Saturday, 8 September 2012

The situation in Daraya, Syria

I don't really know if this belongs in my systems practice blog - but I don't really know where it belongs (actually, maybe this is a challenge with systems thinking... which section of the bookshop do you look? well, all of them!)

I've just finished reading a book called Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns. It gives a complex overview of the wars that have consumed millions of lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1994. The author states "one of the main goals of this book is to tackle 'Congo reductionism'" (Stearns 2011). It is a fantastic book that carefully examines all the factors that had a bearing on the decisions that were taken, and the behaviours of the individual actors throughout the period. I have an overwhelming desire to draw up a causal loop diagram! If I wasn't supposed to be writing an assignment for my studies, I would probably do this. The point I am making here is that I have a need to understand why people can behave in this way to other people. It is deep within me and has been with me since I first read Primo Levi's autobiography If this is a Man when I was about seventeen. This is important to me.

Anyway, with all of that fresh in my mind, this morning I turned to the newspaper to see what was happening in the world, and I read an article about a massacre in Daraya, Syria.

I am deeply ashamed to say that I  am almost oblivious to these things that are happening in Syria. Last week, more than 200 people were massacred, and I don't know about it, I don't understand it, and I don't even know how to go about understanding it.

I wonder whether I have a defence mechanism that kicks in, where my brain tries to protect me from the complexity of a situation, until it can be explained? I cannot really explain why I have avoided trying to understand the situation in Syria - I knew it was happening, but somehow it has remained as a peripheral issue that, until today, has not pricked my conscience.

I don't know what my conclusion is here - I just wanted to record my realisation that I ought to have done something, and I haven't.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Reading list from Lugano...

If anyone is reading this... this post is likely to be v dull as it is a personal memo, rather than blog post... sorry!

Thinking and Acting as a Great Programme Manager - Pellegrinelli (recommended by Lynn)

All of Checkland's books!

The art of Judgement - Vickers (recommended by Peter Checkland)

Freedom in a rocking boat - Vickers (reco by Peter C)

Human systems are different - Vickers (reco by Peter C)

Habermas - a very short introduction - James Gordon Finlayson  (something Werner said)

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Taking a Critical Turn...

This is the answer to an assignment at the Lugano Summer School, set by Werner Ulrich, based on his first day of teaching. I am putting it here before I get feedback from Werner on how shallow my thinking is! Once I do, I'll tell you...

What does the “critical turn” mean for my personal understanding of systems thinking?
And consequently, how does it change my notion of good research or professional practice?

When I consider my understanding of taking a “critical turn”, there were two ideas in the material from session one, which stood out as significant. The first was the difference in meaning of critical in everyday language, compared to the meaning in philosophical terms. The second was thinking about how claims are validate-able, particularly in light of Habermas's four types of claim.
I will consider these in the context of my professional practice.

My behaviour in isolation

If I consider my behaviour in isolation, I think I have considered criticism up until now in everyday language. In this sense, my interpretation of criticism is as finding fault.
I believe that the impact of this way of using criticism is restrictive, and implies that the criticiser has permission to dismiss efforts, and claim a higher knowledge.
Because I have seen criticism of this nature do damage to the person who receives the criticism (both personally and in terms of their career), I had decided some time ago that I would try to banish the word right from my vocabulary, as I recognised that as soon as I claim that something or someone is right, automatically something or someone else becomes wrong.
In my desire to avoid the dualism of right / wrong, I have come to avoid being critical in any way.
One of the consequences of this,I think, is that people around me (particularly people who look to me for guidance) have started to become lazy in their thinking. My lack of critical input is leading to a drop in performance in my team.
"Sweeping in” the environment
Of course, my behaviour is not just happening in isolation, it is happening within many contexts. Here I have chosen to “sweep-in” the environment of Johnson & Johnson.
In this environment, my understanding of criticism as finding fault matches that of the leadership within the company.
We have a phrase which is used regularly throughout the company, particularly by senior leaders; “this is not a blame culture”, which sounds admirable as a claim. However, if this was not a “blame culture”, it would be necessary to state it. This means, not being a blame culture is an aspiration. Rewording this, perhaps this phrase should become “this ought not to be a blame culture”.
Each time this phrase is uttered, the validity of the claim is in question in terms of both the truthfulness of the speaker's intention and in the truth of the content of the phrase itself (from Habermas).
It is my belief that the concern about the impact of blame stems from the general use of criticism to find fault.

How would I like to translate the “critical turn” into my future professional practice?

During session 1, I made two notes to myself that I want to take back into my professional practice.
Firstly, I would like to embed professional criticism into the way we work at Johnson & Johnson. I want to find ways to improve the understanding of how criticism should function, and why it is important, starting with myself.
Secondly, I want to understand Habermas's four types of validity claim better, and find a way to raise the awareness in senior leadership of how their claims are being assessed by their audience, particularly in terms of truthfulness.

Lugano Summer School - Day 2

Today, and the next three, are lessons from Peter Checkland. I feel as though I am a small child sitting at the knee of my great grandfather! The man is incredible, not only in terms of the way he thinks, but also his life experiences (and I know as I type that one informs the other)

So here are some gems that he gave us yesterday....

The problem with management science in the 70s

When Peter moved from academia at Oxford (where he was a chemist) to industry (where he worked in R&D, if I understood his terminology correctly) he was excited to find that there was already a discipline called "management science" which seemed to meet his need - combining the challenges he was facing in management with his comfort zone of science. Unfortunately, management science "focused on the problems which recur... I wanted help with the things that made my problems unique!"

The realisation that our thinking is flawed

One day, Peter was walking past his local church and saw the motto "tackle your problems one piece at a time" written on the notice board. I think this made him quite angry, so he proposed that he should have defaced the sign - adding "try systems thinking..."

The ability to make a jump in thinking

Peter also related a story about when he was a consultant at BAE when concorde was being developed, and had been tasked with "making the project work". His initial work led him to realise that there was no such thing as "project management" happening in the business ("we don't do that nonsense here"...)

Had that been me, I would have probably beaten my head against a brick wall demanding that they fix this with a project management methodology. It just seems so insane...

What did Peter do? He realised that this would not be culturally feasible, and established a way of formalising an informal communication network that already existed in the business... brilliant!

Do you know, I got so excited by the rest of the week that I never wrote more than this. I really do not want you to think that this is because I was uninspired... it was exactly the opposite. I had no mechanism to capture the excitement!

More to follow (quickly) with Werner Ulrich, a man who is so clever that he regularly frustrates himself with his lack of ability to express himself accurately enough!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Lugano Summer School... Day 1

Just writing the title makes me feel as though I am in the big brother house (I can hear a Geordie voiceover "who goes... you decide"... It's a bit early to declare my vote yet - but there are a couple of clear contenders in my student colleagues!)

No, it's not big brother, it's two weeks of "holiday" at a summer school in Lugano run by Werner Ulrich (who invented Critical System Heuristics) and Peter Checkland (who is, in his own words), "responsible" for Soft Systems Methodology.

The day began with all of us nervously cramming ourselves into the narrow space between the desks, trying to take a measure of each other. The conversations reminded me of the first day at university... in those days, you asked three questions:

  1. Where are you from?
  2. Which halls are you staying in?
  3. What were your A'level grades?
In those three questions you could answer the friend / shag / steal their notes when they're not looking conundrum!

Today, though we are older, the questions are not too dissimilar...
  1. Where are you from?
  2. When did you arrive in Lugano?
  3. What do you do? (meaning, are you a doctor, professor or pleb?)
In these three questions we were able to answer the friend / bore / steal their notes when they're not looking conundrum...

Anyway, I'm pleased to report that they seem mostly harmless - and I am the least educated person in the room. This is odd for me.

We were scheduled to start at 9:15. At about 9:45, Werner finally got us to all sit down. Werner is Swiss (from Bern), and this tardiness is so out of character for a Swiss person (particularly one from the Deutsch side of the country) that I asked to see his ID at the break. He thought I was joking! I wasn't.

The other out of character thing is the coffee... INSTANT COFFEE????? This is insane, and very un-Swiss. I blame his wife!

After an extended round of introductions where some (not all) tried to ingratiate themselves with stories of their extensive systems expertise, we got down to business, defining what a system is. This is where Werner and Peter had their first falling out... over whether a bicycle is a an ontology (there is simply a bicycle which represents a bicycle) or an epistemology (there is an idea of a bicycle in our heads which we believe represents a bicycle). I am a little ashamed to say I caused that...


A quote from Werner that I particularly appreciated:

A method cannot justify the way we reach results that can change people's lives. Legitimacy is the only thing that can justify the way we reach results.

We have to use methods with some critical distance

...and one from Peter:

There are many ways to define a problem. If someone comes and asks you about a problem defined in a way you hadn't thought of, you've not yet defined the problem.

Although I don't think he actually said problem - probably problematical situation, but I was too lazy to write all that! Why am I so sure? because he also said:

As soon as you say the word problem you suggest that there is a solution which will solve the problem...

Finally, thoughts from Werner on complexity:

Social complexity is driven by two things;
  1. diversity of empirical - we find out about different things
  2. diversity of normative - we think about what we know differently
I think he used a little saying here "it's like news reel and reaction" but I'm not sure.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

...And then there's Checkland

This reading is called "systems" and was published by Checkland in 1997.

Honestly, this is going to read a bit like a boring list - and I like a list as much as the next man - but this categorisation might be taking things a little far... Still, I think this reading was chosen for us as it imparts a great deal of basic systems understanding quickly!

So, onto Checkland. He says that systems thinking is a meta-discipline a language which can be used to talk about the subject matter of any other discipline.

In order to fulfil the definition of a system, the thing must have the following four fundamental attributes...

  1. Emergent properties.
  2. Layered or hierarchical structure of systems.
  3. Processes of communication within the system.
  4. Process of control to react to changes in the system.
There are, in Checkland's view of the world, two possible purposes and reasons to apply systems thinking to a situation...
  1. to understand the world better
  2. to intervene to improve some part of it
There are simplistically, three broad categories of systems
  1. Natural systems
  2. Designed systems (both abstract and concrete)
  3. A connected set of human activities which are joined together to make a purposeful whole.
There is a division between hard systems and soft systems. I think, fundamentally, a hard system approach focuses on the system it's self, and how to fix it, whilst a soft systems approach focuses on the system that is used to inquire into the system of interest (hence meta discipline). Soft systems methodology is a learning system.

Checkland then highlights systems methodologies that he identified as meeting the following criteria:
  • They have been used extensively
  • They have generated secondary literature
  • They have been shown to be transferable from pioneers to other groups of users.
Then, this gets a little complicated... he says he will pick these out, and then picks out two lists. For the purposes of my notes, I'm going to create just one list! 

  1. Systems engineering
  2. RAND systems analysis
  3. Soft Systems methodology
  4. Critical heuristics
  5. System dynamics - used to model inventory by Forrester. Since been used to model climate change by Meadows et al
  6. Socio technical systems - viewing an organisation (in this case, coal mining industry) as an open system in interaction with its environment. (technology, social systems and environment are interdependent) (Trist et al 1963)
  7. Appreciative systems - we discriminate based on previous experience. The source of the standards is the history of the system itself (Vickers)
  8. Interactive planning - central idea is to start from an imagined ideal future - then move as close to this ideal as possible. (Ackoff)
  9.  Viable systems model - a viable system is defined by five sub systems (Beer)
  10. Autopoietic (self producing) model - Maturana & Varela
Not entirely sure what this list is for... but it's nice to have!

Churchman's views on the whole thing!

I'm attending a "summer school" (wow, I feel like an American! If only it was a summer camp!) which is being run by Werner Ulrich (the creator of Critical System Heuristics as a methodology) and he's given us some pre-reading to do. I thought I'd just as well share my notes here as anywhere else.

The first reading is by C.W Churchill (the architect of soft systems methodology, as opposed to hard systems. It is an extract from The systems approach and its enemies published by Basic Books in New York in 1979.

The piece is titled The systems approach; against the environmental fallacy

Now, my first reaction is that it is distracting when somebody has already highlighted a piece of writing before I get to it - and individual words and phrases have been highlighted in a whole range of colours that don't seem to have a key! Anyway, as I do not know if this has been done by Churchman himself, or a helpful editor after the event, I will try to move past this.

Churchman states that "direct head-on attempts to solve systems problems don't work". he offers no reference or examples to this - this statement is a given. Take it, or leave it!

He then goes on to divide the way we could approach complex problems with systems design. Either we recognise a "clear and urgent need to do something" or we "think through the consequences". I'm not entirely sure that Churchman intended this to be an either/or choice. To me both are important. It is how you move from urgent need for action to action that is critical.

The environmental fallacy that is the subject of the article is explained as:

First establish that X is bad for us; then propose to force people not to do X.

Or, X is growing/declining in a way that is dangerous, harmful or potentially disastrous... Imperative generated... "prevent X from growing/declining".

This is fallacious because it ignores the environment within which X exists.

Churchman then goes on to advocate systems thinking as a way out of this fallacious thinking.

The one thing I loved about this piece of writing was the way he articulates my frustration with systems thinking. How the hell do you answer the question "what is it?" Well, as Churchman says... "No two systems advocates or practitioners describe it in the same way... which may lead you to the conclusion that a systems does not exist.... but that would be like saying art does not exists because no two artists describe it in the same way".

 He goes on to point out that "in the systems approach, all methods of inquiry, all designs of inquiring systems are options of the inquirer. There is no priori set of standards that dictate the preferable ones".

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Reflections on information constraints

I've just read an article by James March (2006) about how decision making can be inhibited by constraints on information... Made me think, perhaps there are two dimensions to information processing fro decision making:

So, if information is not available to make the decision, it could be because the communication is rubbish, or it could be because the decision maker has forgotten it. If the information is available, but the analysis of the information is poor, comprehension is going to be poor. If the information is available, and the analysis is good, there is still a limit to the decision maker's ability to make a decision is still likely to be limited by attention.

I may change my views on this...

March, J (2006), 'Limited Rationality' Reading 1 Book 1 Readings , Milton Keynes, The Open University

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Taking stock of my experience of learning systems

What does the concept of a learning system mean to me?

I think it is easier to describe what it is like when there is not a learning system in place in an organisation…. For example:

I get a sinking feeling when I see new people in the organisation try to implement change that I have seen fail previously. It’s not so much that they are attempting to make the change (which probably feels to them like the right thing to do) it’s more that there is no concept that, as this has been attempted before, there is probably things that have been learned (actually, in my organisation, there is often a great deal of arrogance – people will say things like “Yes, it may have failed before – but I was not leading it last time”…)

Also, I am guilty of saying things like “that always happens at this point in a… launch/crisis/new supplier relationship/EOL…” delete as applicable, without identifying the learning.

So, I think a learning system is a system to understand the learning in an action (be it success or failure) and then to reincorporate that learning into how we do business.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Alarming realisation about most people

I live in a world where I assume that everybody thinks a bit like me. I assume that the think most people crave in their meagre little lives is a sense of freedom to experiment, and an opportunity to be creative. To fix the things that are broken.

I am currently suffering from "roll out-itis" - my business is "standardising" everything.

In recent months I have struggled and fought against this, because in my view of the world, this is wrong.

I guess I also though that it was a waste of effort. Whether or not you believe that people should be free to improve their own working processes, it has been proven by giants such as Toyota that "rolling out" something that works in one location without consideration of cultural and political differences will fail.

However, yesterday two things happened to change my view point a little. The first was the level of enthusiasm for a 90 minute training program which is being rolled out across our business (step one of standardisation). The second is the level of comfort that our exec team gained from knowing they were following a proscribed process, and that they could not deviate.

Slowly it dawns on me that my way of thinking is unusual. Most people are happier following.

If I use an analogy of another group of animals that are notoriously good at following - a flock of sheep - that makes me a wild dog in their midst. And despite the fact that my intentions are honourable - that I am trying to stop the sheep dogs from guiding them into a wilderness - the leaders in the organisation just see my behaviour as that of a wild dog.

So, not entirely sure what to do with this revelation.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

What is it I do when I do what I do?

This recursive question is one of the reasons (honestly, it might be more of an excuse!) that I have stopped studying for a month!

So, let's pick it to pieces...

What do I do?

Well, let's consider when I go into action on a supply issue in my job. What I dofirst is to try to get clarity of the supply side of the issue. Firstly, I try to get information about what has caused the issue, what is the severity of the issue, what are the things that have to happen to solve the issue, and what are the things that could happen (or not happen) that are outside of our control that could prevent us solving the issue.

After this, I check my understanding with someone I trust... then I communicate to the commercial team what I think is likely to happen, but also what could happen (good and bad).

I then drive the commercial team to mitigate the issue in some way (alternative product, reduce demand, move demand, stop a launch...)

Then I review periodically to make sure everything is happening as expected. If something is different, I go back to the start and reiterate the process.

What is it I do when I do this?

Normally, I enter a situation like this with a feeling that the full supply issue is not understood. I have found in the past that people misrepresent the truth. Sometimes because they don't understand, and sometimes because the truth is not something they want to admit to. Experience has taught me that the communication to the commercial teams must be accurate, and that credibility is eroded if corrections are needed after the initial communication. Therefore I spend much more time understanding this part of the problem than others think I need to.

I often talk about needing to "give people time to move through denial". (I think this is change management theory) I think this is also a process I go through in this "understanding" phase. My experience is that other people also need time and space, like me, to be sure that the information is correct. I think part of this is emotional acceptance.

In addition, I talk about needing to understand, at least loosely, what the cause of the issue is. In my head, I am already building a process to avoid this in the future - even though that is not the key issue at this point in the process. I would like to be doing this more systemically - Senge talks about "After Action Reviews" - which are reviews of observations during action.

Checking my assuptions with a trusted person is not just about checking facts, it is also a process of testing the story, and being able to tell it without blame. (Knowing why a problem has occured can lead to laziness - and one thing I try to avoid is apportioning any blame during the crisis management - as it is counterproductive to the team - mostly, if the cause was a person, the person is part of the "fix it" team as well).

Communication to the commercial team can take time. They have to be brought through the change management process from "the world is good" to "the world is lousy". Also, there is often desire to NOT communicate bad news to everyone in the organisation. This can be quite a delicate operation.

Encouraging the team to reach a mitigated action plan - particularly where there is more than one commercial group impacted can also take time. In addition, they don't always reach an accomodation that I am happy with (and in this situation, the best that can be hoped for is an accomodation, there is rarely a solution). When this happens, I find it difficult to refrain from arguing - but my role is one of facilitator, not dths.ecision maker.

Finally, the process of course checking and correcting requires a very systematic approach. This is not playing to my strenghs. I have learned over the years that this part of the process is better managed by somebody other than me! So my final act in this type of situation is to hand over the reins to somebody else.