Thursday, December 23, 2010

Methodological Syncretism

Discussion originally posted to Enterprises-As-Systems group on Linked-In. http://www.linkedin.com/groups?gid=1327957

There are two versions of this post. The first version was originally posted to Amplify in December 2010. Amplify has disappeared, and I have only just managed to find an archived copy. Note that all URLs in this section refer to the archived pages.


Back in November 2008, Dave McCoy defined methodological syncretism as “The process by which two or more methodologies are blended to create an ├╝ber-methodology that uses the best of each donor methodology.” Dave's particular interest is in BPM, so he added "... toward a more effective delivery of process excellence". Methodological Syncretism, BPM, and Whale Pie

I thought the term “methodological syncretism” was a good one to apply to the way systems thinking is being practised by many consultants – combining bits of Checkland and Zachman and Maturana and Stafford Beer and whoever, so I started a discussion in the Enterprises-As-Systems group.
There are many methods and frameworks and approaches in this space. Some that have already been mentioned in this group include Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland), Enterprise Architecture (Zachman) and Viable Systems Model (Stafford Beer). There are many others I could add to the list, including things like System Dynamics (Forrester, Meadows), Autopoiesis (Maturana & Varela, Luhmann), Cynefin (Dave Snowden), ...

I think all of these have something to offer, but I also have some reservations about most of them. My question is this. Does it work to pick and choose stuff from these disparate methods? Can we each produce our own customized approach to thinking about enterprises-as-systems? Does this make sense? Is there an alternative?

Matthew K Hettinger replied
All of these approaches in some way, either implicitly or explicitly, make use of the fundamental principles, concepts and theories of the systems family of disciplines (some of which I have mentioned in the description of this group). One approach to "unifying" these approaches is to take each approach as it is and somehow combine them. Another approach is to go back to the system family of disciplines and "unify" them into a single coherent knowledge domain grounded in a systemics ontology(-ies) and meta-model(s). Then map these approaches onto the result of the "unified" discipline. ...

Please note that "unified" is in quotes signifying that I do not mean a grand unified model, but a set of models that have associated mappings and metamodels - consistent with Boulding (General Systems Theory).

I thought this was highly problematic.
I'm not convinced that all of these methods agree on what "the fundamental principles, concepts and theories of the systems family of disciplines" actually are. For example, what Checkland means by "soft" is absent from a lot of other methods, and Checkland can therefore be read as a critique of what he would call "hard" methods. Meanwhile, there are some ideas in Maturana that can be used to critique Checkland, and so on. So I shall be interested to see your underlying model.

Sally Bean (@Cybersal) pointed out that Checkland's original diagram of his process contained a blob labelled 'Other Systems Thinking' which feeds into the Conceptual Model-building process (step 4). Thus despite the fact that Beer and Checkland had very different epistemologies, she did successfully apply a blend of these approaches to her Open University course project, and continues to mix and match techniques and methodologies in practice.

Tom Graves (@tetradian) challenged me for some details and examples.
Given your critiques of so many different theorists, I'm left wondering how you yourself resolve this issue of 'methodological syncretism' in your own personal business practice?

What tools and methods do you yourself use in practice? What practical applications do you have for systems-theory tools and frameworks in your business consultancy, and in what business contexts, with what success (or otherwise, as, for example, David Hudnut described on another thread)?

I admitted I didn't have any easy answers either.
Perhaps what is common to all these system thinkers - yes, even Zachman - is that they are each saying something like "a system is not just this, you need to pay attention to that". I don't see any problem in principle in composing the first (negative) parts - "the system isn't just this, and it isn't just that either". So one possibility for a systems practice drawing on many different systems thinkers is to assemble a diverse collection of questions and pay attention to a rich collection of stuff.

In my view, the problem comes when you try to combine the different (positive) accounts of what a system actually is. Many of these systems thinker have proposed some kind of framework, but trying to use more than one framework at the same time strikes me as trying to build something using some combination of K-Nex and Lego and Meccano - not necessarily impossible but inelegant and probably unstable.

For example, one system principle I use a lot is Stafford Beer's #POSIWID principle - "the purpose of a system is what it does". I have a light-hearted blog based on this principle and probably enough material for a book. http://posiwid.blogspot.com/ As you will see if you look at the range of examples on the blog, the POSIWID principle is a good heuristic for finding alternative ways of understanding what is going on as well as seeing why certain classes of intervention are likely to fail. However, the moment you start to think of POSIWID as providing some kind of Truth about systems, you are on a slippery slope to producing conspiracy theories and all sorts of other rubbish.

Tom continued to challenge me.
Richard - yes, agreed - but what _practical_ applications for this do you have in the _enterprise_ context? How do _you personally_ resolve the 'methodological syncretism' in your business practice? For example, do you use a particular base-model (such as Stafford Beer's work, perhaps) and then use differtent tools as appropriate that base? Or do you literally apply POSIWID and use whatever comes to mind, without any kind of consistent or systematic frame?

I ask because that issue is certainly something I've been struggling with in my own practice. (And emphasis again on _practice_ rather than only on the theory - the theory is relatively easy, frankly.)

I tried to avoid the challenge as follows.
Why would I want to resolve the contradictions between the various frameworks? Only if I wanted to go into a client situation with a reasonable coherent composite framework under my arm. But I don't want to.

Christopher Alexander (who has inspired several generations of IT methodologists from Yourdon and deMarco onwards) once wrote: "If you call it ‘It’s a Good Idea to Do’, I like it very much; if you call it a ‘Method’, I like it but I’m beginning to get turned off; if you call it a ‘Methodology’, I just don’t want to talk about it."

Experts on presentation such as Garr Reynolds talk about Naked Presentation. This means you don't hide behind a set of tedious bullet-pointed slides, but you engage authentically with your audience.

http://presentationzen.blogs.com/presentationzen/2005/10/make_your_next_.html

So my ideal for working with organizations would be something like Naked Systems Thinking. In other words, not hiding behind some framework, but engaging directly and openly with the situation. From Jerry Weinberg's writings (@jerryweinberg), I get the impression that he is pretty good at this. I may not always get it right, but that's what I'm always striving to achieve.

So to me the various frameworks are a valuable source of understanding and awareness rather than something I actually want to use.

Afterwards, I can try to make sense of what has happened, but these situations are always complex and I don't find it easy to extract simple stories for publication. Maybe that's yet another skill I need to develop.



Here is a second version, which I produced when the Amplify version was not available to me.



There are many methods and frameworks and approaches in this space. Some that have already been mentioned in this group include Soft Systems Methodology (Checkland), Enterprise Architecture (Zachman) and Viable Systems Model (Stafford Beer). There are many others I could add to the list, including things like System Dynamics (Forrester, Meadows), Autopoiesis (Maturana and Varela, Luhmann), Cynefin (Dave Snowden), ...

I think all of these have something to offer, but I also have some reservations about most of them. My question is this. Does it work to pick and choose stuff from these disparate methods? Can we each produce our own customized approach to thinking about enterprises-as-systems? Does this make sense? Is there an alternative?



(In response to the suggestion that these methods can be "unified", and a claim that a unified model exists.) 

 I'm not convinced that all of these methods agree on what "the fundamental principles, concepts and theories of the systems family of disciplines" actually are. For example, what Checkland means by "soft" is absent from a lot of other methods, and Checkland can therefore be read as a critique of what he would call "hard" methods. Meanwhile, there are some ideas in Maturana that can be used to critique Checkland, and so on. So I shall be interested to see your underlying model.


(When asked how I resolve the question of syncretism in my own practice, and how I resolve the contradictions.)

 I don't have any easy answers either.

Perhaps what is common to all these system thinkers - yes, even Zachman - is that they are each saying something like "a system is not just this, you need to pay attention to that". I don't see any problem in principle in composing the first (negative) parts - "the system isn't just this, and it isn't just that either". So one possibility for a systems practice drawing on many different systems thinkers is to assemble a diverse collection of questions and pay attention to a rich collection of stuff.

In my view, the problem comes when you try to combine the different (positive) accounts of what a system actually is. Many of these systems thinkers have proposed some kind of framework, but trying to use more than one framework at the same time strikes me as trying to build something using some combination of K-Nex and Lego and Meccano - not necessarily impossible but inelegant and probably unstable.

For example, one system principle I use a lot is Stafford Beer's POSIWID principle - "the purpose of a system is what it does". I have a light-hearted blog based on this principle (http://posiwid.blogspot.com/) and probably enough material for a book. As you will see if you look at the range of examples on the blog, the POSIWID principle is a good heuristic for finding alternative ways of understanding what is going on as well as seeing why certain classes of intervention are likely to fail. However, the moment you start to think of POSIWID as providing some kind of Truth about systems, you are on a slippery slope to producing conspiracy theories and all sorts of other rubbish.


In any case, why would I want to resolve the contradictions between the various frameworks? Only if I wanted to go into a client situation with a reasonable coherent composite framework under my arm. But I don't want to.

Christopher Alexander (who has inspired several generations of IT methodologists from Yourdon and deMarco onwards) once wrote: "If you call it ‘It’s a Good Idea to Do’, I like it very much; if you call it a ‘Method’, I like it but I’m beginning to get turned off; if you call it a ‘Methodology’, I just don’t want to talk about it."

Experts on presentation such as Garr Reynolds talk about Naked Presentation. This means you don't hide behind a set of tedious bullet-pointed slides, but you engage authentically with your audience. 

So my ideal for working with organizations would be something like Naked Systems Thinking. In other words, not hiding behind some framework, but engaging directly and openly with the situation. From Jerry Weinberg's writings, I get the impression that he is pretty good at this. I may not always get it right, but that's what I'm always striving to achieve.

So to me the various frameworks are a valuable source of understanding and awareness rather than something I actually want to use. Afterwards, I can try to make sense of what has happened, but these situations are always complex and it isn't always easy to extract simple stories for publication. Maybe that's yet another skill I need to develop.


Wikipedia: Syncretism

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