Counts, categories and computations

This post sits squcalculatorarely within the ‘measurement’ section of this blog – a topic dear to me, given the vagaries of measurements that we are subjected to or are required to produce in our working lives1.

The catalyst for writing it was from revisiting a ‘Donald Wheeler’ chapter2 and reminding myself of being around some ‘daft work assignments’ of years ago.

I’ll start with an ordinary looking table that (let’s say) represents3 the feedback received by a presenter (Bob), after running a 1 hour session at a multi-day conference.

I’ve deliberately used a rather harmless-looking subject (i.e. feedback to a presenter) so that I can cover some general points…which can then be applied more widely.

Bobs presentation tableSo, let’s walk through this table.

Conference attendees were asked to evaluate Bob’s session against five perfectly reasonable questions, using a five-point rating scale (from ‘Poor’ through to ‘Excellent’). The body of the table (in blue) tells us the percentage of evaluators that awarded each rating per question (and, as you would expect, the ratings given for each question sum to 100%).

Nice, obvious, easy….but that table is sure hard to read. It’s just a blur of boring numbers.

Mmm, we’d better add some statistics3 (numbers in red)…to make it more, ahem, useful.

Pseudo-Average

So the first ‘analysis’ usually added is the ‘average score per question’. i.e. we can see that there is variation in how people score…and we feel the need to boil this down into the score that a (mythical) ‘average respondent’ gave.

To do this, we assume a numerical weighting for each rating (e.g. a ‘poor’ scores a 0…all the way up to an ‘excellence’ scoring a 4) and then use our trusty spreadsheet to crunch out an average. Looking at the table, Bob scored an overall 1.35 on the quality of her pre-session material, which is somewhere between ‘average’ (a score of 1) and ‘good’ (a score of 2).

…and it is at this point that we should pause to reflect on the type of data that we are dealing with.

“While numbers may be used to denote an ordering among categories, such numbers do not possess the property of distance. The term for numbers used in this way is ordinal data.” (Wheeler)

There is a natural order between poor, average, good, very good and excellent…however there is no guarantee that the distance between ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’ is the same as the distance from ‘good’ to ‘average’ (and so on)…yet by assigning numbers to categories we make distances between categories appear the same5.

If you compute an average of ordinal data then you have a pseudo-average.

“Pseudo averages are very convenient, but they are essentially an arbitrary scoring system which is used with ordinal data. They have limited meaning, and should not be over interpreted.”

Total Average

Okay, so going back to our table of Bob’s feedback: we’ve averaged each row (our pseudo-averages)…so our next nifty piece of analysis will be to average each column, to (supposedly) find out how Bob did in general…and we get our total average line. This shows that Bob mainly scored, on average, in the ‘good’ and ‘very good’ categories.

But what on earth does this mean? Combining scores for different variables (e.g. the five different evaluation questions in this case) is daft. They have no meaningful relationship between themselves.

It’s like saying “I’ve got 3 bikes and 10 fingers….so that’s an average of 6.5”. Yes, that’s what the calculator will say…but so what?!

“The total average line (i.e. computing an average from different variables) is essentially a triumph of computation over common sense. It should be deleted from the summary.”

Global Pseudo-Average

And so to our last piece of clever analysis…that table of numbers is quite hard to deal with. Is there one number that tells us ‘the answer’?

Well, yes, we could create a global pseudo average, which would be to compute a pseudo average from the total average line. Excellent, we could calculate a one-number summary for each presenter at our conference…and then we could compare them…we could even create a (fun!) league table 🙂

Oh, bugger, our Bob only got a 2.4. That doesn’t seem very good.

To compute a global pseudo-average would be to cross-pollinate the misleading pseudo-average with the nonsensical total average line and arrive in computation purgatory.

The wider point

which wayLet’s move away from Bob’s presentation skills.

Who’s seen pseudo-averages, total average lines and global pseudo-averages ‘used in anger’ (i.e. with material decisions being made) on ordinal data?

A classic example would be within software selection exercises, to (purportedly) compare competing vendors in a robust, objective and transparent manner.

  • In terms of pseudo averages, we get situations where 10 ‘nice to have’ features end up supposedly equaling 1 ‘essential’ function;
  • In terms of total average lines, we get variables like software functionality, support levels and vendor financial strength all combined together (which is akin to my bikes and fingers);
  • …and at the very end, the ‘decider’ between selecting Vendor A or B might go down to which one has been lucky enough to garner a slightly superior global pseudo-average. “Hey, Vendor B wins because they got 6.85”

The above example refers to software but could be imagined across all selection exercises (recruitment, suppliers,….).

Ordinal data is used and abused regularly. The aim of this short post is just to remind (or educate) people (including myself) of the pitfalls.

Side note: as a rule-of-thumb, my ‘bullshit-ohmmeter’ usually starts to crackle into life (much like a Geiger counter) whenever I see weightings applied to categories…

In summary

Before ‘playing with numbers’, the first thing we should do is think about what we are dealing with.

“In order to avoid a ‘triumph of computation over common sense’ it is important for you to think about the nature of your data…

…a spreadsheet programme doesn’t have any inhibitions about computing the average for a set of telephone numbers.”

Addendum: ‘Back to school’ on data types

This quick table gives a summary of the traditional (though not exhaustive) method of categorising numerical data:

Data types table

Footnotes

1. It’s not just our working lives: We are constantly fed ‘numbers’ by central and local government, the media, and the private sector through marketing and advertisement.

2. Wheeler’s excellent book called ‘Making Sense of Data: SPC for the service sector’. All quotes above (in blue) are from this book.

3. ‘Represents’: If you are wondering, these are not real numbers. I’ve mocked it up so that you can hopefully see the points within.

4. Statistic: “a fact in the form of a number that shows information about something” (Cambridge Dictionary).

We should note, however, that just because we’ve been able to perform a calculation on a set of numbers doesn’t make it useful.

5. Distance: A nice example to show the lack of the quality of distance within ordinal data is to think of a race: Let’s say that, after over 2 hours of grueling racing, two marathon runners A and B sprint over the line in a photo finish, whilst runner C crawls over the line some 15 minutes later…and yet they stand on the podium in order of 1st, 2nd and 3rd. However, you can’t comprehend what happened from viewing the podium.

Bobs presentation table26. Visualising the data: So how might we look at the evaluation of Bob’s session?

How about visually…so that we can easily see what is going on and take meaningful action. How about this set of bar graphs?

There’s no computational madness, just the raw data presented in such a way as to see the patterns within:

  • The pre-session material needs working on, as does the closure of the session;
  • However, all is not lost. People clearly found the content very useful;
  • …Bob just needs to make some obvious improvements. She could seek help from people with expertise in these areas.

Note: There is nothing to be learned within an overall score of ‘2.4’…and plenty of mischief.

 

 

 

 

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“Erm, I don’t know yet!”

I dont know yetThis short post is about receiving text messages from service organisations: Some are (or could be) useful, whilst many others are (ahem) ‘bullshit masquerading as customer care’.

I recently had to arrange an MRI scan. I’m getting old(er)…and so are my joints.

The initial mix up.

A medical consultant referred me for an MRI scan. She told me to expect an appointment within the next 4 – 6 weeks. Cool, that doesn’t sound too long.

I started to question things when I hadn’t heard anything after 10 weeks. I rang to chase it:

“Oh, sorry to hear that you haven’t heard from [the MRI service]. We sent the request through to them the very day that you saw your consultant. They must have ‘lost it’. I’ll send through a second request marked’ urgent’. Let me know again if you don’t hear from them.”

Making a booking

Thankfully, a member of the MRI service’s booking team rang me about a week later.

She asked me some clarifying questions, explained what would happen, gave me a few appointment slot options and I agreed to a day and time for next week. Excellent – an easy and friendly conversation. That was a good customer experience (though, please don’t ask me to give an NPS score!)

However, do you know that feeling when you put the phone down and think1:

“hmmm, I’ve hastily scribbled ‘Thursday at 9 a.m.’ down on my doodle pad next to me….I think that’s the slot that we agreed on….I hope I’ve got that right….I hope that’s what she put into her system.”

…and so what I really really really wanted was an immediate text (i.e. within minutes of ending the call) confirming the day, time and address for my scan. So simple, so easily done and so valuable.

They did send me a text. Here’s what it said:

“Hi Steve. If you need to move your appointment with [name of MRI service], please call [tel. number], thanks.”

Face palmAaaargh! That’s about as much use as a chocolate fire guard. It gives me no information of value. They have quite brilliantly engineered a near certain failure demand call from me – they’ve even given me the number to call!

So, I ring the number that they have so helpfully provided, and they confirm that, yes, I did have it right and, no, it wasn’t a problem me ringing to check – they get it all the time (operation face palm).

So that’s all well and good.

Two further texts

Time goes by and then, 24 hours before my appointment I get two (separate) text messages from the MRI service.

Here’s the first:

“Confirming your appointment with [name of MRI service] at [address] on [date], please arrive at [time]. Please phone [tel. number] if you have any queries.”

Brilliant. This is the exact text message that I wanted when I first booked. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like getting the above text the day before as a reminder…but AS WELL AS, not INSTEAD OF an initial confirmation text.

Now, I know that this blog post is totally about ‘first world problems’ and I’m really grateful for the access to the medical services that I have.  I mainly wrote this post because of the second text2 and to illustrate a point about it.

how did we doHere’s what the second text said:

“How was your recent experience with our booking team? Go to [URL].”

…and I thought “Erm, I don’t know yet…I haven’t had my scan!”

And why does this matter you might ask?

Well, I might turn up for my scan and:

  • they aren’t ready for me (perhaps there’s a huge queue); or
  • they might not have my information ‘in their system’ yet (e.g. because it hasn’t been passed on by another silo); or
  • they might have ‘double booked’; or
  • they might not have any record of my booking; or
  • they might not have informed me of something I needed to bring/wear/not wear or do/ not to do; or
  • …and on and on.

The text feedback request sent before I receive the service shows quite clearly that the organisation is trying to score a vertical silo (i.e. the booking team, and quite likely a specific person within) rather than caring about (let alone understanding) whether the horizontal service worked for the customer.

I care about ‘from my need through to its satisfaction’. I don’t care about the ‘booking team’ (sorry booking team, no offence meant).

The booking team can talk to me as friendly and efficiently as they want (which, no doubt, I would find agreeable) …but this makes up about 5% of the value of the interaction. I will only find out about the quality of my booking interaction when I come to have my scan.

Turning to the general point

I don’t mean to pick on the MRI service. It’s just the last example in a long line of service organisations sending out ‘surveys’ asking how well they did from a single interaction with me.

Whether it’s the bank, telecommunications, utility or insurance company…or even the local council.

The point is the same for ALL of them. I don’t really care about a contact, I care about whether you satisfied my need. These are totally different points of view.

In summary:

If you really want to improve your organisation, change your viewpoint from ‘inside out’ to ‘outside in’.

Addendum

Of course I had to go to the URL given to me in that last text to confirm my suspicions as to what I would find…and oh yes, regular blog readers have guessed it – they want me to give them a score from 1 through to 10 about whether I’d recommend them to my friends and family.

Ho hum.

Footnotes:

1. You might not be like this. However, I’m the sort of person where people (including my wife) deliberately ask me down the pub whether I locked the front door…just to see the doubt creeping across my face.

2. The rest is just the comedy side baggage that also occurred.

“What did you just call me?!”

what did you just call meSpeaker: “Erm, sorry, but I don’t think I ‘called you’ anything. I was just pointing out that, in this particular case, I believe that you are ignorant of what is actually happening….”

Receiver: “How VERY dare you!!!”

Speaker: “No, no, there’s nothing wrong with this – it’s not an accusation…”

When a rather useful word goes bad

If I look up the meaning of the word ‘ignorant’ in, say, the Oxford dictionary, I get a couple of meanings:

1. “Lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about a particular thing”; and

2. “Discourteous or rude”

The example sentence given is “he was told constantly that he was ignorant and stupid”.

Unfortunately, this example sentence ensures that definition’s 1 and 2 are tangled together, and this ‘insult’ meaning has become the normal usage of the word – just as implied by the receiver in the introductory conversation.

…but I think the purely factual definition in meaning 1. is REALLY important and shouldn’t be taken negatively.

Pointing out the facts:

We are ALL ignorant, and whilst the nature of our ignorance will change, we will always be so.

This is where the following well-known quote2 fits in:

“The more you know, the more you realise how much you don’t know.”3

This is a good thing, because if we accept this, then it gives us an incredibly valuable platform to embark on a never-ending but ever-interesting journey of discovery and learning.

Trying to reclaim a word:

So, how about embracing the word ‘ignorant’.

I want to know if something I say or do shows that I am ignorant in respect of something important. In fact, I’d hate you to know this and NOT let me in on it!

But of course, in the same spirit, hopefully you might be uncertain as to whether it’s the other way around i.e. that I might know something that you don’t…

…and we have the perfect environment for a collaborative, non-judgemental conversation about our current worldviews.

Who knows what we might learn – we’ll probably find out that we are both ignorant 🙂 ….but we’ll both be the better for it.

(hopefully obvious) Clarification: I’m NOT suggesting that you rush out and start telling people that they are ignorant! Rather, I’m asking you to rethink the word, and what good it could do us all.

To close: You are very welcome to point out my ignorance in the comments section of any post that I publish…and I will (try to) read and consider in the manner that I describe above.

Footnotes

1. This short post comes from my weekly coffee conversation with my good mate Paul. We always talk over stuff and find out new ways of thinking about things.

2. Quote source: attributed to just about anyone and everyone over time!! (From Aristotle through to Einstein)

3. There is an addition to this quote: “The less you know, the more you think you know”and this takes us directly to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

I often find myself smiling whenever I think about the Dunning-Kruger graph. Here’s how the conversation goes in my head:

Dunning Kruger effect“Mmm, I lack confidence as to whether I know….so my doubt must put me towards the ‘expert’ right-hand side of the graph…

…but me thinking this (i.e. being confident) then throws me to the ‘novice’ left-hand side of the graph…

…but then this doubt about whether I actually know anything puts me back over on the….

…oh, never mind where the hell I sit on that bloody graph! Just accept your ignorance, and enjoy continually learning.” 🙂

 

Lights, camera…and ACTION!

Clapper boardMy last post explained the thinking behind the softening of systems thinking – to include the reality of human beings into the mix.

I ended by noting that this naturally leads on to the hugely important question of how interventions into social systems (i.e. attempts at improving them) should be approached

What’s the difference between…?

The word ‘Science’ is a big one! It breaks down into several major branches, which are often set out as the:

  • Natural sciences – the study of natural phenomena;
  • Formal sciences – the study of Mathematics and Logic; and
  • Social sciences – the study of human behaviour, and social patterns.

Natural science can be further broken down into the familiar fields of the Physical sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Earth Science and Astronomy) and the Life sciences (a.k.a Biology).

The aim of scientists working in the natural science domain is to uncover and explain the rules that govern the Universe, and this is done by applying the scientific method (using experimentation1) to their research.

The key to any and every advancement in the Natural sciences is that an experiment that has supposedly added to our ‘body of knowledge’ (i.e. found out something new) must be:

  • Repeatable – you could do it again (and again and again) and get the same result; and
  • Reproduceable – someone else could carry out your method and arrive at the same findings.

This explains why all ‘good science’ must have been subjected to peer review – i.e. robust review by several independent and objective experts in the field in question.

“Erm, okay…thanks for the ‘lecture’…but so what?!”

Well, Social science is different. It involves humans and, as such, is complex.

The Natural science approach to learning (e.g. to set up a hypothesis and then test it experimentally) doesn’t transfer well to the immensely rich and varied reality of humanity.

“In [social science] research you accept the great difficulty of ‘scientific’ experimental work in human situations, since each human situation is not only unique, but changes through time and exhibits multiple conflicting worldviews.” (Checkland)

I’ll try to explain the enormity of this distinction between natural and social scientific learning with some examples, and these will necessarily return to those repeatability and reproducibility tests:


sodium into waterUnique: I’ll start with Chemistry. If you were to line up two beakers of water and (carefully) drop a small piece of sodium into each then you would observe the same explosive reaction…and, even though you could predict what would happen if you did it a third time, you’d still like to do it again 🙂

I was looking for a ‘social’ comparison and, following a comedy coffee conversation with a fellow Dad, the following observation arose: If you are a parent of two or more children, then you’ll know that consistency along the lines of ‘sodium into water’ is a pipe dream. I’ve got two teenage sons (currently 17 and 15 years old) and whenever I think I’ve learned something from bringing up the first one, it usually (and rather quickly) turns out to be mostly the opposite for the second! They are certainly unique.

The same goes for group dynamics – two different groups of people will act and react in different ways…which you won’t be able to fully determine up-front – it will emerge.


Electric circuitChanging over time: Now, over to Physics. If you were to select a  battery, light bulb and resistor combination and then connect them together with cables in a defined pattern (e.g. in series) then you could work out (using good old Ohm’s law) what will happen within the circuit that you’ve just created. Then, you could take it all apart and put it away, safe in the knowledge that it would work in the same predictable way when you got it all out the next time.

However, in our ‘social’ comparison, you can’t expect to do the same with people…because each time you (attempt to) do something to/with them, they change. They attain new interactions, experiences, knowledge and opinions. This means that it is far too simplistic to suggest that “we can always just undo it if we want to” when we are referring to social situations.

Just about every sci-fi movie recognises this fact and comes up with some ingenious device to ‘wipe people’s minds’ such that they conveniently forget what just happened to them – their memories are rewound to a defined point earlier in time. The ‘Men in Black’ use a wand with a bright red light on the end (hence their protective sunglasses…or is that also fashion?).

In reality, because such devices don’t exist (that I’m aware of), people in most organisations suffer from (what I refer to as) ‘Change fatigue’ – they’ve become wary of (what they’ve come to think of as) the current corporate ‘silver bullet’, and act accordingly. This understandably frustrates ‘management’ who often don’t want to see/ understand the fatigue2 and respond with speeches along the lines of “Now, just wipe the past from your mind – pretend none of it happened – and this time around, I want you to act like it’s really worth throwing yourself into 110%!”.

Mmmm, if only they could!


scalpelsConflicting worldviews: Finally, a Biology example. Let’s suppose that you’ve done a couple of lung dissections – one’s pink and spongy, the other is a black oogy mess3. Everyone agrees which one belonged to the 40-a-day-for-life smoker.

However, for our ‘social’ comparison, get a bunch of people into a room and ask them for their opinions on other people and their actions, and you will get wildly differing points of view – just ask a split jury!

The social phenomena of the ‘facts’ are subject to multiple, and changing, interpretations.

After reading the above you might be thinking…

“….so how on earth can we learn when people are involved?”

Kurt LewinThis is where I bring in the foundational work of the psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890 – 1947).

Lewin realised the important difference between natural and social science and came up with a prototype for social research, which he labelled as ‘Action research’.

“The method that [Lewin] evolved was of involving his subjects as active, inquiring participants in the conduct of social experiments about themselves.” (Argyris & Schon)

His reasoning was that:

“People are more likely to accept and act on research findings if they helped to design the research and participate in the gathering and analysis of data.” (Lewin & Grabbe)

Yep, as a fellow human being, I’d wholeheartedly agree with that!

Who’s doing the research?

I hope that you can see that the (potentially grand) title of ‘social research’ doesn’t presume a group of people in white lab coats attached to a University or such like. Rather, applied social research can (and should) be happening every minute of every day within your organisation – it does at Toyota!

Argyris and Schon wrote about two (divergent) methods of attempting to intervene in an organisation. They labelled these as:

  • ‘Spectator – Manipulator’: a distant observer who keeps themselves at arms lengths from the worker, yet frequently disturbs the work with ‘experiments’ to manipulate the environment and observe the response;

and

  • ‘Agent – Experient’: an actor who locates themselves within the problematic situation (with the people), to appreciate and be guided by it, to facilitate change (in actions and thinking) by better understanding of the situation.

You can see that the first fits well with natural science whilst the second fits with social.

‘The ‘spectator – manipulator’ method also describes rather well the reality of commanding and controlling, through attempting to implement (supposed) ‘best practise’ on people, and then rolling out ever wider.

The nice thing about action research is that the researcher (the agent) and the practitioner (the people doing the work) participate together, meaning that:

“The divide between practitioner and researcher is thus closed down. The two roles become one. All involved are co-workers, co-researchers and co-authors…of the output.” (Flood)

Proper4 action research dissolves the barrier between researcher and participant.

And, as such, ‘Action research’ is now often relabelled as ‘Action learning’…. because that is exactly what the participants are doing.

A note on intervention

InterventionAny intervention into a social system causes change5. Further, the interventionist cannot be ‘separated from the system’ – they will change too!

Argyris and Schon wrote that:

“An inquiry into an actor’s reasons for acting in a certain way is itself an intervention…[which] can and do have powerful effects on the ways in which both inquirer and informant construe the meaning of their interaction, interpret each other’s messages, act towards each other, and perceive each other’s actions. These effects can complicate and often subvert the inquirer’s quest for valid information.

Organisational inquiry is almost inevitably a political process…the attempt to uncover the causes of a systems failure is inevitably a perceived test of loyalty to one’s subgroup and an opportunity to allocate blame or credit…

[We thus focus on] the problem of creating conditions for collaborative inquiry in which people in organisations function as co-researchers rather than as merely subjects.”

You might think that taking a ‘spectator – manipulator’ approach (i.e. remaining distant) removes the problem of unintended consequences from intervening…but this would be the opposite. The more remote you keep yourself then the more concerned the workers will likely be about your motives and intentions….and the less open and expansive their assistance is likely to be.

So, as Argyris and Schon wrote, the best thing for meaningful learning to occur would be to create an appropriate environment – and that would mean gaining people’s trust….and we are back at action learning.

The stages of action research within an organisation

Action research might be described as having three stages6, which are repeated indefinitely. These are:

  1. Discovery;
  2. Measurable action; and
  3. Reflection

Discovery means to study your system, to find out what is really happening, and to drive down to root cause – from events, through patterns of behaviour, to the actual structure of the system (i.e. what fundamentally makes it operate as it does) …and at this point you are likely to be dealing with people’s beliefs.

…and to be crystal clear: the people doing the discovery are not some central corporate function or consultants ‘coming in’ – it’s the people (and perhaps a skilled facilitator) who are working in the system.


Measurable action means to use what you have discovered and, together, take some deliberate experimental action that you (through consensus) believe will move you towards your purpose.

But we aren’t talking about conventional measurement. We’re referring to ‘the right measures, measured right’!


Reflection means to consider what happened, looking from all points of view, and consider the learning within…. leading on to the next loop – starting again with discovery.

This requires an environment that ensures that open and honest reflection will occur. That’s an easy sentence to write, but a much harder thing to achieve – it requires the dismantling of many conventional management instruments. I’m not going to list them – you would need to find them for yourselves…which will only happen once you start your discovery journey.

What it isn’t

Action research isn’t ‘a project’; something to be implemented; best practise; something to be ‘standardised’…(carry on with a list of conventional thinking).

If you want individuals, and the organisation itself, to meaningfully learn then ‘commanding and controlling’ won’t deliver what you desire.

…and finally: A big caveat

warning trianglePeter Checkland adopted action research as the method within his Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) and yet he was highly critical of “the now extensive and rapidly growing literature” on the approach, calling it “poverty stricken”. Here’s why:

“The great issue with action research is obvious: what is its truth criterion? It cannot be the repeatability of natural science, for no human (social) situation ever exactly duplicates another such situation.” (Checkland)

The risk of simply saying “we’re doing action research” is that any account of what you achieved becomes nothing more than plausible story telling. Whilst social research can never be as solid as the repeatable and reproduceable natural science equivalent, there must be an ‘is it reasonable?’ test on the outcomes for it to be meaningful.

There’s already plenty of ‘narrative fallacy’ story telling done within organisations – where virtually every outcome is explained away in a “didn’t we do well” style.

To be able to judge outcomes from action research, Checkland argues that an advanced declaration is required of “what constitutes knowledge about the situation. This helps to draw the distinction between research and novel writing.”

This makes the action research recoverable by anyone interested in subjecting the work to critical scrutiny.

So what does that mean? Well, taking John Seddon’s Vanguard Method7 as an example, the Check stage specifically starts up front with:

  1. Defining the purpose of the system (from the customer’s perspective – ‘outside in’);
  2. Understanding the demands being placed on the system (and so appreciating value from a wide variety of customer points of view); and
  3. Setting out a set of capability measures that would objectively determine whether any subsequent interventions have moved the system towards its purpose.

…and (in meeting Checkland’s point) this is done BEFORE anyone runs off to map any processes etc.

In summary:

We need to appreciate “the role of surprise as a stimulus to new ways of thinking and acting.” (Argyris & Schon).

People should be discovering, doing and seeing for themselves, which will create a learning system.

Footnotes:

1. Experiments: If you’d like a clearer understanding of experiments, and some comment on their validity then I wrote about this in a very early post called Shonky Experiments

2. Not wanting to see the change fatigue: This would happen if a manager is feverishly working towards a ‘SMART’ KPI, where this would be exacerbated if there is a bonus attached.

3. Lung dissection: I was searching around for an image of a healthy and then a smoker’s lungs…but thought that not everyone would like to see it for real…so I’ve put up an image with a collection of surgical scalpels – you can imagine for yourself 🙂

4. Proper: see the ‘big caveat’ at the end of the post.

5. Such changes may or may not be intended, and may be considered as positive, negative or benign.

6. Three stages of action research: If I look at the likes of Toyota’s Improvement/Coaching Katas or John Seddon’s Vanguard Method then these three stages can be seen as existing within.

7. The Vanguard Method is based on the foundation of action learning.

Hard, Soft…or Laminated?

Laminated manThis post is about something that I find very interesting – Systems Thinking as applied to organisations, and society – and about whether there are two different ‘factions’….or not.

I’ve had versions of this post in mind for some time, but have finally ‘put it on paper’3.

In the beginning there was…Biology

Well, not the beginning4. I’m referring to the beginning of modern systems thinking.

Back in the 1920s the Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy challenged the ability of 19th Century Physics to explain living things – in particular the dynamics of organisms.

Reductionist Physics back then treated things as ‘closed systems’: reducing them into their parts and, through studying the forces acting on them, establishing principles of their behaviours. Such an approach works well for mechanistic systems.

However, von Bertalanffy’s research showed that:

“A whole organism demonstrably behaves in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. It exhibits synergy. Furthermore, much of an organism’s existence is characterised by increasing, or at least maintaining order.” [Flood5]

Open vs closed systemsHe went on to develop ‘Open Systems theory’, which considers an organism’s co-existence with its environment.

The interesting bit (to me at least) is that, rather than just maintaining a steady state (homeostasis) or, worse, declining into disorder (entropy), an organism can continually improve itself (self-organisation).

Whether it will or not, well there’s the thing!

Von Bertalanffy, wanting to realign the sciences through his new understanding, went on to develop ‘General Systems theory’ (1940s) – the derivation of principles applicable to systems in general.

…and so the modern systems movement was born.

Onwards and upwards (a.k.a ‘Hard’ systems thinking)

hard woodThe study of systems really got moving from the 1940s onwards, with many offshoot disciplines.

Some notable developments include:


  • World War II and Operational Research6 (analytical methods of problem solving and decision making): A team of scientists were brought together to advise the British army. They used mathematical techniques to research strategic and tactical problems associated with military operations. Their work aimed to get the most out of limited resources (the most efficient usage, for greatest effect).

Following the war, much effort was put into translating and developing the OR methods and learnings into (usually large) organisations, and their management.


  • Stafford Beer and Organisational Cybernetics (the scientific study of control and communication within organisations): Beer analysed how the human body is controlled by the brain and nervous system, and then translated this to model how any autonomous system (such as an organisation….or a country) should be organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment (ref. Beer’s ‘Viable System Model’)


  • Tragedy of the commonsJay Forrester7 and System Dynamics (understanding the behaviours of complex systems over time): Forrester and his MIT department set about modelling (using computers) how systems behave over time, employing the science of feedback, and thus seeing (often counter-intuitive) patterns within the complexity. The aim being to discern effective levers for change.

Their work grew from ‘industrial dynamics’ (e.g. the study of an organisation over time), to ‘urban dynamics’ (e.g. a society over time) to ‘world dynamics’.

Donella Meadows (a member of Forrester’s team) took up world dynamics, and research regarding the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion.

Peter Senge (another MIT team member) wrote the popular management book ‘The Fifth Discipline’, which sets out the disciplines necessary for a ‘learning organisation’8. He identifies systems thinking as the “cornerstone”, though his explanations are heavily based on his System Dynamics heritage.

Those involved with System Dynamics articulated a set of (thought provoking) system archetypes – which are commonly occurring patterns of system behaviour, due to specific combinations of feedback loops (reinforcing and balancing) and delays. For example, you might have heard of ‘The tragedy of the commons’ (see system model diagram above) or ‘Success to the successful’.


Note: (it is my belief) that there are (understandably) huge overlaps between each of the above disciplines.

All of the above is centred around being able to:

  • identify ‘a system’ i.e. the subject of analysis (as if it were a real thing);
  • create a well-defined problem statement;
  • take a scientific approach to problem solving; and thus
  • reach some (presumed) solution to the problem

This has been labelled as the school of hard systems thinking (explained later), where a system is something that, if we studied it together, we would all describe/ articulate in a similar way – as in a ‘thing’ that can be set out and agreed upon….and almost touch!

If we combine that we can define, model and understand ‘it’ then, hey presto, we should be able to solve ‘it’…as if there is a solution. Excellent! Let’s get modelling and improving.

But there’s a lot more to it – ‘Soft’ systems thinking

soft woodSo where did that ‘hard’ term come from and why?

It was coined by Peter Checkland in the 1970’s to label what he thought of the current approaches, and to propose an alternative ‘soft’ view. Here’s his explanation:

“[hard systems thinking believes that] the world contains interacting systems…[that] can be ‘engineered’ to achieve their objectives

…[however] none of these [hard systems thinking] approaches pays attention to the existence of conflicting worldviews, something which characterises all social interactions…

In order to incorporate the concept of worldviews…it [is] necessary to abandon the idea that the world is a set of systems.

In [soft systems thinking] the (social) world is taken to be very complex, problematical, mysterious, characterised by clashes of worldviews. It is continually being created and recreated by people thinking, talking and taking action. However, our coping with it…can itself be organised as a learning system.”

Now, I’m not saying that understanding everything that Checkland writes is easy – it isn’t (at least not for me) – but whatever you think of his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ and the various models within, I believe that the fundamentals are substantial…such as his human-centric thinking on:

  • Problematic situations; and
  • Worldviews

I’ve previously touched on the first point in my post titled “what I think is…”, which perhaps can be lightly summarised as ‘problems are in the eye of the beholder’, so I’ll move on to worldviews, nicely explained by Checkland as follows:

“When we interact with real-world situations we make judgements about them: are they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’, ‘permanent’ or ‘transient’?

Now, to make any judgement we have to appeal to some criteria or standards, these being the characteristics which define ‘good’ or ‘bad’ etc. for us. And where do such criteria come from? They will be formed partially by our genetic inheritance from our parents – the kind of person we are innately – and, most significantly, from our previous experiences of the world.

Over time these criteria and the interpretations they lead to will tend to firm up into a relatively stable outlook through which we then perceive the world. We develop ‘worldviews’, built-in tendencies to see the world in a particular way. It is different worldviews which make one person ‘liberal’, another ‘reactionary’. Such worldviews are relatively stable but can change over time…”

worldviews eyeThis ‘worldview’ concept is easily understood, and yet incredibly powerful. At its most extreme, it deals efficiently with the often-cited phrase that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.

I think that Checkland’s worldview explanation is profound (and yet, when thought about, bloody obvious). All worldviews (and hence perceived problems within) are personal, and a proper understanding of them (and why they are held) must be central to any meaningful approach of moving a social group (whether a family, an organisation or a society) to a better place.

It is just too simplistic for someone in a position of power9 to say ‘this is the system, this is the current problem, let’s get on and solve it.’

Checkland talks of getting people to think about their own thinking about the world.

Many people do that naturally and many people never ever do that – they simply engage with the world in an unreflective way.

If you are going to [really change the world then] you have to become [conscious about] thinking about your own thinking. You have to be able to stop yourself in a situation and ask yourself ‘how am I thinking about this? How else could I be thinking about this?

This is a meta-level of thinking, which is not obvious in everyday life – we don’t normally do it in day-to-day chat.”

Over in America

Whilst Checkland and his colleagues in the UK were questioning 1960s systems thinking (and deriving his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’9), two of his contemporaries were doing similar over in the US.

C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff were there at the very start of Operational Research (OR) in 1950s America, but by the 1970s they understood the essential missing piece and felt the need for radical change. Ackoff broke away from his OR faculty and initiated a new program called ‘Social Systems Sciences’, whilst Churchman wrote:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” 

A side note: Sadly, I expect that Churchman and Ackoff would be ‘turning in their graves’ if they could be made aware of the lack of thinking, particularly of worldviews, by Donald Trump and his band of (ahem) ‘patriotic’ followers. Patriotic seems to have become proudly re-defined by them as ‘closed minded’.

…but, hey, that’s just my worldview speaking 😊.

Laminating the two together

I’m not a champion of ‘soft’ over ‘hard’ or vice versa. Rather, I find real interest in their combined thinking…as in laminating the two together.

I personally like to think about systems in a hard and soft format.

  • ‘hard’ because a logical model to represent a ‘thing’ (as if I can touch it) is incredibly useful for me; yet
  • ‘soft’ because it requires me:
    • to accept that I merely have a perspective…with a need to surface my beliefs and assumptions, and;
    • to understand the relevant worldviews of those around me….and change myself accordingly.

Similarly, some 30 or so years after first deriving the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ terminology, Peter Checkland ends his last book with the following:

“New approaches (now thought of as ‘soft’), underpinned by a different social theory, have emerged. They do not, however, suggest that the 1960s theory was ‘wrong’ and should be abandoned. Rather the ‘new’ theory sees the ‘old’ one as a special case, perfectly adequate in certain circumstances, but less general than the social theory behind the ‘soft’ outlook.”

Perhaps the modern terminology for Checkland’s ‘Worldviews’ wording is ‘Mental Models’ – our internal pictures of how the world works – and this has become a major area of focus.

The need to surface, test and improve our mental models has, pleasingly, become entwined with systems thinking.

To summarise

Meadows, a giant systems thinker, embraced the need to expose our mental models:

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible.”

Nice!

…and finally, where to from here?

Checkland’s incredibly important softening of systems thinking (i.e. to include the reality of human beings into the mix) leads on to the question of how meaningful interventions into social systems are to be approached…which (I’m hoping) will be the subject of my next post: on ‘Action Research’.

Footnotes

1. Laminated: “Bonding layers of materials together”.

2. Post Image: I was searching for an image that showed a human made up of two complimentary materials and found this lovely plywood sculpture.

3. Trigger: I partially wrote this post after reading a ThinkPurpose post way back in Nov. ’16. That post was a light-hearted critique of Peter Checkland’s ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM) and, whilst I enjoyed reading it (as ever), I had many thoughts going on…which were far too verbose to put into a comments section.

4. In the beginning: My understanding is that, before Biology, there was Chemistry (necessary for life to start), and before that Physics (back to a big bang and, potentially, the multiverse)…and we (human beings) are ‘still working on’ what (if anything) came before that.

Personally, I’m a fan of the never-ending loop (ref. Louis Armstrong Guinness advert). Every time science finds something bigger (as it regularly seems to do)…there’s always another bigger. Every time science finds something smaller (e.g. at CERN using the Large Hadron collider)…there’s always another smaller – surely it must just all wrap back round 🙂 If there’s a name for this proposition/ delusion, let me know.

5. Book reference:- Flood, Robert Louis (1999): ‘Rethinking the Fifth Disciple – Learning within the unknowable’. The first half of this book sets out the work and thinking of a number of the main 20th century systems thinking giants.

6. The origin of Operational Research is regularly attributed to Charles Babbage’s study of England’s mail system (the costs of transport and sorting), resulting in the Penny Post (1840).

7. Forrester wrote the original System Dynamics text book (‘Principles of Systems’, 1968) setting out definitions and system modelling.

8. Senge’s five disciplines are: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning and….drum roll…Systems Thinking, though obviously you’d need to read the book to understand what is meant by each of these phrases.

Senge’s chapter on ‘Mental Models’ is based primarily on the work of Chris Argyris (whom I wrote about in ‘Double Trouble’).

9. Power: It is highly likely (and unsurprising) that a person’s worldview is heavily influenced by where they ‘sit’ within an organisation’s hierarchy. It’s always informative (and often amusing) to compare and contrast the organisational beliefs of a CEO with, say, a front line worker.

10. Misunderstanding SSM: I should note that, probably rather frustratingly for Checkland, people (including many an academic) seem to misinterpret (and/or perhaps misunderstand) what he was putting forward within SSM. He wrote a whole chapter at the end of his last book titled ‘Misunderstanding SSM’.

An addition to ‘My Giants’

Another giantThis quick post is to let readers know that I have just added another giant bio to the blog.

I’m writing a post at the moment about hard vs soft systems thinking and, in so doing, I realised that I had written (i.e. drafted) a ‘giant’ page for Peter Checkland two years ago…and never completed it.

…so, for those that are interested, I have rectified that here. My next post will add much more ‘meat to the bones’ of hard and soft systems thinking.

FYI: I introduced some of Checkland’s thinking in an earlier 2016 post called “What I think is…”

Over and out for now,

Steve

Evolution: 2014 – 2018

Evolution-des-wissens

Most things evolve and this blogging lark is no different.

My blog started off as a way to get the ‘madness at work’ things off my chest….which probably explains why the first few posts could be considered a bit ‘ranty’. Ho hum.

I then got a bit more thoughtful (I think). I adopted a stance of ‘professional provocation’ – challenging the status quo but doing so with analysis and evidence…and the length of my posts got longer. Sorry about that.

Then I realised that the blog was a rather useful extension of my work educating and coaching people.  It became a sort of service: you could pick up the phone or drop by my desk – have a conversation about your situation, receive some well-intended ‘organisational therapy’ from me and a promise that I’d try to put our conversation into useful and re-usable words. I’d usually get something out ‘within a week’…. though not always – some of the more involved posts took months!

And at some stage throughout all that, I realised that it was all rather generic anyway. It is applicable to people in organisations all around the world…hence why I decided that anyone curious could read it for themselves.

When ‘going public’ I wanted to keep myself anonymous because I don’t think that people need to know who the hell I am – my words should either stand up as being interesting, credible and useful or not.

Things have slightly changed for me over the last six months – I’ve been dabbling with ‘doing my own thing’ (i.e. from employment to solo consulting)…which partly explains why the blog went rather quiet. I spent a bit of time writing and piloting a one-day education course titled ‘Systems Thinking and Intervention: The Fundamentals’. The day is based around the elements of Deming’s ‘Theory of Profound Knowledge’.

If you are (or know of) a curious organisation in New Zealand (or perhaps over in Australia) and find my work interesting, then you are very welcome to contact me for a chat. I can help with initial education (such as my one-day course) and then with coaching and supporting the curious, to study and improve their system.

  • You can contact me* at: Steve@Schefer.co.uk
  • You can also have a read through my 1 page (2-sided) course brochure:

Systems Thinking and Intervention – The fundamentals – course leaflet

Okay, that’s enough of that! Don’t worry – I’m not about to change this blog into an attempted sales tool 🙂 . I’m interested in talking to people who would like to pull my help. I have no desire to push it onto anyone!

* I’ve also added an ‘About me’ page to the blog menu bar and this also contains my contact details.

Thanks for reading,

Steve