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: