I also think you can never be too old to learn something new.

How is the Open University course structured?

The main reason I chose the Open University is because this isn’t something I can do full time. I work, I have a family and I have commitments. The OU Postgraduate courses are fully modular, and like building blocks, you can customise your route to the finish line. I also should end up ticking off Post-graduate Certificates and Diplomas along the way – which is nice.

The current plan is (note that later optional modules may change once I get a better grip on the complexity of study):

Year 1:

Year 2:

Year 3:

I’m still deciding whether this one will be a 3rd optional module (possibly Information Security or Creative Management) and a Professional Project, or a full Research Project – only time will tell on that one!

I will go into a bit more detail about the first module in a future post.

A manic few days

Haven’t really had much time to do any new research this week. The weather has been pretty good so I have been otherwise engaged in building plant beds, potting out seedlings and generally de-weeding. This has taken up quite a lot of my non-work daylight hours.

The Open University have also launched the website supporting the first module of my Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice degree. The module (TU811: ‘Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change’) starts officially in May so I have been taking the time to start some of the recommended pre-reading. Be in no doubt I will be posting some initial thoughts on that soon.

If you are interested in seeing more about the degree I am taking, details can be found here. In a amusing turn of coincidence, one of the recommended pre-courses happens to be the OpenLearn: Systems Thinking and Practice course I reviewed a few weeks ago – so I was clearly on the right track!

On my Audible I am currently listening to Thinking: Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, which tackles the notion of the way the mind competes with itself when we make choices – the fast, intuitive, ‘snap-judgement’ emotional half, and the slower, more deliberate, logical ‘Mr Spock’ half. It is quite profound so far – and I am only a short way through. It is one of those weighty tomes that causes you stare thoughtfully out of train windows mulling over how obvious it all is, but how we never really notice it until someone points it out.  It will be a while before I finish this one though – its a very large book!

Thoughts on Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World

I have recently been listening to a new book on Audible – Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport, a MIT computer science professor and popular blogger.

I will admit this isn’t my usual reading material, but I stumbled upon mention of it on this blog and this blog, gave it a bit of research, read some really positive reviews of the book (New York Times, Associates Mind),  and given the impending start of my Masters degree, I thought it might be worth a quick look.

It would be a fair assessment to say that I have found it to be a fascinating book with some really strong concepts and a clear narrative style

The authors primary argument is that today’s knowledge-worker has a lifestyle that is so disrupted and fractured it becomes almost impossible to be able to focus on anything particularly complex. It’s easy to confuse ‘busyness’ with ‘productivity’ and if we don’t watch ourselves, we end up filling our days with shallow tasks instead of the mentally-intensive stuff it takes to truly get ahead.

The ‘Deep Work’ method advocates taking time away from interruption and actively blocking off potential sources of distraction; no phones (gasp), no social media (bigger gasp) and no email (…faint!).  The concept is explained more succinctly in the following equation:

High Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).

The author proposes several ways to achieve a personal ‘Deep Work’ approach ranging from completely locking yourself away, to setting up a schedule, to simply getting the most out of short bursts of available time, and he provides insight into what you need to do to be able to focus intensively on complex topics.

From experience, deliberately leaving your phone behind, or turning off your email is psychologically a pretty big deal. In today’s hyper-connected world choosing to disconnect can almost feel like sacrilege and that’s something you need to train yourself out of in order to embark on’Deep Work.’

I cannot recommend this book highly enough – it is great food for thought. All too often I have found myself being amazingly busy, but not feeling like I have achieved anything meaningful – and this book really gives voice to why I feel like that. I will certainly be training myself towards aspects of this approach when I start my impending Masters study sessions and, as far as possible, to get more productive hours out of my time at work.

OpenLearn: Systems Thinking and practice

While researching for my Masters choices, I stumbled across a load of free courses provided by the Open University; OpenLearn. As I have been looking into a Masters degree in Systems Thinking in Practice to start later this year, this course pretty much jumped out at me.

What is the course like?

My observation is the course content is quite dry; lots of texts, minimal interaction. There is a lot of webpage reading (though to be fair it is broken up into manageable chunks).

This appears to be a old module – possibly from a replaced Business degree module chapter – however the concepts are clearly explained  and the questions are thought provoking. The course is labelled as a Level 2 (Intermediate) – I would hazard a guess that this is due to the language and concepts involved. For me personally, nothing here was ‘new,’ – but content was explained succinctly and with relevant case studies.

At the end of the course, you get a ‘certificate’ of completion. Its not worth anything per se – but it could be used as evidence of personal development  if you were so inclined.

What was the most useful thing about the course?

What I did find useful was the References page. This list was a mini goldmine of key textbooks – some of which I have now added onto my reading list and may review in due time. Indeed one of them has given me a interesting game idea for the next work Practice meeting that I am hosting.

This is a fairly solid introduction to Systems Thinking concepts.

Where can I find it?

If you are interested in giving the course a go you can find the details and how to enroll here. You will need to set up a Open University profile.