Systemic Action Research: as a strategy for enacting deliberative systems as well as for whole system change

In common to most systems thinking and systemic thinking are shared orientations, succinctly captured by Martin Reynolds and Sue Holwell as ‘purposeful orientations’:

  • Purposeful orientation 1: Making sense of, or simplifying (in understanding), relationships between different entities associated with a complex situation. […] The prime intention is not to get some thorough comprehensive knowledge of situations, but rather to acquire a better understanding in order to improve the situation.
  • Purposeful orientation 2: Surfacing and engaging (through practice) contrasting perspectives associated with complex situations.
  • Purposeful orientation 3: Exploring and reconciling (with responsibility) power relations, boundary issues and potential conflict amongst different entities and/ or perspectives.

(Reynolds and Holwell, 2010: 17)

We want to offer two methodologies that can be explored further for the experimental connection of Deliberative Systems and Systemic Thinking and Whole Systems working.

The first is from Peter Checkland and John Poulter from their Learning for Action: A Short Definitive Account of Soft Systems Methodology and its use for Practitioners, Teachers and Students (2006).  Checkland’s work is associated with the ‘second wave’ of systems thinking, it is constructivist which sees complex problems as partially produced through conflicting and often invisible ‘world views’ and sees potential in processes of active shared meaning-making through deliberation (hence the relevance). The soft systems method is about making visible these different world views so a deeper and more productive conversation can happen which can then inform decision making.

Checkland and Poulter’s method begins with identifying a ‘problematic situation’. This is  deliberately phrased in this way as ‘problem’, they argue, implies ‘solution’ (a too easy fix). Their learning cycle steps are:

  • Problematical Situation: The ‘flux of everyday life’ will produce a ‘perceived problematic situation’.

In this phase they explore the ways in which the problematical situation will be perceived differently by different people (world views) and will be being produced and constantly changed by people seeking to act purposefully.

  • Models and Discussion: Make models of purposeful action based on different worldviews

In this phase they use the worldview models as a source of questions to ask of the problematical situation and to structure a discussion about what kinds of change are desirable and feasible. Finally, they find versions of the situation that people with different world views can live with.

  • Implement changes – and ‘be ready to begin the cycle again!’

Finally, an implementation phase follows but the learning cycle is seen as a necessarily ongoing process. Raising the question about how big and long each cycle is and opening up the possibility to conceived of rapid and small cycles as well as longer and larger scale cycles.

In Checkland and Poulter’s approach, the key is to make visible the underlying logics and assumptions and therefore the purposeful actions that constitute and reproduce the perceived problematic situation. Then having surfaced these, they can be used to create the kind of conversations that can lead to action. There is something really useful for a Deliberative Systems approach here as it allows not only for the ostensible issue to be a focus for conversation but also the underlying political and ethical structures that keep an issue feeling intractable.

Danny Burns’ Systemic Action Research approach gives nuance to the three ‘purposeful orientations’ identified by Reyond and Howell and works with a richer palette of human life than Checkland and Poulter’s ‘action for learning’ approaches. The key ontological shift made in Burns’ work is to see understanding, action and change as mutually co-productive phenomena. In practice this leads to the following principles for Systemic Action Research:

  • Emergent research design – to let the design of the research follow what arises, ‘our work needs to echo the ways in which we observe change happening in the world’ (2007: 85)
  • Exploratory inquiry phase – this could involve engaging ‘directly with what is already happening’ or ‘start in a few areas where there is a manifest passion for action and grow the inquiry’ (2007: 89)
  • Multiple inquiry streams – enable different parallel inquiries to grow, led by people who have set the agenda and have passion for the questions.
  • A structure for connecting organic inquiry to decision making – the strategic levels need to be co-generators of change, ‘in order to secure this, it needed to be made clear from the start that they would not just be working on local or tightly defined issues; they would be working with these issues in order to engage with a wider system patterns’ (2007: 95)
  • A process for identifying links between inquiry strands – link across inquiries to identify systemic patterns.
  • Open boundary inquiry – allowing people to come in and out as makes sense, allowing the questions to evolve and move on (2007: 99)
  • Active development of distributed leadership (2007: 100) – ‘Leadership opportunities are emergent properties of systems […] leadership in this context is most likely to be vested in people who have a driving passion for an issue, are highly respected by peers and or colleagues for their work and who sit at the heart of cross-boundary inquiry’ (2007: 100).

Each of these phases has the character (in common with many methods of systemic thinking) of:

  • Allowing issues to emerge
  • Surface different perspectives
  • Build a systemic picture
  • Goes deeper
  • Surfaces the undiscussables (2007: 103)

Burns indicates how this emergent ontology also requires an ‘improvisatory approach to change’ (2007: 41)

  • Improvisation – which includes accepting offers (ensuring that you are not closing down the possibility of moving the inquiry on); seeking small interventions in opportunity spaces (valuing the small possibilities that arise) and re-incorporation (ensuring you are building a compelling and legible narrative of the overall inquiry).
  • Parallel Development – not seek false consensus, enable people to diverge and explore things they care about, embedded in everyday life (not created forums) and following passion and energy.
  • Resonance not representativeness: where people can ‘”see” and “feel” the connection between things; they “know” it is related to their experience, they are “energised” and “motivated” (2007: 53)

This distinction between resonance and representativeness is of specific importance to our attempts here to link Systemic Action Research with Deliberative Systems and so here is Burns’ argument in full:

There are real problems with the idea of representativeness in both research and social action, not least because what is purported to be representative rarely is. Can a young person really represent the experiences of all the other young people in an area, a disabled person the experiences of all disabled people? That a process (or sample) was representative tells us who was there (who was included) but not who has power, and what they care about.  […] Representativeness cannot be determined on the basis of the statistical support given to a proposition. It lies in the willingness of people to ‘open doors’ and walk through them and the willingness of participants to support a line of inquiry because it makes sense of the reality they experience’ (2007: 53)

Burns work therefore sees action as enabling meaning, understanding and change. Action is the means by which whole systems can be enlivened and shifted. This means deliberation is understood not as the only significant political form but as one of a wide range of human activities, with feelings, stories, embodied understandings and visualisations all needing to be included.

To make the links to Deliberative Systems, Checkland and Poulter’s ‘soft system method’ offers a detailed method for surfacing worldviews and making them visible for a process of deliberation to lead to decision and action. Danny Burns’ Systemic Action Research offers a potential method that might be used to enact Deliberative Systems as an active and deliberately designed inquiry process working with an expansive idea of change and how it happens.