While various systems theories have received rigorous treatments across the literature of the field, reliable and robust advice for systems practice can be somewhat harder to come by. Ray Ison has done much to remedy this state of affairs through his deeply theoretically grounded yet eminently practical book: Systems Practice: How to Act In Situations of Uncertainty and Complexity in a Climate-Change World which was reprinted by Springer in 2017.
After first drawing a distinction between metaphors and the much less well-known notion of isophors, Ison builds a conception of the systems practitioners work around his central isophor of The Juggler. For Ison, the systems practitioner must keep four essential balls in the air. These are (1) the B-ball which concerns the attributes of Being a practitioner with a particular tradition of understanding; (2) the E-ball which concerns the characteristics ascribed to the ‘real-world’ situation that the juggler is Engaging with; (3) the C-ball which concerns the act of contextualising a particular approach to a new situation, and; (4) the M-ball which is about how the practitioner is Managing their overall performance in a situation. Interspersed with extensive excerpts from a wide array of systems practitioners such as Donella Meadows, Russ Ackoff and beyond, Ison blends cybernetics and systems in a rare and deft manner, and his thoughtful book, underwritten by years of fieldwork, makes a significant contribution to the systems literature by asking, in his own words, “What do we do when we do what we do?” The answers are as illuminating as the lively conversation we had about this book.
Tom Scholte is a Professor of Directing and Acting in the Department of Theatre and Film at the University of British Columbia located on the unceded, ancestral, and traditional territory of the Musqueam people