Wednesday, January 16, 2019
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How Methodology Systemic Problem Solving

It seems as if each week the press reports on problems for which there is no simple solution – whether in relation to government data handling, education, health, climate change or the funding of political parties. Working with, and resolving, these deep systemic issues is our – CPL’s - strength. Our seminars – including Double Loop Learning, Team Dynamics and the Business Transformation Cycle, itself are designed to help you achieve deep change and solve systemic problems.

In this article Mike Vernon introduces some of the perspectives that underpin our methodology, including:

  • three dimensions of an organisation that can be tracked as “Cycles” – Professional/Technical ,Managerial/Rational and Systemic/Culture Cycles
  • designed error
  • three levels of design rules which shape our behaviour.

Action Science – Systemic Error

The first phase of identifying and resolving systemic problems, is to IDENTIFY within which cycle the error occurs or manifests itself, and to DIAGNOSE which type of error it is. This we do within our seminars and consultations. The three cycles and types of error are:


Professional/Technical expertise can be coded into a Professional/Technical cycle, which differs from sector to sector. Expert error – lack of knowledge or reasoning skills are not the focus of our body of work. The appropriate educational programme can easily correct this. Increasingly, such gaps in knowledge that underlie expert error can be corrected by a search on the Internet. Rather, our focus is diagnosing how Systemic errors can surface at the Professional/Technical level of an organisation, and interfere with strategy formulation and implementation.


Similarly, Managerial/Rational expertise can be coded into a Managerial/Rational cycle. This cycle tends to be generic across sectors, at the level of description, but varies locally according to the imperatives of the underlying Systemic Culture Cycle. Implementation error – arising from Systemic Problems cannot be corrected by reinforcing Managerial/ Rational expertise (which is all too commo,n and oftentimes makes matters worse). Many major projects suffer from overrun of time and budget, in spite of state of the art professional direction and managerial involvement. This is a clear indicator of a Systemic Problem.


Experts can accurately predict those actions which are needed to conclude a successful project, together with an appropriate managerial strategy, but are unable to accurately predict the effect of defensive routines on the ability of individuals, teams and collaborating organisations to skilfully undermine a successful implementation. Depending which source of data is used; this can cost 30% departure from estimates, and in some cases considerably more. (See IACCM for data on sub-optimal projects, which may be as high as 70% of projects).

Systemic errors, arising from a collusively designed Culture Cycle, are the focus of our approach. Systemic errors give rise to Systemic problems that we build into our Culture Cycles so that we can avoid surfacing potentially embarrassing, threatening or other difficult interpersonal issues. We are each of us contributing to the design of a cultural mechanism that allows us to avoid personal responsibility for the very difficulties that we endure.


So, if all human actions are designed, then behaviour that causes error must also be designed. If an error is defined as a mismatch between stated intention and consequences produced, then it should be impossible for people to knowingly design behaviour that produces error. This puzzle attends many human interactions. How do we explain this apparent lack of awareness? First the individual may be unaware that they are producing error while they are doing so. However, if all actions are designed, then unawareness must be designed.

So how is it that we have rules in our heads that lead us to design unawareness? One possible answer is that we have rules in our heads that lead us to design unawareness when faced with difficult or status threatening people or situations, and that this is tacit and skilful.

Features of skilful action are:

1. They work
2. They are effortless
3. They do not require attention during their execution
4. Awareness may reduce their effectiveness.

A compelling conclusion from this is that it can only happen if we have one design for reasoning or thinking, and a totally different design for communication or action.

This proposition may be evaluated if you observe meetings to assess how many times there is a difference between what is said and agreed, and what is done. It seems that human beings are comprised of multiple systems: thinking/reasoning, feeling, acting and so on, each of which is active simultaneously, albeit with different design rules. So what we say, how we feel and what we do, may all have different, undiscussed (and undiscussable) aspects. When asked, “How are you”? We are capable of saying, “fine”, when we feel anything but and wish we were somewhere else.


To design INTERVENTIONS to surface and resolve systemic problems, we need to engage with our own and others’ designed errors. In the language of our methodology, we identify two sets of ‘design rules’:

Model 0 Uses reactive reasoning and allows for no dialogue that may perturb the equanimity of the reactive reasoner. The price of this set of design rules falls heavily on the people who through choice, relationship or workplace, must work with such a reactive individual.

Model 1 Uses defensive reasoning. When embarrassed or threatened, individuals act/communicate to remain unaware of the counterproductive consequences of what they are doing. In this mode, the design rules also allow for the possibility of the individual being unaware of their own unawareness and therefore can blame others. A quick test for this kind of reasoning is to assess the mismatch between what is said and what is done.

Model 2 Tests and validates data. When embarrassed or threatened, individuals surface and make discussable their own feeling states in order to test their associated attributions and help produce valid confirmable data. This is a learning approach in which the values that are espoused are also expressed in deeds. In this mode, individuals see themselves as part of the problematic process, and that one way to change outcomes is to optimise their contribution to support success.

Model 2 design rules are teachable and learnable. People who are prepared to learn at this level, lead the resolution of systemic problems and pave the way for an effective evolution of the Profession/Technical, Managerial/Rational and Systemic/Cultural dimensions of an organisation.
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