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

OR

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:

R-cycle1

 

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:

Multi-Loops

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:

The bugbear of being Back Office

The recent hoohah over the WannaDecrypt / WannaCry ransomware debacle, and the subsequent shamefaced admittance from a number of institutions that they have not been maintaining and /or future-proofing their systems properly, has once again brought one of my personal ‘bafflements’ into sharp focus.

My background in the IT space has most often been supporting the backroom admin functions. You know? The un-sexy necessities of any large-scale organisation; systems which pay the employees or suppliers, which keep records, that calculate tax, book leave or track the never-ending annual appraisal cycles. These are systems that frequently have to run regression-based Waterfall methodologies due to heavy customisation and monolithic architecture. The ones that look longingly at DevOps Agile approaches, sigh melodramatically, and then pragmatically just get on with the job. Giving credit where it is due, some companies are slowly, slowly! moving towards modernising these unwieldy applications as an inability to migrate these type of customised services into the Cloud highlights some pretty deep cost inefficiencies.

Maintenance of these type of older systems is easily brushed under the carpet; ‘we haven’t been hacked so far, why should we feel any urgency now?’ Or in some cases it is not brushed under the carpet and it is scoped, but then it has to ‘wait’ for a suitable opportunity to test it before it can be put live.

I am not taking a Systems Thinking course for nothing though – so I thought it would be an interesting thought experiment to step away from my own perspectives and look at some others.

In the private sector, budgets are shaped by the bottom line – what is going to MAKE the business money. The company has a finite amount of money to invest and it wants to do so with the biggest return it can get. In this environment, back office systems that handle internal data and files are inevitably going to be low on the pecking order when up against the survival image of the business in its sector. Customer systems are going to get a lot of TLC because of the absolute necessity of a good customer experience. I find this a bit of a catch 22 situation – you need the customers to make the money, but how good will the customer experience be if all of your staff disappear due to a payroll error.

In the public sector the problem is bigger than just back office systems; the constant squeeze from government leaves everyone competing for a piece of an ever shrinking pie. (An ever shrinking pie that seems to pay some pretty incredible sums of money to contractors for their IT systems as well I might add. I have been witness to a few public sector ‘contracts’ and colour me utterly bamboozled by the procurement process!) Taking the beleaguered NHS Trusts as a prime example, choosing between replacing some antiquated systems that seem to be working okay, or paying to keep the lights on and patients moving through their appointments appears to be a no-brainer (especially in view of the ever tightening hospital waiting list targets). But this approach just defers the problem. And defers it. And defers it. And then something goes …ka-boom!  Also – who on earth would hack a hospital… amiright?

Still – the kerfuffle will bring some much needed attention to these darkened corners. No bad thing. However the cynic in me asks – will we learn from it? Or after the buzz has died down, will those bad habits start creeping back in? I would be interested in hearing some other opinions and thoughts about this mess – feel free to post if you feel so inclined.

Quote

Systems thinking is both a mindset and particular set of tools for identifying and mapping the interrelated nature and complexity of real world situations. It encourages explicit recognition of causes and effects, drivers and impacts, and in so doing helps anticipate the effect a policy intervention is likely to have on variables or issues of interest.

Furthermore, the processes of applying systems thinking to a situation is a way of bringing to light the different assumptions held by stakeholders or team members about the way the world works.

Cabinet Office, 2004

What You See Is All There Is

I am currently reading a book by the Nobel prizewinner, Daniel Kahneman – a person described by Steven Pinker as “the world’s most influential living psychologist”. Entitled ‘Thinking: Fast and Slow‘, it is a weighty tome which provides a great deal of research based – and choice anecdotal – insights in the concepts of Behavioural Economics, intuition, rationality, and frankly – some of the outright crazy ways our brains interpret the world around us. Its not for the faint-of-heart – both in terms of size, but also because of some uncomfortable home-truths. Nonetheless – it is a fabulous and fascinating book.

One of the areas of discussion that I have found most interesting is the concept of ‘WYSIATI‘ or ‘What You See Is All There Is.’

WYSIATI succinctly describes the way that the human mind biases decisions and thought-processes based upon personal observations, interests and opinions. We think we are being rational, that we are unbiased in our decisions… but often we actually are not.

Intuitive thinking is quick, its easy, its painless, quite often its self gratifying (which reinforces self-belief), and it is also statistically wrong more often than it is right. (Interestingly, most people will accept this statement – so long as you are not trying to apply it them personally and their own range of experiences and interests.)

We develop our own individual ‘stories’ based on a combination of the information at hand and our own experiences; piecing the information we have into a narrative that meets our expectations.

Complex topics, with many dynamic, moving parts and many nuanced interconnections, naturally bring a large number of passionate people into the discussion. Acknowleging that these  unconcious biases exist should be considered a factor when analysing complex systems; understanding the occassionally visceral reactions that people have about certain topics. 

This leads to some interesting questions about how leaders and influencers decide upon direction and make decisions. WYSIATI in the heads of a ‘average citizen’ (massive generalisation acknowledged) is ‘mostly harmless., Leaders, on the hand, who do not seek opinion and empirical and statistical facts from all sides risk creating policy that actually could make situations worse.

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.

RUSSELL L. ACKOFF

 

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!

Review of: The Phoenix Project 

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The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win

Author

Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford

It is not often that you hear of a novel which is part of some ethereal ‘required reading’ list for IT professionals. This is apparently one of those rare beasts. I was dubious. I mean who reads a NOVEL about DevOps and software?! Putting aside my cynicism, I downloaded it onto my Audible.

While obviously a somewhat caricatured scenario (well… in most cases…) this book does a remarkable job of putting the software delivery life-cycle under the spotlight while actually remaining readable, engaging and entertaining.

The story revolves around a newly promoted Operations Manager, a failing company, and its flagship ‘super-project’ all set against the familiar backdrop of a highly competitive market. Hampered by disassociated business, project and IT teams, single points of failure, a chronic blame culture, and significant technical debt, the ‘heroic’ Operations Manager and his team embark upon a journey of Agile and DevOps self discovery under the (slightly bizarre) tutelage of a ‘IT whizz’ who seems a strange cross between ‘Master Shifu’ and a rich, aging hipster.

It turns out I enjoyed this book. I found I was identifying with the protagonist; cringing at the situations I recognised (countless!), laughing at the jokes and nodding sagely at the thought processes (and occasional absolute confusion) of the main character. Everyone who has ever worked in or alongside IT Delivery would recognise these characters; everyone knows someone a bit like Brent, or Sarah or John.

If you can suspend your disbelief at the apparent ease of new process adoption in this company (only ONE team actively trying to get around the rules?… yeah right!), the astonishing lack of panicked attempts to backtrack on the new processes when the going gets tough, and a somewhat exaggerated ‘mentor’ – this is valuable book. It takes the idea of ‘telling a story’ to its ultimate endpoint – a full novel. Instead of a pseudo-rule-book of buzzwords tied together with dry examples of a finished product, this book takes you on a journey to show how you could get there… and even more importantly, WHY you should.

As someone whose entire role revolves around one of those ‘bottleneck workstations’ so accurately described in the book, I found the authors managed to succinctly put their fingers right onto about 80% of my daily challenges. I also found myself giving mental high-fives when I identified initiatives that I have introduced or been part of in my own career, and rubbing my chin thoughtfully over possible future opportunities.

This book touches on most of the main challenges and drivers of modern day software life-cycle management, alongside practical descriptions of various Agile, Lean, Devops, Continuous Delivery, Kanban, Continuous Improvement, and a whole host of other practices in between. It identifies the common misconceptions between IT and the business, and it demonstrates -albeit in a somewhat exaggerated way – the benefits to the whole business if everyone starts working as part of a cohesive system.

I thoroughly recommend this book for anyone that works as part of – or relies upon – business IT as part of their job. Ir might explain a lot and it could have some useful ideas for your own practice.