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Category: Systems Thinking

Article which look at causality, systems thinking and the relationship of these to organisational purpose.

Seeing Brains

I love the comments I get from people who see a Causal Decision Canvas for the first time.

Once they get to grips with the cause-effect concept they start exploring the Canvas. They’re drawn into the story of the whole system, the dynamic structure, the feedback loops.

They ask questions: What does it mean when that circle or arrow is bigger, fatter, brighter? The Causal Decision Canvas Anatomy helps to answer these questions.

Then people see brains. The shapes formed on the causal canvas literally look like human brains (well, apart from the one which looked like a mouse’s head).

This is the perfect visual metaphor because the pictures emerge from our mental models which are usually trapped, unseen, inside our heads.

Seeing a picture makes something more concrete. Our strategies have taken shape before our eyes; we can see their form with renewed clarity.

Usually though, the early versions of a Causal Canvas are a mess. We have to acknowledge and embrace this complexity because it naturally reflects the myriad ways people think about the world. But we can then start to tame that complexity with visual analytics.

We can get rid of the ‘noise’ and just retain the most influential paths and loops. We can emphasise parts of the model to draw out themes. We can see where we’ll get the most ‘bang for our buck’.

We can point to the most important decisions and outcomes to show where we need to reduce uncertainty or design new performance measures. We can re-cast these parts of the model for more formal problem analysis, or a business case.

The model requires us to express claims, opinions, beliefs, variables and probabilities rather than commit to certainties. The dialogue revolves about the ‘structure’ of the causal model rather than a reflection or judgement of individual positions.

This gives us a new, visual vocabulary. We can articulate purpose, vision, mission, goals, objectives, strategies, decisions all in one place. We can show how investments, initiatives, programmes, projects, interventions could change something for the better.

With this big picture in front of us we can think more clearly and communicate more clearly. In a world of noise, both inside and outside our brains, that’s something worth seeing.

What does Transformation mean to you?

‘Transformation’ must be near the top of the list of most overused business language.

Transformation sounds so grandiose, so important, so necessary and yet at the same time has no universal meaning. Could the hype hitched to this bandwagon even devalue the work of people actually changing the world for the better?

Everything ch-ch-changes. We might be trying to change a Thing. Things are changing around us. If the states of changed ‘Things’ now look very different, they’re transformed. Very Hungry Caterpillars turn into Beautiful Butterflies. Customers now enjoy contacting their bank or broadband provider. People well enough to leave a hospital bed do so, pronto. These are Things in a specific, different state.

‘Transformation’ is vague. Its rarely qualified with a definition of the ‘Thing’ being changed or what the new state would look like. That vagueness only obscures the relative priorities of Things and the evidence of their states.

Is the Thing an organisation chart, new value propositions, the flow of work? And why? To grow revenues, cut headcount, appease shareholders? Such uncertainty surely does its own damage; ‘Yeah, the last transformation [insert fear]’.

It might have been W Edwards Deming who said: ‘There is no such thing as improvement in general’. Can there ever be transformation in general? Something very specific has to change at a process behaviour level to shift an important outcome. What is the cause-effect logic of that hoped-for chain reaction?

Is investing in a big, bold transformation programme the best way to make our most important ‘Things’ better? Can we be so confident until we understand what matters, and what works? Does changing too much dilute the focus, create new systemic shocks? Is change really an initiative, a project, or is ‘getting better’ more of a daily mindset?

So, what does Transformation really mean?

The beauty of a Causal Decision Canvas is that we can take a vague word – like Transformation – and articulate it in an entirely visual way. Whether the material comes from existing words or a workshop of stakeholders, we can distill what ‘Transformation’ really means in each situation. This reveals the strategic hypotheses, the priorities, the decisions and the evidence needed to describe the Thing and its result state.

Now we can see the Thing, why changing it matters and whether it will fly.

You get an ‘Ology’, you’re a scientist!

Who can forget the brilliant BT ‘Ology’ ad from 1988?

Maureen Lipman is a Grandma using the telephone to applaud the exam efforts of a despondent grandson, Anthony. He’s failed everything of course apart from Pottery (“people will always need plates”) and Sociology, the Ology of the title.

She reminds me of my own Granny, in whose eyes I could do no wrong. Watch it again here.

That’s Ological Captain

Measureology is a made up word of course, a little tongue-in-cheek even. I wanted it to sound sciency because we blend systems thinking with statistics and visual data.

An Ology is ‘a subject of study, a branch of knowledge’ so no absurd claims there. The ‘Measure’ part refers to the study of methods of uncertainty-reduction. Metrology – the ‘real’ science of measurement – is a broad church so we’re not treading on any toes.

The spelling causes confusion too. Why Measureology and not Measurology? (So Measure is visible in the logo and to avoid Urology!).

I’m still not sure whether referring to myself as a ‘Measureologist’ is a good idea. Yes, I study uncertainty-reduction for my clients but maybe my Granny would say that was a bit “fancy pants” in her Totley accent.

Ology Ology Everywhere

I’m a bit concerned though, I’m starting to see Ologies all over the place:


Now I love coffee so I don’t mind this one.


Formerly CSL. They must have agonised about whether it should be Sofaology. If the sofas are created by scientists and not furniture designers that would explain the slide-out thingies.


I like Stephanie Davies’ work. A former comedian bringing the power of laughter to the workplace. Who wouldn’t want more of that?


A tricky one this. A term coined by Michael Barber, former head of Tony Blair’s Delivery Unit who went on to McKinsey & Pearson. Many aspects of his top-down command and control thinking about education – performance targets in particular – have been heavily criticised, most vocally by John Seddon.

The idea that imposing top-down targets on people produces better system performance is at best misguided and potentially harmful. The purpose of the system becomes target-achievement – to get a reward or avoid punishment – instead of fulfilling a customer need. The conflicts in NHS targets are potent example, made visible by queues of ambulances outside A&E. Enron and Tesco executives in fear of personal consequences. Desperate salespeople and managers the world over. The list goes on.

Watch the ad to the end and you’ll hear Grandma making disparaging closing remarks about teachers too. This shortcut to individual judgement and blame – an human attribution error – is still prevalent today.

Deliverology is a dirty word, toxic even, to some in the public sector. So claiming an ‘Ology’ can still give rise to the kind of Bad Science which gets mis-reported in the press. I’m hopeful that any apparent similarity will create a cue to talk about what’s wrong with top-down target-setting and show why there are better ways.