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".