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Bob Williams: A Systems Practitioner’s Journey

Kia Ora! I’m Bob Williams. In our book Systems Concepts in Action : A Practitioner’s Toolkit, Richard Hummelbrunner and I distinguished between describing situations, thinking systemically, and being systemic.  I’ve see these notions describing three stages of a journey.  As you read these three scenario, pose yourself the following questions.  How well do the scenario describe my own journey?  In what way do the similarities and differences matter?  Who or what can help me move further along my journey?

Describing situations (or systems).  During this part of the journey you may be talking about systems as ‘real’ things, often big things (eg. the health system or the school system).  You have acknowledged that much of what you observe and describe is complex.  You may have heard about holism and trying to include everything into your evaluations.  You are seeing how inter-relationships create observable and significant patterns.  You are describing fresh differences that make a difference.  On the other hand you may feel overwhelmed by the sheer scale of what you need to consider.  You are starting to be worried about practicality and how to simplify in order to get your head around the vastness of it all.

Thinking systemically.  At this point in your journey you may be simplifying by considering ‘systems’ less as real life entities and more as mental models that help you think about ‘situations’.  You are engaging in how different people ‘see’ the same situation in entirely different ways and learning more ways to set boundaries around your systemic thinking.  You are probably looking at specific systems and complexity methods in order to help you with this process.  You are applying some of these approaches and gaining deeper insights into how to evaluate messy situations.  On the other hand, you may be frustrated by the range of methods and uncertain which ones work best in which circumstances.

Being systemic.  You find that you intuitively understand inter-relationships, engage with multiple perspectives and reflect deeply on the practical and ethical consequences of the boundary choices you make.  You use these insights with existing evaluation approaches rely less on specific systems methods.  You probably realise that choosing values that underpin your judgments of merit, worth and significance is a form of boundary setting.

Hot Tip: Every endeavour is bounded.  We cannot do or see everything.  Every viewpoint is partial.  Therefore, holism is not about trying to deal with everything, but being methodical, informed, pragmatic and ethical about what to leave out.  And, it’s about taking responsibility for those decisions.

Bob Williams received the 2014 AEA Lazarsfeld Award for contributions to “fruitful debates on the assumptions, goals and practices of evaluation.”

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