Structured Dialogue

Evolving Project on Interpretive Structural Modeling in Support of Systems Literacy,

An invitation to participate

This project is co-organized by The CoExplorer Project of the College of Exploration.

A significant contribution and foundational work, especially to develop open source software to support SDD has been developed by the Simpsons.

Joe and Mary Simpson

For many years a number of us have participated in a monthly meeting with Joe and Mary Simpson. In April of 2020 we began to explore creating a project to further develop an open source Interpretive Structuring Modeling software program that the Simpsons had been developing and describing on their website and on Researchgate and Github . Tragically Joe died in late June 2020. One of his last emails to me, Peter Tuddenham, was on June 6 2020. It was:

Today’s session was facilitated by Kevin Dye with an emphasis on initial steps necessary to address issues associated with systems literacy.

The session agenda with associated session notes is attached to this email.

The video recording is available at:

The next Structural Modeling Video Conference is scheduled for June 20th at 9 AM Pacific Time.

The June 20th session will continue the general topic analysis flow and analysis started in today’s session.

Additional information associated with the next session will be distributed a few days before the session.

Take care, be good to yourself and have fun,


Joe Simpson

“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world. 

Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. 

All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.”

George Bernard Shaw

Git Hub link:

Research Gate link:

YouTube Channel

Web Site:


The plan now is to continue in the spirit of creation and exploration that Joe started. We have met several times and the video recordings are on Vimeo at


Edited Extract from Email from Kevin Dye June 2020

The Structural Modeling Working group, which works on the technology of Structured Dialogue, has taken up an application to 1. Create a Distributed ISM process and to do that by 2. Promoting Systems Literacy as catalyzed by Peter Tuddenham, former President of the International Systems Science Society and co-lead of on Ocean and Earth Science Literacy initiatives. We’ve invited in some new participants that we feel may have some interest in the project, or that the project may benefit from if even in a small contribution.

Meetings – We meet on the first and third Saturdays of the month at 12 noon EST. We will issue the link to join the meeting in the hours prior.

A Note on Meeting Platforms– In the coming months we look forward to trying out other platforms designed as online classrooms, meeting spaces, and conference facilities which have additional tools for facilitation. We will be doing this to help the group stay current with available tools. Yet also to help us choose a platform on which to conduct a series of Structured Dialogue applications for the Systems Literacy project. The Structural Modeling Working Group has been meeting for several years online primarily to develop and advance Interpretive Structural Modeling (ISM) software which would typically be used in conjunction with other online platforms, both synchronous and asynchronous. That said we have several mature ISM packages to use so it is timely to start modularly combining them with other packages – mainly in ways that do not require additional programming.

Minutes and Agenda 

Patricia Kambitsch prepared a graphic which captures a gestalt of the last meeting.

We’ll invite brief reflections on it and proceed to deepen each of the topic areas in it pertinent to the design and launch of an initiative to employ Structured Dialogue in the interest of Systems Literacy.

Project Google Drive – Joe Simpson kindly set up a Google Drive for the project. We’ve placed a few things in it so far. We really could benefit from someone acting as a Systems Literacy content curator collecting up the recommended links and documents which have been floated so far and seeking out appropriate references. As we begin interview prospective participants in the dialogue we will be asking them to recommend background material and references and at least for now this is where we are collecting them. We will also need a contact management database to keep track of the social network being formed as the participant group(s).

The Current Transition of the Working Group – The focus of this Working Group is the practice of Structured Dialogue, (also called “Structured Dialogic DesignTM by the Institute for 21st Century Agoras, “Structured Democratic Dialogue” by the Future Worlds Center, “LogoSophia”, “Demosophia”, the “CognoScopeTM” via Christakis, and “Interactive Management” via Garfield.)

Up to now our focus has been on technology and process, mathematical underpinnings, algorithms, and case studies to take the existing technology to the next level. We are shifting it seems into an applications phase at least for a while – focused on Systems Literacy. In addition to cultivating the dialogue, designs, and plans around around Systems Literacy, there will be an added component which is to study the application as a case study, to gather evidence about its performance, to make observations, reflect and write about it. This aspect may be an excellent subject for a graduate project, an excellent opportunity to engage Actor Network Theory as a means of the study. I am wondering if Helene Finidori might have some thoughts about that, or consider discussing it with Professor Gerald Midgley. So too Professors Norma Romm and Jackie Wasilewski may have some interest in an academic viewpoint on aspects of interest to them – such as inclusivity and accessibility in the invitation and engagement of dialogue participants especially with indigenous peoples.

Separation of Concerns and Roles– In the practice of Structured Dialogue we separate a concern with subject and process. Here the subject is designing and launching a set of inquiries into the diffusion of Systems Literacy. The process, or methodology being employed is Structured Dialogue. We keep these largely separate, or in the words of Herbert Simon in The Architecture of Complexity and invoked in the work of Christopher Alexander “nearly decomposable”  in several ways, and it involves a choice each person on the team should make at some point.

First, we typically create three teams with minimally overlapping membership.

One team, cultivates an appreciation for the content, the literature, the players, the history, and the context. These team members are typically at least somewhat expert in the subject matter – or at least willing to “drink from the fire hose” to engage it. Their job is to bring enough background regarding the subject to the attention of the process team in order to help frame the problem and the project. They also prepare briefing modules to help the dialogue participants get up to speed with the current discourse level on the subject. It is useful if some of this team are good writers, good communicators, and perhaps even skilled at multi-media production. This team also typically helps identify potential participants in the dialogue which for the time being I will refer to a Social Network Formation. So it is important for people in this role to be well networked, well connected, and perhaps even have some convening power, some “truck” with the prospective participants.

Another team worries about the design of the process, the dialogue, the selection and setup of technology, and communication platforms for the organizing teams and participants. we typically keep the process team fairly small.

The third team is the participants in the dialogue which should be at least an order of magnitude larger than the first two teams.

A technique in keeping these teams modular is to simply attenuate the frequency and volume of communication between them. This typically happens in two ways. One, we designate just one person to be the primary communicator between the groups. This role used to be called “the Broker” by Warfield. The second way is we schedule intermittent briefings between the groups about specific tasks rather than a continuous flow of communication. This control of communication pattern is based on research that has a long history starting with the relationship between productivity and communication patterns by Bavelas at MIT almost 80 years ago.

Some benefits of working this way is it makes the overall project more productive, it relieves participants and people organizing them of having to worry about how to execute the dialogue and all the skills required for that, and it lessens the burden on the process team which typically burns out by overtaxing them with requests for volunteer work. In contrast, an Action Research approach typically mixes this all together, and there are even practices such as illustrated in the Occupy movement which attempt to even democratize the creation of processes with the participants in the dialogue themselves. We are not proceeding in that manner on this project.

In this practice the dialogue is conducted in a very democratic fashion. The design and execution of the process is not. It is important that the participants understand this and trust the process team to take them for a ride, protect the individual autonomy of their perspectives, and act as a shepherd for a Task-Oriented Temporary Organization that will act in a democratic fashion regarding their voices on the subject matter. 

The Fuzzy Front End– 

We are not starting from scratch on this initiative, for example we draw on the good work of Gary Smith and Mary Edson’s facilitation of a previous dialogue on the topic. Mary Simpson has completed her review of the IFSR Conversation on Systems Literacy, our collected SL references thus far, and her attempt to view the situation through the framework of Hall’s MetaSystems Methodology. She wrote a brief about it, which will be shared to the Google Drive for the project set up by Joe Simpson.

We invite Gary and Mary E. to briefly introduce themselves and talk about the IFSR Conversation they facilitated.

Kirk Weigand now has at least two collections of answers to HMW, “How Might We” Questions one from Peter Tuddenham and one brief collection from the group live at the last meeting. This has also been posted to the drive. I look forward to hearing his views on that. Kirk expressed interest in extending collection of these HMWs. My recommendation is that we could really benefit from perhaps having Kirk conduct interviews with Gary Smith and Mary Edson next and perhaps Gary Metcalfe.

Kirk’s interest in the HMW technique stems from a more general interest in techniques that may be useful at the front end of SDD projects. These are referred to by a number of names such as “problem framing”, “problem jostling”, and the method associated with the HMW technique is called Simplexity. With respect to SDD they are methods not currently in the canon that can be used in a modular and complementary way to culminate in the articulation of  “Triggering Questions” paired with selected “Application Structural Types”.

I (Kevin Dye) already conducted a brief, live group interview two meetings ago primarily with Peter Tuddenham and Janet Singer while generating candidate Triggering Questions. I am suggesting that the group NOT review that for a while in order that we don’t get stuck in a local minima, that it does not inappropriately or prematurely anchor us to a framing.

Tomorrow Tom Flanagan would like to do something similar by interviewing Peter Tuddenham regarding the nature of the problem of Systems Literacy, (not necessarily generating triggering questions live though.)

Requisite Variety in Social Network Formation of Participants – Kirk mentioned his and Peter Jones interest in the application of Bruno Latour’s work on Modes of Existence as a means of ensuring a Requisite Variety (Ashby) of perspectives. When they are ready we invite them to briefly summarize the Modes, point us to some background literature, and open discussion as to how to operationalize it for the project on Systems Literacy. I have done my own work on this under the rubric Architectonics of Inquiry which draws on taking positions on epistemology, ontology, methodology, and principle in the archic modes of the ancient Greek philosophers.

I am using this project as an impetus to write about it in parallel and will look at it when we are profiling participant mindsets regarding the subject side. A closely related work is Churchman’s Design of Inquiring Systems which draws on the scions of Enlightenment philosophers – but on the process side. This is a difficult book to obtain but I did locate a working paper for a think tank that Churchman prepared prior to the publication of his book which I can share on the Google Drive. I will also be bringing into use the work of Gareth Morgan’s Images of Organizations which is a collection of metaphors through which to derive some insights at the design stage – both into the content and process nature of the Systems Literacy initiative.

Generative Metaphors – Sometimes at the start of a project it can be useful to shake yourself free of a previous framing of a policy or problem or situation. Peter Tuddenham has recommended the work on previous Literacy projects such as Ocean Literacy as a model or analogy for this project. The structure of the content at the high level seems to be based on the idea of a textbook table of contents, an outline structure. Joe Simpson and I briefly outlined the Application Structural Types and example Triggering Questions that could be used to implement the Systems Literacy project. The most apropos seems to be a curriculum structure. I even showed the formulae by which we can estimate time and cost for completion of the project using Structured Dialogue. But, I think it premature to proceed to detail this out until we have a chance to consider other framings. For example, it would be helpful to us for Jeff Dietrich to summarize what he views as the Archetypes of Structured Dialogue – such that we can consider a portfolio of designs to choose from.

Another thing to do at this stage, mentioned in the last session, is based on the work of Donald Schon, a professor of the Design Inquiry Group at MIT and collaborator with Chris Argyris. The early idea appears in a chapter or paper but it later played out in his book on Frame Transformation. To get us going I suggested we might consider some other metaphors – such as a television show, or games instead of a text book. I also suggested we consider something topical, domain specific, and timely – like taking examples of systems models being employed to understand problems and find solutions to the pandemic situation,  perhaps systemic racism and other related matters.

Peter Tuddenham and and I had a long conversation about different formats for a TV Show and are in the process of outlining that and identifying potential funding streams. A series of shows that enact the use of Systems Literacy across different domains can enact the intent of the call for cross-cutting views in the Next Generation Science Standards. And the use of rapidly producing such media, coupled with an Action Plan for the project would be a powerful way to prepare Grant Applications.

Platforms – Although it was my intent to get the group to start trying out some dialogue platforms that are candidates for use with a large group of participants  I think we will not get to that till a few more sessions from now. Towards that end I am invited Yiannis Laouris of the Future Worlds Center and Jeff Dietrich to talk to us about their platforms – IdeaPrism, Concertina, LogoSophia. It would be of interest to some of us to design the Systems Literacy project in a way which gives us an opportunity to develop a case study which is conducted on different platforms and in different modes – synchronous and asynchronous, on laptops and on mobile phones. We will consider how these may also support the work of Joe Simpson in developing an Open Source ISM engine – for example by serving as benchmarking and comparison studies.

Okay – so there are many topics for discussion, anyone of which could take up the whole hour. We will go roughly with the above agenda which is roughly the same topics as last week’s agenda but in more depth. Where we spend time will depend on who shows up at the meeting.

In memoriam. Joe Simpson the founder of our working group was suddenly taken ill in the middle of June and tragically died shortly thereafter, the last week in June.

He would want us to continue. Systems Literacy is a critical topic for our collective futures, it is an excellent one to conduct at scale – which is one of the most critical problems on deliberative democracy, it is a great application to put Joe and Mary’s good work to use, and I would like to not interrupt the momentum we have been building.

Please consider stepping into a role or taking on a small task or doing something you’ve been wanting to do anyway – but in this context.


Kevin Dye