05/31 – The Assessment and Development of Analytical and Systems Thinking Skills in the Work Environment

Maretha Prinsloo and Riana Prinsloo

Maretha Prinsloo & Riana Prinsloo

Maretha Prinsloo

Riana Prinsloo


Human survival is premised on the capacity to continuously ascribe meaning to stimuli and acting on these perspectives in order to achieve certain goals. This involves a full range of integrated cognitive processes referred to as, inter alia, thinking skills, intellectual functioning, reasoning, problem solving, perceptual frameworks, creativity and judgement.

Cognitive functioning is by no means a static “entity”: it is highly dynamic and can be influenced by a plethora of factors such as a person’s capacity, interests, motives as well as the physical and cultural environment. It is precisely because of the malleable nature of cognitive functioning that developmental initiatives aimed at improving cognitive skills have the potential to significantly enrich our lives and improve our effectiveness and goal achievement.

There are many ways in which to optimise the effectiveness of cognitive processing. Some development initiatives are, however, significantly more effective than others. Here, a methodology for the development of analytical and systems thinking skills for purposes of application by adults in operational and strategic work environments is proposed. Given that this methodology is theoretically grounded in Prinsloo’s (1992) model of cognitive processes, a brief overview of her model of thinking processes is provided. This is followed by an outline of the methodology underlying cognitive training in general terms, after which the focus moves to a more specific consideration of analytical and systems thinking skills development.

For purposes of orientation, analytical thinking can broadly be described in terms of the critical or logical consideration of facts and elements to inform decision making in problem solving contexts. Systems thinking, however, largely involves the application of an integrative or holistic cognitive approach aimed at understanding a particular system in terms of the dynamic interplay or interaction of the constituent components of the entire system.

A model of thinking processes

The theoretical model of thinking processes

The development of thinking skills as put forward here is rooted in the self-contained theoretical model of information processes as proposed and researched by Prinsloo in a PhD thesis titled: “A theoretical model and empirical technique for the study of problem solving processes” (1992). As stated elsewhere (Prinsloo & Barrett, 2012), this model of thinking processes was developed with due consideration of existing theories centring on questions regarding the structure of the mind and its bearing on reasoning and problem solving. The resultant model “represents a systems approach concerned with function as a basis for understanding structure, thereby accommodating both the process and structural approaches [in cognitive psychology].” (Prinsloo & Barrett, 2012). For the purposes of this discussion, only those aspects of the model that inform cognitive assessment and training are briefly touched upon.

The model in question identifies a number of interrelated cognitive processes: memory, exploration, analysis, structuring, transformation and metacognition (see figure 1 for a brief description of each of these cognitive processes). It is important to remember that these interrelated processes are to be seen as functional categories or unities with descriptive value rather than disparate categories with explanatory value. For purposes of interpretation these processing constructs can be represented as overlapping fields of a matrix or in terms of a “holons” – a term proposed by Arthur Koestler in his 1967 publication “The ghost in the Machine” as later used by Wilber (2000) to describe the hierarchical organisation of the universe where evolution involves the emergence of increasingly transcendent yet inclusive systems. Holonic organisation implies a degree of overlap between consecutive levels of systems or functional complexity, where higher levels are dependent on, while transcending, preceding levels. That is, as a heuristic tool, the holonic structure involves the organisation of increasingly complex embedded systems where each consecutive level integrates and transcends previous systems or levels. Figure 1 depicts the holonic representation of cognitive processes as proposed by Prinsloo (1992):

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Figure 1: The holonic structure of the processing model

Each of the cognitive processes (memory, exploration, analysis, structuring, transformation and metacognition) in turn encompasses a set of related cognitive functions:

Memory or the storing and retrieving of information forms a basic prerequisite for most of the other thinking processes. As such it involves:

  • Retention (the storing of information)
  • Recall (accessing stored information)
  • Internalisation (imprinting, automating or “owning” information or understanding)

Exploration or the investigation of situations with the purpose of identifying relevant information for further processing mainly involves:

  • Hypothesising (guessing the broad underlying “message” or meaning of a situation)
  • Clarification (distinguishing between vague and sketchy or clear and well-defined information)
  • Focusing and selecting (distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information)
  • Investigation (searching for additional useful, relevant information)

Analysis or the breaking up of situations into their constituent parts with the purpose of establishing interrelationships involves:

  • Differentiation (breaking down of a situation into its subcomponents)
  • Spontaneous comparison (scrutinising differences and similarities between subcomponents)
  • Identification of relationships (establishing the relationships between subcomponents in terms of, for example, opposites, similarities, causality and functionality)
  • Rule application (the application of task specific or logical rules)

Structuring or the moving beyond the mere identification of relationships among subcomponents in order to create meaningful “wholes” involves:

  • Categorisation (simplifying complexity by clustering elements into particular categories)
  • Generalising (moving beyond the details of a situation in order to consider the broader picture)
  • Integration (synthesising elements that may appear contradictory, discrepant or ambiguous)
  • Conceptualisation (mentally structuring information in a coherent and meaningful way to formulate or define what is involved)

Transformation or the process whereby information structures are changed and applied purposefully as solutions across contexts involves:

  • Transference (duplicating solutions or aspects of solutions across contexts)
  • Restructuring (conceptually changing the configuration, representation, interrelationships, and/or meaning of an information structure)
  • Logical reasoning (applying formulae according to certain rules, e.g. avoiding circular arguments). Logical reasoning can be of a convergent and divergent nature to either find an answers to inform a decision, or to laterally generate various alternatives.
  • Contextualisation (adapting solutions to specific contextual requirements to ensure functionality and purposefulness)

Metacognition or the self-aware manner in which one’s thinking processes are monitored, evaluated, planned and corrected if need be, involves:

  • Self-monitoring (tracking and evaluating own thinking)
  • Learning (drawing on feedback regarding one’s performance in order to improve)
  • Strategizing (devising one’s approach in a particular context)
  • Judgment and intuition (developing an awareness of thinking and trust in subconscious messages, links and integrations).

The concept metacognition (or “thinking about own thinking”) constitutes an important component of Prinsloo’s model for purposes of both the assessment and development of cognition. Metacognition is both the encompassing awareness and the process that is required for effectiveness of thinking. Each of the proposed cognitive processes is associated with a set of metacognitive criteria that guides it (see Figure 2). To illustrate: When exploring a situation, one needs to ask questions such as “is this clear?”, “is this relevant?”.

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Figure 2: The metacognitive criteria guiding each process

Prinsloo’s model further hypothesises that these cognitive processes (and their associated sets of related cognitive functions) operate on different levels or in different modes. Four such levels or modes are identified: performance, metacognitive, general or rule, and subconscious levels / modes (see Table 1).

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Table 1: The four levels/modes of processing

The proposed four levels or modes of processing can be described as follows: Processing activity on a performance level primarily focuses on the task material. The metacognitive level involves self-awareness of the problem solver and tends to be of a relatively complex nature.  Processing usually occurs on this level when the problem solver directs, monitors, evaluates and plans the processing that is taking place on the performance level. On the general or rule level, specific procedures are organised and structured as rules. The subconscious level of processing involves activity of a rather unstructured nature, for example, drawing on experience and intuition.

The modes of processing aspect of Prinsloo’s model can therefore be said to reflect certain organising criteria:

  • the degree of structure and order
  • the internal versus external focus of the mental activity and
  • the degree of awareness which is largely implied by the metacognitive versus the general or rule aspects of processing. Awareness is, however, a personal or idiosyncratic phenomenon reflecting the “degree of intelligence” (as a descriptive concept) or goal achievement involved in processing activities. At a subconscious level awareness can, for example, be reflected by the degree of openness to intuitive insights and at a general or rule, level, by an analytical approach. Awareness in its various forms thus applies to all the modes of processing.

The effectiveness of processing activities at each of these modes, depends on the cognitive requirements posed by the specific context. For purposes of illustration, three environments and their processing requirements are briefly described below, namely:

  • complex environments may involve unstructured, vague, ambiguous and unfamiliar information, cognitively challenging problem solving and contextualisation. Here the effective application of metacognitive criteria to guide all performance processes are crucial for goal achievement.
  • structured environments, which require knowledge and experience largely requires the application of memory, exploration, analytical, structuring and logical performance processes according to internalised rules and structures.
  • innovative environments which require creative or “new” approaches rely on the combined use of metacognitive awareness, intuition (and access to the subconscious) as well as integrative and logical conceptual processes.

Besides a holonic structure (Figure 1 above), the interaction between the various cognitive processes can also be represented as fields of a matrix where the axes of the matrix are: (a) various levels of complexity as reflected by the “units of information” involved, namely separate elements, followed by linear causality, tangible systems, interactive systems and chaos, and (b) clusters of thinking skills such as exploration involving amongst other micro processes: focusing, scanning, perception, investigation, hypothesizing, discriminating between relevant and irrelevant information, and selection of relevant and elimination of irrelevant elements. In the development of Prinsloo’s model, the constructs identified in the current literature of intelligence research were clustered and ordered and then linked to various levels of complexity to form a fields of a matrix model. The following abbreviations are used in Table 2 to indicate the processing constructs: M for memory; E for exploration; A for analysis; S for structuring; T for transformation; and R for response.

prinsloo table 2

Table 2: Processing activities represented as overlapping fields of a matrix

Regardless of whether the fields of a matrix or the holonic model is used to represent the interrelationships between constructs, the processing categories of memory, exploration, analysis, structuring and transformation as well as metacognition, can be referred to as functional categories.

The categories overlap to some extent in that the subcomponents, micro-processes or building blocks of each functional category, may also be contained by another functional category of processing skill. For example, a person may compare in order to explore, analyze or structure information. Comparison, can thus form a subcomponent of memory, exploration, analysis, structuring or transformation, depending on the purposes for which it is used and the level of complexity of the units of information involved. The holonic model of thinking processes seems to provide the simplest and most intuitively appealing representation of the interaction of the various thinking processes.

The validation of the theoretical model

The investigation of the construct validity of this theoretical model of cognitive processes involved the use of a multimethod-multitrait research design in terms of which each of the cognitive processes and their metacognitive criteria were investigated using three different assessment methods (Prinsloo, 1992).

The data was compared to the model using linear structural equation modelling (SEM) techniques including Mutmum (multiplicative confirmatory analysis) and the Ramona (additive confirmatory technique) programmes (Brown, 1983) in combination with Joreskog’s (1973) path models for the analysis of covariance structures. Nested and exploratory investigations were done. Various goodness of fit indices were calculated to indicate the degree to which the data and the theoretical model correspond. The Steiger Lind Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) goodness of fit index is normally regarded as the best indicator of model fit. In the case of the proposed model both the RMSEA and the PDFV goodness of fit estimates of both the additive and multiplicative analyses resulted in a point estimate (PE) of 0.000 at the 90% confidence interval, which indicate a good fit and thus the convergent and discriminant validity of the theoretical processing constructs.

The measurement of these cognitive processes: the CPP and LOI

The operationalisation and measurement of the processing constructs as specified by the holonic model proved challenging given the integrated and overlapping nature of thinking processes. Certain criteria were thus built into the design of the expert systems to differentiate between, and categorise, a person’s physical and mental actions in terms of the processing constructs specified by the holonic model. These criteria included:

  • the purpose for which processing activities are applied, or their functional value
  • generality or whether the processing activities are usually associated with a particular process
  • necessity or whether the activity is essential for the performance of a particular process and
  • whether a process is consciously, as opposed to automatically, applied.

The application of these four criteria limited the arbitrariness involved in the grouping and classification of the basic processing units which tend to be of a fluid nature.

The design of the measurement techniques is aimed at externalising and tracking each of the processes of the holonic model therefore involved operationalising or defining in detail each of the hundreds of building blocks of the processes measured, specifying the metacognitive criteria which guided the processing activities and evaluating the way in which these processes were used at specific levels of complexity.

This resulted in the development of two cognitive measurement tools referred to as the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) for the assessment of all adults, and the Learning Orientations Index (LOI) for assessing school and university leavers. To date (2017), approximately  300 000 datasets have been gathered using these techniques and the results have been analysed to determine the metric properties of the assessment tools in terms of, inter alia, validity and reliability. This large body of research findings is available on

The CPP and the LOI assessment techniques involve completely different automated simulation exercises which externalise and track thinking processes across thousands of measurement points and feedback loops. The results are interpreted algorithmically via expert systems. Automated reports are generated to indicate trends as well as strengths and weaknesses in a person’s cognitive functioning. The constructs reported on include: A suitable work environment, the person’s stylistic preferences, cognitive processing competencies, learning potential or cognitive modifiability, preferred task requirements or modes of processing (in terms of the “brain quadrants” metaphor), as well as strengths and development areas. Additional observations are also provided which interprets the overall profile and customised development guidelines are provided for purposes of coaching or training. To illustrate, one aspect of the CPP report is a summary of a person scores on a selected number of cognitive processes as identified by Prinsloo’s model (see Figure 3):

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Figure 3: Summary of a person’s scores on cognitive processing competencies

Sample CPP and LOI reports can be viewed on . These  assessment reports form important cornerstones for further development and training.

Operational and strategic thinking in the work environment

The cognitive preferences and capabilities of a person, as indicated by the CPP and LOI, can be used for various purposes including selection, placement, succession, development, career guidance/pathing and team compilation.

Given that the majority of people assessed on the CPP are professionals or in management and executive roles, the CPP is often used to determine strategic capability.

In CPP terms, a person’s strategic capability and preferences can be determined in terms of their:

  • Stylistic preference: the integrative (systems approach), holistic, intuitive/quick insight, logical and learning styles in particular
  • Work-related processing tendencies: dynamic complexity, strategic orientation, long term follow through and clarification of vague or unstructured information
  • Unit of information: tangible systems, intangible systems as well as chaos and emerging patterns
  • Processing competencies: a qualitative interpretation of the overall profile is required, but the processes of complexity, integration, logical reasoning, verbal conceptualisation, judgement and intuition as well as quick insight and learning are required for strategic application (of these judgement – which also is a measurement of intuition, is particularly important)
  • An above average learning potential are prerequisites for Strategy formulation
  • Work complexity: indications of the Stratified Systems (SST) Tactical Strategy, Parallel Processing and Pure Strategic thinking is required.

The vast majority of people in the work environment, however, prefer dealing with real life, tangible issues. Cognitive application in operational environments is largely characterised by:

  • An emphasis on detail complexity (also measured by IQ tests)
  • A preference for structured work environments where one can rely on knowledge and experience
  • A tendency in terms of stylistic preferences to apply explorative, analytical, structured, memory, reflective, metaphoric and learning styles
  • A preference to deal with following units of information: separate elements, linear causality and tangible structures.

A number of cognitive skills can relatively easily be developed. These include processing competencies such as exploration, analysis, structuring and learning. Other intellectual skills, especially where complexity and emotional factors are involved, are more resistant to modification. Examples are integrative thinking, creative and innovative tendencies, as well as judgement and intuition.

The proposed cognitive training methodology


As mentioned, there are many ways in which to develop cognitive skills ranging from structured courses and programmes to everyday exposure and experiences. This article proposes a methodology that is anchored in the research findings of Prinsloo’s model of cognitive processes. The development approach capitalises on metacognition (i.e.  awareness of one’s own thinking processes) to develop logical, integrative and innovative thinking processes that can be applied in educational and work environments.


The cognitive development methodology can be packaged and presented in a flexible manner as required, but it involves a process by which a person’s current cognitive strengths and development areas are measured by means of the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) or the Learning Orientations Index (LOI).

This measurement component is important as it allows the course designer to focus on appropriate skills at accessible levels of complexity. Once a clear picture of the current and potential cognitive functioning of a team or group is obtained, a developmental programme can be designed to capitalise on everyone’s skills with the goal of enhancing their areas of development.

Before the discussion turns to a more specific consideration of training focussed on analytical and systems thinking, some general observations with regards to cognitive training in general, seem in order:

Work-related content

The content of the course will involve work-related challenges. For example, in operational environments the content of the analytical thinking skills course revolves around typically problematic issues that have resulted in error or ineffectiveness. In strategic contexts the content of the systems thinking course focuses on the strategic challenges of the organisation.

The facilitation of the development process

A facilitator will follow a particular process aimed at the application and practice of specific cognitive functions by means of metacognitive tools and group processes. Group dynamics and social reinforcement are therefore capitalised on by the facilitator to encourage engagement and to reinforce new learning.

All contributions and new insights need to be documented as part of the process review.

The required time for the internalisation of skills

Although the format of the course can be adapted to the particular development needs and the time available, a typical course tends to require two to three days of focused and intensive exposure followed up monthly thereafter to ensure transfer of the newly acquired cognitive skills. During the months of follow up, the application of the processes and conclusions from the initial training should repeatedly be applied using new and challenging content. Assignments can also be introduced for accreditation purposes.

The aim of the developmental process is to introduce and move towards the internalisation of metacognitive criteria by which the person can independently guide his/her own thinking.

The cognitive skills development courses thus differs from typical educational and business school courses in that the emphasis is not on the “What” or knowledge content, but the “How” of thinking in that it provides an opportunity to become aware of and practice metacognitive skills until these are automatically applied. It can be compared to the process of learning to drive, where specific motor skills have to be practiced in a focused manner initially, then combined to be applied simultaneously, which with practice become automated.

The cognitive training methodology for analytical and systems thinking: an overview

Differences between the analytical and systems thinking courses are summarised in Table 3 below. The training methodology in both cases revolves around metacognitive awareness. Systems thinking skills presuppose a foundation of well-developed analytical skills. Candidates for the systems thinking approach are therefore selected based on their cognitive assessment results, as those who prefer an operational thinking approach, may find the complexity and abstraction involved in systems thinking too challenging. The systems and analytical courses thus differ in terms of the process followed, the content of the materials used and the complexity of the metacognitive criteria involved.

prinsloo table 3

Table 3: comparison between the analytical and systems thinking courses

For the purposes of both analytical and systems thinking training, the process thus normally starts off with the cognitive assessment of all participants using the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) or the Learning Orientations Index (LOI). The CPP is used for all adults in the work environment, as well as school- and university leavers. The LOI can be used in the case of school- and university leavers.

For the purposes of both the analytical and systems thinking courses, job-related content is used to assist in the transfer of newly acquired cognitive skills to the work environment. In the case of the analytical skills course, the facilitator’s in-depth understanding of the work culture and industry is, however, not as important as is the case with the systems thinking training course. All exercises are also guided by metacognitive criteria. As explained below, the developmental initiatives for analytical thinking and systems thinking are designed in terms of their suitability to specific work-related contexts (see Table 4):

prinsloo table 4

Table 4: The focus of analytical and systems thinking development courses and their suitability to specific work-related contexts

Thus, both courses are designed to include content from the respective contexts applicable to analytical and systems thinking. The analytical skills course focuses on the development of skills suitable for structured or relatively structured operational environments characterised by tangible information. In these environments the following units of information are dealt with: separate elements, linear causality and tangible systems. The systems thinking course focuses on cognitive application in strategic environments where more complex integrative, logical and intuitive processes are required to deal with both tangible and intangible systems as well as chaos and emerging patterns.

The role of the facilitator cannot be overemphasised as the effectiveness of the cognitive development methodology largely depends on the skills of the facilitator. Not only does the facilitator require in-depth theoretical knowledge of cognitive functioning, but he/she also needs to understand the cognitive profiles of the delegates; have to guide the process followed; need to keep the course interesting, inspiring and reinforcing; and need to have a good idea of what the cognitive requirements of the  job or organisation are.

The size of the group trained is also important, especially in the case of the systems thinking course. The groups should ideally include 8 – 12 individuals. In the case of the systems thinking courses, delegates who already show Tactical Strategy capacity or higher level capability as indicated by the CPP, benefit most from the course.

Regardless of the course involved, newly acquired skills only become internalised over time and given repeated application and practice. Follow up sessions and opportunities and discussions around the application of the newly acquired cognitive skills contribute in this regard. Opportunities for self-evaluation further entrench the metacognitive awareness of own thinking skills.

The metacognitively driven development approach is thus based on the following training principles:

  • It is a facilitated process and the knowledge and skill of the facilitator are crucial
  • Understanding of a person’s analytical and systems thinking skills as based on assessment results inform the selection of delegates and the cognitive skills as addressed by the facilitator during the course
  • The courses revolve around creating metacognitive awareness and the application of metacognitive criteria
  • Reinforcement and practice through repeated reminders and application of metacognitive criteria takes place to facilitate the internalisation of the newly acquired cognitive skills
  • Repeated self-assessment opportunities are provided to further enhance metacognitive awareness
  • Long term follow-up is required to ensure the practice and internalisation of newly acquired metacognitive skills 

The development of analytical thinking skills

A description of analytical thinking

Analytical thinking largely involves the objective and critical consideration of facts to make judgements and solve problems. It involves the application of thinking processes such as those of memory, exploration, analysis, structuring, conceptualisation, logical reasoning and decision making. Analytical thinking is often referred to as critical thinking and is described as rational, linear-causal, logical or rule-based, unbiased and objective (although emotional factors may derail it to some extent).

Thus, analytical thinking involves:

  • a focus on facts, elements, observations
  • the measurement of tangible information
  • a focus on the interrelationships between elements
  • a focus on static or stable phenomena
  • linear-causal reasoning
  • a detailed, precise and accurate approach
  • the categorisation of issues
  • planning of problem solving approaches

The analytical thinking skills course: an outline

After having assessed candidates for the course on the CPP and/or the LOI (in order to identify strengths and weaknesses in terms of their thinking processes) and having conducted job analyses (to get examples of work related challenges that will be incorporated into the course), the candidates are provided with some background reading on the subjects of thinking processes in general and analytical thinking in particular. Although the background reading represents a simplified version of the theoretical underpinnings of Prinsloo’s model, it serves in creating an awareness of thinking skills and the role of metacognition in addressing the effectiveness of one’s thinking. Pre-reading is, however, not a prerequisite for the course.

The actual 2 – 3 day course commences with a self-assessment exercise where individual candidates are provided an opportunity to evaluate themselves in terms of their current implementation an analytical thinking. This questionnaire includes items such as (see Figure 4):

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Figure 4: Examples of items in the self-evaluation questionnaire for analytical thinking skills

In fact, assessment forms an integral part of the course. Pre- and post-course 360 degree evaluations of the level of analytical skill of each of the delegates, or alternatively, ratings from peers, managers and mentors can also be used in addition to the CPP, the LOI and self-assessment by delegates. This allows the candidates to enhance their metacognitive awareness, and to track skill improvements during the course which may have a motivating effect.

The concept of analytical thinking is then introduced in term of the cognitive processes of Prinsloo’s model. However, in the case of the analytical thinking course the focus is less on the theory than on experiencing the effective application of analytical skills. Throughout the discussion, the importance of metacognition is stressed as the goal of the analytical thinking skills training is the internalisation of metacognitive criteria to guide own thinking processes.

A next step is to allow delegates to consider a variety of factors that may impact negatively on analytical thinking. A number of exercises are introduced, aimed at creating an awareness of one’s own emotional tendencies that could potentially derail analytical thinking. Examples of emotional factors that may impact negatively on analytical thinking are provided in Figure 5:

The delegates are also provided with practical guidelines and customised exercises designed to increase awareness of, and moderate the negative impact of emotions (see Table 5):

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Table 5: Examples of guidelines for countering emotional factors that may derail analytical thinking

In addition to emotional factors, language and habits in dialogue and self-talk are also focused on in terms of their influence on the application of analytical thinking. Practical scenarios are generated to foster an awareness of these factors that may counter analytical thinking. An example of these is given in Table 6:

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Table 6: Examples of language and habits in dialogue and self-talk that may have a negative impact on analytical thinking

A humorous exercise may trigger interest in the principles involved in analytical thinking. Sagan’s “Baloney detection kit”  provides useful material for such an exercise. The group can discuss examples of the following logical errors for example:

  • Circular argument: assuming what you are trying to prove
  • Attacking the arguer and not the argument: a statement is “flawed” because of the speaker’s personality
  • Straw man: refuting a proposition different from the one you are trying to prove
  • Appeal to authority: basing you arguments on the reputation of the source, e.g. “the president says so”
  • Appeal to majority: using a high degree of consensus as proof for an argument, e.g. “everybody does that”
  • Appeal to force: persuasion by force
  • Appeal to ignorance: accepting that which cannot be proved as valid / true
  • Appeal to emotion: persuasion by calling on strong emotional reactions
  • Wishful thinking: extrapolating truth from desire
  • False alternatives: omitting one or more valid options from consideration
  • Assuming the answer: argument based on a false assumption (begging the question), e.g. “bring back the death penalty to erase violent crime”
  • Non sequitur (it does not follow): using irrelevant premises to support a conclusion, e.g. “our nation will win the war because God is with us”
  • Post hoc: using correlation to imply causation

This introduction to analytical thinking is concluded by differentiating between analytical thinking as a thinking style and analytical thinking as a cognitive process.

The main emphasis of the course remains the awareness of and utilisation of metacognition in honing analytical thinking skills. The main metacognitive criteria addressed here are:

  • Relevance (select and focus on pertinent information)
  • Clarity (distinguish between clear and vague aspects of information in order to enhance understanding of the situation)
  • Systematisation (work in a methodical and step-wise manner)
  • Relationship (ascertain how components are related to one another)
  • Accuracy (deal with information in a precise and correct manner)
  • Meaningfulness (avoid fragmented thinking and construct a comprehensive big picture)
  • Level of abstraction (ascertain the appropriate level of abstraction at which the issue should be approached)
  • Purposefulness (keep the aim or goal in mind)
  • Appropriateness and applicability (ensure that the solution fits the problem)

Each of these metacognitive skills can be translated into questions one asks about one’s thinking. Examples of these questions appear in Table 7:

prinsloo table 7

Table 7: Examples of questions asked about one’s own thinking in term of the metacognitive criteria for analytical thinking

These metacognitive skills are applied and practiced repeatedly in order to assist the delegates in internalising the use of metacognitive criteria. This is normally done by allocating metacognitive criteria or “voices” to individual delegates, given their natural cognitive strengths as revealed by the CPP or LOI assessment. For example, one person will represent the “voice of relevance” while another may become the “voice of accuracy”.

Once the “voices” have been allocated to individual delegates, they usually have to introduce their metacognitive criterion, or their “voice” to the group, using a creative and/or humorous metaphor. For example, a surgical scalpel can be selected and introduced in a humorous manner as the “voice of precision”; or a kaleidoscope as the voice of creativity; or a baking recipe for coherence.

During the course each delegate will have the power to interrupt the discussion of work-related problems and challenges, by reminding the group of their specific metacognitive voice or criterion which is being neglected. The carrier of the voice thus holds the power to stop the group process and to remind others of the importance of that particular criterion. For example, the “voice of precision” may object to the group overgeneralising a matter. Or the “voice of meaningfulness” should make itself heard when the group comes up with a fragmented or unintegrated solution. This process can even be dramatized for effect by using gongs, toys, symbolic objects, flags or whatever is most suitable given the group.

The exercises thus includes repeated reminders of the appropriate metacognitive criteria that should guide thinking processes when reasoning or solving problems. The facilitator can also capitalise on the group dynamics to reinforce appropriate and effective reminders. This will result in the internalisation of the metacognitive criteria by those who may not have thought of it themselves, but who notice the social benefits and the power of these criteria in generating optimal solutions. The reinforcement of those who carry the “voices” or criteria, may therefore inspire others to adopt these considerations as part of their own repertoire of thinking skills.

At a certain point during the course, the facilitator may feel that everyone in the group has had sufficient exposure to all the relevant metacognitive criteria due to the interruptions of the various “voices” by those who naturally apply those criteria. Others in the group, to whom the use of these criteria do not come naturally, may at this point start to become aware of the questions they need to ask themselves when thinking or solving problems. They may, however, not yet have internalised the new criteria or “voices”.

The facilitator will then decide to switch the “voices” by allocating to each delegate their weakest voice or most unused metacognitive criterion. In this way, weaknesses can be addressed through opportunity to represent the metacognitive criterion that require further practice. These metacognitive weaknesses of each person are clearly indicated by the CPP and LOI reports. The training process then proceeds while generously recognising those who manage to remind others of metacognitive criteria – even though they themselves have not yet fully internalised these criteria.

Practicing the appropriate metacognitive criteria is done by using work-related content. The delegates identify a number of job-related functions from real life situations. These job-related functions are analysed in terms of the cognitive processes of exploration, analysis, structuring and integration as well as transformation (each with its related sub-components as discussed above), memory and metacognition. Examples of typical content and the practice of specific cognitive processes, in this case, the process of exploration, as well as the underlying metacognitive criteria, appear in Figure 6:

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Figure 6: Example of practicing the Exploration process in terms of typical job-related content

Similar tables are made available and used to guide exercises of analysis, structuring, and transformational processes. In each case the sub-components of the processing construct being practiced and the applicable metacognitive criteria are provided to the facilitator. By repeated use of the relevant metacognitive criteria in combination with the implementation of metacognitive voices during the exercises, the delegates gradually start to internalise and automate the metacognitive criteria.

Besides an in-depth and focused exercise over two to three days, Analytical skills training also involves follow up, to practice and internalise the newly acquired skills. The initial intensive exposure to these skills can perhaps be followed up weekly or monthly. The structuring of such a course depends on the circumstances and the motivation of the delegates. Discussion of personal experiences and work groups can also be capitalised on to further emphasise the importance of always asking the right questions.

The development of systems thinking skills

Background and historical roots

Systems thinking remains a critical prerequisite for the strategic viability of organisations. This skill is unfortunately seldom taught within educational and training contexts where the focus is on the transfer of knowledge and skills. Unless a systems thinking awareness is cultivated within an organisation, the principles of learning organisations will not be adopted by the critical mass of people. This may result in the gradual deterioration of learning values and ideals into mere window dressing.

Pre-systems thinking was characterised by a mechanistic approach: everything is determined by something that precedes it. Mechanistic thinking adheres to causality, analysis and reductionism, and it assumes that the universe is constructed of building blocks arranged in a hierarchy. However, the complexity characterising both biological and social systems, clearly defies such reductionism.

The systems approach gained momentum in the 1940s in the field of biology. According to this approach, organisms were to be treated as whole entities that have emergent properties that go well beyond a mere sum of their parts, and that represent open systems in interaction with their environments.

A description of systems thinking

Systems thinking involves a focus on:

  • dynamic complexity, processes and root causes
  • the whole as opposed to the parts
  • an understanding of the interdependence, adaptiveness and self-organising capacity of systems
  • an integrative and holistic approach to deal with complexity and abstract ideas
  • effective representation of ideas by architecturing or creating mind maps
  • openness, a learning orientation and a reliance on intuitive insights
  • the creation of innovative possibilities
  • the consideration of duration as a critical factor in systems dynamics
  • an awareness of the long term downstream effects of decisions
  • metacognitive self-awareness

The systems thinking approach is by no means a unified theory, but it is of particular importance in strategic contexts, and it presupposes analytical skills.

The systems thinking skills course: an outline

As is the case with the analytical thinking skills course, pre-course assessment is a requirement for attendance of the systems thinking skills course. Candidates for the course are then presented with background reading on systems thinking. With the background reading delegates are introduced to the concept of systems thinking, a theoretical discussion of the different systems thinking approaches as well as to the cognitive skills relevant to systems thinking. The concept of strategic thinking is also introduced, specifically in terms of the different levels of work environments as proposed by the Stratified Systems Theory (SST). Background reading is, however, not a prerequisite for course attendance.

The 3 – 4 day course commences with a self-evaluation exercise. Examples of items in this questionnaire appear in Figure 7:

prinsloo figure 7

Figure 7: Examples of items in the self-evaluation questionnaire on systems thinking

The results of the questionnaire are then discussed by focussing on the concept of systems thinking:  its definition, a comparison between analytical and systems thinking, an exposition of the limitations of a linear approach in leadership and management, and a description of strategic thinking.

Given that one of the aims of the systems thinking course involves demystifying systems concepts and dynamics, useful graphics and taxonomies that are available in the literature, are capitalised on. Theoretical models such as those of Flood and Jackson (1995) are provided to inform a big picture understanding of the field. To illustrate: Flood and Jackson have differentiated between systems models in terms of a number of criteria (see Table 8):

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Table 8: Different systems models in terms of complexity involved and the relationship between the parts with regards to goal attainment

Flood and Jackson (1995) combine these criteria to form a two-dimensional framework by which existing systems theories can be categorised (Table 9).

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Table 9: framework for categorising existing systems theories

Various strategic levels in the organisation deal with systems challenges of different levels of complexity. Guidance in terms of the most useful and appropriate systems model by which to address those issues, is bound to optimise the outcome of the initiative involved.  For example, the strategic challenges dealt with at the organisational levels of functional or tactical strategy (in terms of the Stratified Systems Theory / SSY), is aimed at operational optimisation of the organisation. Challenges around resource deployment and the efficiencies of operational systems may be involved. Both simple and complex unitary systems models thus apply.

Business Strategy which is referred to as Parallel Processing environments (in terms of the Stratified Systems Theory / SST), is aimed at the optimal integration and strategic alignment of the organisation to ensure organisational viability. Pluralist systems are therefore dealt with.

Corporate Strategy referred to as the Pure Strategic level of work is aimed at the strategic viability of the industry through organisational leadership according to strategic intent, as well as with organisational growth via acquisitions and divestitures. Primarily pluralist and coercive systems are thus to be dealt with.

Although systems thinking is not about rigidly applying blueprints and recipes, an awareness of the following basic principles, as formulated by Senge (1995), amongst others, may facilitate the application of a systems approach:

  • The goals and objectives of the system are critical
  • Awareness of own paradigms and mental models is a prerequisite for systems thinking
  • An awareness of the whole is required
  • Reverse the relationship between the parts and the whole
  • Avoid “either-or” thinking; Rather replace this with “and-but” arguments
  • Linear cause-and-effect thinking makes way for an understanding of circular causality
  • Cause and effect are not closely related in time and space and short-term solutions may cause crises in the long term
  • Refrain from oversimplifying to rather preserve variety
  • Shift from thinking in terms of structure to thinking in terms of process
  • Abandon the notion of fundamental building blocks in favour of dynamic interrelatedness
  • Social systems are not comprised of isolated individuals
  • Focus on long-term consequences and root causes
  • See problems as symptoms of certain underlying processes
  • Avoid blame, as causes of problems are part of the same system
  • Capitalise on intuition by accepting seemingly contradictory representations of the situation and finding a perspective that can accommodate all views
  • Respect response time between actions and the effects to accommodate for delays
  • When working with social systems, perceptions are key
  • Look for points of amplification: small changes to the system can produce big results, but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious
  • Often the cause of a problem is nothing more than an earlier solution to another problem
  • The more effort is invested into something, the more effort the system requires
  • There is often a delay between short-term benefits and long-term dis-benefits
  • Applying familiar solutions may not have the expected outcome as pushing harder and harder on familiar issues will not guarantee the removal of the underlying problem
  • Most systems have optimal rates of growth. Pushing to ensure optimal growth rates can be counter-productive as excessive growth may set in motion processes that counter-balance the process
  • Small, well focused changes when applied at the right place can have enduring, far-reaching consequences – referred to as leverage

Before starting with the actual systems thinking process aimed at dealing with the organisation’s strategic challenges, these principles can be discussed and interesting examples generated by participating delegates.

The perspectives gained from the above and other contributions in the literature, facilitate the categorisation of management or strategic challenges, and contribute to the formulation of integrated solutions to these issues. The theoretical models and approaches are, however, merely provided in the background reading for the course, and are briefly referred to where appropriate during course.

The initial theoretical exposure is followed by four phases of systems thinking training, each of which reflects the processing categories which are also addressed by the analytical skills course, namely:

  • First phase: exploring the strategic challenge of the organisation (Exploration)
  • Second phase: the dynamic analysis of the challenge (Analysis)
  • Third phase: creative strategy formulation (Structuring, Integration and Conceptualisation)
  • Fourth phase: consolidation and contextualisation of the strategic solution (Transformation)

The process is aimed at the acquisition of an integrative, intuitive and holistic cognitive approach to deal with strategic issues.

The metacognitive criteria dealt with in the systems thinking course differ somewhat from those applicable to the analytical skills course. For purposes of systems thinking development, the group is facilitated to generate and select the most appropriate metacognitive criteria in terms of which each of the above mentioned four phases of systems thinking.  At the end of each phase they evaluate the degree to which they have implemented those metacognitive criteria as well as the value add of the various criteria.

Thus, each of the four phases is guided by certain set of metacognitive criteria. The first explorative phase takes place in terms of the metacognitive criteria of openness, depth, focus, appropriateness, significance, relevance and clarity. The second analytical phase is guided by the criteria of interdependence, circularity, necessity, generality and quantification. The second and third phases both of which involve the structuring and integration of the required strategic solution, have to meet the criteria of coherence, meaningfulness, structural adequacy, specificity, parsimony, leverage points, operationalisation, legitimacy or validity, heuristic utility, architecture, comprehensiveness and abstraction. The third and fourth phases which entail the transformation and contextualisation of the strategic solution, involve the application of the metacognitive criteria of practical utility, appropriateness, falsification, unusualness/creativity, intuition, symbolism and contextualisation.

First phase: Exploring the strategic challenge of the organisation

The process starts off by pinpointing the strategic challenge of the organisation. It requires an in-depth investigation of the factors involved. Various techniques can be used to engage all the delegates. One such technique is referred to as the “soft-shoe-shuffle” which involves individual delegates to make statements on what they regard as the key strategic challenges of the organisation. They then position themselves in the room. Others move closer when they agree, or move away should they disagree with the statement. This process can easily continue for 3 or more hours, during which the group continuously moves around. Towards the end a polarisation of opinion often emerges.

The “Process work” of Mindell & Mindell (1992) may be of particular value for the facilitator of this process as it explains group dynamics, inter alia, why the group reaches an impasse, how to facilitate breakthroughs, how to achieve deep democracy, and how to support weak voices.

During the “soft shoe shuffle” exercise, and while the facilitator helps to clarify and strongly express the messages of group members, process notes need to be taken by a co-facilitator. All the points mentioned, whether these be real challenges, merely symptoms of a problem or even emotional or personal issues, need to be recorded.

On completion of the “shoft shoe shuffle” exercise, all factors mentioned need to be categorised and represented in a table format. A relatively manageable number of categories, e.g. ten to twelve, is ideal. The question “why” can repeatedly be asked to get to certain root causes of more superficial symptoms. Table 10 illustrates some of the possible results of this exercise.

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Table 10: An example of the results of the “soft shoe shuffle” exercise

Certain criteria then need to be identified by the group in terms of which the categories of challenges can be evaluated. The typical metacognitive criteria which apply for the effective exploration of issues include those of: openness, depth, focus, appropriateness, significance, relevance and clarity.

In order to accommodate those with a strong business orientation, who may initially find the use of the metacognitive criteria difficult, one can also link the metacognitive criteria to commonly used business criteria such as the well-known dimensions of risk, growth and strategy.

  • Risk: the degree of risk involved can be evaluated in terms of criteria such as: “how significant / relevant / costly / impactful can this challenge be to the organisation?”; “how pervasive is the issue?” (as opposed to being localised or contained); “to what extent will it impact stakeholders that may react negatively by disinvesting, withdrawing or sabotaging the organisation?”
  • Growth: the dynamic nature of the impending challenges, or considerations related to growth, can be explored in-depth through criteria such as “to what extent will the issue grow dynamically over time and thus take on a whole new momentum?” (as opposed to being temporary);
  • Strategy: the conceptual implications of the challenges being faced as well as potential responses to these can be evaluated in terms of criteria such as: “to what extent is it a threat to the core competence, or value proposition, or strategic intent of the organisation?” (as opposed to being a serious but manageable operational challenge); “what are the chances of this challenge to act as a catalyst in derailing organisational strategy.”

These or other criteria can be selected by which the categories of issues can be evaluated. Only three criteria are required. The group then needs to rate the seriousness of the challenge, problem or threat by allocating a score out of 10 for each of the categories, on each of the three criteria. The conversations and opinions which are likely to be prompted within the group will already assist in clarifying which challenges are mere symptoms or inconveniences, or whether they are serious root causes that may derail organisational effectiveness. Table 11 illustrates possible outcomes of this process.

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Table 11: Examples of the categorisation of challenges and criteria needed for evaluation

Based on this process, various subgroups are then tasked with formulating hypotheses regarding the key challenges facing the organisation (see Table 12):

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Table 12: Examples of hypotheses regarding organisational challenges

This exploration process is a critical part of the systems thinking process and normally takes a full day. In fact, it basically is more important than any of the other phases of the systems thinking process and is the one issue most commonly neglected by those involved in strategy formulation. Even if there is no time to continue with the other phases of the systems thinking course, going through the exploration phase alone may reveal fundamental issues that need to be addressed. The “soft shoe shuffle” exercise and evaluation in terms of meta-criteria tends to break outdated and inappropriate paradigms and alliances in executive teams. It challenges groupthink and the “sacred cows” of corporate politics as well as counter-productive assumptions that are never disputed. It also entails an opportunity to share and understand the various views held by individual group members. The skill of the facilitator is, however, a crucial catalyst in optimising the impact of this exploration process.  As mentioned, knowledge of and experience of Mindell & Mindell’s “Process work” comes in handy to achieve the necessary mind shift for all group members.

It is important not to achieve closure prematurely, or define the challenge by the end of the first day, as the discomfort with “unfinished business” tends to stimulate subconscious processing which may result in creative thinking and greater clarity of the issue.

A critical aspect of the exploration phase is, however, for group members to identify, and evaluate this first phase in terms of certain metacognitive criteria. The goal is to create awareness of, and practice these metacognitive criteria sufficiently in order to be internalised and applied automatically – almost like driving skills that become automated.

The fundamental and in-depth exploration of the challenge will then inform the next phase of the strategic thinking process which is the dynamic analysis of the organisation’s strategic challenges.

Second phase: The dynamic analysis of the strategic challenges

The next phase involves the dynamic analysis of the root causes of the strategic challenges of the organisation. In addition, it provides simple techniques to reveal the leverage points and catalysts for change. For this, the definition of the strategic challenge is analysed in terms of the most appropriate “systems archetypes” as proposed by Senge (1990).

Senge pointed out that social systems tend to have certain patterns or structures that tend to recur. He referred to these as “systems archetypes” or “generic structures”. In other words, there are certain scenarios according to which systems behaviour presents itself. If one can recognise the scenario or systems archetype, areas of low and high leverage can normally be identified. Thus, the systems archetypes provide models according to which organisational problems can be analysed. Senge (1990, p 390 – 399 and in 2006, 73 – 116) indicates ten such archetypes (see Table 13):

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Table 13: Senge’s 10 systems archetypes

Each of these archetypes can be represented graphically which allows interesting exercises by which subgroups can populate the archetypal graphs based on the information that was gathered during the exploration phase.

Given the fact that time limitations may not allow the use of all the various archetypes, the facilitator can introduce one or more appropriate archetype from each of the following categories:

  • Some of the systems archetypes depict the dynamics of competition. These are:
  • Escalation
  • Success to the successful
  • Tragedy of commons
  • Others reflect growth principles, including:
  • Growth and underinvestment
  • Eroding goals
  • Limits to growth
  • While a number reflect the impact of short term solutions, namely:
  • Fixes that fail
  • Shifting the burden
  • Shifting the burden to the intervenor
  • Balance process with delay
  • (Eroding goals can also be categorised here)

The identification of leverage points hold the power to potentially shift and transform long standing and recurring mind-sets regarding organisational challenges.

To illustrate, two examples of system archetypes are given in Table 14 where delegates populated the archetypes with aspects of strategic challenges of their organisation and pinpoint potential points of leverage:

prinsloo table 14

Table 14: Dynamic analysis in terms of Senge’s systems archetypes: 2 examples

Thus, by analysing real life organisational challenges in terms of Senge’s systems archetypes, delegates can arrive at sets of leverage points necessary to address the strategic challenges of the organisation. A critical aspect of this phase of dynamic analysis is for group members to identify, and evaluate their analytical activities in terms of certain metacognitive criteria that best apply to dynamic analyses, namely: interdependence, circularity, necessity, generality and quantification. Again the goal is to create awareness of, and practice these metacognitive criteria sufficiently for them to be internalised and applied automatically.

Third phase: Creative strategy formulation

Once an in-depth understanding of the nature of the challenge, its dynamics and potential leverage points have been achieved, the so-called strategic challenge has to be conceptualised and a creative strategy formulated to address the issue.

Conceptualising the challenge

The strategic challenge has to be formulated in terms of the “what”, “how”, “why”, “when” and “where” of the issue. The core of the challenge needs to be captured at a relatively abstract level while its subcomponents (and critical details) can also be represented as a tree structure or flow diagram.

This conceptualisation of the strategic challenge can be evaluated and refined in terms of the typical metacognitive criteria required for effective conceptualisation (or structuring and integration), namely: coherence, meaningfulness, legitimacy or validity, structural adequacy, specificity (i.e. operationalisation), parsimony, leverage points, heuristic utility,  comprehensiveness and abstraction.

Creative strategies to address the organisational challenges will then be formulated using various techniques.

Creative strategy formulation

In order to challenge the delegates to enter what often is unchartered waters for them, it is useful to clearly differentiate between tactical planning and broad strategy formulation.

Already in 1994, Minzberg argued that strategic thinking should not be confused with strategic planning, and that planning in fact spoils strategic thinking. To him the manipulation of numbers has little to do with strategic vision. He pointed out that planning is an analytical exercise which revolves around the breaking down of goals into steps, whereas creative strategy involves the thinking processes of synthesis, intuition and creativity. To Minzberg the outcome of strategic thinking involves an integrated perspective of the enterprise and a not-too-precisely articulated vision of direction. It is not about rearranging established categories, but creating new ones. Creativity is thus a critical component of strategy formulation.

Course delegates often experience discomfort when having to generate creative options as creativity is a much under-utilised facility in the corporate environment. This resistance from rationally trained managers and executives is, however, mostly short-lived, as “permission” to generate random ideas, is quickly responded to. In fact, in hindsight these creative exercises are often referred to as the most liberating and enlightening aspect of the course.

It is useful to discuss the matter of creativity as part of the course as this may enhance self-insight with regards to the topic of creativity. To some, creativity comes naturally. Included are those who love the world of ideas, are quite critical, enjoy hypothesising, have the habit of looking at things from different perspectives, are dreamers, enjoy playing devil’s advocate, have active imaginations, practice their intuitive capabilities, are open-minded, inquisitive and explorative, show well-developed metacognitive awareness, love to understand alternative views and mental models, are not easily satisfied by a solution, live a symbolic life by noticing synchronicities, metaphors and the like, compete with themselves, are introspective, have abundant energy, and are continually open to new opportunities.

A person’s creative abilities are often hampered by a need for routine, certainty and structure, fear and risk aversion, a blaming attitude, avoidance of responsibility, an authoritarian inclination, over-dependence on others, a feeling of being out of control, a lack of motivation, stagnation in an unchanging work environment, an “either-or” approach and a highly judgemental attitude.

The proposed process of strategy creation of the systems thinking course is guided by the leverage points generated during the dynamic analysis process as it is very important to anchor the creative process by means of intentionality.

Various approaches can be used to stimulate creative strategy formulation of which intuition probably offers the most viable route. Mertens (2002) provides various techniques by which intuition can be practiced and refined, some of which are useful for the development of systems thinking. These include developing a greater sensitivity to bodily reactions, symbolic messages, synchronicities, dreams, and other pointers towards transcendent awareness. The facilitator of the course should, however, carefully select appropriate techniques to stimulate intuition so as not to alienate delegates of a more “grounded” disposition.

Besides practicing intuition, there are also additional techniques which can be capitalised on, including efforts to capture the essence of the “big picture” involved; the formulation of “unreasonable” ideas; generating unusual perspectives; applying “backward reasoning” to link unusual ideas to practical situation, and many others, all of which are rarely practiced in the often pressurised and technical world of work. Table 14 illustrates two such techniques: being “unreasonable” and being “childish”.

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Table 14: Stimulating creative strategy formulation: being unreasonable and being childish

Whatever the techniques of choice are to stimulate creativity, it usually is beneficial to also make a point of postponing logical-analytical judgements of creative insights; to remain open and aware for subtle cues (such as synchronicities); to invest in living a symbolic life; and to trust one’s own insight – given the skill to differentiate between assumption and insight.

The creative process, like all the other phases of the systems thinking approach should also be guided by metacognitive criteria such as the degree of unusualness or creativity of the ideas formulated, otherwise referred to as innovativeness, the purposefulness of the strategic approach given the potential leverage available and the applicability of the strategy. The viability of the proposed strategies should also be evaluated in terms of business, socio-political and environmental risks and constraints.

Allow these creative ideas to “incubate” overnight and start the next session by creating strategy. These strategies then need to be evaluated in terms of certain metacognitive criteria, including: parsimony, coherence, meaningfulness, structural adequacy, comprehensiveness, specificity, creativity, legitimacy and abstraction.

Strategy formulation utilising the creative process in conjunction with metacognitive criteria is illustrated by means of an example in Figure 8:

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Figure 8: Example of strategy formulation

The above formulation then needs to be evaluated in terms of the following metacognitive criteria:

An evaluation of the strategy formulated: This strategy integrated core aspects discussed during the dynamic analysis phase. It is somewhat fragmented though and fails to align all the recommendations. Although formulated in general terms, it addresses the issue from functional, business and corporate strategy levels. A creative metaphor informed the crux of the strategy. Specific elements such as the content of the offering (both entertaining and educational) and the envisioned organisational structure, are perhaps superfluous (and does not fit in with the participative and research approach suggested).


A useful technique to stimulate creativity is to generate metaphors for the various strategies that are generated. Each metaphor can then be described in terms of its characteristics, which can then be capitalised on to refine the strategy formulation.

The metaphor used in this case:

  • Signal-noise ratio (S/N) of sound technologies

Phase 4: Consolidation and Contextualisation

 The strategy formulated by delegates in the previous phase needs to fit the appropriate level of work involved. The “match” between strategy and work complexity (in terms of the aforementioned SST) can be summarised as follows:

  • Functional strategy – as reflective of the Tactical Strategy levels
  • Business strategy – as reflective of the Parallel Processing level
  • Corporate strategy – as reflected by the Pure Strategic level

The levels of work complexity are graphically represented below (see Figure 9).

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Figure 9: Levels of work in terms of complexity

These levels differ considerably in terms of the complexity of the information being dealt with, its tangibility, dynamics, the level of abstraction and the level of interaction of the various elements in specific.

The facilitator should therefore remind the delegates of the various levels involved and then evaluate each of the strategies in terms of its applicability to various environments. In terms of the example provided in Figure 7 above, “informed refinement of the organisational intent and operations” has applicability on the following levels:

  • Tactical strategy
  • Parallel Processing
  • Pure Strategy

An interesting finding in this regard is that strategy formulation in most companies take place at a Tactical Strategy and Parallel Processing level, but that the Tactical Strategy is usually embraced by the majority given its focus on implementation.

Implementing the strategy

No matter how inspirational the formulated strategy is, its implementation is often derailed by the complexity of reality.  Implementation cannot simply be approached in a linear, piecemeal fashion. A holistic and integrative approach is required. Mintzberg (1994) also suggests in this regard that strategies be formulated as broad visions that can easily be adapted to changing environments.

Successful implementation of strategy requires the careful consideration of factors that may have an impact, particularly those that may prevent what was planned. It is also important to maintain a clear strategic goal while allowing for operational flexibility. The consolidation and contextualisation of the strategy is thus a crucial prerequisite before implementation.

A number of factors that may impact on the implementation of strategy, can be dealt with.

Social factors in particular can be problematic. Issues such as the following can be discussed by delegates:

  • the social structure of the system (including accountability, recognition, performance, feedback and communication, as well as values)
  • the current versus ideal social structures
  • power dynamics (that may be dictated by positional power, connection power or buddy systems, information power, reward and punishment power and the informal lines of authority and influence)
  • stakeholder alignment or potential conflict among stakeholders – both internal and external to the organisation

Besides social factors, organisational characteristics related to its structure, business processes and measurement options for tracking intangible progress, need to be addressed. In the case of business process, due consideration is to be given to all the intangibles involved, including strategy formulation, strategy communication through briefing sessions, implementation by means of a business plan, monitoring and feedback.

The content of strategic interventions usually pertains to its vision, values, management of intangibles, annual plans, and reward management. The implementation processes may entail a focus on information exchange, the integration of projects and the management of projects. The structures involved may include the market or customers, suppliers, the organisational design, cross-functional teams and roles.

The effectiveness of this consolidation phase also need to take place in terms of certain metacognitive criteria. Consideration of the purposefulness and goal orientation, the sustainability, the adaptiveness to possible stumbling blocks, and the measurement and potential calibration of the strategy are important. These criteria would prevent getting side-tracked, fragmented and even discrepant approaches, a short-term focus and lack of awareness of the downstream impacts of the strategy.

Follow up

Once the factors that would derail strategy have been identified, it can be dealt with according to the newly required systems thinking principles – the metacognitive criteria in particular may be useful in finding ways in which to avoid derailers.

On completion of this course, and given the clarity gained and strategic direction indicated, this process needs to be rolled out in the rest of the organisation to get everyone involved and motivated to support the process of strategy. The way in which this is to take place also needs to be considered carefully. It could take the form of educational sessions, combined with facilitated group sessions aimed at resolving the operational obstacles encountered. All should get involved.

A monthly follow up during which the strategy implementation will be evaluated and adapted, is recommended as feedback and knowledge transfer are important to guide the entire process.


It would appear that almost any learning exposure improves cognitive skills, regardless of whether formal training or informal exposure is involved. Given the complexities involved in the development of cognitive skills, such as the learner’s capacity, interests and dedication, the materials, as well as the physical and cultural contexts involved, some development initiatives are, however, significantly more effective than others.

Here, an approach to the development of analytical and systems thinking skills as applied in operational and strategic work environments is proposed. This approach is firmly anchored in a well-researched theoretical model (Prinsloo, 1992) and incorporates equally thoroughly researched assessment tools (Prinsloo & Prinsloo, 2000).

The development process is aimed at accurately determining a person’s current and potential cognitive functioning to increase self-insight and inform career or educational decisions. The developmental training exposure itself is aimed at providing ample opportunity for the person to apply their strengths when dealing with work related challenges, and to further hone and reinforce these strengths through group feedback and recognition. In addition, the courses are aimed at repeatedly demonstrating to the person how they can develop areas of relative cognitive weakness.

Central to this approach is the concept of metacognition: delegates are guided into asking the right questions regarding their own thinking. This approach promotes critical thinking and inspiration, quite unlike the traditional educational approach of reliance on rote memory to regurgitate facts in an uncritical and unintegrated manner.

The format in which the courses are presented can be adapted situationally. Intensive courses over a few days or periodic session on a weekly or monthly basis can all be useful. However, like all learning inputs, the learning outcomes can only be achieved through repeated practice which will over time result in the internalisation of the desired cognitive approach.

Cognition should always be regarded as inherently linked to other factors in psychological functioning, as cultural and personal values and exposure as well as motivation and interest largely affect intellectual prowess. The challenge for consultants, therapists, mentors, parents and human resource practitioners is to find the “sweet spot” where a person will have the opportunity to work with content which they are interested in; at a level of complexity that challenges them just enough to retain their interest while learning, but without making them feel overwhelmed and confused; and within a context characterised by values that are complementary to those of the person.


Browne, M.W. (1983). The decomposition of the multitrait-multimethod matrices. Research Report 83/2. Pretoria: University of South Africa Statistics Department.

Flood, R.L. & Jackson, M.C. (1995) Creative problem solving – Total Systems Intervention. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

Joreskog, K.G. (1973). Analysis of covariance structures. In P.R. Krishnaiah (Ed.). Multivariate analysis. 111 (pp. 263 – 285). New York: Academic Press.

Mertens, S. (2002). The development of intuitive awareness. Unpublished training document.

ISBN: 1571742301

Mindell, A. & Mindell A. (1992). Riding the horse backward: process work in theory and practice. New York: Penguin publishing group.

Minzberg, H. (1994). The fall and rise of strategic planning. Harvard Business Review. Jan – Febr.

Prinsloo, S.M. (1992). A theoretical model and empirical technique for the study of problem solving processes. Johannesburg: Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit. Unpublished PhD thesis.

Prinsloo, M. & Prinsloo, R. (2000). The Cognitive Process Profile Training Manual. Johannesburg: Cognadev. Unpublished training manual.

Prinsloo M. & Barrett, P (2012). Cognition: Theory, measurement and Implications. Integral Leadership Review. Integral Publishers.

Sagan, C. (2014). Baloney detection kit.

Senge, P.M. (1990, 2006). The fifth discipline. The art and practice of the learning organisation. Revised edition. New York: Doubleday / Random House Books.

Wilber, K. (2000). Sex, Ecology and Spirituality. Boston & London: Shambhala.

Suggestions for further reading:

Beer, S. (1995). Diagnosing the system for organizations. Chichester: Wiley.

Checkland, P.B. (1981) Systems thinking, systems practice. Chichester: Wiley.

Churchman, C.W. (1968) The systems approach. New York: Dell Publishing.

Capra, F. (1985) Criteria of systems thinking. Futures. Oct. (pp. 475-478).

Centre for Strategic Management, (1996) Systems thinking and learning – Executive briefing and seminar. San Diego.

Flood, R. L., Carson, E.R (1988). Dealing with Complexity: An Introduction to the Theory and Application of Systems Science

Forrester, J.W. (1969) Principles of systems. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Wright-Allen Press

Kaplan R.S. and Norton D.P. (1993). Putting the Balanced Scorecard to Work. Harvard Business Review, Sep – Oct. (pp2–16).

Kaplan R.S. and Norton D.P. (1992). The Balanced Scorecard: measures that drive performance. Harvard Business Review, Jan – Feb. (pp. 71–80).

May, M. (2005). Living in the post-modern whirl. Unpublished book.

Prinsloo, S.M. & Prinsloo, R. (2000). The Cognitive Process Profile Training Manual. Johannesburg: Cognadev. Unpublished training manual.

Prinsloo, R, Prinsloo, S.M. (2003). The practical application of strategic and systems thinking. Johannesburg: Cognadev. Unpublished training manual.

Richmond, B. (1993) Systems thinking: critical thinking skills for the 1990s and beyond. System Dynamics Review. Vol. 9:2. (pp. 113-133).

About The Authors

Maretha Prinsloo is a registered psychologist who has, since the mid-1980’s worked extensively in the fields of clinical and counselling psychotherapy, research and industrial-organisational psychology. She completing her doctorate in cognitive psychology in 1992 with a thesis titles “A theoretical model and empirical technique for the study of problem solving processes.” She went on to found the companies Cognadev (pty) Ltd, Cognadev UK Ltd, and Cognadev Chemistry Ltd amongst others, which she has lead since 1994 and which have served hundreds of corporates and consulting companies globally in the field of people assessment and development. Maretha has also created a number of innovative, online, expert system based assessment tools including the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP), the Learning Orientation Index (LOI), the Motivational Profile (MP), the Value Orientations (VO), the Contextualised Competency Mapping (CCM) tool, the Integrated Competency Report (ICR) and the Cliquidity assessment system running on social media. She has conducted over a hundred research studies, has compiled training and research manuals, and has published articles in peer reviewed journals.

Dr Riana Prinsloo graduated from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven with a PhD in Social Sciences. The title of her thesis was: “Subnationalism in a cleavaged society” (2001). Her Master’s thesis was titled: “The relation between Ideology and Science with reference to Soviet Ideology and Soviet Sociology in the post-Stalin era” (1985). She taught Sociology at graduate and post-graduate levels in South Africa and worked on social development programmes between South Africa and the Flemish Government (via the l’Universite libre de Bruxelles and the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) before joining Cognadev in 2000. Here she was involved mainly in the development of product-related training manuals for the cognitive and values assessment products, automated report generators as well as programmes to develop analytical skills, strategic thinking, creative leadership and emotional intelligence.



  1. Mind Meditation on June 13, 2020 at 5:07 pm

    This article is much information as it is based on research and reality. By reading these types of articles mind becomes relax ,. Mind meditation is also a mind relaxing activity.

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