Developing purpose

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In my last post, I ended up with a working PQR definition of my research project.  The next steps are to develop that some more.  I know that by the time I publish this blog, it will look as though I have it all straight in my head but actually as I start, I am not really sure where I will end up.  I am sure this blog will take a number of iterations and revisions before I publish it – and even then it will just be the ‘latest thinking’.

So this is where my last blog ended:

a system to….assist a selected group of participants to value their own experiences of working in ‘systems mode’ (need to think of a better term than that)

by means of…a research project drawing on the Appreciative Inquiry method*

in order to…promote a shift to valuing, fostering and strengthening that mode of working

One of the things I’d like to be clearer on is the Transformation process.  Currently, I understand that to be:

input transformation process output
participants with little awareness of when they work in ‘systems mode’ being participants in A.I. research project participants who have more awareness of, and appreciate the value of, when they work in ‘systems mode’

Already, quite a few things come out for me:

– I am making an assumption that participants ‘have little awareness’ at the beginning.  It may be that they are individually aware, but as an ‘insider’ of this situation, it is not something that I hear talked about or advocated or celebrated as a way of working.  So perhaps it is better expressed as ‘shared awareness’ (that therefore impacts on the design of the work!)

– The primary transformation process is that experienced by the participants.  It is noticeable that this is not “me with no data” to “me with data for my research project”.  The data is generated as a ‘side product’ of the experience that the participants are going through with me as their ‘helper’.  This stance fits with my learning from the writings of Schein.

– I still need to be clearer of the characteristics of what I am calling ‘systems mode’ as compared to…..whatever I call it.  The statement of Reason and Bradbury encapsulates the ‘two ends’ of a continuum I am interested in:

Reason and Bradbury state “our purpose is to contribute to the ongoing re-visioning of the Western mindset – to add impetus to the movement away from a modernist worldview based on a positivist philosophy and a value system dominated by crude notions of economic progress, towards emerging perspectives which share a ‘postmodern’ sentiment.” (page xxiii, my emphasis)

So… drawing on that I will use ‘perspectives and ways of working which share a ‘postmodern’ sentiment’ –  I consider systems thinking and practice to be a key manifestation of that sentiment.

Okay now to try and develop a root definition:

My system, Owner
enacted by me along with a selected set of participants Actor
for participants’ benefit (and through them other people active in partnership working for wellbeing and health of Newcastle), Customer
to assist participants to identify and value their own experiences of working in ways that stem from a postmodern sentiment P
improving that shared awareness and appreciation Transformation Process
by means of an intervention drawing on the action research approach called Appreciative Inquiry Q
in order to promote a shift to valuing, fostering and strengthening perspectives and ways of working that share a postmodern sentiment R
recognising that I must meet course deadlines, the data generation period is very short and the people I would like as participants are very busy people. Environmental Constraints
in the belief that raising awareness of the value of these ways of working will foster its use in the future and subsequently make us better placed to manage systemic change with the purpose of good health and positive wellbeing for all people of Newcastle. Worldview

It’s odd but that was remarkable simple and quick to do – though I notice some changes on my original PQR.  But, again it has generated some thoughts:

– in terms of research design.  I think it would be best to do individual AI style interviews (Discover phase only) with the participants.  I could do those all myself, but equally I could invite some of my immediate colleagues (the first group of people mentioned in this blog) to do the interviews.  That would add to Actors involved.  This is not just about saving my time, it is about the relationships that can be built through the interview process.  (Note to self: ask them soon!)

– If these interviews are recorded they provide my main source of data for analysing – in terms of whether ways of working based on postmodernist sentiment comes over or not.  (NB need dictaphone for my mobile phone, cost = £2.39).  I could do that on my own – or again with the group of co-researchers (which will give the opportunity for discussion around distinguishing modernist and postmodernist).

– the second stage then would be to bring participants together in a workshop.  I can imagine a rough design which would involve them sharing their original interview discussions in pairs, me feeding back the more formal analysis and the people moving onto Dream phase A.I.

– If time runs out before I can have workshop then I still have material to do my TMA03 and project – even though full process will not be complete from an intervention perspective.  So this reduces risk of the constraints on the overall process.

– I am still aware of a key risk – what if when asked the initial question “think of a time….”, people come up with an occasion where they worked in modernist, positivist mode – they then value that more and it becomes even more entrenched. I have a ‘gut feel’ that people are unlikely to talk about those meetings where they just sit with a load of papers and nod their heads – they certainly don’t look energised!  Whilst this may make me re-think the next steps into work based change, it won’t cause a problem for my T847 project – I still have a discussion and conclusion to write!

And ‘finally’, moving onto a boundary critique – applying the 12 critical systems heuristics (Ulrich and Reynolds, 2010, 279) I arrive at …..

What are the motivating factors?

– Whom do I want to serve?

I want to serve the people who are directly involved in partnership working to improve wellbeing and health in Newcastle.  I do so with awareness of the people of Newcastle who are the beneficiaries of the work of the partnership – however, for this piece of work they are indirect beneficiaries.  I am comfortable with that boundary because I understand that large scale social change requires changes in behaviour of those who are currently in position of power.

– What do I want to achieve?

I want to achieve greater shared awareness of the value of working in ways consistent with the post-modernist sentiment that underpins systems thinking and practice.  I am starting with an assumption that this is happening in the ‘underbelly’ of partnership working but does not get recognition as ‘the proper way to do partnerships’.  I assume that given the right type of questioning, this will be surfaced (what interesting metaphors – underbelly, surfaced!).  My third assumption is that if people more consciously value these ways of working, there will be increased opportunities to more deliberately introduce ideas and approaches that deliberately engender them (i.e. systems ideas and approaches)

My secondary aim is to generate data that can be used for my T847 research project so that I can gain my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice.

– What should be my measure of improvement?

I think the improvements will be predominantly qualitative aspects.  I would ‘sense’ an increased legitimacy and acceptance of working in ways consistent with the post-modernist sentiment.  I would observe the participants actively advocating for and championing these types of approaches and preferring them to those based on a modernist worldview with an underpinning positivist philosophy (unless of course that approach is most appropriate for a particular task).

Who is in control?

– Whom do I want to decide?

In order to involve the participants I want, I will need their commitments and support.  If I think of my ‘ideal’ group of participants they are more senior than myself.  That means that any one of them can just stop it!  However, starting with my line manager, I am confident that with the support of a few key people, it can all fall into place.  (Note to self: I need to do this quickly, now I have a firm idea).

– What resources do I aim to have available?

This is really about time – within a short time span.  My time will be partly ‘out of work’ – transcribing, analysing.  But also ‘in work’ – arranging and doing interviews (or organising others if have co-researchers) – the time I (and others) spend doing this needs to be agreed by our managers).  If I do work with co-researchers, then it would also involve their time.  And then finally there is the time of the participants themselves – for the interview and for the workshop.

– What conditions of success should rightly be controlled by third parties?

I always struggle with knowing if I am interpreting this question okay.

The first thing that comes to mind – linked to the secondary aim – is the involvement of tutors/examiners of the Open University – they control the criteria by which this will be seen as an academically appropriate piece of work.  However, those criteria are laid out for me – I just need to make sure I work across the two sets of expectations – so meeting the criteria is not completely out of my control, even if the criteria themselves are!

What information and skills are relevant?

– Whom do I want to contribute their experience and expertise?

A number of academic authors – some known, some not yet known (via their journal articles and books); A couple of friends I have who work in academia; Tutors/course team; Other students of MSc in Systems thinking and practice; Potentially my co-researchers, if the people I have in mind are willing.

– What information and skills do I want them to contribute?

Grounding in practice of Research – being an informed investigator (practitioner); research paradigms and theory (framework of ideas), framing a research project, research approaches and process design (method),

How to practice research in manner consistent with postmodern ‘sentiment’ and support in my quest for competence in systemic research and practice.

Critical challenge and also encouragement when times are low

Developing rapport and interviewing skills, potentially workshop design and facilitation (if do with others).

– Where should I look for some guarantee of success?

Competent knowledge consistent with the postmodern sentiment and Systems thinking in practice (as familiar with through TU811/812 materials)

What stakeholders should be considered?

– Whom do I want to voice the concerns of those not involved? What do I want to do to emancipate those stakeholders?

The ‘people of Newcastle’ are a key stakeholder group. As already mentioned, they are ‘secondary clients’ of this work so may or may not be affected.  I cannot involve them all but there are two or three key individuals who would be appropriate to include as participants – it would be great if they are willing to be involved as one of the key aspects of partnership working based on the postmodernist sentiment is citizen engagement (as comes out in the WHO paper, I keep referring to).

This piece of work is Newcastle based and fits with what I see as a local development need.  However, the wider domain of practice I want to improve is ‘partnership working for wellbeing and health at UK local authority level’.  As a piece of work, it may be of interest to colleagues I have in similiar roles in the UK.  I am a member of a network where I can share the work – both in progress and at the end.

– What worldview do I want to rely on?

That working in ways consistent with a postmodernist sentiment opens up possibilities for creating conditions for good health and positive wellbeing for people in Newcastle

(and that doing this research project will open up the possibilities for conditions for working in ways consisting with postmodernist ‘sentiment’, including systems thinking and practice).


Right – end this for now.  Overall been a really helpful exercise – it may look repetitive to read through but each of the ‘tools’ have given additional insights.  From these tools of PQR, root definition and CSH questions – I feel as if I have worked through a number of issues – stakeholders, ethics, some key issues re: suitability and feasibility.  And, most importantly, I am clear enough to make the first steps to ‘get permissions’ to do the work.


Reason, P. & Bradbury-Huang, H. eds., 2006. Handbook of Action Research Concise Paperback Edition., London: Sage Publications.

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