Getting to know the M-ball: Managing

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(Activity 2.31 based on Ison (2010, Chapter 8))

The M-ball is for Managing.  Ison says it is:

about how the practitioner is Managing their involvement with the situation (page 58)

I have to say that I found Chapter 8 quite difficult to work with.  It was not the individual paragraphs or the concepts being introduced or used.  I just found it really difficult to get the overall thread, thrust and argument of the chapter.  There are sections that do not flow from their own headings (or at least how I understand/understood those headings).  And I lost track of how the juggler and the balls ‘worked’ for Managing.  But, this is after all an inquiry – it was up to me to take responsibility for understanding the discord I was (am!) experiencing.  So before I look at the particular concepts highlighted in activity 2.31, I want to summarise where that inquiry has brought me so far.

First source of confusion: The juggler, the juggling and the juggled.

M is introduced to us as a ball (juggled).  In other chapters, the person using that ball has been referred to as the juggler.

In this chapter, we have a new actor – the manager.  On first reading the chapter seemed to jump between the manager (person), managing (the practice) and the M-ball (juggled).  Manager seems to be used interchangeably with systems practitioner or juggler in places.  In other places it seems to be used in relation to the person who has responsibility for organisational structures and processes.  My head is still a little fuzzy on this.

In the end, I found it most productive to focus on the verb – managing – as a practice.

Second source of confusion: Underlying Emotions

Ison argues that emotions must be part of our concerns (page 188).

However he then goes on to describe a number of ways of framing the practice of managing.  I found this confusing, until I reflected on the use of the word ’emotion’ – I was defaulting to thinking of this as a sudden psychological state with associated physiological reaction (as in the emotion of fear) but I then recalled it can be used in relation to a disposition or attitude.  Wikipedia’s article on Emotion was helpful in helping me open up my understanding of this concept.

So, Ison describes three useful ‘underlying emotions’ for managing

– see ourselves as a small ‘r’ researcher – I like this.  I think of it as the emotion of continual curiousity.

– a process of relationship maintaining.  He draws on the insights of Winter and of Vickers around this.  We live in a matrix of relationships and maintain these relationships through conversations.  Your standards of “fact and value emerge out of this network” (page 189).

– learning through experience – being an action researcher.

I suppose it is worth contrasting these with the ‘underlying emotions’  I see in people with management responsibilities – I see the need to be certain; the need to be seen as ‘right’ or correct; the need to be (or appear) rational.

So can I ‘grip’ the M-ball?

I now see the M-ball as made up of a number of elements – that are of course in a relational dynamic!

Firstly, it is about managing myself – adopting an underlying emotion (researcher, learner and/or relationship maintainer) that enables my own personal growth over time. It is also about acting purposefully.  This is not the same as blueprint planning combined with control at an implementation stage.  Purposeful behaviour is willed behaviour – it may be “triggered by personal circumstances which, on reflection, we regard as being rational or emotional behaviour” (page 196)

Secondly, it is about managing context – doing what I can to create the conditions where others can also be responsible for their own ‘growth’ and which allows for self-organisation and emergence. Or as Ison says creating “the circumstances for emergence and novelty (innovation) through self-organisation and removing barriers to others being responsible” (page 187)

Thirdly, it is about managing the situation – more specifically the change that occurs in the situation over time – and making sure all the balls are changing appropriately alongside this.


Now back to the concepts in the activity that I have not already covered in the above.

Systemic awareness

For me the discussion on the concept of Systemic awareness, builds on the discussion in the C-ball on systematic and systemic thinking.  I summarised my thoughts at the time in my post on the C-ball.  Then I was concerned that systematic and systemic were being placed in opposition to each other.  In this Chapter, Ison tackles this issue head on.  We tend to see choices in either/or terms but it may be more productive to see “a pair …. as a duality, a totality which together go to make up a whole, or a unity” (page 191).

This reminded me of the explanation of Joy and Sorrow in Kahlil Gibran’s book “The prophet”.  The prophet was encouraging his listeners to think of joy and sorrow as two parts of a whole.  He said:

But I say unto you, they are inseparable. Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed. [Source Google book, page 16, accessed 8 Jan 2011]

I am much more comfortable with this way of regarding a pair of concepts.  Ison reinforces the importance of both by saying “systematic and systemic thinking and practice together build a powerful repertoire for juggling the M-ball” (page 191).  Systemic awareness is being aware of the choice given to you by this repertoire, especially at the point when you are starting out in a situation.


This is all about the alteration of something from one form to another.  When you define the purpose of a system of interest you are in effect identifying the transformation that it creates.  I am familiar with doing this from the work I undertook in TU811.  I like the language that Ison uses when he discusses this  – his explanation that a system (with sub-systems) which “through its enactment or operation has the potential to transform…” (page 187).


Getting in a twist between emergence and emergent here.  To the dictionary – emergence is a noun meaning the act or process of emerging – emergent is an adjective describing something that has emerged (e.g. emergent properties; emergent strategies).

To me it is all about things happening that you have not deliberately planned and brought about.

However, you can create the conditions for emergence.  Ambiguity and conflict may bring about learning through social interaction if you allow space for “creative conflict, negotiation, interaction and learning wherein assumptions may be dashed but the seeds of new perspectives and formulations may be nurtured” (page 197).


“Self-organisation is the phenomenom associated with a system distinguished by an observer, which is able to construct and change its own behaviour or internal organisation” (page 198/9)

Systems Dynamics Tradition

This is a systems approach that I covered in some detail in TU811.  It has an ontological perspective – in that you aim to model what is happening in ‘for real’ in a dynamic changing situation.

Causal-loop diagrams

This is the diagramming that is used in the system dynamics tradition.

Viable Systems Model

This is also a systems approach that I covered in some detail in TU811.  It focuses on information flows and forms of organisation that enable a system to be viable.


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

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