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The Psychology of Design: Reflecting on Methods

Part II: The group is greater than the method.

System design work is not easy. Sometimes, when you’re out walking or cycling, or maybe simply pouring a glass of water while taking a break, an idea or aphorism might arise in your mind. For example, I was pouring a glass of water this morning and the following idea popped into my head: the pathway to success is through method. I was thinking about many methods that same day – the research methods my students are using for their project work, the method the builders would be using when they arrived later to fix our leaking roof, the online teaching methods teachers have been using recently when working with our kids, the methods young career researchers would need to master to progress and succeed in academia.

I was also thinking about systems thinking methods and the broader challenges we face in working together collaboratively to address societal problems. Indeed, as noted in the previous post, there are many methods we can use to help with our systems design work. We mentioned Harry Stack Sullivan and Jeffrey Masson, and the problem of ‘psychiatry’: how to design a system of interpersonal relations that helps people adapt to various problems in living. In a loose narrative, we suggested that the capacity of the system to empathise and help is a critical issue, and we wondered how to approach the design challenge. My water-pouring aphorism, the pathway to success is through method, prompts further reflection in relation to the design methods we might use.

The Magic of Methods

I read an excellent book recently. The book is written by Michael Jackson, and has the weighty title: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity. The book showcases a range of systems thinking and design methods for working in the context of technical complexity (Operations Research, Systems Engineering) process complexity (the Vanguard Method) structural complexity (System Dynamics) organisational complexity (Organisational Cybernetics and the Viable Systems Model) people complexity (Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, Interactive Planning, Soft Systems Methodology) and coercive complexity (Team Syntegrity, and Critical Systems Heuristics).

Of course, these methods are not ‘separate’ from one another -- they can be combined. For example, when thinking about ‘the problem of psychiatry’, looking in particular at long waiting lists for mental health services and the poor operating capacity of the health service in your region, you might apply the Vanguard Method to understand and optimise the process of referral, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up; and you might apply Strategic Assumptions Surfacing and Testing to understand potentially conflicting assumptions regarding service delivery from the perspective of different stakeholders. You might build upon your Vanguard analysis and use methods from operations research to mathematically model queuing, inventory, allocation, replacement, and coordination problems; and you might use system dynamics methods to analyse the financial and human capital requirements into the future, modeling the impact of demographic changes.

Looking more closely at infrastructure and specific organisations across your region, you might use a viable systems model lens to map and reflect on the viability of organisational structures and operational activities in collaboration with front-line staff, management, and regional and national mental health leaders working to optimise viable organisational deigns. Working with others across a series of interconnected design projects, you might engage in what Michael Jackson calls Critical Systems Multimethodology, that is, where you apply multiple methods as needed to redesign your mental health systems and services. Or you could engage in some loose thinking, or ‘follow the leader’ behaviour, where you introduce some changes that few people have considered deeply. This can even include the type of loose thinking where leaders advocate system-wide changes in mental health services based on the evidence from a set of ‘promising’ randomised controlled trials coupled with a vague implementation framework that frames practice considerations across a narrow set of contextual variables.

It might seem a little scary at first for psychologists, who generally have little or no disciplinary training in any of these methods, but critical systems multimethodology is open to learning. Indeed, we can begin this methodological training in our undergraduate psychology programmes. Across multiple programmes, at the group level, we might naturally begin to see cumulative growth in the range of methods available to us. Prompted by Harry Stack Sullivan, we might argue that the design challenge requires engagement from many different ‘personalities’, in particular, different people possessing a variety of different methodological ‘skills’ and associated ‘behavioural repertoires’. Naturally, these ‘personalities’ are not – and should not be – isolated from interpersonal relationships with one another. Together, as their methodological skill set grows, they have the potential to design ‘psychiatry’ as a system of interpersonal relations that helps people adapt to various problems in living. Ultimately, their system design methods shape their implementation and operational methods – their practice on the ground, the way they help people in need of help.

The group is greater than the method

It seems like a simple vision, but the usual problems arise: the disciplinary training is too narrow; the disciplines operate in silos using different methods; and transdisciplinary systems methods, including those described by Michael Jackson, have no home in any of the disciplines, and ramble about the houses looking for friends and partners. Meanwhile, the stakeholders wonder what we’re doing and what progress we’re making. Psychology as a discipline, much like other disciplines, simply needs to broaden its horizons a little; and then, with growing confidence and skill, we can collectively experiment with Critical Systems Multimethodology. It will not take us long to see where it all fits together – we will see the natural extension of our critical thinking abilities and our capacity for skilled tool use. We will see the group rather than individuals alone. We will see synergies and new opportunities for partnership. We will see the potential to advance our collective intelligence and collective capacity to address the ‘problem of psychiatry’ and other, related societal problems.

Of course, as we expand outward, we will also see the context in which we work. We see more than the ‘problem situation’ itself – now we see all the people operating within, across, above, and beyond the problem situation. We see the deeper truth in relation to method, the action of our multimethodology takes place within the operation of our group dynamics. The field of group dynamics rises to prominence. And so we turn our attention now to the group dynamics, but please, continue to learn more about the systems thinking and design methods, because our aphorism still holds true, the pathway to success is through method, only now we know that methods only function to the extent that the group using the method functions. The group is greater than the method.

© Michael Hogan