CSL4D : aim

Concept & Systems Learning for Design             CSL4D is an informal, private initiative for exploring the combined use of concept mapping and systems thinking for learning in business, development, and education. Originally, the D in CSL4D stood for Development, but in 2014 it evolved that the broader scope of ‘design’ was much more appropriate (see my 6 posts on design).

“Qualsiasi dato diventa importante se è connesso a un altro.” Umberto Eco*

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A basic conceptual framework for systems learning

Inter-relationships, boundaries, and perspectives revisited

Last week I was struggling with three systems concepts: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries (IPB). All I was trying to do was to fill out a so-called IPB table to summarize my understanding of the stages in a systemic process as described in Wicked Solutions. A free example of such a table in Spanish can be seen here (English versions are available here, here and here). In my case boundary ideas cluttered my perspectives column, while processes intruded in my boundary column. Somehow I failed to distinguish clearly between one concept and the other. So I went back to the drawing board (in my case concept mapping) to see if I could clarify my understanding. In the process I came up with a novel basic conceptual framework for systems learning generally and the systems approach, specifically. The main source of inspiration has been Wicked Solutions.

Inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives      … are the three key concepts that a group of systems and evaluation experts after three days of deliberation had come up with to enable systemic evaluation without evaluators having to adopt, accommodate and learn specific systems methods. The underlying reason was that the pathway of evaluators learning all the necessary systems methods and methodologies had been demonstrated to be impossible. The meeting took place in Berkeley in the mid-naughties (2004 or 2006, I believe), i.e. very near to where C. West Churchman did most of his work (6th floor of the Space Sciences Laboratory). It had been sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation, because it had recognized that wicked (i.e. systemic) problems hampered much of their work on programs for optimal child development. The three concepts have made it into Kellogg’s 2017 evaluation manual, be it only just. Bob Williams was one of the experts present and he has been promoting the three concepts vigorously ever since (see here). Last week, in one of my efforts to better understand how this might work in practice, I gave the three key concepts centre stage in a novel conceptual framework, be it in a slightly different order: perspectives, boundary choices, interactions.

The conceptual framework       … in one sentence: perspectives help explore boundary choices that may transform the interactions, patterns and processes of a problematic situation to enable stakeholders to better pursue their interests. These situations or problematiques typically do not have clear boundaries. Hence the need for a formal or informal (or even partly conscious) boundary debate, whether individually, in teams or in parliaments. In their potential sense, boundary choices are systemic planning options. Planning is what stakeholders do to pursue their interests. In any complex, systemic human problem situation different stakeholders pursue different interests. All life is problem solving (Popper, 1994). Humans continually pursue their interests, which means that this conceptual framework is about human behaviour in a very fundamental and generic way. Human values, missions, aspirations, and motivations give meaning to stakeholder interests and affect their perspectives. These perspectives determine how people perceive reality. This reality is often in the form of wicked problems. The term wicked problems was coined by Horst Rittel in the context of inner city problems, probably in mid-1967, but it is widely applicable to human problem situations generally (i.e. all life). Many people don’t know what wicked problems are, yet they deal with them their whole life. Wicked problems need taming. This requires understanding. But one’s understanding depends on one’s perspective. Single perspectives are deceptive when dealing with “creatures as complexly motivated as ourselves” (Bateson, 1954). Multiple framings (two to four one- or two-word statements of what wicked problems may be about, see Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2014) must be agreed upon for guiding the group exploration (i.e. boundary debate) of the problem and resolution space. The boundary debate may be structured to become a full-blown boundary critique using C. West Churchman’s dialectical heuristic (Churchman, 1968-1979) or its simplified derivative, Werner Ulrich’s critical heuristic. In both these heuristics, the main stakeholders of a wicked problem are considered through the lens of role categories (e.g. beneficiary/client, decision-maker, planner/expert, systems philosopher/witness, see also Harold Nelson, 2003). Each role category is particularly concerned with two additional categories, but there are many linkages among the twelve heuristic categories in all (see e.g. here). Some of these linkages follow general patterns, others are specific to the wicked problem at hand. The twelve categorical ‘lenses’ serve to seek assurances, or the lack thereof, in existing or new plans dealing with wicked problems. With some adaptations, the same heuristic can also be used for evaluation purposes (see e.g. Bob Williams, 2016, English 5$, free Spanish).

Metacommunication by framing      Framing is a powerful tool that is often (mis-)used in politics and journalism. Gregory Bateson (1954) demonstrated that no communicative move, verbal or nonverbal, could be understood without reference to a metacommunicative message, or metamessage, about what is going on (Tannen, 1993). As an example of singular framing Bateson (1972) quotes Keynes (1919) who witnessed how the allied prime ministers Clemenceau and Lloyd George took POTUS 28 Woodrow Wilson to war cemeteries “to make him ashamed of not hating the Germans.” The shame was the metamessage. It coerced Wilson, who had just suffered multiple strokes, into agreeing to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which, according to many, has been one of the main causes of World War II, killing 70-80 million people. Clearly, singular framing can be very deceptive. In that sense, multiple framing follows directly from Churchman’s principles of deception-perception. In the Wicked Solutions version of the systems approach multiple framing to create complementary perceptions to demarcate an expanded ‘problem and resolution space’ for innovative group exploration and critique of wicked problem boundaries. Framing is also used to formulate an ideal situation in, say, 5-10 years’ time.  Without that it would be impossible to contrast the ‘is’ perception of the current state of the wicked problem with the ‘ought’ anticipation of its future improvement.

IPB or PBI or IPBI     IPB stands for inter-relationships (or interactions), perspectives, and boundaries. In Wicked Solutions (ebook, paperback, Amazon) Williams & Van ‘t Hof use IPB to communicate the essence of the systems approach. This reflects the fact that very little can be understood about perspectives or boundaries without first having a good idea of the inter-relationships of a complex issue. In this post I changed the order to PBI to explain the purpose and logic of the systems approach: “perspectives help explore boundary choices that may transform the interactions, patterns and processes of a problematic situation to enable stakeholders to better pursue their interests.” The preparatory need for knowledge about the inter-relationships is hidden in the ‘perspectives’ perception of the ‘wicked problem’, which in turn emerges from the complex of interactions, patterns, and processes. In a way this points to the non-linear character of the systems approach: the three concepts are focal points in a process of iteration, leading to ever more clarity in details.

Systemic intervention design        … does not follow in a clear and direct way from the boundary critique, but the boundary insights can be very helpful in a (more) systemic intervention design. Ian Mitroff, one of Churchman’s students and an authority on his work, has come up with various methods of systemic intervention design, including Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST) and Policy Argumentation. I am convinced that SAST (which draws out pivotal assumptions from a group) and Policy Argumentation (which presents the assumptions in a clear argument) can be adapted in a somewhat simpler form to the general methodology of Wicked Solutions. The development and refinement of such a Policy Argumentation of Pivotal Assumptions (or PAPA) could be used by planners in the areas of the wicked problem concerned as a basis for an intervention design that is both professionally acceptable and systemically desirable.

The big picture      … can be seen at the bottom of the concept map. I have distinguished three phases in the systems approach: (1) systems mapping using preliminary heuristics; (2) boundary critique using dialectical heuristics (or critical heuristics); and (3) intervention assessment using systemic evaluation design. Iteration may start when the evaluation indicates that the intervention was less than satisfactory. This multi-scale infinite process of iteration is what we call civilization, especially when the relationships between the role categories can be made to become more harmonious. The preliminary heuristics and systemic evaluation (or research) design use both some adaptation of Churchman’s fundamental heuristic. An intermediate example of Ulrich’s and Churchman’s categorical framework that serves as the basis for their heuristics can be viewed at the end of my post of October 21, 2016. You may also note that some of the light-blue concepts in the concept map of that post correspond with those in the concept map of this post. A future knowledge map will bring that out more clearly.

The systems approach       As mentioned elsewhere in this blog there is not one systems approach, but many. Churchman distinguished five main systems approaches in chapter one (‘Thinking’) of ‘The systems approach’, his seminal book of 1968 and the first of his trilogy. The first four approaches focus on efficiency, science, human values, and anti-planning. The systems approach (the emphasis is Churchman’s) focuses on dialectics and incorporates the other four – to the extent possible, which is, of course, a matter of debate. Churchman has reflected at length about the nature of this debate and the structure (or ‘metastructure’) of the dialectics. Perhaps one could say, the ‘framing’ of the dialectics, or even ‘metaframing’. In his third, 1979 book (pp. 79 ff.), the last of the systems approach trilogy, he describes a 12-category framework (up from an earlier 9-category version in his second, 1971 book, which in turn can be easily traced back to his first, 1968 book in the trilogy). He explains in his trilogy why the framework is necessary, both practically, teleologically and philosophically. The term ‘teleological’ is important, because it is at the root of the 12-category framework design of Churchman’s inquiring system. It points at the goal-oriented quality of all human action. The Churchman heritage, therefore, is this 12-category framework, along with the many examples of how it can be used to gain better insights in the systemic nature of the human problems and the justification (or lack thereof) of human action by seeking assurances. It is the best combination of assurances that justifies an intervention. The dialectical process of inquiry is known as ‘unfolding’, which means the identification of overlapping and conflicting patterns, some assuring others worrying at varying degrees, across the categories. In my concept map I used the term ‘systemization’.

Proof of the pudding        The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in its price, the recipe, its proliferation, the ingredients, the stove, or its cook’s references or fame. The systems field is vast and Churchman’s 12-category framework is only a small part of it. He is very well cited. Berkeley’s Nobel prize winners used to come to his seminars. Churchman has been cited by Noam Chomsky as the only professor from whom he learned anything. He pioneered both hard and soft systems and as such influenced many scholars and practitioners. He recognized the hiatus in the first and the complexity of the second. He never developed a full methodology, but insisted on the appropriate use of a range of principles. Some of these principles may seem rather theoretic or idealistic, but that may be a case of framing, too. The systems world is also a market place. Many methodologies are gaining the upper hand because they appeal to users or because they work (somehow, somewhat) or because they have a well-structured, step-wise approach or because they are more suited to showing off the consultant’s expertise or because they are easier to teach or because they suit a potential adopter’s biases and worldview better. Things that are not necessarily measures of intrinsic value. It has a track record of over 30 years of use in the form of critical systems heuristics (e.g. Reynolds & Holwell, 2010; Midgley, 2000). The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so Churchman’s dialectical systems approach needs to be tried, before judging it. This is now easier than ever by following the steps in level three of Wicked Solutions, which offers an accessible form (available here, here and here).

In one sentence          Let me try to define Churchman’s dialectical systems approach by expanding a bit on the single sentence I used earlier, all the while reflecting key ideas from this post’s concept map. The dialectical systems approach is “an inquiring system in which multiple perspectives help unfold boundary choices across twelve teleological categories to transform the interactions, patterns and processes of problematic situations in such a way that all stakeholders are in a better, more effective and sustainable position to pursue their interests.” Shorter still, Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is a tool of first and last resort to discover, justify and evaluate what is important to us and to provide clues as to how we best pursue this.

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Policy argumentation

Mitroff’s operationalization of Churchman’s systems approach, part 2

I ended my previous post on Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST, based on Mason’s and Mitroff’s ‘Challenging strategic planning assumptions’)  with a paragraph on policy argumentation in which I explained that “claims are the supporting foundation of any policy, plan, or strategy. Every assumption that underlies a policy is a claim. Once a policy claim is articulated it is proper, even mandatory, to call it into question, which in turn calls for an argument, resulting in argument chains. These are anchored at the bottom by two things: facts and judgments. Policy argumentation is a conceptual framework for dealing with claims, facts and judgments in a dynamic, innovative policy-making environment, thus bringing order out of the chaos.” I promised that I would explain this in more detail in the next post, i.e. this one.

SAST    The SAST methodology and the Toulmin argumentation scheme adapted by Mason and Mitroff are linked. Any policy statement is based on a series of assumptions made about stakeholders. One implicit warrant in any major policy argument is that all the stakeholders are properly identified and their assumptions properly specified. The backing for this warrant is the theory of teleological systems (the systems approach) and that the SAST method has been properly conducted. The systems approach (i.e. the theory of teleological systems) has been dealt with extensively elsewhere in this blog (e.g. see here).

Relevance     The implication of the fact that Churchman’s (dialectical) systems approach is a key part of the warrant in any major policy argument is that it must somehow be incorporated in or combined with any policy argumentation scheme. That’s quite a strong statement. Yet, all considered – particularly Churchman’s philosophical inquiry of the policy problem as well as his long and profound experience as a management scientist and operations researcher, see also my summary of ‘The Systems Approach’ – I am inclined to agree. But then I am probably biased, because I have struggled with the systems approach for about 5 years. And anybody who devotes 5 years to a topic has a non-negligible bias, not to say a kind of craziness. I am OK with that qualification as long as people recognize that it must have something in common with Churchman’s motivation and insight that generated such a strong interest among Berkeley’s students and Nobel prize winners alike. Time has come to rekindle that interest. I suggest that Mason and Mitroff – both students of Churchman – are part of that rekindling effort. If Wicked Solutions is such an effort, then SAST and policy argumentation are excellent candidates to beef up the methodology, especially towards its final design phase.

Claims     Let’s start off with the concept of the ‘claim’. Many real-life issues in government policy and business strategy emerge from the complexity that results from the systems that we organized in our attempts to improve our lives. This organized complexity produces a cloudy policy decision situation Continue reading

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Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST)

Mitroff’s ‘operationalization’ of Churchman’s systems approach, part 1

In table 12-3 (p. 301 of Mason’s and Mitroff’s ‘Challenging strategic planning assumptions’) major approaches to business problem solving are compared, including the systems approach and SAST (strategic assumption surfacing and testing), but also analytic modelling (typical of operations research), the case method (widely used, but lacking in objectivity), structured approaches (e.g. PIMS and its many derivatives, often failing to look at key non-quantifiables). The problem with the systems approach is that it is difficult to operationalize (although it could be argued that Wicked Solutions solved that problem). The problem of SAST may be the unwillingness of participants to lay bare their assumptions. This is a general problem in all approaches where we want to leave no stone unturned (as assumptions, e.g. about people’s motivations, lurk beneath them). In this post I will argue that SAST can be combined with the systems approach to improve both. By the way, Mitroff and Barabba wrote a 2014 update of “challenging strategic planning assumptions”, which was entitled “Business strategies for a messy world”).

Organized complexity     Mitroff and Mason start their book by describing something they call “organized complexity”. “Organization is usually considered the route to the solution of a complex problem. In reality, however, organization in complexity can become an insurmountable barrier to the solution of a problem” (p. 5). “Three factors – separability, reducibility and one-dimensional goal structure – mean that simple problems can be bounded, managed, and as Horst Rittel (1972) put it, ‘tamed.” Rittel was the first to identify and describe the ‘wicked’ problem in the mid-1960s. Mitroff argues that in the past complexity was much more disorganized and could be managed statistically. However, people, organizations, and facilities have become more and more tightly woven, increasing the risk of disastrous crises. This line of thought explains Mitroff’s later and continuing preoccupation with crisis management (see previous post). Mitroff and Mason add 6 characteristics for “wicked problems of organized complexity” to the 10 identified earlier by Rittel (see elsewhere in this blog): (1) interconnectedness; (2) complicatedness; (3) uncertainty; (4) ambiguity; (5) conflict; and (6) societal constraints. One fine day I will combine all 16 factors in a single concept map. To deal with these challenges, new problem-solving methods are required that are (a) participative; (b) adversarial; (c) integrative; and (d) managerial mind supporting. The last requirement means that managers and policymakers need to achieve a better insight into the nature of the complexity. This also means that managers and policymakers must be deeply involved in the process.

The SAST planning process      In chapter 3 (p. 35-57) Mason and Mitroff describe the essentials of SAST. At the end of it the management or policymaking team is “well informed about the strategy they are following and the assumptions that support it.” They have sufficient reason to believe that they have constructed an effective (model of) reality from which to proceed. A decision with regard to a plan or policy has been made. Key assumptions were not ignored but rather surfaced, challenged, and monitored over time. This is the purpose of the SAST process. In the example the SAST process involved five steps: (1) group formation; (2) assumption surfacing; (3) dialectically debating and ranking these assumptions; (4) further debating and results and negotiating the statements of assumptions; and (5) synthesizing results, arriving at a consensus, establish information requirements and guidelines for the final decision. I created a little concept map to summarize the steps, which I will very briefly discuss one by one, with some references to the systems approach of C. West Churchman, on both of which I have posted a lot earlier in this blog.

Group formation     No single mind is able to adequately grasp complex problems fully, so key stakeholders must be swept in to benefit of their insights. A single group of stakeholders is unlikely to develop the dynamics necessary to accommodate complexity, so multiple groups are needed Continue reading

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Crisis management and the systems approach

The need for instilling crisis management capability in organizations

Nobody has been promoting Churchman’s systems approach as well as Dr. Ian I. Mitroff. He did so in a variety of (indirect, practical) ways, but his most sustained effort is in the form of promoting crisis management as an essential management capability. Crisis management is: (1) reacting in the best way possible after a major crisis occurs; from which follows (2) preparing in the right way for reacting in the best way possible; and, best of all , (3) preventing major crises from happening in the first place. Mitroff has an author page at Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/Ian-Mitroff/e/B000APLBDA) and a website of his own organization at https://mitroff.net/. I recently came across two 3-minute video’s (1, 2) in which Mitroff explains what crisis management is all about. I took the liberty of producing a concept map of my interpretation of both short video’s and adding some notes to it.

Key points      1. There are always tell-tale signs that crises are looming, which is why we can and must proactively improve matters and try to prevent them from happening; 2. the causes of crises are wicked problems or messes; 3. we often operate on assumptions that cause crises; 4. being alert to crises and preparing for them is good business; and 5. we are not taught in schools about wicked problems, only about ‘exercises’, thus turning us in certainty-simplicity junkies that are incapable of dealing with crises, wicked problems and messes.

Proverbs for paranoids     “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, then they don’t have to worry about the answers.” (Gravity’s rainbow). In fact, there is nothing new about this: Theodore Roosevelt claimed to have used a similar trick when starting the construction of the Panama Canal without the approval of the US Congress. The quote has a more insidious meaning here, in view of key point 5 above: most people have been so thoroughly trained in non-messy problems (e.g. algebra or physics or chemistry exercises) that they cannot imagine asking “the right stupid questions” about messy, wicked problems, leading directly to the fundamental problem of trying to “Solve the Wrong Problems Precisely” (Mitroff 2010). This is perhaps the main reason why most people ignore the signals that are send to warn us of a looming crisis, even if the signals are shouting in their faces. Nothing paranoid about that. It happens all the time.

Crisis management       …. does three things: (a) respond to crises; (b) prepare for crises; and (c) prevent crises. The Romans already knew that: “nulla calamitas sola” or ‘disaster never comes alone’. One crisis entails another. Crises are inter-connnected. That’s why Russ Ackoff – Churchman’s long-time co-worker – appropriated the term ‘mess’ “to stand for a dynamic, constantly changing system of problems that so highly interconnected and bound together that they can’t be separated either in principle, practice, or in their basic existence” (Mitroff et al, 2013) . That’s also why Churchman formulated the principle of non-separability: we simply cannot Continue reading

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THE origins of THE systems approach

Tracing the tracks of C. West Churchman

Last month I reread (and blogged) Churchman’s ‘The Systems Approach’ (1968) and was surprised to see that between the lines it contained practically the whole of the dialectical systems approach (the systems approach) as it finally took shape in 1971 (The design of inquiring systems) and 1979 (Enemies of the systems approach). In ‘The Systems Approach’ Churchman describes in fact how the dialectical systems approach emerged from the scientific systems approach (the “systems approach”) and operations research, something he had been working on very successfully from 1941 onward and the 1950s in particular, culminating in his ‘Introduction to Operations Research’ (IOR, Wiley, 1957; co-written by Russ Ackoff and Leonard Arnoff, one of the big guys behind Ernst & Young). Interestingly and speaking in a general sense, many of the ideas of ‘The Systems Approach’ of 1968 can be traced back in one guise or another to ‘Introduction to Operations Research’ of 1957. As usual, the paragraph numbers of this post refer to the numbers in the concept map. Or perhaps I should say concept enchilada.

1. ´The´ systems approach     … was designed by C. West Churchman. He wrote a first book about it in 1968, entitled `The systems approach´ (TSA). The term ´systems approach´ refers to the idea of dealing with systems ‘as a whole’. However, there is not a single (‘the’) systems approach, but there are many: the efficiency approach, the scientific management approach, the efficiency approach, the humanist’s approach and the anti-planners approach, just to mention the ones listed in TSA, pp. 13-14. Then there is the dialectical systems approach, which “really consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind with respect to society” (TSA, xi), i.e. between the different approaches to the social systems we live in.

2. Social systems      … are created by people. They represent our efforts at creating or increasing value by collaboration in a broad sense. The value thus created is to be enjoyed or treasured by the same or other people. People cannot just create any social system in any way deemed most efficient or best by some other one-dimensional standard, because social systems are created subject to constraints, part of which belong to the complex systems of valuation and exchange underlying the social systems. As a result of all these complexities and the fact that our social systems (and their components or higher-order systems) are many and tend to overlap and conflict with each other, problems emerge that we find hard, not to say impossible to address. These problems defy our – sometimes formidable – intellect and technology, both in fact the product of some of those same social systems (intellects have to be trained to be able to do their job, which is perhaps the whole point of this post and its subject matter). We think and exchange ideas, but we find it hard to come up with effective solutions. Businesses go bust, peoples go to war, religions harm or kill non-coreligionists, dictatorships flourish to the detriment of the suppressed, we are unable to root out the classical scourges of hunger, poverty, ignorance and disease, while overpopulation and climate change threaten the planet as a whole. We simply cannot fully understand and are often deviously deceived by the systems of our and other people’s creation.

3. Science to the rescue?      The scientific systems approach has its roots in operations research, which was an effort to let scientists improve Second World War efforts in any possible way, e.g. by using statistics or simply by being bright and innovative, asking “stupid” questions. Churchman was in fact a philosopher, but he, too, became usefully engaged in operations research from December 1941 (the Pearl Harbor attack was on the 7th) onward and rode the wave of its success in corporate America of the 1950s, at the same time contributing enormously to it. According to some, operations research was initially based on insights from administrating the erstwhile global British Empire, a complex affair indeed. Churchman, being an American, rather traced its roots to the efficiency approach of the early 20th century, also known as Taylorism, which was one of the earliest attempts to apply science to the engineering of processes and to management, e.g. in the production of Ford’s Model T (1908-1927). The same techniques were used in the production of thousands of Liberty ships and B-24 bomber aircraft, so it is not surprising that management guru Peter Drucker credited scientific management with winning the war (Beatty, 2002). Out of the efficiency approach grew the scientific systems approach of the management scientist, who increasingly made use of modern computers, also invented during the Second World War, primarily to calculate ballastic missile trajectories for the US Army (McCartney, 1999). Operations research discovered the concept of the system as key to the problems we are dealing with (Churchman et al., 1957). So, according to Churchman (1968), a system can be defined as being composed of Continue reading

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The whole systems enchilada

A dialectical total systems framework

Every now and then I think I have disentangled the whole systems enchilada. By this (i.e. the term ‘whole systems enchilada’) I mean that I am convinced that the systems approach of Churchman hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today, but that it is not a simple matter to visualize, know or show in what ways this relevance can be accepted and made effective in actual planning, decision-making and client participation processes. Over the past two months I have reread a lot of Churchman’s writings and the time has come to give this disentanglement a new go. Extra (and highly useful, not to say necessary) inspiration came from discussions over the past few days with Dr. Ken Doust (e.g. heads the SCU Master of Engineering Management Course, co-directs Australian Hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network), who was visiting with his wife Joyce from Australia. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map. Or perhaps I should say concept enchilada.

1. ´The´ systems approach      … was designed by C. West Churchman. He wrote a first book about it in 1968, entitled `The systems approach´. What he meant by ´systems approach´ is that people use various approaches to deal with systems ‘as a whole’. So, there is not a single (‘the’) systems approach, but there are many: the efficiency approach, the scientific management approach, the political approach, the humanist approach, bureaucratic approach, participatory approaches, learning approaches, planning approaches etc. We need systems approaches, because humans make systems all the time with the purpose to produce or increase value. So we have businesses, economic systems, political systems, religious systems, education systems, health systems, family systems etc. These systems interact and overlap, just as our approaches interact and overlap. Often system activities have negative consequences. One of the main reasons is that we make all sorts of (false, wicked) assumptions to make our approaches work. This results in a certain messiness, which affects the effectiveness of value production and the way we value (or hate) the systems we live in. Churchman developed a dialectical systems approach to address this messiness. It is a rational approach based on attempting to approach the system as a whole, taking into account other systems approaches. One could say it is a heroic attempt to create a supersystem approach. However, the systems approach is an unattainable ideal. “Each person looks at [complex problems] in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost.” This notion is incorporated in the dialectical systems approach to turn it in the best imaginable systems approach. That’s why Churchman claims that “the systems is not a bad idea.” (see also my post on “Deception and systems approach.”

2. Who uses ‘the’ systems approach?      Well, hardly anybody. Ain’t that strange? Yes and no. One of the reasons is that it is not taught at universities and in secondary schools. One reason for that is that we do not think in general terms about our systems and the best ways to approach them. Another reason is that it is not used in practice. Or so it seems. On the one hand, Churchman’s approach seemed to most people to be a bunch of principles that lacked a stepwise, readily applicable method. On the other hand, Churchman’s ideas on the systems approach have over time influenced a great many systems thinkers and practitioners. These include Peter Senge (and his Fifth Discipline, which he calls ‘systems thinking’), Peter Checkland (and his ‘soft systems methodology’), Werner Ulrich and a great many more. Presumably, the systems approach lost out to the other approaches in the competition with Continue reading

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A summary of ‘The Systems Approach’

This is a 15-paragraph overview of a series of 15 blogging posts, which covered the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. At the end of each paragraph is a link to the original post, providing a more extensive summary of the original chapter. By quickly reading through the 2000+ words of this overview you get a good impression of what Churchman’s seminal book is about. You will also see the first outlines of the framework of categorical considerations that Churchman presents in his next book (The Design of Inquiring Systems) and that forms the basis for Werner Ulrich’s Critical System Heuristics. You will also get a better sense of how that framework was originally used by Churchman, which isn’t all that different from how you can use it today and in the future. Ulrich has shown that the framework can be used on its own, Churchman used it in combination with techniques from management science, you could use it in combination with a planning approach of your own.

Preface   C. West Churchman (1913-2004), an American pioneer in management science and systems thinking, was one of the first to recognize that social systems – whether in business or society – “are far too complicated for our intellectual powers and technological capabilities to be able to really identify the central problem and determine how it should be solved, no matter what approach is used,” including the scientific systems approach of management science. This convinced Churchman of the need to make a distinction between this scientific systems approach – and a novel, much more dialectical systems approach that “consists of a continuing debate between various attitudes of mind with respect to society,” such as ”the humanist approach, the artist’s approach, or the engineering approach.” See full post at CSL4D.

Thinking       [chapter 1] The scientific systems approach is a great planning tool. It identifies various subsystems to achieve a particular objective. An additional, overall management subsystem relates all the sub-objectives to the central objective, checks whether sub-objectives meet their standards, keeps an eye on the time and budgetary constraints, and prepares alternative pathways in the case of problems. Unfortunately, this approach may still create a whole lot of nonsense. The dialectical systems approach is Churchman´s rational effort to address this ´snag´. Its chief interest is in systems with humans in them, such as industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions.” Churchman’s dialectical systems approach first of all reflects on the overall objective and then describes the system in terms of this overall objective by juxtaposing four different debaters: (1) the advocates of efficiency; (2) the model building scientists; (3) the humanists, who emphasize freedom, dignity, privacy; and (4) the anti-planners, wary of rational plans. See full post at CSL4D.

Efficiency       [chapter 2] The efficiency approach is preferred by debater number one. It is at the core of scientific management, not to be confused with management science. Its main objective is improving labor productivity. Idleness is one of the typical symptoms of inefficiency. It can be observed in workers, machines, inventory, infrastructure, and budgets. The “systems approach” considers the efficiency approach ‘old-fashioned’ because it looks at only one part of the system, not the system as a whole. It is better to ask “what combination of waiting and idleness is optimal in the whole system?” The general principle is that it is often best to balance one inefficiency with another to achieve better total system performance. See full post at CSL4D.

Systems       [chapter 3] The scientific systems approach is preferred by debater number two. It views a system as a set of parts (or components or subsystems) coordinated to accomplish a set of goals. The components use resources and the environment to work towards the total system objectives. So, a system is defined by: (1) the total objectives; (2) the relevant system environment; (3) resources “are the means that the system uses to do its job,” including money, people, time, and equipment; (4) components, which take specific actions for using resources and environment to work towards the outcome of the system; and (5) management, which keeps an eye on system performance and takes corrective steps when needed. This sounds straightforward, but Churchman found that it is very difficult to define these five “considerations”, the more so because they are interdependent. See full post at CSL4D.

Simulation      [chapter 4; original title: ‘an illustration’] A study of the rising cost of cargo handling in the port of San Francisco was used to show how the dialectical systems approach may integrate other types of systems approach. The worry was that costly cargo handling would affect US competitiveness, while there was also a threat of labor strikes if cargo handling was made less labor intensive. First of all, management scientists identified the government agencies as the decision-maker, which implied that extending the embedding principle to the transport system would not be considered, thus restricting the purpose of the investigation by the engineers. Next, a simulation model was developed using past statistics on ship arrivals and so on to be able to determine the impact of a change of technology on the cost of cargo handling and on other parts of the port system. Finally, there was the question whom to share the benefits of innovation with. See full post at CSL4D.

 Input-output    [chapter 5] The input-output model is also widely applied by management scientists. ‘In’ go resources (people, money ..) and out come products or services: e.g. students from educational systems, and goods and dividend from industrial firms. A linear model of a manufacturing firm that makes 100 different kinds of furniture takes must consider the same five aspects as identified in chapter 3: (1) measures of performance: net profit expressed mathematically as weighted output minus cost subject to a set of constraint equations; (2) environmental constraints; (3) resources; (4) components: product lines (including marketing); and (5) management: the decision making on the amount of resources for each product line. In general, the larger the system becomes, the more the parts interact, the more difficult it is to understand environmental constraints, the more obscure becomes the problem of resource allocation, and the more difficult becomes the problem of the legitimate values of the system. See full post at CSL4D.

 Program budgeting     [chapter 6] Program planning & budgeting (PPB) combines planning with budgeting to achieve whole system effectiveness when multiple entities are dealing with a single broad issue, oversight is lost, and resources may be wasted. First, the objective of such a multi-faceted government program to deal with a social problem (e.g. alcoholism) is formulated. Next a number of general programs is identified: (1) prevention; (2) remedial activities; (3) control, e.g.  by medical or legal activities; (4) research; and (5) administration. These in turn are broken down in subprograms, as shown in an activity matrix. After that, the demands for the activities on the various programs and subprograms are expressed, as shown in a requirements matrix. The optimal design is one that maximizes the overall score by a rational allocation of activities in each subprogram. Serious gaps in knowledge may require judgments that need additional research. See full post at CSL4D.

 Knowledge management      [chapter 7; original title: ‘management information systems’] Management information systems (MIS) support decision-making, esp. in government and large corporations, e.g. for resource planning, client relations, or knowledge management. The system must be able to identify which information is valid and relevant and understand how it could help the manager in his or her decision-making. This requires a model of the manager and a forecasting model to be able to contrast alternative potential solutions in a reiterative process, involving a ‘rich’ interchange. Now, the core business of knowledge management would therefore be adapting the enriched interchange necessary for that process to different organizational contexts by obtaining valid and relevant information from multiple sources. Knowledge is best defined as ‘the ability of some person to do something correctly.’ The humanist is concerned that information systems are closed to the outside world and deeper values of morality and esthetics are lost. See full post at CSL4D.

Management information      [chapter 8; original title: ‘an illustration’] At one time, the Governor of California asked experts to design a computer-based, statewide information system. The idea was to propose a system that was capable of providing the same information as the present manual system, preferably in better time and at lower cost. The hidden purpose was to use “think tank capacity” in the Californian aerospace industry during a lull in government contracting. Churchman notes that different purpose definitions would result in different designs and that political support could itself be considered a key resource. The most practical option had decentralized storage with a central catalogue. The proposal was never implemented. The following aspects were left out of consideration: (a) the risk of ‘uncontrolled information accumulation’; (b) the question of whether future needs were to be taken into consideration; (c) the privacy or confidentiality issue; and (d) the use of a statewide information system to support decision-making. See full post at CSL4D.

 Time        [chapter 9] We have no precise model of the future, nor do we have reliable data for its input. The systems idea of nonseparability is related to the embedding principle. It means that there are functional relationships in the larger system that must be considered when improving a ‘smaller’ system. Nonseparability would extend planning beyond the next stage (single stage, ‘static’ view) to the subsequent stages (multistage, ‘dynamic’ view). The management scientist prefers the static view over the dynamic view, whereas most people know that the dynamic view is what counts. The longer term increases the unreliability of estimates. This applies particularly in social design, with different perspectives in choosing and ranking functional entities and relations. Network theory, or network analysis, comprises such planning techniques as CPM (Critical Path Method) and PERT (Programme Evaluation Review Technique). These are generally applied to physical systems rather than social systems. See full post at CSL4D.

Planning      [chapter 10] The systems approach is about planning with a view to the whole system. Planning must ‘pay’ for itself and compensate for the opportunity cost. Planning must be planned for.  An elaborate planning system unfolds into the subdivisions of: (1) social interaction, which subdivides into: (a) justification to demonstrate the worthwhileness of planning effort; (b) staffing and organizing to avoid alienation of planning from management; (c) communication of the plan by persuasion, education and politics; and (d) the design of a stepwise plan of implementation;  (2) measurement to create information about the decision-maker(s), alternatives, goals and objectives, effectiveness, and selection of the best alternative; and (3) test of the plan, using simulation, counter-planning and control. Of these three major subprograms of planning, “the second […] occupies the most attention at the present time, and this may account for the fact that planning so often fails in its mission.” See full post at CSL4D.

Values       [chapter 11] Any evaluation of the systems approach depends on how we value, which depends on the ‘real’ objectives of the system. The problem is that system ‘inhabitants’ often hide the real objectives by emphasizing the positive aspects to garner support or admiration. Churchman distinguishes three roles: the customer, the decision-maker and the planner. The decision-maker engages the planner to help him serve the customer better by systemic change. So it is up to the planner to clarify the real objectives. Customers can be clients in a shop, stockholders, employees, union representatives etc. Finding out the real objectives often entails a complicated and sometimes frustrating learning process of trial and error. Words or behavior can only express people´s values and preferences indirectly. Planners prefer feasible problems over complex ones. One tempting and practical, but deceptive strategy is by making assumptions to reduce the objectives of the system to a single, simple goal. See full post at CSL4D.

 Behavior      [chapter 12] Behavioral science could complement the systems approach for better handling of human conflict and resistance to change, problems that may result in non-implementation. One approach is to study human conflict by means of game theory. Laboratory studies demonstrated the existence of cooperative and conflict types. Studies of real cases developed practical principles of organization and group motivation. Resistance to change is a topic in the field of social psychology. Findings could be used in a sociotechnical systems approach. One of the best ways for handling resistance to change is by avoiding the problem of alienation of the planning system. This implies the need for companies to transform into learning organizations. Gaming and social accounting are two other fields of behavioral science. Business games can give entrepreneurs a direct insight in conflict situations. Social accounting is useful in supporting concepts that are used in the systems approach. See full post at CSL4D.

 Anti-planning     [chapter 13] The idea that a planning philosophy such as the systems approach is the most appropriate philosophy is not shared by everybody. It is also important to realize that “no approach to systems can stand by itself. Its only method of standing is to face its most severe opposition,” as could be mounted by anti-planners. Churchman distinguishes 6 types of anti-planning: (1) the ‘excellent’ manager; (2) the sceptic (there is no sound approach); (3) the determinist (everything is the product of social forces); (4) religion (upholds “God’s plan,” which is unalterable); (5) approaches reflecting the self: e.g. the revolutionary self; and (6) the non-intellectual, e.g. artists. The ‘excellent’ managers are the most common of all anti-planning approachers. They are supposed to be persons with rich experience in the system and with perceptive, brilliant minds. They “know the business” and cannot see how some outsider could tell them anything significant. See full post at CSL4D.

Deception       [chapter 14; original title ‘conclusion’] The ultimate meaning of the systems approach “lies in the creation of a theory of deception and in a fuller understanding of the ways in which the human being can be deceived.” So: (1) understanding our problematic systems is our most critical problem; (2) the problem of finding the appropriate approach is insoluble; because (3) continuous perception and deception are in the nature of complex systems; so (4) we must continually re-view the world, the whole system, and its parts. Four principles of deception-perception confuse and enlighten the management scientist and everybody else:   (a) “The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another.” (b) “The systems approach goes on discovering that every world view is terribly restricted.” (c) “There are no experts in the systems approach;” and (d) “The systems approach is not a bad idea.” See full post at CSL4D.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.

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