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I have been thinking a lot about change recently.  I have got this muddled mess in my head about it.  But as I sat down to write this blog, I realised I have been here before…

30/10/10 – one of my first ever blogs – The nature of change

12/11/10 – not long after Changing practice

27/12/10 – Worldviews and theories of change

14/3/11 – Managing systemic change

I think my latest quest perhaps has more to do with ‘managing’ change, rather than change per se.  I think it was in B822 Creativity, innovation and change that the following approaches to change were laid out:

  • let it happen – i.e. do nothing but hope
  • make it happen
  • create the circumstances where it is more likely to happen

But it seems to me that the way you understand those three options will vary widely depending on the way that you conceptualise change…and ‘managing systemic change’ where you acknowledge that you are intervening in an already changing situation in the ‘hope’ that you can make the change go in a certain direction that you perceive as ‘desirable’ seems to include elements of all three…such as taking purposeful action and creating response-able circumstances

The trigger for re-opening an inquiry about change was in relation to the distinction between systematic and systemic.  Checkland (1985) compared these two traditions of systems thinking and his distinction was built on by Ison (2010, page 148).

The systematic – or hard – thinking tradition is:

  • “oriented to goal seeking
  • assumes the world contains systems that can be engineered
  • assumes systems models to be models of the world (ontologies)
  • talks the language of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’
  • allows the use of powerful techniques
  • assumes there is a right answer
  • may lose touch with aspects beyond the logic of the problem situation”

So, if I am using systematic thinking – what then is my understanding of change and how to make/let/create situation where it can happen?  There are some helpful materials on Ison (2010, page 195) which compares ‘consultant with a traditional perspective’ to ‘consultant with a complexity perspective’.  The ‘traditional perspective’ includes a number of phrases that I would experience as a systematic thinking approach to change such as…

  • “understands organisational change in terms of temporary instability between system-wide stable states”
  • “delivers to a pre-determined objective or outcome”
  • “realise planned change”
  • “tries to create intended change in people’s shared beliefs, values and attitudes”

Now I have articulated this, I can relate it to most of my experiences of ‘change management’ and the conventional use of programmes and projects.

Now for systemic (or soft) thinking.  Ison (2010, 158) lists the characteristics as follows:

  • oriented to learning
  • assumes the world is problematical but can be explored using systems models
  • assumes system models to be intellectual constructs (epistemologies)
  • talks the language of ‘issues’ and ‘accommodations’
  • is available to all stakeholders including professional practitioners
  • keeps in touch with the human content of situations
  • does not produce final answers and accepts that inquiry is never-ending
  • remains aware that there are dimensions of the situation to which linear logic does not apply.

Here I smile, because I have studied a whole module on Managing systemic change (TU812) and the blog ‘Managing systemic change‘ mentioned above still seems to provide a helpful overview of what that means to me – the emphasis is on how learning and change (in understanding and practice) mutually construct each other to the point where they seem the same thing.

But I guess now I am wondering why was the module called ‘Managing systemic change’, rather than ‘Managing change systemically’.  Is there a difference?  If I want to intervene in a situation to change it in a situation that I see as ‘desirable’ – then am I in effect hoping that learning (social learning) goes in a certain direction?  That is not ‘training’ or ‘educational programmes’ in the traditional sense but – now to the ‘consultant with a complexity perspective’ (Ison, 2010, 195), where I see phrases like:

  • “understands change dynamics as unfolding in the ongoing tension between stability and instability in which islands of order arise and dissolve”
  • “contracts for a step-by-step process of joint learning into an evolving future”
  • “seeks to stimulate and provoke conditions in which people’s mental models are continuously revised in the course of interaction”
  • “intervenes in the ongoing conversational life in organisations in which people co-create and evolve their actions-in-context or contexts-in-action”

But what if I am not a formal contracted consultant, but one of many ‘change agents’ in an organisation (or society) if I ‘pre-define’ the learning I think should be achieved – and purposefully set out to include that in my interactions and conversations, does that make it systematic?  I don’t think so, I am not planning the change in a traditional sense, I am using the interactions I have and learning from them too.  I am reminded now of the talk Ralph Stacey gave – the more modest view of change is that you can only affect change in your local interactions.

My final reflection is about ‘levels’ of development/change.  (It is interesting that ‘development’ gets used rather than ‘change management’ – is it because it is ‘softer’ and ‘less imposed’ or mechanistic and more learning-like?  What is the distinction between ‘development’ and ‘change’ – think I’ll ignore that line of inquiry for now)  Anyway – all these levels – individual or personal development; team development; community development; service development or improvement; organisational development; institutional development; societal change.  Is it possible to think both systematically and systemically about all these different ‘levels’… so for example, in public health the socio-behavioural model leads to ‘behaviour change’ work which is partly directed at the individual e.g. health education around healthy eating (systematic?) and partly directed at the context e.g. looking at the food environment that affects choices individuals can make (systemic?).

Ohh my head is splitting – maybe I am trying to integrate too much into one perspective of change, perhaps I should just live with all these paradoxes and dualities.

So all this was going on in my head a few weeks back and I posted onto my STiP LinkedIN group that I was thinking about theories of change – with hindsight I should have used ‘understandings of change’ because I then discovered that Theories of Change (or ToC) is a formal ‘tool’ in the development and evaluation worlds – there are reports summarising the approach as it has developed by Comic Relief and by Department for International Development.  The idea is for the people who are doing the doing (e.g. development practitioners) to inquire together and end up with an articulated theory of change – a statement which explains assumptions behind change trying to create and how.  Maybe that is the lesson here, if there are all the paradoxes and dualities, it is really important to think hard and articulate what you are trying to change, how, and to surface underpinning assumptions – then go on to select and review use of Methods in practice…..and in eclectic work like mine, I may need different articulated Theories of Change for different pieces of work I am involved in.  Sometimes, it may be appropriate for me to have a Theory of Change that is more at the ‘systematic’ side; other times ‘systemic’ – and sometimes a combination of the two.  My ‘Theory of Change’ also needs to articulate the ‘level’ of change I am trying to make (e.g. there is a difference between developing a team with individual outcomes in mind to developing a team with collective outcomes in mind).  And finally, the TU812 activity on Worldviews and Theories of Change and the seven suggested questions it refers to makes sense…they are a way of surfacing the ToC you have – and in line with systemic praxis, I have to make an epistemological choice about the one I am using when engaging with a particular situation.  Phew!!


Checkland, P., 1985. From Optimizing to Learning: A Development of Systems Thinking for the 1990s. The Journal of the Operational Research Society, 36(9), pp.757–767.

Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.


2 Responses

  1. #1

    Hi Helen – difficult to know where to start with a long post like this. Well, obviously! with the bit you said you will leave for now: change and development. Don’t you think that change sounds abrupt like changing your socks, while develop sounds like a growing or a gradient, like developing your technique?

    Re theories of change, I am interested that you see them as something you choose. I have always understood them as something deep in your subconscious belief system and only accessible when you start exploring them through tools like those 7 questions. Like i believe in the innate goodness of people while my husband believes they are fundamentally selfish. So if we wanted to nudge change, I would be all for creating spaces for generous collaboration, and he would be more on the regulation side. I am wondering what it means for me if i see ToC as something you choose according to the situation you are in.

    Re your question “if i pre-define the learning does that make it systematic?”, well [aside from the fact that the terms systemic and systematic don’t MEAN anything – they are there to help us understand what we perceive (oh not that old trap again!)], I would veer towards saying “yes, that might be a bit systematic”. I don’t think you can pre-define learning. When i was a teacher I tried very hard but was always surprised by how my students managed to bypass my predefined learning and come away with their own! But then again, it could be the start of a dialogue around the change you would like to see.

  2. #2

    Hi Arwen
    thanks for these comments. I agree with you about the ‘change’ /’development’ thing – I wonder though whether ‘development’ is one perspective of change. mmm not sure.

    re: ToC – I think that given the ‘tool’ is all about a group of people working together to articulate a shared view of change it can’t be deep-down and intensely personal. It would need to be something that can be accommodated by all the different worldviews (sensu Checkland). If I am talking at work about ‘stopping smoking’ it seems appropriate to draw upon a ToC re; behaviour change but if I am thinking about fairness and equity it would be more appropriate to draw upon a ToC that has come from studies of social change. My application and use of these would be informed by my worldview.

    Interesting line of thought…I am kind of enjoying this juourney of inquiry but have no idea about its purpose!


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