Getting to the heart of designing research using systems thinking

Joan O'Donnell
Systemsbeing
Published in
5 min readJan 1, 2023

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Authors: Bob Williams, Joan O’Donnell

Nobody would deny that research is a complex business. One of the most complex decisions is deciding the focus of your research among the vast range of possibilities that lie within its scope. This blog explores how understanding and addressing three different kinds of complexity can help with that tricky decision. Ontological complexity helps you address the reality you are dealing with; cognitive complexity helps you understand how different people make sense of that reality and praxis complexity helps you decide which parts of ontological and cognitive complexities ought to be inside and outside of your focus.

One of the most important decisions in any research project is deciding the boundary between focus and scope, and then having made that choice, working out what your scope entails. Depending on the respective stage of a project,, scope can either be largely ignored or, conversely, during other points in the research journey, it can threaten to overshadow the focus so much that the scope effectively becomes the focus. Although ignoring the scope might make your research more achievable, it risks the research being largely irrelevant because it is disconnected from its technical, social and political context. The potential dissonance between the focus and scope of your research can place such a huge burden on your project that, while it might be very relevant to the real world, it risks being unachievable. This tension between…

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