What do we do when we do what we do?

By David

I’m quarter of the way into, what I hope will become, a Masters in Systems Thinking in Practice. Overall the course content has challenged my thinking on many fronts – but the concept that I think about most is: What do we do when we do what we do? Ray Ison attributes it to Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist and philosopher.

Ison writes:

Too often we inhabit a taken-for-granted world where our ways of doing things are not questioned. Questions like this that invite critical reflection on our circumstances are not common. 1

To understand what this means, it helped me to revisit practice.

What is practice?

Ison describes practice as a practitioner P, with a framework of ideas F, a method or methodology M, engaged in a situation of interest S. Let’s call it the PFMS practice system.

Why is this relevant?

When appreciating practice in the context of digital design, I’ve noticed that design decisions are often method M driven. Designers starting out – and a few seasoned veterans – focus on method, which is understandable as new methods for doing the same things tend to recur in cycles (for example, HTML5 attempting to recreate the world of Flash). Clients like to be shown new stuff, and business analysts often ask, ‘where is the wow factor? – which is often something visually tangible.

But focusing on method obscures the frameworks F underpinning, and influencing, our work. Frameworks are an equally important dynamic in our practice system, and it needs visibility in language.

All four elements in the PFMS practice system exist in a dynamic relationship. Change in one, causes change in the other, and the changes can have unintended, and surprising, consequences. This is why it is important to hold a conceptual model of what practice is in mind when engaged in projects. And based on feedback from a project, it may be necessary to modify the dynamics between PFMS in a way that is context sensitive.

This opens up a new awareness where we appreciate our own performance in the PFMS system, acknowledging that who we are has a direct bearing on situations we are in. Based on this feedback we can adapt our approach. Ison describes this shift as a move to reflexive practice – where we shift from simply being in, to becoming critically aware of our being in situations.

When looking at practice in this way it becomes clear that over-focusing on methods – at the expense of frameworks – may mean that areas of potential remain hidden, and lost to projects, our clients, and ourselves.

  1. Systems Practice: How to Act in a Climate Change World