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On Sunday 7 October 2018, this moment happened.

Kielder marathon finish

It’s me at the finish line of the Kielder marathon – a marathon that involves a full circuit of the beautiful Kielder Reservoir in Northumberland.

It’s odd to say it but I can attribute my achievement in that moment back to my study of systems thinking.  When students start studying the TU812 module, there is an exercise in considering the personal trajectory leading up to the point of starting the module and what the student anticipates moving forward.  I would never have dreamed of putting ‘run a marathon’ in my trajectory beyond the module.  There are some things you don’t anticipate, don’t plan, but in retrospect you can appreciate how earlier events influence the achievement of later ones.

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Recently I wrote a post on Situations which ended as follows:

But, in spite of all the commonalities, there is a distinction in the way that TU811 treats situations of interest compared to the way TU812 treats situations of concern…

In TU811, it is perfectly possible to adopt a first order stance – using systems approaches to analyse a situation of interest that you stand apart from. You can take the mindset of a consultant asked to advise or make recommendations to someone in government or in an organisation. It is possible to be objective and distant, to lack ownership of and for the situation. I say possible, you don’t have to engage with the situation that way but you can still engage pretty effectively as a systems practitioner if you do.

In comparison, when TU812 talks of situations of concern, they tend to be situations you experience directly – something you are part of. This means a first order stance is more constraining and it is more appropriate to adopt a second order stance. Here your personal engagement with the situation and the other people who are part of it matters. Your emotioning, understandings, actions and interactions can have an influence on whether the situation improves or declines. Your own action and interaction matters.

In the last few days, I have been reflecting on this in the light of closer reading of the work of Ison (2017) and various works by Checkland (e.g. 1985) which formed the basis for Ison’s conceptual model of what it is to think about practice.

The particular aspects I have been reflecting on are the way in which the practitioner and the situation can be perceived to relate to each other.

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A few weeks ago, the co-occurrence of a ‘twitter discussion’ (initiated by @LukeCravenand some reading I was doing on policy analysis tools prompted me to start thinking about what Hill (2013) refers to as process advocacy.  Process advocacy is concerned with improving the nature of policy making.  It is different to policy advocacy in that it concerns advocating generally for ‘better’ policy process rather than the substance or content of a particular policy.

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When I studied the OU systems thinking modules, TU811 and TU812 (in that order), I remember getting a little agitated that TU811 used the term ‘situation of interest’ and then TU812 used the term ‘situation of concern’.  I did try at the time to understand the difference.  Looking back now, I did write a blog about this at the time but mostly I just decided that of all the new language I was coming to terms with it wasn’t worth trying to work that one out.

But recently, I have found myself coming back to this. I think I am mulling it over because I can’t decide which of the two terms to use in my thesis.  This is where my thinking is currently taking me.

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I am not inclined to do a search of the number of times I have written about the idea of the ‘design turn’.  It is now over 7 years since I first encountered the term in Ray Ison’s book ‘Systems Practice’.  The book is even in a second edition now and still I ‘re-learn’ about my understanding of design turn when I am prompted to reflect on it.

The latest insight has come not from considering the phrase ‘design turn’ as a whole but making a connection with another context where the word ‘turn’ is used.

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I have been thinking about writing a lot recently.  It’s partly because I have been reading a fab book by Rowena Murray on ‘How to write a Thesis’.

The last time I wrote about writing, was in the TU811 student forum for the recent presentation.  Rather ironically it was written on 29 April 2017 – exactly 6 months ago.  I have copied it below (with minor changes) Read more »


I don’t know why this penny didn’t drop before – it seems so obvious now that it has….how systems thinking approaches and tools are sometimes framed as approaches for investigation and other times as approaches for intervention – or even as some sort of ‘woolly’ in between….

There was some person … who had caused the intervention to happen, someone without whom, there would not be an investigation at all…

Checkland and Poulter, 2010, p. 211 [my emphasis]

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Please note: if you are studying TU811 the contents of this blog should not be favoured above a detailed reading of the module material and assessment information and advice from your tutor.

 The OU module TU811 Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change introduces the concepts ‘area of practice’ and ‘situation of interest’.  I studied this module in 2010 and I now have the privilege of being an associate lecturer on that same module.  The other evening I told my group of students that – with hindsight – I didn’t really ‘get’ the concept of ‘area of practice’ when I did the module and tried to explain why.

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My blog doesn’t get a massive number of visitors, but in the last couple of days I’ve noticed an increase in hits on some of my oldest blogs – the first ones I did as I studiously studied Tu812 Managing systemic change.  Today’s busiest post – Taking a design turn in my systems practice – was written on 16 January 2011.  That means that at this time in 2010 going into 2011 I was just grappling with the idea of the design turn for the first time.  It was ‘that winter’, the one with really really heavy snow.  I remember gazing out the window as slabs of snow slid down from the roof, enjoying the distraction from reading about the juggling balls and design turns.

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I find it suprising that academics are really strong advocates of ‘evidence based practice’ and seek to account for and justify every methodological design decision they make, but don’t seem to apply the same standard to the ‘project methodologies’ they tell/require their PhD students to use to manage a research ‘project’. Read more »


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