#32: My design practice, Part 1

On the 'stuff' I design and how I do it.

I’m Luke Craven; this is another of my weekly explorations of how systems thinking and complexity can be used to drive real, transformative change in the public sector and beyond. The first issue explains what the newsletter is about; you can see all the issues here.


Hello, dear reader,

In a recent issue, I reflected on the role that I tend to play in the organisations I work with and for. Wherever I find myself, I tend to be animated by either creating boundary objects or creating spaces where people can come together to create those same boundary objects for themselves.

Subsequent feedback has pushed me to explore further what kind of boundary objects I create and how I go about structuring them. Put another way, if I am committed to calling myself a designer—which I am!—what is the stuff that I design? These are all great questions and I’ll confess I’ve found it challenging to articulate a set of answers to myself, let alone to others. But, in the spirit of working out loud, here is my best attempt.

When it comes down to it, the bulk of my design practice is focused on developing:

  • Conceptual frameworks that attempt to articulate complex phenomena as systems to enable different ways of understanding them, and;

  • Social processes that help and empower stakeholders to use those frameworks to make decisions about responding to that complexity.

For the rest of this issue, I’ll focus on how I think about designing conceptual frameworks and the tools I use to structure them. Don’t fret, though, I’ll get to social processes in the next couple of weeks!

Giving structure to complexity

My working assumption in most settings is that systems are a powerful unit of analysis for understanding and engaging with complexity. While there are countless ways to complete a systems analysis, I’ve found Derek Cabrera’s DSRP theory useful as a way to articulate how I structure complex phenomena as a system for the purpose of framework building. Cabrera argues that our attempts to understand complexity rely on four different cognitive patterns, which we tend to use in combination:

  • Making distinctions between and among things and ideas.

  • Organising things and ideas into part-whole systems to make meaning.

  • Identifying relationships between and among things and ideas.

  • Looking at ideas from different perspectives to understand that every time we make a distinction (including identifying relationships and systems), we are doing so from a particular perspective.

What is powerful about these basic building blocks, is that we can mix and match them in different ways to help us make sense of complex phenomena. For example, Mixing R and D to make a relationship a distinction, which means to define a particular relationship as an idea or a thing rather than just noting the connections between objects.

By structuring a particular relationship as a thing, we open up new ways to think about what it means to connect the connections, rather than defaulting to the common systems trope of connecting the dots. And, after identifying a particular relationship, we can Mix R, D and S to zoom into a specific relationship and understand it as its own part-whole system.

At one level, all of this might seem incredibly esoteric. But every systems-led conceptual framework I design relies on this kind of thinking. Take the task of developing a data and analytics strategy for a large multinational organisation, for example. To do that well, you need some kind of framework that helps you articulate, among other things:

  • The distinction and relationship between data and analytics.

  • The distinction and relationship between strategy and tactics.

  • The parts that make up each of these relationships.

  • The different perspectives on what counts as data.

  • The system that might make up the overall data and analytics strategy and its different parts, a data management strategy or artificial intelligence strategy, for example.

Without this kind of conceptual scaffolding, the task of making decisions about what kind of strategy is needed, how it might work, and how it should connect to what already exists is likely to be fraught and chaotic. For me, designing a framework that articulates this challenge as a system—built of distinctions, relationships, parts, wholes, and perspectives—is a rich and generative way to help decision makers wrap their arms around the task of developing a strategy in a complex environment. It’s not the only way, for sure, but it’s the one that works for me.

Next week: How to design the social processes that enable the use of systems-led frameworks as a decision guide.


What I am reading

  • Biologist Dr Jonni Koia is doing fascinating work that weaves mātauranga Māori with western science practice to develop novel treatments for Type 2 diabetes. Her Te Reo Tipu framework is an eclectic approach to scientific research that recognises the challenges of working in complexity.

    Indigenous researchers have access to both knowledge systems, and use the insights and methods of one to enhance the other … In this approach, the focus shifts from proving the superiority of one system over another, to identifying opportunities for combining both … This isn’t about fusing or blending the two systems together. Each knowledge system can stand on its own ground and merit.

  • Ikujiro Nonaka, creator of the well-known SECI model of knowledge creation, has published a new piece that outlines six practices to help organisational leaders infuse strategy with soul.

    Wisdom enables us to grasp the essence of a matter intuitively and, at the same time, cope with the fast-changing world. Companies have to continuously change to survive, so they should focus on becoming a little bit better every day rather than fixate on drawing up a precise plan. Practical wisdom enables managers to make judgment calls on how to act at certain times, under specific conditions, and to undertake the best action at each juncture.


A poem for the season

What a strange thing!
to be alive
beneath cherry blossoms

Kobayashi Issa


By the way: This newsletter is hard to categorise and probably not for everyone—but if you know unconventional thinkers who might enjoy it, please share it with them.

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Find me elsewhere on the web at www.lukecraven.com, on Twitter @LukeCraven, on LinkedIn here, or by email at <luke.k.craven@gmail.com>.