Death to Venn Diagrams!

This post has been mulling around in my mind for a while now, but a question asked by a fellow OU Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) alumni, précised as “Are there other Systems Thinking methods are out there that we could look at?”, has encouraged me to finally put finger to keyboard.

My question in return is “What counts as a Systems Thinking approach, method or tool?”

In fact it raises the whole subject of categorisation which may have been covered on the Open University course B823: Knowledge Management, but sadly it’s no longer running and so I can’t study it having instead to scratch around this area trying to find little nuggets that might help my understanding.

Categorising things can work well when the world is pretty static but, well, that isn’t really the case these days. But it’s not just the change of things, its the change of about their properties and value to us.

Our previous IT Director used to bemoan the fact that there wasn’t a “killer app” for the Blackberry that he felt was needed to drive adoption, yet it was the device itself that had become compelling, the “killer app” if you like. I’d suggest  suspect that in his mind he was looking to classify his Blackberry under some sort of category that he had such as “It does one thing better than anything else” but hadn’t recognised that it was a category that was no longer valid.

Is it “A” or is it “B”?

Venn1I say this because I find a lot of my time is spent answering questions where people want something categorising (and furthermore categorising simply). As schoolchildren we’re taught about Venn diagrams, and we’re used to putting items into the appropriate “bucket”, usually on a simple basis like: If it XXX then it goes in “C”. And yes, there may be times when something could be an “A” and a “B”, and we have a place for that too.

Our world is getting too complicated for this though, I’ve posted before with comments about complex rules, and how IT is developing in this area.  As the area of “Big Data” starts to deliver real case studies (such as Pepsi using Big Data techniques to do a total carbon footprint analysis) we will have to get used to things not being in or out  of a category, but being more likely to be “A” than “B”

Venn2Killing off the Venn Diagram

In this model the information that would have been shown in a Venn diagram starts to look  more as I’ve tried to depict in the picture on the right. As we try to describe an item, for example the green X, it gets mapped into the space as my example.

In some cases we already work in this way. As a private pilot the weather forecasts I use are expressed as probabilities. Physicists are now pretty comfortable working in this way, and their work is now feeding into our networking and IT world through quantum photonics, and quantum computing. It’s no wonder that a lot of physicists are turning their minds to the management problems that arise from working in this way.


One of the problems that we learn to address on the STiP modules is that there are quite often different perspectives at play, so whilst I may place my view of an item at the green “X,” all of the yellow “X”s may be equally as valid for other people, or in different circumstances

Going back to the start of this post and the question about systems thinking tools, then another part of the OU STiP course is  taking tools and modifying them to fit the task you are trying to execute. If the red area, “A” in the diagram, represents the tools we learn as part as ST, I might find, say, the Viable System Model (VSM) in there.

However, I may find a tool in the blue “B” zone that the physicists are using to handle, say, complexity and I use in it a way to help me in a management issue, then I’m moving it into my ST zone.

I find this tends to present something of a problem for the “A or B” type thinkers who naturally polarise their views and decisions around a simple categorisation.

Unfortunately the world is no longer this clear cut, and we need to start thinking in ways that help us to explain the world at a certain moment in time and perspective, feeling comfortable with the ambiguity, and thus make effective decisions.

It also means that we shouldn’t give two hoots about where something has come from. As long as it works, works effectively and it does the job efficiently, then who cares.


3 responses to “Death to Venn Diagrams!

  1. Pingback: Just Practicing − What makes a systems approach?

  2. Reblogged this on inscienceblog and commented:
    Going beyond the school-type Venn Diagrams.

  3. Pingback: “It depends …. ” | Wouldn't It Be Nice If....

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