Juggling and my situation of concern

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(Activity 2.27, Table 2.3)

Back in early December, I identified my situation of concern and wrote a post giving an overview of the concern.  In short, this is a concern about the lack of systems thinking and practice in my workplace.  In that same earlier post I started exploring the situation through a meta-narrative.

I intend to use the process of TU812 to conduct a systemic inquiry into this situation of concern.  To be honest, the heavy workload of the course material has meant this has disappeared to the back of my head.  In fact, I have realised that I have not been very purposeful in that inquiry – it has been a bit purposive because the course suggested I did it rather than it being willed.  I think it is time to revisit that now – the situation of concern is still alive and interesting at work and now I have more concepts and tools under my belt it’ll be interesting to see how they help me.

So, I need to become a little more purposeful – to help with that I have now explored and defined the purpose of the inquiry – just so there is something I can latch onto…

A system to….identify actions that are both systemically desirable and culturally feasible…by means of…an inquiry into systems thinking and practice in my workplace…in order to…develop my confidence to introduce Systems ideas and practices to my colleagues and into the partnership environment I work within.

(the in order to (why) bit was a key motivation behind me studying the course)

Having made the systemic inquiry my own ‘willed’ behaviour.  I return to the actual activity.  Now that I have read the four ball chapters in Ison’s book, I am invited to better understand my situation of concern through the methodological use of the juggler metaphor.  Table 2.3 in the Study Guide provides some useful orienting questions to help with that.

Purposeful framing (about me as a practitioner in the situation of concern)

What does the chapter about each ball have to say that affects how I have interpreted my situation of concern in the past?

What does the chapter about the ball have to say about my current understandings and practices in the situation?  Does it alter my understanding of what the situation is, or could be?

What possibilities for my future systems practice for managing systemic change does the chapter about each ball suggest in relation to the situation I have chosen?

Purposive framing (about how I interpret and make judgments about others in the situation of concern)

From the reading of the chapter about each ball, who are, or could be, the stakeholders in my situation of concern?

What does the chapter about each ball have to say that affects how I interpret past understandings and practices of others in the situation?

What does the chapter about each ball have to say about my current understandings and practices of others in the situation?

What insights does the chapter provide in relation to what others in the situation may regard as improvements and how these might be achieved?


Purposeful framing

The B-ball has helped me touch base with the emotions I have had about the situation of concern in the past.  I have really experienced a sense of frustration and annoyance that “people don’t know better” and seem so complacent about the way things are.  The purposive framing questions below go more into those interpretations.  Now I feel a lot calmer and perhaps more inquisitive about what is going on.  These seem to be more productive emotions, that are more likely to open up possibilities in the future.

Purposive framing

The stakeholders in my situation of concern are all my colleagues – and as I work to a partnership this consists of a myriad of different professionals working in different organisational contexts.  Some I see and work with daily, others I may see far less frequently.

In the past, I have tended to lump the whole lot together – a “them” (with a few notable exceptions of those I have had the opportunity to explore systems thinking and practice with).

I think this “them” approach has been unhelpful because it has led to quite an extreme generalisation – thinking that no-one is a systems practitioner.  Reading the B ball has made me much more sensitive to listening to the language people use – and the more I listen the more I find colleagues are using language that shows they have some understanding that the world is not linear and neat – sometimes people are really groping for the vocabulary for this.  I have also noticed that people are much more aware of the ‘certainty of uncertainty’ and are struggling to use existing technologies to ‘fit’ with the way they know that the world works – even referring to their participation in using these technologies as ‘playing the game’.  Finally, I have also noticed some individuals touching base with their emotions in the way that they talk – these are the individuals I have always warmed to more and experienced as authentic.

So now instead of a big lumpy “them” – I have started to get a general sense of a number of categories of stakeholders.  I am undertaking the practice of classification with full awareness of the traps that I could get into!

There seem to be some people who are really stuck in thinking we just need to do what we already do better – I have noticed that these people are mostly of an age that they would have done most of their formative management training or MBAs in the late ’80s or early ’90s.  At that time “management science” seemed to teach you the answers, the way to do it.  I therefore interpret the ‘stuckness’ as stemming from a tradition of understanding that once you know, you know, and then there is no need to learn.  The difficulty is that, given the obvious age profile, the people I place into this group tend to be in more senior positions and therefore have more influence and stake around the way things are.

There are other people who are fully aware of the pitfalls of the way we currently do things and are seeking answers or new ways of doing things.  Unfortunately, in pushing a new approach or tool that they see as useful they are touting it as the one single answer to our problems.  Rather like consultants who are pushing or selling a single tool.  This means they are not questioning the assumptions built into the technologies they want to introduce or seeing its’ pitfalls.

There are a final group who seem to be questioning all the time and appear to be more an more eclectic and pluralistic in the way they approach things.  At the moment, I have detected a handful or two of such individuals.  I experience these people as ‘natural’ systems practitioners – and would say that the main barrier to them flying is learning the language of Systems and some of the tools and approaches associated with it.

Unpicking the big mass of “them” has been quite helpful because it gives a more nuanced range of possibilities for the future.


Purposeful framing

The characteristics I have ascribed to this situation in the past include adjectives like complex so I have understood it as a situation that would be helped through systems practice.  I was not aware of making an active choice of framing for the situation.  I used imagery associated with a warfare – need to win over, the battle and so on.  This probably contributed to my frustration and ongoing sense of exhaustion!  Now, I am more aware of my choice of framing I’d like to think of it as an opportunity and a challenge – something to embrace, not fight.

Purposive framing

I assume I think about this as the situation(s) that my colleagues and I are concerned with.  This means there is another set of stakeholders here – the people who are the beneficiaries of our work i.e. the citizens in the city.  However, for this post I will stick to applying the purposive framing questions only to workers.

I have seen colleagues engaging with the situation(s) of concern in a variety of ways.  I do think that people experience the situation as uncertain, dynamic, full of interdependencies and so on, even if they do not have the label “wicked issue” to apply to it.

The response to this is varying.

Some people seem to ‘tame’ it, I do not know if this is a conscious choice or not.  The most common way of taming it seems to be through the use of numerical data gathered up and named ‘evidence’.  It is easier to experience the situation through a window of numbers.  Unfortunately, the process of aggregation and averaging loses the individual narratives of citizens.

Others use the numbers but only as one way of experiencing the situation.  They (actually I include myself here too) just seem to find it incredibly difficult to synthesise it back into something useable (in our world that generally means something on a paper or in an electronic document that can be shared).


Purposeful framing

Although I have had a number of systems tools and approaches ‘up my sleeve’ for a while, I had not applied them to this situation of concern – partly because I had never really properly ‘brought forth’ the situation from the mess I was experiencing until I wrote the post in December.  Now I have brought forth the situation, I am beginning to develop a more richer, nuanced understanding through the use of the juggler isophor.  I see possibilities for other tools in the future too.

Purposive framing

I think this is the rub.  Of everyone I know amongst my colleagues, I know of only two who have had any formal training in Systems (on the Open University’s TXR248 Experiencing systems).  I have not experienced any colleague using systems ideas and approaches as tools and experience barriers and reticence when I try to introduce them.  I don’t know why I experience that – it may be the way I do it, it may be about the timing, it may be about their attitude – it is probably all of these and many other factors.  I have had one person say something along the lines of “well the organisation just operates on reductionist and hierarchical principles” – well and truly institutionalised!  All the tools around are ones that help systematic thinking and practice so very few are alert to their choice with respect to systemic thinking and practice.

I think this is where my frustration comes from – I have an ever growing array of systems concepts and systems methods and tools ready to contextualise to our situations of concern – and, I feel as though I have no-one to do this with.  My husband even gets the brunt of it!

One recent possibility I have started to pursue is my use of language – I thought that if diagramming and systems approaches seem so far-fetched perhaps I can introduce a vocabulary that helps people – just through my own example.  At times I feel like a broken record!  But generally people nod their head and agree – I wonder when I will here the words back again.


Purposeful framing

In the past, I have approached this situation as very static and impenetrable.  I have not approached it as a small ‘r’ researcher and with curiosity.  Which is rather odd because I have in relation to other situations of concern.  This systemic inquiry has changed my underlying emotion to one of inquiry and learning through experience which immediately opens possibilities for the future.  And, as described above, I now own a purpose for this inquiry – I am being purposeful.

When I have said to people “we should to it using these new tools I know about”, I have been potentially closing down their own options for growth and exploration.  How do I create a balance between introducing the new ideas and it feeling like I am shoving them down others’ throats and closing down their possibilities.  “I’d like to invite you to…..”???

In the future I will also be more aware of changes in time – the small successes, rather than sitting around waiting for a revolution.

Purposive framing

The stakeholders I have been discussing do not generally seem aware of systemic thinking and practice as part of a repertoire alongside the systematic thinking and practice they are using.  I think the lack of awareness stems from the lack of conscious awareness of this whole field of work – even though there are some who are experiencing situations when they could do with the competence.  So I think it is helpful if I use Maslow’s four stages of competence model here:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence
    The individual neither understands nor knows how to do something, nor recognizes the deficit, nor has a desire to address it.
  2. Conscious Incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, without yet addressing it.
  3. Conscious Competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires a great deal of consciousness or concentration.
  4. Unconscious Competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it becomes “second nature” and can be performed easily (often without concentrating too deeply). He or she may or may not be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learned.
  5. Source Wikipedia Four stages of competence, [accessed 15 January 2011]

Using this model, I experience some people as operating as “unconscious incompetence” but many grappling away at “conscious incompetence” – without knowing there are some helpful concepts and tools.

There seem to be variations in the ‘underlying emotion’ that other stakeholders bring to their work – variations between individuals but also variations in time in the same person.  At one end of the spectrum is the “I am right, I know and this is the way it is” at the other extreme is “I am lost”.


I have found these reflections helpful as part of my systemic inquiry but I am also acutely aware of the generalisations I have been, and am, making.  My new found curiosity into this situation will help me find ever richer and subtle nuances which will help in identifying systemically desirable and culturally feasible actions.

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