This blog is part of an online learning platform which includes the Pathways to New Community Paradigms Wiki and a number of other Internet based resources to explore what is termed here 'new community paradigms' which are a transformational change brought about by members of a community.

It is intended to offer resources and explore ideas with the potential of purposefully directing the momentum needed for communities to create their own new community paradigms.

It seeks to help those interested in becoming active participants in the governance of their local communities rather than merely passive consumers of government service output. This blog seeks to assist individuals wanting to redefine their role in producing a more direct democratic form of governance by participating both in defining the political body and establishing the policies that will have an impact their community so that new paradigms for their community can be chosen rather than imposed.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Dancing through the Complexities of Thinking Systematically about Systems Thinking

The next segment of the STW/STIA certification course deals with "Thinking Systematically" having previously covered three segments that provided basic concepts and terms, as well as a hands-on tool, Insight Maker, to use in developing and experimenting with those concepts through models.

Now we are going to move close to getting metaphysical but it will be quick and we will come back. The problem is that there is a difference between, in writing or talking about what something is or what something does say dance as opposed to writing or talking about doing that something, even more so with actually doing it, dancing. There is the moon, there is the finger pointing at the moon and then there is a picture of the moon and a finger.

According to, what Systems Thinking does or is as an art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination”, and as science “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment,” of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure. A modified definition originally devised by Barry Richmond, who coined the term in 1987.

Mostly according because I added the italicized extensions of the definition moving the definition closer to the actual doing. People who do, with conviction, strive toward something they see as concrete. Our attitude towards problems is often less focused on the doing and more on getting it done, completed, finished. We want to be more direct, solve the problem at hand, forget it, then move on to something else.

Thinking is employing one's mind rationally and objectively in evaluating or dealing with a given situation; to have a certain thing as the subject of one's thoughts. Systemic, as used especially in physiology or pathology, refers to pertaining to or affecting the body as a whole, or pertaining to or affecting a particular body system. Thinking, as a verb, systematically, as an adverb, is then to think in a systematic manner pertaining to a system. It is not enough to recognize and understand a system as a system. Our own thinking must be systematic in the intervention of that system. There is a large disconnect between how obvious this may seem when written down and how often it actually occurs.

In understanding both what dance is or does and in knowing the doing of dance we can move to a higher level of development and begin to symbolically represent dance, to compose dance, to understand what is and do choreography. If we are thinking systematically about a dancer’s injury then we are not merely thinking of only the injury on the body or of a particular body system but also of the larger issues related to the body or particular body system. We could be thinking about diet or exercise or medications, even the dance floor.

If we do not then we not only fail to understand the problem deeply enough, we also take the means of addressing the problem for granted. Sometimes, although not as true as in the past, with no harm to ourselves or anyone else. More and more though we need to go deeper to avoid distant, unforeseen and unintended consequences and circumstances. These type of outcomes are becoming more frequent, especially in wicked problem situations that impact us all through our communities.

In addition to thinking about the particular specific issues, when looking at a system and establishing our boundaries of what we consider the system to be, we also begin thinking about meta-issues, the meta is the thing to focus on as higher level of abstractness or about (its own category). There might be a better general category term for what is being referred to here but its absence makes its need more evident.

The points along the Kumu path of this segment deal with management or meta-management issues that can arise when addressing various systems. These occur across systems involving people, materials, production and end products, time management, avoidance of mistakes, limitations, system fixes, acquiring new learning, organizational culture and behavior, financial relationships, sustainability, and whether the potential exists to become victims of the system or systems of the victim. Each is looked at individually but is also related back to what has been learned previously in the course through Kumu map’s visualization of the relationships.

The approach in addressing these meta-issues of the course though is back to hands-on experimentation, not metaphysical inquiry. The assignment for this segment consists of, “using one of the diagram forms presented to date develop models for two situations which are near and dear to you”. I chose a Causal Loop Diagram based on one of the models presented within the segment, New Learning Inhibited (IM-7018). I cloned the model, substantially reorganized it and extended it but nevertheless still maintained its basic structure.

The result is New Organizational Learning Inhibited through Bureaucratic Over Complicatedness & Corruption (IM-16192). The model is in storytelling format so one uses the “Step Forward” button at the bottom right corner to move through the model. The model is intended to integrate some of the concepts of theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning raised by Chris Argyris in, "Teaching Smart People How To Learn” and a number of concepts considered by New Community Paradigms.

The model starts with a balancing loop diagram Problems/Solution Generation (B1) of the commonly found command oriented top-down approach to management based on so-called Newtonian principles (the Newtonian principles are not so-called, the claiming a basis for management is). It needs to be recognized though that this has been, and can still be under the right circumstances, a very successful approach. Management finds problems to solve by use of Command Structure Management. The environment though continually raised new problems, some from the manner in which management has organized the environment and new learning about the environment, as a complicated machine requiring new algorithms is required, which is then applied to the new problems.

There is a point though at which this method begins to break down. Systems move from complicated to complex because they begin to become non-linear and demonstrate emergent properties, or perhaps the ability of the complicated management system begins to lose its capacity to contain those aspects of the always complex system. The approach exhibits “Decreasingly Effective Action” (R1) through “Inappropriate Actions” based on an over-dependence upon “Outdated Thinking, Communicating and Learning”, and the effectiveness of (B1) is diminished.

If the institution attempts to maintain the status quo it can become overly dependent upon “Typical Bureaucratic Intervention” and an increased dependency upon “Defensive Routines” which maintains the appeal of “Outdated Thinking, Communicating and Learning”,  as Status Quo Bureaucratic Institutions (R2). This approach inhibits “New Learning” by the organization and the potential of “Insightful Intervention” which is what the institution needs. This can be true of private or public institutions.

If extended further by institutions then this trend can result in “Corruption of the System” through a “Status Quo Politically Based Corruption of Entrenched Institutions” (R3) to defend the institutions continued existence in its current form, which means maintaining its current form and status of power. It does not even have to be to the benefit of those individuals currently in power. New players can be brought in but the system will be maintained regardless of any well-meaning but ineffectual attempts to change it. This goes beyond the usual idea of corruption as an illegal or unethical act by someone. Corruption of a system is anything that prevents a system from fulfilling its intended purpose. Well-meaning regulations that result in detrimental and unfailingly unintended consequences are therefore corruptions of a system. There is also the ability of institutions such as public sector institutions like city halls to impose legally sanctioned constraints that benefit the few rather than the system as a whole. This is also a corruption of the system. These three reinforcing loops are, in my view, repeated single loops as defined by Argyris which metaphorically twist the system into knots, entrenching the system into the larger environment.

The means proposed for Breaking the Entrenched Loops Reinforcing Loop (R4) and instilling Argyris’ double loop to provide “Insightful Interventions” into the workings of the institution or the system itself is, as stated in the original New Learning Inhibited Model, “Being on Purpose”. This was never actually explained but it still rings true so it is maintained it, my model.

There are two ways under New Community Paradigms that communities can be on purpose. One is community governance, through participatory democracy, as considered through Community Governance and the wiki-pages and related blog posts found under it. It is also believed, however, that this approach needs to be supported or scaffolded through Systems Thinking Approaches so that members of the community are not merely engaged but become empowered with the ability to effectively address the challenges even wicked challenges facing their community. The second way is Democratic Direct Disruptive Design, first, introduce through Open Data as End and Means of Civic Disruptive Innovation and based, at least analogously, on Clayton Christensen’s theory of Disruptive Innovation and extending that concept to Disruptive Innovation in Governance. This is still only part of the strategy that is required though to implement new community paradigms. We will need to incorporate more if we wish to succeed in creating a better tomorrow and we will undoubtedly need, I strongly suspect, some form or forms of systems thinking to accomplish it.

Past Posts