Getting to know the E-ball: Engaging

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(Activity 2.29, based on Chapter 6, Ison (2010))

The E-ball is for Engaging.  It is about the choice we make for Engaging with a situation.  Ison (2010) summarises it as:

symbolises the characteristics ascribed to the ‘real-world’ situation that the juggler is Engaging with (page 58)

Most of the concepts and ideas about Situations in the Chapter were familiar to me already – from management, development management and Systems courses.  However, reading the Chapter reminded me of the feeling I had moving from O’level to A’level Biology – I had to revisit what I thought I knew and learn a whole new level of subtlety.


Let’s start with the experience, my perceptual, motor and physiological systems are sending signals.  My automatic response as a human is to try and make sense of this information.  True to form, I pattern match – try and match these experiences with something I have known before.

If I can pattern match, I classify.  It seems it is the easy mental option.  I don’t have to change my conceptual scheme.  Even better I find a label – a word – that describes that pattern of experiences. A is like B and therefore…..This is where the traps lie.

Choices about situations

Actually I have a choice about how I engage with a situation.  There are a myriad of possible ways of viewing a situation.  However, ‘natural’ these human responses, I can be consciously aware of them.  I need to be aware of what I do when I classify, categorise, describe, label and so on and use these processes as tools for my systems practice, rather than limiting choices through my lack of awareness.

Engaging then is about making this choice – “distinguishing and committing to [one] from the many” (page 117).

Although it is not about systems practice per se, I have an anecdote that I think will remind me of this choice.  A while back, I had the opportunity to work with a coach in relation to my work.  During the coaching, I used the expression “big dark cloud” to refer to awkward conversations or difficult issues I had to deal with.  My coach challenged this metaphor and we came up with a new one – boggy paths.  Boggy paths may be difficult to walk along but they are not like that all the time and they generally lead to better views.  Making this active choice about how to frame difficulties has completely changed my outlook on ‘bad days’.  I was unaware as to how my previous metaphor had limited my choices in how to deal with them.

Bringing forth

This was looked at in Chapter three (page 51).

I understood it then as distinguishing a system of interest from a situation – like shining a spotlight on a certain area so that you can look into it further.  This is an active choice – not just something given.

However, in relation to the E-ball, it is added that in effect we also ‘bring forth’ the situation (page 134).  In making a conceptual distinction and making the choice described above.


This is a verb so it is a Practice!  It “involves coining new words or expressions” (page 128).  What you end up with is a neologism.

As it is a practice we should ask the question “what do we do when we do neologising?”.  In effect we are making a distinction – marking something as different from other things.  We also anticipate or hope that the word or expression will become part of language – a social technology – we are creating a new tool.

It reminds me of Douglas Adam’s and John Lloyd’s book “The meaning of Liff” – they matched words that were ‘doing nothing’ on signposts with things that they felt there should be words for.  The word that has entered our household as a social technology is:

Something left over from preparing or eating a meal, which you store in the fridge despite the fact that you know full well you will never ever use it. [Source Meaning of liff transcript on accessed 1 Jan 2011]


This is another verb – another Practice!  Once we have a name for something, we tend to treat that concept/construct as if it exists in the real world.  We turn it into an ‘it’!  It is kind of okay if you are calling a cup a cup but you create problems when you refer to a problem, or a difficulty – these are social constructions, we create them as we name them.

Rittel and Webber’s Wicked problems/situations…

Okay, with all those cautions in mind.  It is worth looking at words and expressions that have been coined to describe the type of situations that systems practitioners are interested in.

The one that Ison (2010) covers in some detail is wicked problem – originally coined in 1969 by Rittel and Webber – and a concept I am familiar with, particularly as I learned to ‘list’ the features as part of my MBA! (hence 😆 at Ison’s footnote on page 127).  Would I say I know a wicked situation – have I experienced something similiar to what led Rittel and Webber to adopt the term?  As I work within policy, I genuinely feel I have experiences all the time that feel confusing and ambiguous – and when I stand back I see the presence of most of the features associated with wicked problems, but I have always had the label “wicked problem” to use to describe the situations that lead to these experiences.

I have to say this section of the chapter made me grin because just recently the senior management in my organisation have been participating in a leadership programme.  To organise this they distinguished ‘senior management’ as the ‘top three’ tiers of the organisational hierarchy.  I am the next tier ‘down’ so I am not part of it.  Just recently, I have noticed the word “wicked” being used – as in “well it is wicked isn’t it?”.  I asked my manager and sure enough they have all just had a day long session about “wicked”.  Now I have read this chapter I want to find out more – did they just list the features? did they learn skills to deal with the wicked? what did they learn about how this should change their practice?   did they think about the institutional barriers that prevent us dealing with the wicked?  Whilst I am amused by the sudden appearance of a 1969 concept into my organisation and I am a little bit annoyed I was not there to enjoy the discussion, I do see this as an opening for addressing my situation of concern.

…as contrasted with tame problems

Again, I was familiar with this concept introduced by Rittel and Webber

Ackoff’s mess…

Once again, I was familiar with this concept but it was useful to be reminded that a mess is “a set of external conditions that produce dissatisfaction” (p126).  However, I was struck by the background to Ackoff’s work  and was interested to note that he was building on insights of philosophers who

“recognised that problems are taken up by, not given to, decision-makers and that problems are extracted from unstructured states of confusion” (page 126)

…in contract to difficulty

I already understood this as simple situations

Complex adaptive system

This is a term I am familiar with but I have never inquired into its meaning.  What makes a system, complex AND adaptive rather than just a system?

One of the books I have found over the years is “Managing complexity in the public services” (Philip Haynes, 2003).  I read it a few years ago and found the explanations challenging but satisfying.  In the introduction, Haynes states “The tools of complexity, with its focus on complex adaptive systems, are argued to be a key method for achieving greater understanding of public policy” (page 4).  He later says “Organisational systems should be thought of as CAS where the feedback between elements and individuals is the key defining aspect of the organisation in any one time and space” (page 24).  His emphasis throughout is on managing organisations as complex adaptive systems as this helps solve ‘wicked problems’ (page 142) and helps the organisation “evolve and adapt in relation to the changing world” (page 142).

However, even though I have used the index to look at every use of the expression complex adaptive system in the book, I have not found a definition!  Furthermore, there are a number of places where the word ‘adaptive’ is dropped and ‘complex system’ is used by itself – there does not seem to be a particular distinction being made when this happens.  There is however a three page section on “differences between complexity theory and systems theory” and a chapter on “What is complexity theory”.  My interpretation is that Haynes has coined the expression complex adaptive system as a tool to draw the readers’ attention to features such as information flows; self-organisation; learning; dynamics, non-linear change; and ‘edge of chaos’.  I think he has done that so that the reader does not work from the premis that they know what a system is through an existing traditional use of the term.

Whilst I am looking at the book, I find myself evaluating Haynes’ juggling of the E-ball.  The conclusion to the first chapter says:

Given that public services are classic examples of complex adaptive systems, what does this mean for the future of managerialism in public services?  The argument of this book is that because public services are complex systems they do not always respond well to traditional managerial approaches….(page 28)

Here I see reification – public services are complex adaptive systems.  Not – what might we learn about public services and how to manage them if we engaged with them as if they were a complex adaptive system? (after Ison, 2010, 132).

Nevertheless, I do recommend this book – and in fact, now I have spent a while flicking through it again – I think it is on its way back onto my re-reading pile (post TU812 of course).

Resource dilemma

The study guide asks me to reflect on my understanding of this expression as part of this activity.  However, I cannot find mention of it in chapter 6 to which the activity relates.  Mmmm.  There is a dilemma!  Quick search of the index and I find Chapter 9 has a few pages on this concept.  So here we go…

Resource dilemma is the ‘framing’ that Ison has chosen to use to help understand situations where human action is affecting a natural resource.  He has found this a useful ‘tool’ as part of managing systemic change.  The resource dilemma ‘lens’ incorporates a number of characteristics – interdependencies; complexity; uncertainty; controversy; and, multiple stakeholding and/or perspectives (page 230 – 232).

This is an example of E-ball juggling.

Systems diagramming

Diagrams are powerful ways of representing a person or groups’ perspective or understanding of a system.  There are a number of different types of systems diagramming which I have already come across in TXR248 and TU811.  In chapter 6 (page 148), Ison reminds me that diagrams are “social technologies” – they are tools to help with the practice of understanding, communicating and social learning.


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

Haynes, P. (2003) Managing complexity in the public services, Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education, Milton Keynes/Maidenhead

2 thoughts on “Getting to know the E-ball: Engaging

  1. Helen,

    lots of insightful comments here….for me. I love your goosnargh example – but will have to learn how to spell it – I shall use it because it so fits what we do in my household. Thanks.

    One point you make I would invite you to reconsider is:

    ‘Diagrams are powerful ways of representing a person or groups’ perspective or understanding of a system.’

    I doubt I have said this in the course material – because I have problems with the word representation and in its full phrasing you imply, knowingly or not, that there IS a system to be represented. Of course this is a choice you can make. My choice would be to say ‘Diagrams are powerful ways to engage with situations and systems diagrams in particular enable me to bring forth systems of interest in the situation.’ But even this phrasing has its issues – the traps of language using us!


    • Hi Ray
      Thank you for your comments.

      Reading back the sentence now, I can immediately see that I have fallen into a trap. This was done without awareness and so it demonstrates to me how conscious I have to be of sentences and so on. I think this is more difficult when you are under pressure for example with a work-related report so it is easy to reinforce a ‘traditional’ view in advertently.

      Now that you have made me consciously aware of this, I would choose your framing or modify my own to “The process of producing a diagram is a powerful way of bringing forth a person or groups’ system of interest from the situation”.

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