Monday, 30 November 2015

Sunday walk in the rain

On my quest to hit 10,000 steps today, I wandered around the not hilly bits of Zug, Switzerland where I live.

We had snow last week - and this is all that remains of what was probably quite a large snowman.

It made me think about the trade off between the effort that had gone into building the snowman, and the transient nature of the result. I wondered if the child(ren) were disappointed by this - or if they only remember the fun of building the snowman in the first place.

I started thinking about the transient nature of everything we do. My house in Inverness has an extension that was built in the 1960's. The house is on a hill that, we have discovered, is predominantly made of delft pottery, that was used as ballast for the ships that came into Inverness harbour in the 1800's. This means that if the foundations are not drilled deep enough, then the structure is liable to subside. I guess they didn't know this in the 1960's... or the builder didn't think that it would matter, because he would be long gone by the time any problems arose.

I should add - the extension is probably the worst piece of architecture in the house. The main house was built in 1850's and is stone construction. It is a proper Scottish house with lots of lovely features. The extension is a flat roofed monstrosity that is very functional as a kitchen - but UGLY to look at.

In deciding how to replace the crumbling extension, my partner and I considered this idea of transience. We decided to build something which would cost more, but fit in better and last longer.

Is that the right environmental decision? Would we be better building something which would melt into the ground slowly over time like the snowman?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Is the novel "the name of the rose" part of my inquiry into systems thinking?

I've got to come clean, I have had several attempts to read The Name of the Rose.... and never really made it past the preamble. This time, however, I have a new Open University course to avoid, so I've reached page 50... and I have found a beautiful definition of a vicious cycle!

"For what I saw at the Abbey then [...] caused me to think that often inquisitors create heretics. And not only in the sense that they imagine heretics where these do not exist, but also that inquisitors repress the heretical putrefaction so vehemently that many are driven to share in it, in their hatred for the judges. Truly, a circle conceived by the devil". (The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco)

I have speculated for a long time on the long term impact of restrictive regimes on the behaviour of the population that is being "controlled".

The most recent example of this, I believe, is the behaviour of the US National Security Agency (NSA)  (and other western governments) in their attempts to identify potential terrorists before they commit a crime. I've just re-read the quote above, and replaced the word Abbey with World; inquisitors with security agencies; and heretics with terrorists. By jove, by Eco's standards, the devil is winning!

I will let you all know if this continues to be a theme through the rest of the book!

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Embarking on TU870 - Capacities for managing development... and handbags

After my not very spectacular failure to complete (read start) my last module, I am starting on a new module this week. I'm using this forum as a place to make a (limited) public announcement about my intentions! (I know that no one reads this blog except me, but anyone COULD read it!)

As luck would have it, I have just finished reading a book called The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. This was a gift from someone who knows me very well! It was an exceptionally useful book for me, as I really have no willpower or staying power. Duhigg says all I need is to is to identify the cue that drives an existing habit, and replace that habit with the thing I would rather do, and identify a reward that goes with this.

So, for me the habit I have is lying in bed day dreaming. The cue for this is drinking the night before. So, I am now a person who has a habit of getting up by 7am regardless of what happened the night before.

The extra hour this gives me on a work day will be split between maintaining my studies and running. Note: this is not enough time to complete my studies, but it is enough time to make sure I know what needs to be done, and to blog about my reflections. On weekends, I will use some of those extra hours (there is more than one hour per day on weekends!) making handbags. This is my "reward"!

Today I have read through the course guide. This is new for me. Normally I cannot resist diving headlong into the course. My normal pattern is that somewhere around TMA3 I realise how I should have been framing all of my work. Naturally, the OU are normally good enough to spell this out in the course guide which I didn't read properly!

So, the course has four learning objectives (although I am hard pressed right now to distinguish three of them apart)

  1. Knowledge and understanding
  2. Cognitive skills
  3. Key skills
  4. Practical and Professional skills
These are the areas that I should use to frame my self reflection. Hopefully at some point I'll be able to distinguish clearly between cognitive, key and practical skills...

The course also has five themes running through it.
  1. Planned and emergent strategies for development
  2. Inclusion and exclusion
  3. Challenging inequalities
  4. knowing and "finding out"
  5. Constraints and parameters on action
I am intrigued by several of these themes, and they strengthen my reasons for choosing this course. My professional career is NOT in development in the sense of this course, although I am responsible for the development of cultures and changing the way people behave in my business role. So, I have two motivations. Firstly, I would like to change career at some point to be more development focused. Secondly, I strongly believe that the skills required to "develop" in the sense that this course means are the same, or at least have a very large overlap, with the skills needed to be successful in my current role.

So, based on my new habit, there should be at least one post each week into this blog specifically about TU870.

By the way, this is a photo of my first "reward"!

Sunday, 27 January 2013

The Art of Judgement - The Regulation of institutions

The purpose of this chapter is to outline Vickers model of policy setting and decision making in an institution. He uses a local authority as an illustration of his point.

His starting position is that within an institution, there are departments, each with functional relations to do something. Some of those departments are concerned only with the health of the institution. Vickers illustrates this by referring to the metabolic system of a cow - concerned with keeping the animal alive by processing whatever ends up in its stomach. He attaches the tag of metabolic relations to the purpose of these departments.

Vickers makes another division - that is, those parts of an institution which are concerned with internal relations and those that manage external relations.

Finally, Vickers talks of a spectrum of purpose within an institution that spans the extremes of imposed relations (where an external body is setting the objectives) and self set relations where the institution has autonomy in policy setting and decision making. He makes the point that most policies and decisions will be somewhere along the spectrum. Few will be at the extremes.

The chapter details the interrelatedness of the internal parts of an institution, and makes the point that "any major change will reverberate through the whole system".

Failing Institutions
Where an institution is failing to meet standards, the first thing that happens is that the "levels of acceptability" are lowered. "The system in jeopardy sheds first the relations least essential to survival". Vickers uses an analogy to a human body in extremely cold conditions. The body will de-prioritise extremities, thus risking frost bite, in order to protect the core body temperature, which is more critical for survival.

Expanding Strategy
Vickers highlights that in times of great success, the dynamic of the institution is very different to that in bad times. "An executive who is outstanding at salving undertakings in danger of dissolution, a statesman supreme at leading a country under dire threat, is not necessarily so successful at exploiting success".

So, this tells us what doesn't work, but is disappointing in advice to what skills might be needed! I'm guessing this forms the basis of the rest of the book! My initial response to this quite profound observation is that maybe this is because in a failing institution, there are few, if any choices; it is the least worst solution that is the best path to follow. However, in an expanding institution, there are a multitude of choices, and each choice effectively extinguishes other paths that could have been followed.

Crossing over to a different discipline for a moment, I am studying a Coursera course in modern world history. Quoting Professor Zelikow, "the path of what happened in the past is so brightly lit, that trail is so clear to you that everything else that could have happened is cast even more deeply into shadow". This "hindsight blindness" effect could be why analysis of policy in a failing institution looks different to that of an expanding institution - although in reality, there are just fewer choices in the first example?

The rest of the chapter focuses on how policy setting and decision making is not simply goal seeking, and he contrasts the idea of the "purpose-ridden man" with "norm-holding" - that if life was just about goal seeking, then people would be permanently dissatisfied, except for the brief moment where the goal is achieved.

The chapter ends with a comment on how most policy setting is about "threat avoiding", rather than norm holding, or goal seeking. Vickers says that in policy setting, we often identify that critical threshold beyond which the system "suffers radical, self exciting and often irreversible change".

When I reflect on the public face of climate change science, this sentence captures the essence of my experience.

The Art of Judgement - Preface

I have been a bit lazy with my posts recently... that is ALL about to change (for a while at least!)

Back last summer, I was lucky enough to spend a week with Peter Checkland of Soft System Methodology fame, and one of his big passions (in fact, I think, one of his main inspirations in systems thinking) was the works of Geoffrey Vickers. I figure that, given Checkland is a great inspiration to me, it would be sensible to understand his fascination with Vickers.

It has taken me six months to get round to buying "The Art of Judgement" by Vickers, mostly because of the price tag.... However, I've bitten the bullet, and I'll blog about it as I read.

In the preface, Vickers gives us this great image of systems thinkers:

"Even the dogs may eat of the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table; and in these days, when the rich in knowledge eat such specialised food at such separate tables, only the dogs have a chance of a balanced diet."

I quickly got over the idea that Vickers was calling me a dog... (probably not personal!)

He wrote this in 1965. In my view of the world, the image of separate specialist tables is still valid today with just a few people sharing ideas across disciplines (here is a great TED talk explaining a paper where a group of cross discipline scientists did collaborate to attempt to better understand the scenarios facing the world following climate change).

This specialisation occurs within my company too. As financial pressure is increased, each functional department is forced to cut the least critical parts of their operation. From the worldviews of the department heads, interdepartmental collaboration tends to be identified as one of the less important functions.

This has meant that the supply chain has become very much isolated from the customer facing parts of the organisation, and finance is isolated from all parts of the organisation!

These changes are relatively recent, so it remains to be seen what the long term effects of this dynamic will be, however, I suspect that the increase in quality problems and decrease in service levels might be the first sign that the full dynamics of the organisation were not understood.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

The situation in Daraya, Syria

I don't really know if this belongs in my systems practice blog - but I don't really know where it belongs (actually, maybe this is a challenge with systems thinking... which section of the bookshop do you look? well, all of them!)

I've just finished reading a book called Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns. It gives a complex overview of the wars that have consumed millions of lives in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1994. The author states "one of the main goals of this book is to tackle 'Congo reductionism'" (Stearns 2011). It is a fantastic book that carefully examines all the factors that had a bearing on the decisions that were taken, and the behaviours of the individual actors throughout the period. I have an overwhelming desire to draw up a causal loop diagram! If I wasn't supposed to be writing an assignment for my studies, I would probably do this. The point I am making here is that I have a need to understand why people can behave in this way to other people. It is deep within me and has been with me since I first read Primo Levi's autobiography If this is a Man when I was about seventeen. This is important to me.

Anyway, with all of that fresh in my mind, this morning I turned to the newspaper to see what was happening in the world, and I read an article about a massacre in Daraya, Syria.

I am deeply ashamed to say that I  am almost oblivious to these things that are happening in Syria. Last week, more than 200 people were massacred, and I don't know about it, I don't understand it, and I don't even know how to go about understanding it.

I wonder whether I have a defence mechanism that kicks in, where my brain tries to protect me from the complexity of a situation, until it can be explained? I cannot really explain why I have avoided trying to understand the situation in Syria - I knew it was happening, but somehow it has remained as a peripheral issue that, until today, has not pricked my conscience.

I don't know what my conclusion is here - I just wanted to record my realisation that I ought to have done something, and I haven't.