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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Cognitive dissonance, depolarization, and systems thinking

This blogpost argues that cognitive dissonance is at the heart of polarization and that depolarization requires a two-step approach (analysis + transcendence), and possibly a third step, involving socio-historical conscientization and ideological appraisal.

Cognitive dissonance      Leon Festinger (a student and colleague of Kurt Lewin) published A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance in 1957. It is one of the most seminal works in social psychology. Cognition means either: 1. the activity of acquiring knowledge, or 2. any item of knowledge acquired, e.g. about one’s actions, feelings, ideas, beliefs, values, and things, such as public opinion or media influences, in the environment. Pairs of cognitions may be consonant or dissonant. When one cognition is inconsistent with another, one experiences a sense of dissonance (Cooper & Carlsmith 2015). Rational thought is aimed at creating consonance (see also Baron). Dissonance is part of life: values are conflicting all the time (see Isaiah Berlin’s value pluralism). Dissonance is also essential for scientific truth finding (E.A. Singer Jr.) and democratic policy optimization.

Polarization      … is part of democracy. Western democracy has changed from a debate type to a spin type of democracy. Spin doctors make use of all the new insights of social psychology. The debate type of democracy was aimed at creating cognitive consonance, whereas the spin/framing type is geared to creating and using cognitive dissonance. A form of spin type manipulation of democracy is described in George Lakoff’s Don’t Think Of An Elephant (2004). The Democrat Lakoff is a cognitive linguist. He seems unaware that military terms were introduced into the then new science of sociology during WW2, when many sociologists were part of what was known as operations research, which itself has evolved into a scientific management and policy discipline (Churchman et al. wrote the first textbook, also in 1957).

Polarization model      To come to grips with the problem of polarization in relation to the concept of cognitive dissonance a simple model is proposed (1.0, because far from perfect). The chunk to the left is about cognitive dissonance. At the bottom we see the main problem, which is that due to unresolved cognitive dissonance socio-political situations are misjudged. As pointed out in Geoffrey Vickers’ Art of Judgment (1965) good judgment is essential to socio-political decision-making. Misjudgment occurs when credible evidence cannot be reconciled with a particular cognition or understanding of the situation and is disregarded for the wrong reasons. The general causes are summarized in the upper part of the left-hand chunk: misapplication of general rules for understanding (rules of thumb, heuristics) or delusions following from particular socio-political inconveniences, underlain by worldviews or notions about the human condition. If the cognitive dissonance is strong enough (i.e. lacks sufficient open-mindedness) it can no longer be resolved by (democratic) debate or discussion. Polarization is likely to follow and all sorts of mechanisms kick in.

Negative emotions       In social psychology it is not always possible to make a clear distinction between group polarization and individual cognitive dissonance, since there is a lot of interaction between the two. Individuals may experience anger, irritation, fear, guilt or shame as a result of cognitive dissonance, but the same emotions may play a role in group polarization. One polarizing party may e.g. want to play the guilt, shame or trivialization ‘card’ to silence opposing voices, which may also have all sorts of compliance or group cohesion effects among party members.

Disengaging strategy      … is a strategy that keeps the cognitive dissonance intact, but avoids any negative emotions by making it less relevant to one’s mind. There are three main substrategies: evading, refutation, or self-forgiving, each with a range of different approaches (fig. 1 in Cancino-Montecinos et al., 2020). When they are applied by a polarizing party they are bound to cause anger or irritation with the other party. Common examples are avoidance (by simply not discussing the matter), bolstering one’s perspective, denial of responsibility (e.g. by blaming a higher authority), trivialization, and even forgetting.

Engaging strategy       …. Is a strategy that attempts to resolve the cognitive dissonance. This strategy has three substrategies: restructuring, integrating, or overt behavioral change, again each containing various different approaches (fig. 1 in Cancino-Montecinos et al., 2020). Contrary to the mechanisms of the disengaging strategy, the meanings of the ones of the engaging strategy are not self-evident. It is left to the reader to figure out what each of these mechanisms entail (see e.g. this web page). An exception is made here only for ‘spreading of alternatives’ and ‘transcendence’. In the ‘spreading’ case individuals evaluate the a chosen alternative more positively after the decision.  ‘Transcendence’ occurs when the dissonant parts are put together and lead to an important whole or broader picture.

Systems theory      … could be considered a field of knowledge aimed at optimizing transcendence by rearranging the dissonant elements in a new, innovative way so as to resolve or minimize the dissonances. Systems thinking is applied in various forms of problem solving in decision-making and planning. Ackoff distinguishes solution, from absolution, resolution, or dissolution, with the latter representing the ideal ‘solution’ in the sense that the problem is eliminated and prevented from arising again (Ackoff et al. 2006). In the Cancino-Montecinos paper ‘transcendence’ is mentioned 9 times, more than any other approach, and is equated with ‘seeing the big picture’. This points to its importance and that of systems thinking, of which the essence is often summarized as ‘sweeping in and unfolding’.

Depolarization     … in the sense of dissolving social/individual cognitive dissonance may be achieved by first analysing the instances of cognitive dissonance, using a general (de-)polarization model, such as the one above, as a heuristic device, combined with properly applied systems approaches for dissolving (and preventing) the separate constituent problems from which the cognitive dissonance has arisen. In some cases the overall mess (i.e. the combined constituent problems) may transcend the problem dissolving capacity of this two-step approach and a third step may be required, involving socio-historic conscientization and political-economic or ideological clarification. This is a profoundly political project, that was started by Adams, Marx, Mill and the like and that has not been brought to a fully satisfactory conclusion, if that could ever be the case, since there are so many political ideologies. This third step may also be used to check for consistency among political actors, whether by themselves or by others.

Thinking,     …  fast and slow is the title of a book (2011) by Daniel Kahneman, who was awarded the 2002 Nobel prize in Economics. Much of our cognitive dissonance comes from fast thinking (instant, automatic, emotional, intuitive, using rules of thumb, often unconsciously): “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth”. Hence the effectiveness of social media in enhancing polarization, which in turn makes cognition theory a key topic for information literacy teaching. System 2 (slow thinking) is the slower, conscious, rational, reasoning, deliberate thinking. It can be used to resolve or dissolve cognitive dissonances, including those that first appear to us as a sense of outrage. System 2 can also convince us that it may be better to use thinking or heuristic tools, such as systems approaches, e.g. the very general systems approach developed by Churchman.

The nature of truth      … is best appreciated by contrasting it with reality. Fig. 1.2 in The Design Way of Nelson and Stolterman (2012) lays it out quite clearly. Truth can be found by a process of abstraction and generalization. So, a systems approach such as the seminal one of Churchman represents a general, abstract truth about planning (i.e. human activity as a goal-oriented system). Endless experiments refined the theory of dissonance. Such theories may help to understand and modify reality. But human or social reality is incredibly complex and reflexive. Best practice demands that we apply best theories (i.e. the most true and applicable ones) to help co-produce the best of all possible worlds imaginable. This may sound a bit like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide, but it would appear to be the best option available.

Postscript        This post is very much a work in progress. It seeks to address three key issues in polarization: 1. preventing unnecessarily polarizing policies (using systems approaches, e.g. as described elsewhere in this blog), 2. clarifying the processes of obfuscating cognitive dissonance associated with purposive polarization (using depolarization models, e.g. as described in blogpost), and 3. clarifying the underlying broader agendas served by apparently unnecessarily polarizing policies (using political ideological models such as this). It is hypothesized that if these three issues are addressed in an open-minded manner, voters stand a more honest chance of choosing the wiser options, thus letting democracy do its beneficial work more effectively.

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Luhmann’s systems theory

Modern society [1] Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) was a German sociologist who developed a general systems theory of modern society. The American social systems theorist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was a major influence – for the idea of social systems -, but so were the Chileans Humberto Maturana (1928-2021) and his student Francisco Varela (1946-2001) – for the idea of autopoiesis. Steffen Roth (1976) is a very active Luhmann scholar. According to Luhmann modern society evolved from the 16th to 18th century by differentiating largely independent function systems such as law, politics, science, economy, religion, and media. The function systems were not so much human designs as globally emerging patterns of social differentiation in a historically evolving environment, which to a large extent was shaped by those same emerging function systems. ‘Social systems theory does not describe reality as it “essentially” is, but as what it has actually become – and it could have come out otherwise’ (Moeller 2006, x). This environment of function systems provides worldwide the conditions/environment for the effectiveness of other social systems such as organizations and institutions (businesses, nations etc.).

Concept map of Luhmann’s social systems theory

Social differentiation [2] Luhmann distinguishes 4 main types of social differentiation and 1 intermediate type. The main types are segmentation, stratification, center/periphery differentiation, and functional differentiation. The intermediate type is hybrid differentiation, which combines elements of the main types.

Function systems [3] One of the first function systems Luhmann chose to deal with in detail was law, closely followed by politics and economy. The function systems steer humans to generate programs to carry out functions that help decide binary codes (opposing dichotomies) and further expand or differentiate function systems. In the case of law, the binary choice is between lawful and unlawful, the program is the whole collection of laws, and the medium is the sense of justice as expressed as individual or societal norms. Efficacy in the case of law points to the successful regulation of conflicts. A great many function systems can be distinguished. The descriptors of the main defining elements of the systems concerned differ slightly among scholars. Below is a shortlist of 10 major function systems by Roth (2015), who also discusses arguments in favour or against some of the descriptors used.

Self-referential autopoiesis [4] Luhmann uses the cell (of living organisms) as a model for his function systems. Social systems theory borrows not only the concept of autopoiesis from biological systems theory, but also the concept of operational closure. Autopoiesis literally means “self-production” (the Greek poiesis, as in poetry, means “production”) or, by extension, “self-reproduction”, which suggests the need for a process of self-reference, i.e. distinction between the self and the environment. ‘All systems continue their autopoiesis, and thus they all “develop”. It is the dynamic version of sustainability.

Operational closure [5] means that systems can be open to one another, but not operationally so. It refers to the observation that within a boundary of their own making (the membrane) cells have self-organization. Their systemicity derives from the fact that cells as systems have components or subsystems, which produce components, which produce further components, and so on, but rather in a circular than in an hierarchical order. Operational closure depends on complex coherence.

Humans [6] Luhmann distinguishes three types of systems: biological, psychic, and social. Humans are living organisms/biological systems with a brain organ, from which a psychic system emerged, generally referred to as the human mind. Consciousness evolves from psychic activity in the mind and enables people to consciously communicate in the form of interactions or basic social operations or micro-systems or communication events. These interactions can be rearranged and harnessed in the form of purposeful organizations or they can contribute to the emergence – or rather ‘blind’ evolution, of function systems. The evolution model suggest a survival or expansion of the fittest mechanism. The function systems of economics and politics have a tendency as primi inter pares to dominate the others. The mass media strengthen this trend, the last 20 years more than ever, due to the Internet.

Structural coupling [7] There are non-autopoietic inter-relationships between the various function systems. These involve so-called structural couplings. “Structural coupling means that systems shape each others’ environments such that they both depend on the other for the continuation of their autopoiesis and this results in an increase of their structural complexity. The structural coupling between the brain as a living system, the mind as a psychic system, and society as a communication system seems to be of a specific structure. [..] It seems that the mind is some kind of filter between the brain, on the one hand, and communication, on the other.” They become increasingly complex in tandem with each other. Instead of speaking of cause-effect relationships, Luhmann prefers to think of structural couplings in terms of irritation-response linkages. Language is one of the mediums for the structural coupling between individual minds and society, but certainly not the only one. “The jargon of both academic and common speech are expressions of the semantics of a society. Both represent the “sense” a society ascribes to itself and to the issues it deals with. Obviously these semantics change.”

Inquiring systems [8] It is best to think of social systems theory as an elaborate schema for the inquiry of social reality. In that sense social systems theory may also be used as an inquiring system for enhancing our understanding of a particular situation of interest. Organizations are decision-making systems requiring a particular environment of function systems. Churchman has developed an inquiring system specifically for organizational design(s). In its most common formats it has 9 or 12 categories and a large number of subcategories (9 category version here). An inquiring system based on the systems theory of Luhmann could supplement the inquiring system of Churchman especially where the categories of environment and guarantor are concerned and for the sub-category of the ‘human condition’. Arguably, the collection of global function systems has to a large extent taken over the unifying role of god or nature in understanding the human condition.

Social systems theory The main purpose of Luhmann’s social systems theory is speculative scientific inquiry into the unifying notion of an evolving global superstructure of function systems. This may be considered successful if it leads to insightful speculations about this structure, its history, and its present state. One day it may become relevant to understanding geopolitics and shaping world governance or the determination of its limitations. Luhmann is convinced that the design options are very limited due to the autonomy of the process (and luckily so!). I have a professional interest in international development and Luhmann’s theory seems to have potential for enabling a better understanding of non-economic center/periphery phenomena to complement theories inspired by Wallenstein’s world-systems theory (1974). See e.g. Neves (2001) ‘ ‘From the Autopoiesis to the Allopoiesis of Law’ (here). From an education point of view Luhmann is interesting because of the application of the notion of autopoiesis to social systems. It makes one wonder what Churchman and other organizational systems approachers would have thought of it.

References This post is mostly based on
– Luhmann Explained (from Souls to Systems) . Hans-Georg Moeller . Open Court Publishing Company (Carus Publishing) . 2006 . ISBN13 978-0-8126-9598-4 . ISBN10 0-8126-9598-4 https://www.worldcat.org/title/luhmann-explained-from-souls-to-systems/oclc/714569659
– A discussion/summary of the same book by D.P. Bruin, PhD Candidate, The Firm as an Emergent Phenomenon (here).
– Roth and Schutz (2015) Ten Systems: Toward a Canon of Function Systems (here).

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James E. Webb & C. West Churchman     

James Webb Telescope    The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) replaces the famous Hubble Space Telescope as NASA’s flagship mission in astrophysics. It improves infrared resolution and sensitivity over Hubble by a factor 100. It will help us see the first stars and the formation of the first galaxies, that is 100 million years after the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago). The first stars are known as Population III stars, and none have ever been observed, as they are too faint. The telescope was lifted into geostationary orbit by an Ariane 5 rocket launched on Saturday, December 25, 2021. The first images came back to earth on 11 February, 2020. The telescope can also characterize the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. These are exciting times.

James E. Webb The telescope is named after James E. Webb (1906-1992), who was appointed administrator of NASA by President John F. Kennedy. He oversaw its Mercury, Gemini, and much of the Apollo programs from 1961 until late 1968, not very long before the first men on the moon (Armstrong and Aldrin, 21 July 1969). Webb always considered the project “more a management exercise than anything else, and that the technological challenge, while sophisticated and impressive, was largely within grasp at the time of the 1961 decision.” Part of his task was to expand the definition of Project Apollo beyond just the mission of landing humans on the Moon to exploration of the Solar System and the universe as enticing a goal and as important an objective for humanity as it ever has been. The James Webb telescope could be considered an excellent example of this.

National commitment      Another problem for Webb was to maintain adequate national commitment and political support. Initially there was more than enough commitment due to the Cold War and the need to challenge Russian leadership in space and technology, militarily or otherwise. Practical non-military applications of space technology  such as communications, mapping, and weather satellites were also important. The strategic importance of satellite imagery did not escape attention. After the initial commitment, Webb politicked, coaxed, cajoled, and maneuvered for NASA in Washington. He also made it clear that the program should stir the imagination of the world and the USA by stressing its valuable and practical contribution to human knowledge.

C. West Churchman    In 1958, West became professor of business administration, Graduate School of Business Administration, University of California, Berkeley, and remained there until his retirement in 1981. In 1963, he convinced James Webb that NASA should work on societal and management problems. Churchman became associate director of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory from the time of its founding.  From 1965 he directed its Social Sciences Program. One day in the 1960s the value of his work was judged by NASA, which gave it an F for practical applicability and an A for academic excellence. The F may be justified from the angle of putting a man on the moon, but an underestimation of the value of Churchman’s work to the meaning-making, socioethical aspects of space exploration. If you have read the Red Mars trilogy you know what I mean.

Concept map of a small part of Interactive Planning, Ackoff

Components       …. are often considered subsystems. In Chapter 1 of Churchman’s The Systems Approach the main components of a system for trying to put a man on the moon are listed as: 1. a propellant subsystem, 2. an overall rocket design subsystem, 3. a communication subsystem, and 4. an astronaut training subsystem. To make these work in synch there is need for 5. a management subsystem. But that can go wrong, and dangerously so. Therefore Churchman proposed 6. a multiperspectival debating subsystem to avoid fatal flaws of the type ‘Why did nobody think of that?’. Systems approaches provide ideas and structure for such a subsystem for deep understanding. Ackoff, on the other hand, is much more practical. As far he is concerned a system can be a business or a program, which is composed of at least two parts that the define the whole of the system, which in turn has at least one function (see concept map to the right). The parts affect that function, which plays a role in one or more larger systems. The role of management is to ensure the right interaction between the parts for the proper function of the whole (as in Churchman’s subsystem 5). Overseeing component interaction was one of Webb’s tasks.

Commitment building      … was another task of Webb (see above). The systems approaches of Checkland and Conklin (yes, Conklin’s dialogue mapping is a systems approach in its own right) are the most explicit about the need for commitment among stakeholders to ensure implementation. Stakeholders tend to have different interests and values. Checkland proposes the use of so-called conceptual activity models to stimulate debate on social and power issues to develop shared understanding for shared commitments. Checkland’s activity models may be considered simple applications of Churchman’s dialectical framework (for an early concept map, see here). Conklin proposes a different approach. His dialogue mapping is based on argumentation visualization based on Rittel’s IBIS (issue-based information system), which is simple, intuitive, and powerful. The visualization is displayed on a whiteboard for all to see and follow, thus creating a collaborative space for finding agreement and agreeing on disagreement, which is also useful.

Concept map: complementarity
systems approaches

Synthesis       For systems approaches to work well, the right components have to be combined with the right commitment. All four approaches may achieve that in their own way. But they all have their weaknesses and strengths. By way of example, there is the remark by Conklin that “the secret skill at the heart of dialogue mapping is the art of finding the best questions,” which may be considered a weakness. The systems approaches of Churchman, Checkland, and Ackoff excel in just that, providing coherent frameworks for asking the right questions. Each of the four has its own forte. Churchman’s dialectical inquiring system is good in inquiry, Checkland’s soft systems methodology in finding commitment, Ackoff’s interactive planning in asking design questions for a comprehensive intervention outline, and Conklin’s dialogue mapping in collaborative display of argumentation, which is generating its own questions in a more or less spontaneous way. Combining Churchman’s approach with Conklin’s visualization technique seems a particularly good idea.

Systems learning When it comes to learning systems approaches, there are several good reasons for combining these particular four in a single package: 1. they are seminal methods in their own right, 2. grasping the ‘systems approach’ concept is easier by contrasting two or more of them, 3. the approaches differ in their level of generality, 4 the approaches could be conceived as being complementary. Churchman’s is the most general one and can be applied to large-scale processes in society, Checkland is particularly good for collaboration among large organizations, whereas Ackoff’s approach is much more directly aimed at the development of intervention or business models. Dialogue mapping can be used on its own or in support of the other approaches. Once a student is acquainted with these four approaches it will be much easier to learn other examples among the panoply of approaches that have emerged over the past half century. And it makes it much easier to appreciate the original writings of their creators that inspired many systems thinkers. A final note: Churchman, Ackoff, Rittel, and Checkland knew each other well, as colleagues or longstanding friends. Conklin is of a younger generation and was mostly inspired by Horst Rittel.

Single formula As = f ( Ci, Cs, Di | Ud), in other words: systemic Agency (As) is a function of inquiry for Coherence, shared Commitment and interactive Design by Understanding through dialogue. Leadership and/or innovation and/or effectiveness may all seek systemic agency, including shared commitment. However, these are “labels for understanding the process of comprehending reality; and, almost needless to say, other labels could be found to accomplish the same task” (Churchman 1979:80). This formula covers a lot of ground and may serve as a first approximation (v. 1.1).

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Ackoff’s Triple Systems Explanation Whopper

Russ L. Ackoff (1919-2009) was a friend and colleague of C. West Churchman (1913-2004). They both hailed from Philadelphia, both served in the Second World War, and both devoted their lives to developing and applying ‘systems approaches’ worldwide because they were certain they were on to something really important. Unfortunately, systems approaches are not normally taught in secondary education and tend to be taught in a non-generic way, if at all, in tertiary education. As a result few people experience the eureka effect of deep learning when it comes to systems approaches, because key aspects remain unclear. Churchman was a great teacher and stayed in academia, but Ackoff had a way with the spoken word that had great appeal to businessmen. In this post I will take a short fragment of one of Ackoff’s many video recordings and explain its meaning in detail. A partial transcript of the 4 key minutes can be downloaded here.

Systems explanation whoppers      The three ‘systems explanation whoppers’ are: (1) organizations can only do well if they learn (i.e. improve effectiveness) from errors of commission; (2) conventional management cannot learn very well because it disregards the errors of omission and avoids the errors of commission; (3) to make things worse, conventional management emphasizes efficiency, which prolongs the wrong actions that follow from the errors of omission. A fourth point is not mentioned in this video, but is important nevertheless: (4) conventional management of organizations, countries or businesses tends to commit the ‘environmental fallacy’, which means that it ignores the various complex, larger systems. Systems approaches, whether of the type of Churchman, Checkland or Ackoff provide practical, scientific methods to address these four whopping problems, each in their own way. There is an interesting and important complementarity between their methods, which is the subject of a book I am working on.

Concept map       This all sounds very logical, but there are a great many intricacies that may be lost if we don’t take a second look at a concept map. Systems approaches

are called for when serious organizational problems have arrived or are looming and serious, much more effective alternatives are required. One of the questions is: what is effectiveness? Effectiveness could be described as the degree of functionality in relation to the larger systems, the extent of which is a matter of choice in boundary setting, which requires boundary critique to obtain some measure of shared understanding. This is what Ackoff is referring to where he speaks of organizations that are “pursuing objectives which are contrary to their intention.” The intention is always pointing at an effect in a larger system. Perhaps ‘purposive functionality’ could be a good term to describe this, or ‘intentional coherence.’ It all points to a mismatch between the stated purpose and actual purpose of an organization or project or programme or business.

Is there magic involved?      Systems approaches need good professional knowledge and an open mind. Active open-mindedness (see Baron’s ‘Thinking and Deciding’) can only come from a well-selected group of knowledgeable people. But not too knowledgeable. And they also need guidance in the application of systems approaches, because they are not generally taught in school and an smart outsider (e.g. the systems facilitator) may be helpful. In a larger business it may be possible to select younger staff that has already worked, say, 3 to 5 years in the company. They must have complementary competences.

Systems theories       Yesterday I was with the 91-year old husband of a former colleague of my wife. From 1950 until his retirement he had always worked happily at Philips Telecommunication Industries in Hilversum. He asked me whether there were any theories or laws or principles associated with these systems approaches. He was very pleased to hear from me that there were a number of very good principles involved. Clearly there the principles of deception-perception, which state among others that any perspective, even of an expert is deceptive in its perceptiveness (Churchman 1968, 235). Another Churchman principle is that of non-separability. We have to live with the fact that all sorts of things are in inter-relationships with each other. Some of these inter-relationships can only be ignored to our detriment. A good shortlist of six principles is provided by Gharajedaghi (2011, ‘Systems Thinking: a platform for designing business architecture’) one of the former colleagues of Ackoff: (a) principle of openness (about ‘open social systems’); (b) principle of iterative inquiry; (c) principle of counter-intuitive behaviour; (d) principle of emergence; (e) principle of purposefulness; and (f) the principle of multi-dimensionality.

Christmas thought      A very important principle is that embedded in the Conant-Ashby Theorem, which says that every good regulator of a system must be a model of that system. When applied to human society we can easily see that’s what society is struggling with. Ideally, all the people in human society collaborate in a way that everything works out for the best, not only for the people and their society, including future generations, but also for nature. Humans are social learners. Evidence for human cumulative learning goes back 3.3 million years (Stout et al.). Humans have learned to create ever more complex collaborative activities since then. Ever larger networks for exchange, communication and their control emerged, but until now we fail to fully understand how they can work for the best. Clearly human collaborative learning in all its dimensions is in need of a big boost. The systems approaches of Churchman, Checkland and Ackoff, in combination or separately, can provide the tools for such a boost.

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A concept map of Churchman’s general systems approach (update)

Below concept map is a representation of the present author’s understanding of Churchman’s general systems approach, mostly based on the description of the nine categories in ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ (Churchman 1979, 79-100). Reading a concept map of this nature is not something most people are used to. It looks like a plate of spaghetti. Some of the arrows are black and represent the general structure of S, which is any particular activity of humans, in organizations or otherwise, conceived as a system. Other arrows are light grey. They represent aspects of S, the importance of which is easier to understand once the general structure is in place. The first explanation will be done chunk by chunk, later to be followed by ‘inter-chunk’ clarifications. The four chunks in a way describe what soft systems thinking is about: using a general systems approach for planning the management of change to add value. And all this within certain limits: later on I will add a fifth, ‘constraints chunk’ for the remaining three categories left out of below concept map to avoid overwhelming the reader.

A good place to start is in the planning chunk. The systems approach is based on the idea that human activity is best conceived as a system. The concept of ‘system’ is complex, because humans and organizational settings are very diverse and complex themselves. The general systems approach applies to all human activity, both individual and social in all sorts of organizational settings, understood broadly, from family to state, from ideology to business, and from school to parliament. The conceptualization of such a human activity system is done by one or more persons in the role of a designer and is called a plan. It can and must be called a plan, because human activity is characterized by serving a purpose. This is a key link to the value chunk, but we will first deal with management. The inverted comma’s around ‘system’ indicate that there is no such thing as a perfect conceptualization. All meaning, structure or pattern is provisional and subject to debate. So we do wise to ask: What should be the purpose of the system? Who should the client be? And so on and so forth (Churchman 1977, 3).

The management chunk is about the management of the system components, which are subsystems that make up the system and that are designed to cluster activities geared to achieving cluster-specific system objectives. The system is open so it operates in an environment, which is beyond the control of the decision-maker, but may contain environmental factors that cannot be ignored. The boundary of the level of control is a design question as is the level of performance of the system. The components coproduce measures of performance, both enabled and constrained by the environment. These measures or indicators are used by the decision-maker to decide whether things go according to plan. If they do not, the decision-maker may allocate more or fewer resources (including human resources), stop or scale down the plan, or send a designer back to the drawing table. Most of the time, decision-makers prefer the first option, especially in the form of small, incremental steps.

The next chunk is the one dealing with change, the transformation chunk. The intended change is described in terms of objectives, both short-term and long-term. The objectives are established by the designer. They usually reflect some kind of ideal. Ideals can only be pursued in an approximate manner. This is most readily understood by looking at so-called input-output models, which is a common approach to systems of all kinds. In go people and money and out come products or services. Or, when we look at engines: in goes fuel and out comes mechanical energy. The ideal is that the energy value of the fuel is equivalent to the value of the mechanical output energy. This raises the question of efficiency. Churchman gives a description of the input-output model in Chapter 5 of The Systems Approach (1968, 61-78). Another question is that of trade-off between ideals. Because input-output models are relatively simple, they can be very useful in the early stages of system design. They are not very good in handling uncertainties.

This brings us to the fourth or value chunk. Churchman developed his general systems approach to increase the likelihood that human activity will produce some good of some kind. The Wall Street Crash of 1929, the ensuing Great Depression, and the Second World War made him acutely aware of the absence or deficiencies of guarantees in administration, economics and diplomacy that in the end the human condition will improve. Another problem is that of implementation. It is one thing to design interesting plans that address serious issues, but quite another to convince decision-makers that it should be executed. Some of the most frequent reasons for non-implementation are political, strategic, bureaucratic, cultural, or social  in nature. To ensure implementation, the designer must in some way activate the decision-maker.

It is important to note that among the nine categories, there are three so-called role categories: the client, the designer, and the decision-maker. In the words of Nelson (2003, 465), one of Churchman’s students, this “focus on people as the scaffolding of a system” differentiates the general systems approach from any other approach. Normally, people are “merely a set in a classification of elements,” but in the systems approach the emphasis is shifted to the functions served by people in a system. In Churchman’s “model one or more individuals can fill a particular role, or the same person can fill different roles at the same time.” This can be represented by a map. An example is the benefit-cost map for the “client” category to trace out where the benefits and costs go. In a business, customers enjoy the benefits of a service or product, but there are other clients, too: workers who receive a salary, manager who receive a higher salary and a bundle of perks, while shareholders receive dividends or higher share prices. The production of an influence map for decision-makers follows the same principles. The idea of role categories is one example of the ways in which the systems approach illustrates the pragmatist tradition “that – very broadly – understands knowing the world as inseparable from agency within it” (Legg and Hookway, 2019).

Five grey spaghetti arrows have not been explained yet. Let us start with the concept map proposition “transformation defines purpose”. This means that the purpose of an activity (or “why”) can be usefully clarified by stating how the purpose is planned to be realized. In other words, by stating the objectives. The next proposition is “client is standard for measures of performance”. Adequate measures of performance or indicators are often very difficult to design in a way that the decision-maker can use them in his management. The indicators must measure the increase in value as experienced by the client. The measures must also integrate the objectives in such a way to enable the decision-maker to stay on track to completion of the transition. This is summarized in the the next proposition, where the “decision-maker adaptively manages components.”  The final two propositions centre around the concept of mission: “plan contributes to mission” and “mission guides decision-maker.” The mission of an organization for which a decision-maker is responsible is a “statement of purpose: what the organization seeks to achieve over the long term. [… It] offers a pointer to the overall direction in which strategy will take the organization” (Grant 2008, 21). Mission statements are not always very clear, but they can be derived from the objectives of the plans the decision-maker chooses to implement.

A simple way of operationalizing the general systems approach is described in “Value Distribution Assessment Of Geothermal Development In Lake County, Ca” (Churchman, Nelson and Eacret, 1977). Nine basic questions do the job: (1) Who should the client be? (2) What should be the goals of the system? (3) Should there be a measure of performance for the system? (4) Who should the decision-makers be? (5) What components of the system should the decision-makers control? (6) What should the environment of the system be? (7) Who should be the planners of change in the system? (8) How should plans be implemented? (9) What should be the design of the control of the implemented
plan? Note that these questions are in the “should” or “ought” mode. For the sake of comparison they could also be asked in the “is” mode. Instead of these 9 questions, one could also turn the 27 propositional statements of the concept map into 27 “is” and 27 “ought” questions.  Considering that each question can be rephrased in many different ways, the total number of questions for one’s inquiry may easily exceed 100. These are not random questions, they are strongly inter-related and must also be considered in their inter-relatedness. That’s the power of Churchman’s general systems approach. It makes me think of Heinz von Foerster’s ethical imperative. Enjoy but don’t get lost.

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Dialectical Systems Learning

During the past month or so I have been ruminating over my post of May 10, 2019, which was about my latest effort to come to a better understanding of the workings of a systems approach described in a workbook that I am co-writer of. Wicked Solutions, as it is called, uses three operable systems concepts to explain systems thinking in a nutshell and encourages learners to apply them directly on a ‘wicked’ problem of their own so as to gain a direct, hands-on experience of their usefulness. The three concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. Last week I had a discussion with two members of staff of Australia’s Southern Cross University, Ken Doust and Andrew Swan, who has used Wicked Solutions in one of his courses. They had several critical observations that set me thinking. One idea was to focus the dialectical systems approach of Wicked Solutions around problem/solution trees to get a handle on engineering cases. When I told a close friend about it, he was so readily and overwhelmingly enthusiastic that I set to work integrating the idea into the insights gained in my previous post, all the while trying to keep things simple (as opposed to the spaghetti dragon of last time). So here it is:

(This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners)

Principles and methods     Churchman used to insist on the proper use of principles, rather than on the use of some method. This is probable one of the reasons why his dialectical systems approach, although brilliant, never caught on. It could be argued (as I did in my last post) that the learning cycle of Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology is in fact a method that applies a good many of Churchman’s principles. This would imply that Churchman’s principles can and perhaps even must be used to fully understand Checkland’s method. (In fact, the idea of the principles-method dichotomy emerged while reading about the Darwin-Wallace controversy in the book ‘Krakatoa’ of Simon Winchester, a reading suggestion by Ken: thanks again!). This is not unimportant, because Wicked Solutions is to some extent based on both, either directly or indirectly.

Human activity models        … is the term used by Checkland to distinguish interventions from social systems, which he calls ‘human activity systems’. It occurred to me that human activity models can take many forms. One of the most common forms is that of linear management (see my post of 2013). The problem/solution tree approach is an adaptation of that form. The good thing about that approach, from a training perspective, is that it runs the risk of imposing early limits on the problem/solution space (see another post of 2013). Both Churchman’s principle of non-separability and his environmental fallacy refer to this risk. This means that the problem/solution tree approach can be used as an excellent starting point to show the benefits of the systems approach, to explain the epistemological nature rich picturing, to emphasize the need for stakeholder engagement as a way to apply the principles of deception-perception and make sure that assumptions that restrain the scope of a more systemic solution are brought to light.

Five steps       … are all that is needed for dialectical learning: rich picturing, framing of stakes, boundary debate, model selection, and feasibility analysis. Framing of stakes and boundary debate (or critique) are missing in Checkland’s SSM activity pattern that reflect the steps in his SSM inquiring/learning cycle. When I say they are missing, that does not mean that they must be necessarily included. It is just that for learners it is easier to have them included. It has the additional advantage that the learners can be assessed for following these steps. In Wicked Solutions the last steps of model selection and feasibility analysis are lacking. There, too, it does not mean that they had to be included. Most of the systemic process can be carried out in the first three steps. But some learners will think it unsatisfactory that these steps are lacking (as I did myself). The framing step is Bob William’s idea, whereas the boundary debate in the form of critical heuristics is Werner Ulrich’s contribution. Critical heuristics is often carried out on its own or prior to SSM.

Inquiry and design       It may be useful to look at the 5-step process from the angles of inquiry and design. Churchman and his principles are at the inquiry end of the process, while Checkland and his method is more on the design end. The actual conceptual design of novel solutions takes place somewhere in the middle. The last steps are just a clarification of what has been found in the earlier steps. This clarification is more apt to a methodological approach, whereas the development of novel concepts is a much more suited to an open-minded, principles-driven approach. The marriage of Churchman’s principles with Checkland’s method seems rather obvious. Checkland circumvented this ‘problem’ by insisting on ‘rich picturing’ as the first step, a step that was sorely missing with Churchman.

Principles and concepts       Churchman’s principles are scattered among his books and papers. He attempted to summarize them in his categorical framework, which is applying the principle of categorical assurance (where categories are about the  lack of inter- and intra-categorical assurance) as described in Edgar Singer’s ‘Experience and Reflection’, which was posthumously edited by Churchman in the period between his years devoted to the development of operations research and his last 16 or 17 years before his retirement devoted to the development of his systems approach. Bob Williams was the instigator of a meeting in 2004 in Berkeley to simplify systems concepts in a way that non-specialists could handle them more readily. These concepts were inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. He has successfully applied them in a book that provides an overview of a wide range of systems methods, for which he received the American Evaluation Association’s Paul F Lazarsfeld Evaluation Theory Award (for Bob’s books, click here). It is fairly easy to explain Churchman’s principles in terms of the three basic Berkeley concepts. This will prepare them for Bob’s introductions to other sections of the systems field, including that of systemic evaluation design, thus turning the various writings in a neat whole. And the development of assuring, synergetic ‘wholes’ is what systems thinking is all about.

Problem/solution trees    The end result of learner’s following the dialectical systems learning approach (still to be fully described) will be one or more alternative problem/solution trees. There are various ways of processing these trees into more refined models, using other approaches. One of the other criticisms of the two Australians was that Wicked Solutions lacked guidelines for stakeholder selection and engagement. There is probably no short answer. Two things spring to mind: 1. SSM has quite a body of practice that has been described in articles and books, some of them indicating how stakeholders were organized and encouraged to co-operate. 2. the Royal Tropical Institute has had considerable success applying a method called RAAKS, which is to some extent based on SSM principles, but which provides a considerable range of tools to enable stakeholder collaboration.

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Soft systems methodology revisited

Combining Checkland and Churchman for systems learning

This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners.

Systems concepts baffling     Over the past years I have been trying to get a better understanding of the workings of a systems approach described in a workbook that I am co-writer of. Wicked Solutions, as it is called, uses three operable systems concepts to explain systems thinking in a nutshell and get learners to apply them directly on a ‘wicked’ problem of their own so as to gain a direct, hands-on experience of their usefulness. The three concepts are: inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries (as in ‘boundary critique’), see also here. It may seem silly that I don’t understand the workings of a systems approach that I have used and written about myself, but I may well be in very good company.

John Poulter      …., in his talk about a closely related systems approach, explains that “what I realized was that I have been using SSM since I was a schoolboy but I’d never been able to explain to anybody what I was doing when I was analyzing their problems there and it was thanks very much to Peter [Checkland]’s articulation of SSM that at long last I was able to explain to not only to other people but myself what I was actually doing, what process I was following, the stage I’d got to, what I’d learned, and what was to come next and so on.” (online video fragment here). What this implies is that many people, including management consultants, use systems principles naturally, but they don’t realise that they are doing so in a fairly unstructured way, lacking the necessary rigour.

Soft systems methodology     Now I didn’t hit on the video with Poulter by accident. I was actually attempting to get a better overview of the main ‘systems approaches’ developed so far, which led me to a blog post of my own about soft systems methodology (SSM), which I had written in 2012. It was based on my reading of Chapter 5 of ‘Systems approaches to managing change: a practical guide’. Chapter 5 was actually a summary of a book by Checkland and Poulter ‘Learning for Action: a short definitive account of soft systems methodology and its use for practitioners.’ This chapter 5 is available online (e.g. here or here), and was summarized by me in the blog post of 2012 (not a very neat concept map, but then again the squarish concept maps are unforgivable sins against Checkland’s fried-egg preference). The fried-egg diagram that really got me fired up was Fig. 5.9, which I transformed into concept map C below. In my opinion the diagram is a good representation of soft systems approaches generally, which was just what I needed (but that’s for a next post).

Wicked Solutions      It occurred to me that by combining three fried-egg diagrams of Checkland and Poulter with a concept map of my own I could describe SSM on one page, which may help to make it a bit less “intellectually challenging” (quote from here). From there I made two major modifications: 1. I made the systems concepts of perspectives, inter-relationships and boundaries explicit in the elaboration of SSM activity pattern (concept map D, activity pattern element ‘i. exploration’); and 2. I added an element ‘ii. Dialectics’ in the activity pattern to the existing four (now five) in conjunction with the Wicked Solutions step of ‘stake analysis/framings’. In this way it is possible to show that Wicked Solutions covers the first parts of the SSM learning cycle, which could well serve as a powerful first learning experience for introducing students to systems thinking generally and both Checkland’s SSM and Churchman’s dialectical systems approach specifically. It is important to note that Wicked Solutions stops short of developing ‘conceptual activity models’, which means that it also doesn’t provide at present a model for doing so.

Dialectical systems approach       Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is indicated in concept map D by the concept ‘ii. Dialectics’ only. It is itself quite an elaborate approach as well, just like SSM, be it a bit more open to one’s own insights and preferences. I should add here that Wicked Solutions doesn’t use the classical Churchman approach, but a critical derivative developed by Werner Ulrich, a student and admirer of Churchman. Ulrich’s version is commonly known as critical heuristics or critical systems heuristics. The advantage of Ulrich’s version is that it is somewhat easier to use. The disadvantage is that it ignores a number of important insights of Churchman, although this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially where systems novices are concerned. There is more about Churchman’s dialectical systems approach here and elsewhere in the same blog. In the above framework Churchman seems to play a minor role, but this may be deceptive. To explain what Checkland is doing, it may be easiest to use Churchman’s original insights. I prefer to look at them as complementary and mutually explanatory (but that too is a good subject for a future blog post; I realize that I am promising a lot now).

Concept map explanation          I did not as yet provide a full explanation of the above concept map. Here it is: The LUMAS model is an overarching model that applies to all methodologies that seek to improve real-world problematical situations, in this case SSM. The model describes both the development of formal and informal methodologies as well as the learning process of its application, which is action-oriented, because of the complexity and dynamics of real-life situations. Different users may have different appreciations of a methodology, i.e. the application may differ for each user. In the case of soft systems, there are multiple users in multiple roles, from stakeholders or actors, planners and decision-makers or owners to customers. The SSM activity pattern h(bottom) is an elaboration of the more general SSM inquiring cycle (middle left). Churchman’s dialectical systems approach (ii. Dialectics) could be considered both an activity pattern and an inquiring cycle. In the form of critical heuristics it has been used many times as an important first stage in applying SSM. In a certain way Churchman (dialectics) and Checkland (SSM) are mutually explanatory and complementary. A  powerful first learning experience can be gained by introducing students just to elements i and ii of the activity pattern (see ‘Wicked Solutions’, Williams & Van ‘t Hof), using key ideas of both. SSM activity pattern (adapted): The central question to be debated is whether alternatives are likely to improve the problematical situation or not. To answer this question systemically 7 steps need to be followed, numbered in orange: 1. Rich picturing an acceptable representation of the problematical situation, the “is”. 2. Framing the problem and/or solution space. 3. Inquiring dialectically into  the “is” and suggestions of possible alternatives, “ought’s”, in the light of the key question, using systemic criteria or some other meaningful forms of systemic inquiry, based on Churchman’s framework of interdependent categories for judging purposeful activity systems. 4. Designing conceptual models of possible interventions using ideas generated in step 3.  5. Debating to compare the conceptual models designed in step 4.  6. Examining social, cultural and political feasibility and adjusting conceptual models to find mutual agreement. 7. Deciding on implementation or agreement or understanding. An image of the concept map with text can be downloaded from here. More explanations are available from Chapter 5 ‘Soft systems methodology’ by Checkland and Poulter (2010) and ‘Soft Systems Methodology: A Thirty Year Retrospective’ by Checkland (2000).

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Systemic evaluation design

Currently Bob Williams is preparing the second edition of his workbook on ‘Using systems concepts in evaluation design’ (available as a pdf for only 5$ from https://gumroad.com/l/evaldesign). It describes a practical systems approach to evaluation design. As Churchman explains in chapter 1 of “The systems approach” (available here), his dialectical systems approach was designed to first of all think about the function of systems, human systems such as organizations, policies and projects in particular, to reflect on their “overall objective and then to begin to describe the system in terms of this overall objective.” You may not be aware of it, but this is as revolutionary an idea today as it was more than half a century ago. It applies as much to systemic design as to systemic evaluation. The main take-away is that one cannot decide on an evaluation method without first looking into half a dozen systemic considerations. So buy that book. (This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners)

The key question         … (when we talk about evaluation) is: what exactly does it seek to achieve? In the case of evaluation this question must be asked twice: about the intervention (the so-called ‘evaluand’) and about the evaluation itself. Bob is one of the first to come up with a method to answer both questions systemically. I will try to describe this method as succinctly as possible by using a concept map, which is the bunch of spaghetti you see below. In the future, whenever you will eat spaghetti again, you will think back to this post. It’s not difficult.

The purpose      … of any intervention is to maximize value (to a client or beneficiary or customer) in terms of merit (intrinsic value), worth (relative value) or significance (meaningfulness, see also here), so evaluation is the attempt to assess how well the intervention is doing this. All three forms of value are important, but worth is particularly useful, because it expresses the notion of constraints or cost. This notion is considered again when we talk about the evaluation criteria, below. The emphasis on purpose is what forces us to consider systems thinking as the best way to go. Purpose is what makes us humans tick, even though we must figure out what the purpose of our actions is. But once we think we know what it is, there are many possible arrangements (or systems) for realizing it. Or we may decide to reconsider its importance and completely ignore it. Making arrangements requires a planner. Deciding what to do requires a decision-maker. So when we have a purpose, we have three roles: client, decision-maker and planner.

The evaluation client        Sometimes the three roles coincide in a single individual. Normally, when we talk of societal or organizational complexity they are highly differentiated. In systems thinking they are mixed up: a client may also be a planner (that’s when we speak of participation), or a decision-maker may be a client (she often benefits, i.e. enjoys some sort of value or quality ). This idea of roles, one of Churchman’s main contributions, can be applied to systemic evaluation. Conventionally, the evaluation client is the decision-maker of both the intervention and the evaluation. In systemic evaluation the evaluation client is the intervention as a whole, including the client and the planner.

Systems concepts         In October 2005, a group of evaluators (see contributors to Bob Williams’ ‘Systems concepts in evaluation’) convened at Berkeley University (which is exactly where C. West Churchman had done most of his work from the 1960s onward, in his case on the 6th floor of Barrows Hall) to figure out a way to explain systems thinking to uninitiated evaluators and decision-makers in simple terms without sacrificing its core principles and effectiveness. After two days in the pressure cooker they came out with the core concepts of inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. What was new was not the concepts, but the idea that these three concepts are sufficient and necessary to explain systems thinking. I have played around with the concepts for a few years and my conclusion is that no explanation of effective systems thinking is complete without referring to all three of them (see e.g. here, here or here), leaving semantics aside.

Bob’s genius      … lies in the direct operationalization of these three concepts. People can actually use them without fully understanding how and why it works. Bob’s last two books were on systemic intervention design (Wicked solutions, co-written with me) and its complement, on systemic evaluation. By working the books (they are workbooks) one gets a direct understanding of the importance and application of the main principles. The main steps in the evaluation book follow the three basic concepts (2) exactly in that order: inter-relationships (to be mapped, 3), perspectives (to be framed, 4), and boundaries (to be critiqued: 5, 6 and 7).

Scope and focus   A basic systems principle is that of non-separability, which means that it is always a good idea to look at the larger picture, especially in complex problem situations. These are much more common than we sometimes admit. Scope and focus are boundary issues that can be addressed once we have framed the problem situation, i.e. broadly demarcated the problem and/or solution space. Scope (5a) is all that needs to be considered, focus (5a) is where we think most attention should go. The purpose (5b) of the evaluation must be broadly determined early on. Typical purpose categories are demonstration, improvement, and learning. For a purpose to be achieved it is necessary to prepare for the consequences (5c) of evaluation in terms of politics, ethics and/or practice (5d).

Evaluation, narrowly speaking        …. requires the collection of data using a method or methodology to see how an intervention performs. Standards must be set to compare the data with, but standards for what? Standards are the concrete expressions of more abstract criteria (6b) for assessing interventions. In Bob’s scheme these criteria are selected (6a) from eight categories, which are roughly derived from Werner Ulrich’s twelve critical systems categories (see the end of this post), which in turn are derived from Churchman’s twelve dialectical systems categories (see here). The questions to be answered are e.g. What standards could we apply to be sure that the intervention makes efficient use of the resources and doesn’t overlook certain environmental constraints (environmental in the sense circumstances), and so on and so forth.

Feasibility      … (7a) is mostly about the interrelated aspects of the allocation of sufficient resources and the selection of an adequate methodology for collecting and processing the necessary data (7b). Resources is a broad term and includes evaluators. There are more inter-relationships in the whole process. If we do not know what standards to apply, we cannot decide on the selection of a methodology. One must also consider the scope, focus, purpose and consequences. An important question is how to engage different perspectives in the whole process, since stakeholders playing the client and the planner roles in the interventions are also the clients of the evaluation. Sensible solutions will need to be devised in order to address these systemic issues. If not, the usefulness of evaluation will be very limited.

The evaluative mindset      … is perhaps best explained in this July 2018 video of Robin Miller (during the Out With It pre-meeting at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam)., who had the original idea for the Berkeley evaluation meeting (Williams 2007). Miller favours good qualitative studies over poor or premature quantitative, experimental ones. That fits very well with the systems approach advocated in this post. Miller lists eight reasons for evaluating: (a) to learn (including about undesired, unintended consequences); (b) to surface assumptions by multi-perspectival teams (e.g. about why we think certain interventions are good); (c) to help establish a compelling base of evidence for future interventions and policies that are actually implemented; (d) to use interventions to reflect what one values in them and what are one’s own values (significance); (e) to contribute to certain outcomes to occur (contribution rather than cause-effect attribution); (f) to discover and document needs; (g) to counter historical distortions in the base of evidence; and (h) to create an equal playing field in terms of the base of evidence when we talk about what is a meaningful, scalable, feasible intervention or intervention and one that responds to community needs, values and concerns.

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Systems thinking in three steps

Systems thinking is generally considered difficult, both to learn and to explain what it is about. Here is the latest of my efforts in this blog to make it simple. At the end is a concept map. It is self-explanatory, but only if you read the table above it very carefully. This post could be considered a follow-up to the previous one. It has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners. 

systems learning cycleThe three steps        …. are: (1) recognizing that some problems are socially and organizationally complex; (2) acquiring some basic knowledge of systems thinking, social systems thinking in particular; and (3) selecting one or more systems approaches to address the complex problem, at first arguably a generic systems method such as Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. The numbering is arbitrary: the three form what could be called the systems learning cycle, in which the three steps are interdependent. So, one needs some idea about social systems thinking in order to recognize the characteristics of socially and organizationally complex problems as requiring social systems thinking. And there is hardly a point in recognizing such complexity without having some confidence that specific systems approaches could be of some use. In practice one will need to go through the learning cycle a couple of times, before it all starts making good sense. (N.B.: I am convinced that the highly generic, dialectical systems approach of Churchman (1968, 1971, 1979) is a very good starting point for both learning and problem solving purposes).

Complex problems 101              Warren Weaver (1948, link in references below) was the first to recognize the need for a new class of problems, which he called ‘problems of organized complexity’. Their key characteristic is the fact that “they are interrelated into an organic whole,” which means that they cannot be analysed in their system-holistic essence quantitatively. Now more than 70 years ago he insisted that mankind must find some way of handling these problems, because “the future of the world depends on many of them.” About ten years later, in 1957, Herbert Simon, who was awarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Economics, identified what he called ‘ill structured’ problems.” “In short, well-structured problems are those that can be formulated explicitly and quantitatively, and that can then be solved by known and feasible computational techniques” (or algorithms), whereas ill structured problems cannot. He went on to speculate that computers could be programmed to develop enough artificial intelligence (AI) to be able to handle ill structured problems better than any human decision-makers and managers. Since then, AI developed much slower than expected, so another 60 or so years later, Stephen Hawking agreed with Simon, in theory (!), but also warned that artificial intelligence could pose an existential threat to mankind (Russell et al. 2015). If it is true that artificial intelligence is the solution to mankind’s complex problems, then its application actually would seem to present a new, highly complex problem of its own.

Wicked problems          In 1972 (and 1973), Horst Rittel described in detail what he had called wicked problems in one of the weekly seminars of C. West Churchman at Berkeley in 1967. It was to admit that the use of computer technology to manipulate large numbers of variables in order to solve social problems such as urban renewal, environmental protection, the global food system, health services, and the prison and law enforcement systems had led to very disappointing results. Rittel lists eleven characteristics in 1972 and ten in 1973 and shows why these characteristics prevent the successful application of computer technology. This does not mean that computers cannot be very useful in some subordinate way, but they will never be able to crack the hard, wicked core of wicked problems in a convincingly satisfactory way. The ten differences between wicked and tame problems are summarized below in two forms: first a table, then a concept map. I let them speak for themselves.

tame and wicked problems characteristics - tabletame and wicked problems - concept map


  • Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Retrieved here or here.
  • Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved here or here (chapter abstracts) or here (summaries).
  • Churchman, C. West (1971). The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization. New York, London: Basic Books. Retrieved here.
  • Rittel, H. & Webber, M. (1973) Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169. Retrieved here.
  • Rittel, H. (1972) On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations’, Bedriftsøkonomen nr. 8 – 1972, 390-396. Retrieved here.
  • Russel, S. et al. (2015) Research Priorities for Robust and Beneficial Artificial Intelligence, AI Magazine (Winter 2015), 105-114. Retrieved here.
  • Simon, H. & Newell, A. (1958). Heuristic Problem Solving: The Next Advance in Operations Research. Operations Research, 6(1), 1-10. Retrieved here.
  • Weaver, W. (1948) Science and Complexity, American Scientist, 36: 536. Retrieved here.

This was a short explanation of the first step (or the second, if you like) in the systems learning cycle. In a previous post I gave a description of the second step to explain the need for social or soft systems thinking. In the next post I will discuss the dialectical systems approach. A simple, dialectical method for learning how to handle inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries (see concept map) can be found in Wicked Solutions. You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel, of which this post is a part) by buying Wicked Solutions at Amazon.com. You will support me even more if you buy at Lulu’s. There is also a PDF at Gumroad for only $12. Your thinking will never be the same.


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Definitions of systems and systems thinking

There are no simple definitions of systems and systems thinking (Monat & Gannon 2015) that are sufficiently rich to clarify what they are essentially about. So instead, I will offer a circumscriptive definition in three parts and add a small concept map to go with it. This post has been syndicated by The Systems Community of Inquiry to https://stream.syscoi.com, the global network of systems thinkers, scientists and practitioners. 

Systems thinking       …. is the selection and application of more or less general systems methods or systemic problem solving tools to examine, debate, model, and modify systems structures, which underlie systems behavior. Systems thinking serves to identify and improve or understand the system behavior of a broad range of open systems.

Open systems      … consist of sets of at least two parts, elements, components or subsystems that are characterized by at least one interrelationship. The distinction between an open system and its environment is conceptualized by the system boundary. Open systems interact with their environment by receiving input and generating output.

Social systems    ….are open systems involving human actors (in roles as client/beneficiary, decision-maker, planner, see my ‘Concept map of Churchman’s categorical scheme for the inquiring system of a dialectical systems approach‘), who often have diverging, partially perceptive perspectives, which – in combination – may help them perceive non-linear systems behavior more fully. All humans are capable of systems thinking to varying degrees. Systems methods can amplify more mundane forms of systems thinking.

Non-linear patterns      … are what need to be changed in the case of (wicked) problems. These patterns are formed by inter-relationships connecting the various parts or subsystems. A well-known set of non-linear patterns is formed by Senge’s (or Kim’s) systems archetypes. In social systems these inter-relationships are intricately linked to the values of the actors involved. Aspects defining the problem situation include processes, world views, purposes, uncertainties, conflicts, and motivations. Some of the aspects are qualitative rather than quantitative.

Key operational concepts     …. are inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries. Inter-relationships and perspectives need to be mapped. Different perspectives must be combined to map them properly. Once a sufficiently comprehensive map is available the boundary of the system can be debated to rank inter-relationships and perspectives in terms of relevance with a view to understanding and changing the non-linear patterns. A simple method for learning how to handle inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries can be found in Wicked Solutions.

You can support my work (of writing an even more convincing sequel, of which this post is a part) by buying Wicked Solutions at Amazon.com. You will support me even more if you buy at Lulu’s. There is also a PDF at Gumroad for only $12. Your thinking will never be the same.

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