A rich picture recently created with a client © Robin Brady
A rich picture recently created with a client © Robin Brady

We all respond to the situation that we find ourselves in, and that is true of any intervention that you might design: it is a response, framed in a particular way to a situation that you and others have identified as needing improvement, challenge, changing.

But how much do you really know about that situation and does your intervention respond to all of it, some of it or a specific part of it, on purpose or by accident?  

I should just say that recently someone more learned than me suggested that I use unusual language to describe things. Well, being an immigrant and speaking a different dialect of English will do that, but in this case they were correct. I have deliberately followed Bob Williams’ advice in Systemic Evaluation Design (2019) to describe the environment that an intervention is responding to as ‘a situation’. Bob says that the word ‘situation’ is used instead of ‘system’ or ‘problem’ so as not to restrict the possible ways that we can understand the reality that we are dealing with (this is also because the approach that I’m about to describe to you comes from a part of the systems field called Soft Systems and is ideal for trying to understand complex situations that our interventions are responding to). 

So, how to understand the situation you want to, or are trying to, respond to? Draw a picture. Not any old picture of course – a Rich Picture. Rich Picturing was developed in the mid-20th Century by Peter Checkland, initially for counselling use, but has since been adapted to organisational development, action learning, and evaluation design. This approach is well suited to depicting complex and even chaotic situations and how they related to a wider context. They can show processes, stakeholders, inter-relationships, influence, agreements, conflict, resources, barriers – anything that is present or relevant to the situation (I’m writing this ahead of doing an evaluation design workshop today and we’re starting off with a Rich Picturing exercise).

I use Rich Picturing a lot and have done so to demonstrate difficult situations such as a lack of strategic and operational cohesiveness in an organisation, the alignment or lack of alignment of an intervention with the issues it is trying to tackle, the barriers to a service set up for the community, anything really. 

While the picture itself doesn’t have to be pretty, the process does have to be participatory. I’ve had teams, organisational partnerships, multiple stakeholder representatives all work on Rich Pictures together to develop a common understanding of the situation (and their assumptions) that they are trying to respond to.

While the process is always useful from a design perspective, it is remarkable how working on the picture together also challenges individually held perspectives and opens up conversations and opportunities. It is almost as if the original purpose of Rich Picturing (counselling) is still there in the process and can take on a particular importance when working with different teams or groups.

Rich Picturing is always the start of a process and getting to understand the situation as well as possible is always a good start!

Have you ever used Rich Picturing or something similar? How do you try to understand the situation that you are responding to?


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