T214 Block 3: Activity 1.3

Here’s another one of those OU-centric posts that will bore everyone stupid. Well, even more-so than my the usual crap I stick on here.

This is the first activity I’m writing up for Block 3. This new block focusses on social systems – systems made up primarily of people. People can be fickle, unreliable and mostly irrational so I’m guessing systems made up of these bags of meat will be even more unpredictable than your average telecommunications system.

Anyway, this activity requires me to look at some organisational problems I’ve experienced recently; three simple ones and three more complicated. The first are what are called “difficulties” and the second “messes”. The OU are using the term “mess” as defined by Russell Ackoff – some problems are so complex that they transcend just being difficult (with potential solutions and known boundaries) and head on into OMFG-what-are-we-going-to-do territory.

So, I must find some organisational issues to discuss. More after the cut.

The activity is a bit long, and I’m only writing it up here so I can refer to it later on, but these are the steps I’ll be taking:

  • Describe three “simple” organisational problems that I’ve faced recently
  • Describe three (or more, ha!) of the most complex problems I’ve ever faced
  • List the ways in which these simple and complex problems differ
  • Reflect on my own list of differences by comparing them to some of the course material

After that, I need to ask myself some questions:

  • Were ‘interpersonal relationships’ (i.e. personal likes and dislikes) a contributing factor in the situation?
  • Were different views of the situation by other people important?
  • What about ‘political concerns’?
  • How far do these softer elements (i.e. not hard (quantifiable) information) help explain some of the problematic features of the situation?

I’m not very good at organisation so just about any problem could head into a mess for me. However, I’m going to have a go at describing some of the less scary issues I’ve dealt with recently.

Simple organisational situations

One of the more recently problems for me was the need to restructure my degree learning after the Open University decided (in their ultimate wisdom) to withdraw all undergraduate systems practice modules and discontinue my chosen named degree by the end of 2014. A little while ago I’d have called this a “mess”, but my current learning has shown me that this problem is more simple. I didn’t like the decision – at all – but the solution was fairly simple, even if it means I’m going to have to cram in more modules than I wanted to before the degree disappears.

I have a clear priority for my study – claim a BSc in Computing and Systems Practice – and was able to determine what I needed to do in order to achieve this.

The second organisational problem relates to me recent stay in hospital. I had an operation on my knee (ligament reconstruction) that required me to be pretty much immobile for a few weeks. We had to figure out how we were going to look after my daughter during this period. My Mum visited for the weekend so that Jo could spend her time looking after me. Ruby enjoyed being pampered by Nanny, and we managed to muddle by while I was unable to get around.

This is clearly another fairly simple problem. There were limited people involved (three of us, plus a few others that were kind enough to help) and the solutions were easy to determine. My wife did most of the organising (I don’t know what I’d do without her!) and it was a pretty short-term problem.

The third “easy” organisational problem wasn’t really a problem for me, but a problem for a brass band I play in. Like most bands we sometimes need extra players for concerts, and so it’s up to a few key members of the band committee to try and find substitutes. I am on the committee but I don’t have as many contacts as the chairman and a few others, so this job rarely visits me. I have found the odd player, but that’s mainly been by accident than anything else.

This third issue is also fairly simple, although perhaps the committee members trying to find extra players might not think so. It can certainly be a pain to find suitable replacements. The problem is limited to a few key people within the band, and whereas we’re always looking for permanent players there’s not normally a problem getting replacements for concerts.

Difficult, or messy, problems

I joined the RAF in 1988 – just in time to enjoy the government’s attempts to gut the armed services under “Options for change“. The cold war was over and there was a need to make military cuts, so they lopped off 18% of the 300,000 or so service-people serving their country at the time. I remember that there were plenty of volunteers among crusty, old sergeants but it was a time of uncertainty for most of us in the armed forces.

These were huge, sweeping changes and it was felt by many at the time that too much was ditched too soon. The cold war may have been over but just around the corner was the Balkans war, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, and a number of UN-mandated operations. Those remaining in the military found themselves overseas more frequently but with limited resources. I think the government took a risk that the UK’s military needs would recede significantly, but it actually turned out that we would be involved with more operations. Although these would all be smaller than the old Cold War scenario the reduced numbers meant that our military personnel were stretched beyond decent levels.

I left the RAF after 12 years in 2000. I served in Kosovo but missed the deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. Our military is  under enormous pressure in the current global climate and our government failed to anticipate, or neglected to consider, how we may need our armed services. To be fair, the problems could not be foreseen but once you cut your military so severly it becomes difficult, if not nearly impossible, to build it back up again. The government took cost-cutting as a priority over the security of our country and caused the military to breaking point.

Another example of an organisational mess involves my first job after leaving the RAF. Marconi were a telecommunications equipment manufacturer and I started working for them in 2000. All was looking rosy until 2001, when our “glorious” chairman, George Simpson, announced crippling debts and thousands of job losses. The telecoms bubble burst causing the company to head into a tailspin, before being eaten up by one of our rivals, Ericsson, in 2007.

It could all have been so different. Before Marconi there was a parent company called GEC. Lord Weinstock, GEC’s influential figurehead, maintained an enormous, and steady, company that had billions in the bank and was a safe-as-houses investment. Within three years, George Simpson and his board ruined all that had come previously with a risky venture into the telecoms market. Simpson ditched all the non-telecoms parts of GEC, such as selling the defense business to British Aerospace, and aimed to conquer the telecoms market.

All the eggs were placed in this one basket and expensive investments were made, creating debt that would eventually drown the company. Come 2001 the booming telecoms market imploded and Marconi lay fatally wounded. The Marconi board gambled with a century old company, aiming to take on enormous competitors like Nortel and AT&T, failed miserably and caused one of the UK’s most famous names to become extinct.

George Simpson and John Mayo etc: if you’re not still hanging your heads in shame you fucking well should be.


So, Ericsson eventually made me redundant but Marconi laid the groundwork. Insane business decisions piled onto reckless disregard for potential market problems caused tens of thousands of people to lose their jobs, while certain Marconi board members retired with huge bonuses and enormous pensions.

It was a right old mess.

So, onto my third messy problem. So far I’ve chosen large problems involving hundreds of thousands of people. I should try and choose something smaller in scope, but still something with unexpected consequences.

<inserts third mess here. Or not>

How do these problems differ?

The first difference between the more simple problems and the absolute messes is scale. Once you start adding many people into the mix of a problem there becomes added complexity. The simple problems can be taken in isolation but the large, more difficult issues have wider repercussions. Reducing how much money we spent on the military should have had a positive effect on the country’s budget but the government then went and spent billions on expensive wars. Outside influences had a massive effect on the future of Marconi, whereas smaller problems tend not to be so affected by what happens elsewhere.

In Marconi’s case there were limited solutions to its economic problems. The telecoms market crashed and all of our competitors were struggling too. There was nowhere to turn, and despite some clever financial shenanigans by the subsequent board (causing quite a fuss amongst creditors) the company was consumed by Ericsson. Big problems require big solutions and these took quite some time to emerge, whereas the smaller problems have more obvious solutions.

A changeable mess

I’ve been using the term “mess” in it’s more usual sense, to describe something that’s disorganised or unpleasant. In systems thinking, this may also be true, but a “mess” in a systems thinking sense involves a fairly clear definition. However, my own perspectives might affect how I define a problem. For instance, I might not be able to see solutions from where I sit but someone else may be able to easily.

Some little questions

So, my OU activity requires me to ask myself some further questions surrounding these more complex messes.

  • Were ‘interpersonal relationships’ (i.e. personal likes and dislikes) a contributing factor in the situation?
  • Were different views of the situation by other people important?
  • What about ‘political concerns’?
  • How far do these softer elements (i.e. not hard (quantifiable) information) help explain some of the problematic features of the situation?

For the first two I can only guess, but I doubt very much that these elements were significant factors in either mess. There were certainly political concerns in Options for change, though.


I need to think of a mess for my next T214 assignment. I think the most obvious systems thinking mess is the Marconi situation, although I shall consider both for now. I have to start drawing diagrams and that…


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