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I first posted my reflections on what I do when I do what I do in this post from 5 December.  This was before I had the opportunity to learn about the juggler and use it as a heuristic to reflect on my practice.  So I thought I would revisit the question in the light of material I have covered since then.

In the earlier post, I identified activities that I engage in to manage change as part of my work role. These activities involve relating to people and making policy happen.

Drawing on Ison (2010, 48) I understand my systems practice as a relational dynamic involving an interaction between me (the practitioner (P)), my framework of ideas (F), the methods I use (M) and the situation (S). Originally, I understood this relational dynamic to mean that I (P) should make sure I use the most appropriate F and M for the nature of the situation (S).

I now understand that the relational dynamic of the elements is more than just one of appropriateness and fit, the elements “mutually construct each other” (ibid, 188). As a practitioner, I bring forth situations and the choices I make about S are as vital as those I make about F and M. I now recognise that my practice performance is an emergent property of the interactions between the different elements however I still find it difficult to use language in a way that adequately reflects the practice dynamic.

The new insights I have gained into what I do when I do what I do have arisen through Ison’s (2010, 58) use of the juggler as an isophor to assist his readers to experience practice through the experience of juggling. The juggler is introduced as juggling four balls.

Juggling the B-ball (Being) involves being aware of myself, my past history, my emotions and the importance of acting ethically i.e. in a way that opens up rather than closes down opportunities for others.

The B-ball has helped me gain a significant insight into “what I do when I do what I do” by making me consciously aware that in using language (whether speaking or writing), I am taking action. Communicating is a ‘practice’ and I can choose to be a systems practitioner in my communication. I now pay more attention to the language I use, including referring to my emotional state and considering whether I act ethically as I communicate. For example, I use phrasing like “I feel uncomfortable about…”

Previously, I failed to juggle the E-ball (engaging) because I had no awareness that I could be making an active choice about the characteristics I ascribe to the real world situation. With hindsight, this lack of awareness locked me into thinking of a situation in a certain way.

For example, for TU811 End of Course Assessment, I used the Viable System Model to diagnose and design partnership arrangements. During that work I fell into the trap of reification by thinking “a partnership is a viable system”. I could have gained more possibilities if I had thought “what can I learn about the partnership if I engaged with it as if it is a viable system?”.

Now I am aware of the E-ball I am becoming more consciously aware of the act of choice (and the opportunity to revisit that choice at any time) in my day to day work.

Jugging the C-ball (Contextualising) “symbolises the act of contextualising a particular approach to a new situation” (ibid, 58). In the past, I limited my understanding of “Systems Practice” to using formalised approaches (such as those studied in TU811) in a prescriptive way.

The C-ball has helped me to realise that what I do includes making a choice about and using concepts as well as methods and tools. This insight has reframed my understanding of systems practice. I can think of examples when I have used systems concepts and tools to develop my own understanding even if I have not gone on to present the results of that thinking using systems terminology or diagrams. There was one occasion recently when I prepared a document in this way and someone commented on the quality and clarity of my thinking.

The final ball is Managing (M-ball) which “is about how the practitioner is managing their involvement with the situation” (ibid, 58).

In the past, I expressed the emotion that underlies my managing as being in a state of curiosity. This is similiar to the small ‘r’ research and experiential ‘action research’ principles that Ison (2010, 189) describes. I have a natural preference for learning from the ‘conceptual’ world rather than the world of action. I want to open up my possibilities for learning by being more aware of opportunities to learn from experience.

The other aspect of the M-ball I have found helpful in considering what I do when I do what I do is managing context. Systems practice entails doing this in a way to create the conditions which allows for self-organisation and emergence and for others to be responsible for their own growth. I find this very relevant to my work and I look forward to developing my understanding and practice in relation to this further.

In addition to exploring the practice dynamic through relational thinking, I have also developed my understanding of the relationship between systematic and systemic. My previous understanding was to think of this pair of concepts as opposites where choosing one way of working immediately negated the other – an either/or scenario.

It all fell into place when I read Ison (2010, 191) – here I found out that I have a choice to consider the relationship as a duality, two parts that make a whole with the systematic nested within the systemic. I now understand that I have the choice to bring forth the different modes of thinking and practice.


Ison, R. (2010) Systems Practice: How to act in a climate-change world, Open University/Springer, Milton Keynes/London

One Response

  1. […] by Ison to a juggling act – I’ve covered these before in a number of posts, such as What do I do when I do what I do revisited and A reflection on […]

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