Bottom Up Systems Thinking

Jurgen Appelo writes in Communication = Information * Relationships that “top-down systems thinking is a management fad“. I agree. Systems thinking works only if it happens in all directions at once. It seems to work when a group of people is doing systems thinking  in the same room at the same time. All combined, these people bring the perspectives that are necessary to come up with changes that work.

And even that is not enough. Systems thinking for me is one of the tricks we can use to get people to create a whole systems perspective -together- . And then the people present also have to be able to carry out the interventions they find.

Sitting in a room and inventing interventions for others to carry out is not my cup of tea.  I have done some management consultancy in the past, with and without systems thinking. It was difficult to make change stick, even when we interviewed a representative number of people to create a broad enough perspective. I guess it was because it was us, internal and external consultants, who made the final picture, collected data and suggestions, and then make some of our own. That meant not all suggestions and systems pictures were ‘owned’ by the people who were supposed to try them out… These days I would do something like that differently; for instance by organising an open space and targeted workshops, where all of the results are created in the room. Reports, if any, are made by the participants and/or are merely a textual summary of what was said during the workshop, with diagrams that were created on the spot.

Jurgen writes:

“With his book Complexity and Management Ralph Stacey convinced me that top-down systems thinking is a management fad. Weinberg’s diagrams may be useful to understand communication problems in an organization, but managers shouldn’t think these diagrams can help them solve those problems. Managers cannot directly control a social system by adding or removing relationships, nor by enabling or disabling communication. Managers are part of the system themselves, and communication simply happens. They can draw circles and lines until their fingers turn blue, but diagrams will never properly represent what happens on and off the work floor.”

Diagrams of Effect and other systems thinking tools have helped me most when I applied them with my peers on things that we had influence over. Note that influence is not control – the quality of ‘improvements’ we imagine have to be judged by their effect. So how do you get to properly represent what happens on the work floor?

Invite the “work floor” with their managers to tell stories and create diagrams plus possible improvements together.  We have been experimenting with systems thinking in technical training. In an object-oriented design training last week the developers invited a senior manager to the systems thinking part of workshop. In a short time many stories were told, diagrams were drawn -together- and possible improvements were identified.

We are busy articulating why we believe this approach works. I hope to post soon on how this seems to work, and how we arrived here. In the meantime, we’ve published our first technical training that includes participants doing systems thinking (managers are invited too, of course :) ) besides programming and design excercises.  We have incorporated forms of systems thinking in our explanation. It seemed to help in and now we are taking the next step.

We have good hopes the improvements everyone found in last weeks’ training will stick: the people who have to do most of the work to make it happen were present. That includes the manager. Developers can also draw circles and lines until their hands are blue – it is easy for developers to forget the hard work that goes into seemingly effortless management.

Finally, managers can make things happen that developers’ can’t.  For instance freeing up budget for training, build servers, deciding how new developers are hired and getting customers to talk to each other and to developers. So get everyone in a room, and don’t let them out until they found stuff that could possibly work :)

2 Responses to “Bottom Up Systems Thinking”

  1. Anders Vesterberg Says:

    Interesting post! I am a also a developer/project manager that tries to permeate my work with systems thinking. You mention Open Space. What is your experience with that concept?

  2. Willem Says:

    Hi Anders,

    My experience with open space is pretty positive. I’ve organised a couple of open space only conferences ( ) and the events were life-changing for some of the partipants; that was something I did not expect at first, it was more powerful than I could imagine. Unlike what some open space practicioners say, I don’t believe facilitation is unimportant for open space – finding a balance on what (not) to say and do seems to make a big difference. You can read more about my experiences as organiser and participant in some of the posts tagged open space:

    The day after tomorrow I’ll be co-hosting yet another open space :) really looking forward to it, this time together with a ‘scheduled’ conference (xp2009) that is always a bit more tricky than pure open space.

    I’m curious to hear your experiences, and where your interest in open space comes from.