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Systemic Thinking [Williams, 2002:pgs 26-29], Bob Williams discusses his conclusions as those relate to a recent review of systems approaches by Robert L Flood.
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Systemic Thinking [Williams, 2002:pgs 26-29], Bob Williams discusses his conclusions as those relate to a recent review of systems approaches by Robert L Flood.


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  • 1. 1 ASSIGNMENT COVER PAGESURNAME: Brinkmann INITIALS: ASTUDENT NUMBER: 17573602TELEPHONE NUMBER: 0828900663PROGRAMME NAME: EDP 2012MODULE: Systems ThinkingFACILITATOR: Steyn HeckroodtDUE DATE: 25 June 2012NUMBER OF PAGES:10 – includingcover page and reference sectionCERTIFICATIONI certify the content of the assignment to be my own and original work and that allsources have been accurately reported and acknowledged, and that this document hasnot previously been submitted in its entirety or in part at any educationalestablishment._________________________SIGNATUREOR__6701130018085_______________________ID number for assignments submitted via e-mail FOR OFFICE USE DATE RECEIVED:
  • 2. 2 1. Introduction and BackgroundIn this article, very simply named: Systemic Thinking [Williams, 2002:pgs 26-29], BobWilliams discusses his conclusions as those relate to a recent review of systemsapproaches by Robert L Flood.In essence, Bob Williams concludes that he agrees with the 3 basic paradoxes as set outby Robert Flood; those are: 1.1 We cannot manage over things, but will manage the unmanageable 1.2 We cannot organise the totality, but will organise within the unorganisable 1.3 We will not simply know things, but we will know the unknowable.He furthermore discusses Flood‟s thinking and methodologies in some detail, from the finalchapter of Flood‟s book [which he does not mention the title of, but I suspect is extractedfrom: Rethinking the Fifth Discipline: Learning within the Unknowable; Routledge; 1999]Williams concludes that Flood is one of the few systems thinkers who uses systemicevaluation rather than the quite one-dimensional practice of performance management,within the centre of his systems design. Williams also concludes that this systemicevaluation is more than likely too complex for most individuals and organisations tounderstand, that they would have to make rather a large leap from their currentconservative measurement metrix and that he believes it would take quite some timebefore individuals and organisations are able to embrace Flood‟s integrated model ofsystems thinking, design and systemic evaluation.In most instances, I found resonance with what Bob Williams has concluded as well aswith Flood‟s theories of systems thinking, but found the article lacking in substance andfurther exploration of exactly how Flood arrived at his revised conclusions. I shalltherefore spend some time on fleshing out a range of concepts touched upon in BobWilliam‟s article, from both the critical as well as supportive perspectives. 2. Brief Biographies on Robert L Flood and Bob WilliamsSee reference to the history and viewpoints of both Williams and Flood within thereference section. 3. The Critical ReviewWilliams begins by dissecting Flood‟s methodology in terms of Flood‟s view on systems,how to manage them, explore and evaluate them. Williams starts off with Flood‟s
  • 3. 3statement that: „ Systemic awareness begins with a spiritual appreciation of Wholeness”and that this wholeness could be ascribed to the inter-relatedness of all things or tosomething that he calls spontaneous self-organisation, which leads to emergence and anew order, or new ways of seeing, organising and doing things.Williams does not explain that emergence is something that the human mind can conceiveof – the whole being larger than the sum of the parts. Spontaneous self-organisationwhich implies that the whole comprises many, many inter-relationships in endlessoccurrences of spontaneous self-organisation, is however, in my opinion, very difficult forthe average human mind and specifically, the management mind, to comprehend. I amhowever personally a proponent if not evangelist, of both concepts.What may help the article to flow and to be of interest to readers who have never beforebeen exposed to systems thinking, it would be helpful to have explained the varioustheorems and history of the components of systems thinking as we have come tounderstand those today collectively.  When we step back and view the evolution of systems thinking over time, we note that the emergence of various theorems and practices resonate and support Williams‟s take on Flood‟s systems model. We note that in the 1930‟s, mechanistic thinking was the order of the day. Reductionism was used in a way that led to organisations seeing things made of smaller, invisible parts that no-one could see or prove were real. [Chapman, pgs 1-25.a]. Many organisations still choose this approach to problem-solve.  Towards the end of the 1930‟s, biologists and Gestalt theorists moved towards using an holistic way of describing the world in terms of it being an inter-related system. These pioneers were able to describe the world, an organisation or a system as having emergent properties - and that that these emergent properties disappear when one dissects or breaks down the whole. This was the first inkling of the theorem that that the whole constitutes more than the sum of its parts. [Chapman, pgs 1-25. b]  By the 2nd World War, cybernetic thinking entered the domain of systems design, where control theory and an appreciation of both natural and engineered „ systems‟ and their feedback loops started emerging. The notion that there are pluralistic views of views, started taking shape.
  • 4. 4  Stafford Beer, in his Viable System Model and Management Cybernetics built upon these concepts and is known as the father of Management Cybernetics.  The latter two advances, find resonance with Flood‟s process as it relates to the difference in feedback loops in scientific as opposed to social systems. Both methodologies can be applied within systems design, where relevant.There is also a strong sense that as humans, we are not aware of how we think – in otherwords, thinking becomes a nearly mechanistic, subconscious practice – and that there arestill fewer human beings who are aware of alternative ways of thinking. [Heckroodt:Systems Thinking USB: May 2012] This powerful statement supports Flood‟s contentionthat we often do not know what we know and that we never will.In my observation, over 24 years in a career spanning many industries, sectors andorganisations, these statements still hold true in 2012. Companies and organisations donot inherently accept that there is a constant level of unpredictability in what they do andthat in order to be adaptive to constant change inside and outside their organisation, therehas to be a combination of adaptive behaviour, feedback and non-linear thinking andbehaviour. In an ideal world, Simon [ MIT Press; 1981] states that, the upper hierarchy inorganisations would operate slower and on longer time spans than the lower hierarchy andthat through systems design and the adaptive organisation, a stable environment would becreated in which the lower echelons could operate.Stafford Beer [ Beer. 1979] advocates for the cybernetic approach, where authority is fullydelegated to staff dealing directly with clients and customers, thereby implying a sense ofwholeness and complete ownership by every individual within the organisation. This is inmy opinion, far from the reality in business at present, but close to where it should in factbe. Neither Flood nor Williams mention this very important aspect of systems design andimplementation.In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation[P.Senge. 1990.a], Peter Senge advances the following theorem:  Working backwards, he asserts that the Fifth Discipline, Systems Thinking, binds everything together; that it represents a conceptual framework, body of knowledge and tools where the patterns of connections have become clearer and also, the
  • 5. 5 mechanisms on how to adapt and change as any one part of the system requires it to in totality. This assertion support Flood‟s theorem and William‟s interpretation thereof.  In fact, according to Prof Chapman. [Chapman, pgs 1-25. c] systems thinking is the opposite of reductionism in that it requires us to move up the levels of abstractions and to discard detail that is unnecessary at that point. I fully agree with this thinking and have in fact applied it in my own systems design approach. I felt that Williams and Flood should have touched on this notion in order to better explain systems thinking methodology and practice.In Senge‟s [ P.Senge. 1990.b] view, it starts with Personal Mastery, which involves aprocess of clarifying and deepening of personal and organisational vision, the deliberatefocusing of energies, developing infinite patience and seeing reality as objectively aspossible. We need to meaningfully understand ourselves by contemplating the whole ofwhich we are an integral part. It must be visible that our actions are inter-related to otherperson‟s actions in patterns of behaviour. Flood contends that we constantly live betweenstates of mystery and mastery. Senge and Flood both hold valid points. I prefer the ideathat we embrace mastery as much as possible and use mystery as a constant challenge tothink differently and to learn and adapt.Senge [ P.Senge. 1990.c] then urges us to move to Mental Modelling, which is where weunearth our internal pictures and views of the world. This moves us into building a sharedvision, which involves the skills of unearthing and excavating a shared picture of the future– or what is referred to as Ideal Reality/Future versus Current Reality/Future. This is incontrast to William‟s assertion that Flood believes we only know that is local and cantherefore only plan for what is local in space and time. This does not allow for scenarioplanning and knowing the unknowable and planning for it.Flood uses the methaphor of „ Prismatic Thinking‟ , wherein he states that theunderstanding of the problem is enriched when one deliberately and mindfully appliesvarious other perspectives, thereby creating new questions and investigative possibilities.It uses the prismatic characteristics of a diamond to teach the mindset that each problemhas various facets as well as perceptions and that those combine to reflect the complexityand uncertainty of a situation. [Dalene Duvenhage, 25 June 2008. Workshop]
  • 6. 6Ackoff does however remind us [R.L Ackoff, 1993. Omega Journal] that corporate visionsare often illusions or even delusions. He furthermore reminds us that the Ideal design orreality must be an operationally meaningful description of all organisational stakeholders ifthey could have any organisation - without any constraints. In William‟s article heconcludes that according to Flood, one of the weaknesses of systems thinking is that thereis a large „bloody hell‟ factor. That it could amount to a very unrealistic wish list that isunachievable and far removed from reality. That is certainly true within a great manyorganisations who seem to continue to believe that THEY are somehow insulated from theexternal environment and still insist on very unrealistic short term targets and therebydemotivate their employees and pillage their companies by stripping as much as possibleout of the system to reach an artificial bottom line. There is no long term systemsplanning in place to ensure that the organisation is adaptable or even that it survives thechanging world and environment.Jamesh Gharajedaghi [ Gharajedaghi. 2011. Pgs 159-179] in his review of Ackoff‟s SystemsThinking :Formulating the Mess, stresses that many organisations fail to face the rightproblems to start off with. I fully agree with this contention. Asking the right question inthe first place remains a challenge.Definining the „ mess‟ is in fact the most important step of the systems thinking process. Informulating this mess, organisations find a shared understanding of the underlying inter-dependencies, assumptions, values and what the [often negative] reinforcing rewardsystems are that are assisting in regenerating the problematic patterns. Flood states thatone of the strengths of systems thinking is exactly this – that is integrates key systemsapproaches, without becoming a mess of compromises. Significantly, Flood has found anoperational model to achieve this ideal, although this model is not expounded upon byWilliams.“ A mess is the future implicit in the present behaviour of the system” – a very powerfulstatement by Ackoff. We need to understand or predict, within the unpredictability, theconsequences of the current state of the system, use dynamic, not static analysis andunderstand what is wrong, how we got to this place and why the system behaves as itdoes. Only then can one backwards engineer from the Ideal Future to the ideal design ofthe complex, adaptive organisation.
  • 7. 7In essence, the natural flow of systems thinking and design are accurately describedwithin William‟s article, from Flood‟s point of departure, that Systemic Thinking arises froman appreciation of wholeness, following through to the notion that „ We don‟t really knowvery much about anything and actually never will‟. 4. Conclusion and commentaryIn my opinion, Flood has advanced the practice as well as theory of Systems Thinkingconsiderably, by thinking about Systems Thinking, as well, a system of inter-relatedtheorems and practices. His thinking incorporates Peter Senge‟s work on the LearningOrganisation, Bertalanffy‟s Open Systems Theory, Beer‟s Organisational Cybernetics,Ackoff‟s Interactive Planning, Checkland‟s Soft Systems Approach as well as Churchman‟sCritical Systemic Thinking. Williams does however not make this clear within his article.The article clearly IS a work in progress and requires deeper investigation andsubstantiation of a range of statements and contentions.Flood seems to have synthesised the various strains of theory and thinking into a coherent,practical theorem of practice, ending in a process of systemic evaluation.The article under review very ironically does not interrogate Flood‟s systemic evaluationprocess, but I would imagine, given my knowledge of the current state of organisations,how they plan and forecast, using ancient, one-dimensional „ tried and tested‟methodologies, that William‟s contention that the skills necessary to implement Flood‟sevaluation process, would not yet be present. There is also still a lack in terms of acommunity of practice around Systems Thinking and Design that would internalise Flood‟sintegrative model and bring it into the mainstream. I would however postulate that inLearning Organisations, where there is already the foresight to live by the principles ofSystems Thinking and Design, Flood‟s systemic evaluation process would be adopted andtrialed and that such a process may well in time, build the case for it to be used more andmore in practice.Systems thinking and design remain, by nature, an evolving discipline or system. Eventhough there is a gargantuan body of work by a great many specialists and practitioners,that does not mean that the will to change or embrace systems thinking and design existswithin organisations or individuals.
  • 8. 8The idea that if there is a change in one sub-system, all others react and change, isperhaps too much for the average human and management mind to conceive of. In myview, this short article, in its simplicity, does however make a very strong case for systemsthinking, design and evaluation and would benefit, as the author explores the topic further,from adding more information about the real operational modelling as well as to create anunderstanding of the systemic evaluation process that is very briefly touched upon.The article, though lightweight, did, in the end, inspire me to interrogate the variousstatements in greater detail and sent me on a journey of deeper discovery of the history ofsystems thinking and how this shaped Flood‟s theorem and methodologies. If its existenceinspires other scholars and organisations and piques their interest to explore further, thenit has served its purpose.
  • 9. 9 5. REFERENCES 5.1 Bob WilliamsBased in New Zealand, he divides his working time between evaluation, strategydevelopment, facilitating large-group processes and systemic organisational changeprojects. []. He dedicates most of this time to training andconsultancy support for the use of systems concepts in evaluation.Very similar to Flood, whom he describes as a peripatetic [ itinerant, wayfarer, traveller,prone to Aristotle‟s „ teaching whilst walking‟ methods] Englishman, Williams himself viewshis work as a continual learning process and one that is participative. It is no surprise thathe is supportive of Flood‟s systemic evaluation methodology, as Williams has had an activeand published interest in the use and abuse of performance measures as evaluation tools. 5.2 Robert L FloodBorn in 1955, he became a British Organisational Scientist and Professor of ManagementSciences at the age of 32 at Hale University. He became known as an authority onsystemic thinking in areas of strategic management, organisational behaviour as well asorganisational improvement.He has been the Editor of the International Journal : „ Systemic Practice & Research” aswell as Associate Editor of the Journal : “ Systems Research & Behavioural Science”.He has authored and co-authored various books on the topic of Systemic Thinking, amongthem:  Rethinking the Fifth Discipline: Learning within the Unknowable [ Routledge, 1999]  Systems Science [ Co-written with E.R Carson]  [ Source: L. Flood]As Ackoff is widely recognised as the father of Systems Thinking, Flood is revered forpushing the frontiers of research and practice and finding improved models of design andevaluation.FURTHER REFERENCES:  Ackoff, R L. 1993. Idealised Design: creative corporate visioning. Omega Journal  Beer, S. 1979. The heart of the enterprise. Wiley & Sons  Beer, S. 1959, Cybernetics and Management, English Universities Press
  • 10. 10 Chapman, J. Introducing Systems Thinking. Accessed: June 2012 Checkland,P and Scholes. 1990. “Soft Systems Methodology in Action”. Duvenhage, D. 25 June 2008. Private/Academic partnership in Intelligence Analysis training: The SA Experience – workshop lecture. Flood, R. 1999. Rethinking the Fifth Discipline: Learning from the Unknowable. Routledge. Gharajedaghi. J. Review: Thinking: Formulating the Mess: Ackoff. 2011. Pgs 159- 179 Senge P.M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organisation Simon. 1981. The Architect of Complexity: MIT Press Williams, B. 2002. Systemic Thinking – Work in progress. Accessed during May/June 2012 Williams, B. Accessed during June 2012 L. Flood