Critical systems tools to support collaborative practice


  • Graeme Nicholas Ti Kouka Consulting


collaboration, critical systems thinking, tools, Critical Systems Heuristics


Collaboration between practitioners who come from differing starting points presents more than procedural challenges. Differences of worldview and/or of power can threaten collaborative processes at their core, potentially leading to despair, unsatisfactory trade-offs, or inequitable processes and outcomes. Differing starting points in collaborations may manifest as divergent assumptions about what is important, what is possible, and how to proceed; different accepted terminology, methods and priorities; diverse personal or professional capacities or capabilities; non-aligned standards and structures of accountability; and differing real or perceived levels of power.

The challenges of facilitating productive collaboration with people from diverse professions, backgrounds, capabilities and accountabilities are not difficult to imagine or list. The process of harnessing multiple perspectives and sets of expertise in order to work together on a common issue is highly complex. This paper offers two practical tools for supporting such collaborative processes. Each of the tools has been derived from systemic frameworks already in the literature, but which here have been turned into tools readily usable by practitioners. The development of the tools comes from reflective fieldwork by the author, as a facilitator of collaborative process, and from his search to make sense of researched experiences of practitioners of collaborative processes. The first of the tools draws on the four windows of systemic appreciation developed by Flood. Each of the four windows (systems of process, systems of structure, systems of knowledge-power, systems of meaning) are used to derive practical questions on matters all participants in a collaborative process will need to be satisfied for productive collaboration to happen. The second of the tools draws on two otherwise unrelated frameworks: a framework (Cash, Clark, Alcock, et al.) to understand what it takes for information to be utilised in group situations, and a framework (Ulrich) for critically reflecting on boundaries in a social system. Each of the contributing frameworks can be presented as triangles, and the innovation presented here superimposes the two triangles as mutually complementary in a way that can generate six dialogical questions for critical collaborative practice. While Cash et al. identify three qualities needed for information or expertise to be utilised: salience, credibility and legitimacy; Ulrich (Critical Systems Heuristics) offers a schema to make power, marginalisation and inclusion discussable by examining any ‘truth claim’ as embodying judgements about what is relevant, values and boundaries. The paper briefly describes two pieces of research/practice that serve to highlight challenges of productive collaboration. It then introduces each of the two tools, showing how they draw on existing frameworks and how they help address the challenges identified. Finally, the paper discusses the potential for the tools and their importance as practical expressions of aspirations of critical systems thinking for engaging diverse parties in common action.


2022-02-24 — Updated on 2022-02-24