Systemic TOC

By Gary Bartlett For background reading, please see or

My story
I stumbled on Critical Chain in 1997. It blew my mind! I read everything I could on TOC. Did a Jonah Programme. Applied TOC to everything. I’m sure you had a similar experience! I thought that TOC was the solution to everything, but when I set up a TOC management consultancy, I found that the TOC Thinking Processes were beyond the reach of the average corporate exec. So I set about simplifying them to make them more accessible – both as methods and as insight communicators. In the process, I came across other methodologies, like Systems Dynamics and Systems Thinking; TRIZ and ASIT; NLP and Tony Robbins; Lateral Thinking and Creative Thinking. At first I tried to integrate simplified versions of them into a single method, but this made the method complex, demanding and inaccessible once again! One day it dawned on me that the methods have more in common than in difference. They follow the same basic pattern and focus on slightly different perspectives of the same fundamental reality. This led me to wonder if similarity is invisible, in general, unless you’re specifically looking for it. Imagine my surprise when I discovered - as I hope you do now - that there is similarity everywhere, hidden in plain sight: but you will only see it if you look for it!.

The Fractal Phenomenon
We call the discovery, “The Fractal Phenomenon” (“The RepeatingPattern Phenomenon” in non-academic circles) and define it as: Challenging situations are driven by a single interaction-pattern that repeats at different levels throughout the entire situation. (Fractals are geometric patterns that repeat at different levels of magnification – think of a fern or honeycomb.)

Systemic Thinking
Systemic Thinking (“Pattern Thinking” in non-academic circles) is a simple, step-by-step method (based on the TOC Three-Cloud Method, amongst others) for finding the single interaction-pattern driving a particular situation: 1. List the elements – problems, solutions, options or any other interaction type or element you’re looking for. 2. Surface the common themes across the elements and 3. Find the repeating pattern across the themes.

Applying Systemic (Pattern) Thinking back onto the TOC Thinking Processes
The Current Reality Pattern
The Current Reality Pattern (CRP) applies the Systemic Thinking method to the Current Reality Tree (CRT) thinking process. In simple language, the CRT depicts the things that we're doing in response to the core problem and how what we’re doing is actually creating our current reality. Here’s the pattern: And here’s the method:

The Pattern Thinking symbol ( previous page: 1. List the Elements 2. Surface the Themes 3. Find the Pattern.

) represents the three-step Systemic Thinking method on the

If you think about it, I hope that you’ll agree that the arrangement of the entities in a CRT follow a pattern very similar to the pattern above: Actions and decisions are driven by the Reason (a combination of things – a banana), and result in UDEs, which make up the Current Reality and establish a vicious cycle that drives the Actions and decisions. This pattern may not be obvious to you at first, but if you look for it you will find it – or something very close to it! The trick is to look for similarity, rather than difference. The advantage of presenting a Current Reality in this simplified format is that there are only three entities for the client to grasp and remember. It’s also a lot quicker to develop – once you’ve got your head around the repeating-pattern concept. I’m not saying that there is no value in the rigour of a CRT – on the contrary! I’m merely offering this method and approach as a quicker, easier and more memorable way of articulating and communicating the Current Reality. And even if using it doesn’t create the rigour that a CRT does, understanding the underlying pattern in the situation certainly makes building the tree a lot quicker and easier. From a process point of view, this method is effectively applying the TOC Three-Cloud method to the CRT entities directly.

The Future Reality Pattern
The Future Reality Pattern (FRP) is very similar, but applied to the Future Reality Tree (FRT) instead of the CRT. In simple language, the FRT demonstrates how the solution enables us to overcome the problem and capitalise on opportunities that are currently inaccessible to us, in our pursuit of the future reality we're seeking. The FRP is the repeating pattern across the FRT. Here’s the pattern: And here’s the method:

I hope that you can see this pattern in FRT’s you’ve developed in the past. If you can’t, try removing the Outstanding Opportunities entity – it’s a fairly advanced concept and not essential, at the start. I’m not suggesting that there is no need for or value in developing rigorous FRTs. I’m merely offering this as a way of gaining and conveying deeper insight and alignment very quickly.

The Prerequisite Pattern
The Prerequisite Pattern (PRP) applies the Systemic Thinking method to the Prerequisite Tree (PRT) thinking process. In simple language, the PRT depicts the things that have to be in place for the outcomes we desire to come about. The PRP depicts that common pattern across the PRT elements. Here’s the pattern: And here’s the method:

There are seldom more than 3 or 4 PRPs in any challenging situation.

The Core Conflict Pattern
I’ve deliberately left this one for last, for a reason that will become apparent shortly. The Core Conflict Pattern (CCP) applies the Systemic Thinking method to the Evaporating Cloud (EC) and Core Conflict Cloud (CCC) thinking processes. Here’s the pattern: And here’s the method:

I’m sure that you recognise this pattern! I have strong reasons for orienting it vertically and making the other changes that you see – to both the model and method – but that’s another discussion. In spite of these “enhancements” – and in spite of the EC/CCC’s unmatched and magnificent power, I find that many execs struggle to grasp, remember and use the CCP, so a simpler more accessible and usable version is required. I won’t show it to you now, because doing so will spoil what’s to come! I have to say that I find EC/ECC the most powerful for my way of thinking: I always resort to it first if other simpler methods are insufficient or if the problem is quite clearly a dilemma. I won’t address the Transition Pattern in this article because, in spite of the Transition Tree already being in pattern format, it’s a far bigger subject than space in this article will allow.

The evolution of a single, universal pattern
In my pursuit of a simpler, more accessible method and presentation framework, I integrated the above patterns and methods and after many iterations over a number of years, came up with this pattern: and this method:

If you look carefully, you’ll notice that, apart from the problem entity, it’s a combination of the first four Thinking Process patterns. I discovered that even this single, seven-entity model is too challenging, time-consuming and difficult to remember for most busy execs, so I created two – successively simpler and more accessible – patterns, and the appropriate methods for populating them:

As you can see, each of these merely subtracts entities from the previous version. The final – simplest – version has struck a very strong chord with my clients – and is accessible to nearly everyone (to varying levels of capability, obviously) so I’ll dedicate the remainder of this article to it. We call it the GPS (Goal|Problem|Solution) Pattern – and, if you look carefully, you’ll see that it is a simplified version of the Conflict (Evaporating Cloud) Pattern. Clients love the name and its association with the GPS (global positioning system) device. They find the whole concept appealing. The names of the entities are very easy to remember from the acronym – and the fact that there are only three of them and they’re everyday terms that everyone understands (at some level) makes it easy for them to remember and picture the model. I use the GPS method all day, every day - both in my own work and in discussion with clients and colleagues. If it’s insufficient, I can take things to a deeper level using a more powerful technique – and then apply the deeper insights gained into the GPS for presentation purposes.

The GPS (Goal|Problem|Solution) Pattern
Goal|Problem|Solution (GPS) is effectively a universal strategy framework (fractal). It's a simple but very powerful way of creating strategic focus and alignment in challenging situations.

The GPS Model
Goal Pattern: The Goal Pattern element of the GPS articulates the ultimate state sought – for all parties, immediately and into the future. It’s the repeating pattern across all of the outcomes sought for all of the parties concerned, in all situations, immediately and into the future. (‘Wording sound familiar?) Problem Pattern: The Problem Pattern element of the GPS articulates the fundamental problem that all parties face in achieving the ultimate state sought. It’s the repeating pattern across all of the challenges and issues each party faces now and into the future, in achieving the Goal Pattern.

Solution Pattern: The Solution Pattern element of the GPS defines the universal breakthrough solution that will solve the fundamental problem everyone in the situation is facing, in a simple, profound and uncompromising way – and secure the ultimate state each party seeking. It’s the repeating pattern across all of the solution ideas (injections) for overcoming the Problem Pattern (and local instances of it) and achieving the Goal Pattern.

Some advice
1. If you like the GPS model – or one or more of the Thinking Process Patterns, above – I have a suggestion for you: Before leaping into it on a brand new situation, consider trying it out on one of your existing solutions or a case that you’re familiar with, first. You don’t have to use the full 3-step process (Elements>Themes>Pattern) – you can just take a stab at it and refine it iteratively, as you would for an Evaporating Cloud. Except that you will keep checking that the pattern applies to all situations for all parties in all timeframes. 2. Then try it out on something new – or a solution that you need to enhance in some way. 3. If you like the outcomes you get – and you get a good response from your internal or external clients – consider building GPS’s for your existing library of solutions when you get a chance. You can bet that they are really solution-patterns that apply across a broad range of situations, rather than merely one-off solutions that apply to only one specific situation. But you knew that! 4. You can use the GPS – and any of the Thinking Process Patterns – in conjunction with other methods: before conducting a comprehensive TP exercise (to grow some insight and intuition before you start) or after a comprehensive TP exercise (to extend and simplify your insight and intuition even further). The remainder of this chapter presents some common GPS’s that you can use and improve upon. You’ll notice many familiar themes, I’m sure – as many of them are simple wordings or adaptations of TOC Standard Solutions. I hope that there’ll also be a few that are new and interesting to you. Please contact me if you’d like to explore any of them further - or if you’d like help in introducing Systemic Thinking into your practice.

Functional Area GPS Examples









General GPS Examples