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*
(Any fact becomes important when it’s connected to another.)
But only if it simultaneously reveals its relevance.” (Sjon van ’t Hof)

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Reason as a basis for rational decision-making

As a co-author of Wicked Solutions: a Systems Approach to Complex Problems (2016, $12 pdf version available here) I have a practical understanding of how the systems approach could be applied very effectively to real-world problems and for well over a year now feel a deep urge to get to the bottom of this ‘Systems Approach.’ So far I have finished reading Churchman’s great trilogy (The Systems Approach, The Design of Inquiring Systems, and The Systems Approach and Its Enemies) and am now reading Thoughts and Wisdom (TW, 1982), Challenge to Reason (CR, 1968) and so on. Initially, my hope was that reading TW and CR would be more like a quick check whether I had really understood ‘my’ Churchman, but it turned out to become anything but quick, and most certainly dazzling. Little wonder that Noam Chomsky held Churchman in such high esteem. As a result of all this reading my postings to my CSL4D blog have come to a halt in January 2017. I will resume posting from now, mostly to keep a written record of my progress in dissecting and reassembling Churchman´s work. This is the first of what I intend to turn into a comprehensive series of in-depth Churchman notes, starting with my notes on Chapter 7 of Challenge to Reason: Rational Decision Making. It is the first chapter of Part II in which he explores what it might mean if “indeed, reason is that function of man that enables him to look at himself and to raise questions about everything he does.” (CR 91).

The concept of reason     … is elusive. It is closely linked to our origin as a human species, i.e. as Homo sapiens. In Chapter 7 of Challenge to Reason Churchman critically reviews six or seven ideas about reason that we have inherited from earlier thinkers such as Spinoza, Hegel, Popper, Jung and others. Churchman then tries to establish an alternative using his dialectical approach of whole system rationality, which is in fact a systems approach to understand the underlying rationality of the systems approach.

Spinozean logic    … is the first of the schools of thinking that Churchman considers. It can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophy and Descartes, of course. It works very elegantly by first establishing a set of axioms that are so self-evident that they are beyond even the most radical form of doubt. From there a set of rules is applied in a number of steps to arrive at conclusions that are equally impervious to the skeptical mind. A nice idea that works pretty well in mathematics, but is much less convincing for organizing our thinking processes for making decisions in the real world.

Process of discovery     Here Churchman refers in quick succession to both Hegel and Popper. Hegel is best known for his dialectical approach, while Popper wrote a book The Logic of Discovery, in which falsification plays a key role (no falsifiability, then no science). Now, Churchman is a scientist and he must have read Popper with great interest, but he must have rejected the idea of falsification (probably in baffling, idiosyncratic style) when it comes to rational decision-making. As to Hegel, he loved the whole thesis-antithesis-synthesis idea (I know, Hegel never expressed it in these words), be it with little twist: the antithesis is not simply the denial (falsification?) of the thesis, but is rather a statement with the transformative power to pave the way for imagining a synthesis that transcends both opposites.

Jungean rationality     … is another thing altogether. Now Churchman really likes Jung a lot, including his idea of everything having shadow aspects. Jung famously created a theory of personality types, which was further developed into the Myers-Briggs typology that you may have heard of (I happen to be a rather rare INFJ-A with touches of INTJ and ISTJ). In Churchman´s interpretation of Jung´s key mental functions (Thinking, iNtuition, Feeling and Sensation) both thinking and feeling are ‘rational’ functions that deal with decision-making, while intuition and sensation are nonrational. To Churchman this is too narrow. In his view, reason characterizes the whole of life including the functions of intuition and sensation. “Reason has to do with the way in which human beings understand what human life means.” (CR 97).

Power and reason      Rationality is often defined by a ruling class or elite. This type of reason then becomes the basis of planning. Modern man abhors this idea although it is still very much entrenched everywhere. Instead we now prefer rationality to reflect our inner convictions. Some of these convictions then tend to get an aura of sanctity with axioms expressing rules of behaviour. A common reaction to whole system rationality is that it has no way of handling power relations. That doesn’t make it any less rational, except in terms of implementation. Such criticism is to be duly considered.

Game theory      …. is able describe rational conduct in the context of conflict as long as there is a recognizable set of rules governing “fair play”. Unfortunately, the practical value of game theory is rather limited. Moreover, it seems to lack an adequate moral basis, because it says very little about the worthiness of the goals of the game, which could well be geared toward genocide and other evil objectives. Talking about mass murder, in the 1950s RAND Corporation has been interested in the development of game theory for applications to global nuclear strategy. There may yet be a link between game theory and the systems approach: the latter’s multi-perspective aspect could be considered a whole-system rationality way of creating win-win situations.

Natura Artis Magistra      …. Is the name of the “royal” Amsterdam zoo, supposedly meaning “nature is the teacher of art”, so why not the art of reason. The origin of the saying is not quite known, but some suggest (sorry, Dutch source) it derives from Freitag’s Mythologia Ethica (sorry, all in Latin). Churchman objects against nature as the foundation of rational design, because whatever we observe in nature as ‘rationality’ cannot be more than human projection. The same applies to nature’s ethics, which belongs in a book of fables such as Freitag’s. By way of diversion I would like to point to the viable system model (VSM) of a self-sustaining organization, which was developed by Stafford-Beer. The funny thing is that the book in which he described the model, Brain of the Firm, has long been in use by biology students, who needed a model of brain. So perhaps it is time for a new saying: “management is the teacher of nature?”

Churchman’s radical alternative     … is based on the idea that “reason is the process by which man is able to look at himself” and his social institutions. Now, “for something to be able to look at itself, it must look at itself as though it were something other” (CR 106).  This may sound a bit cryptic, but it simply means that we can reason about one social institution by using another social institution as a lens. It is fascinating to see how Churchman uses this method all the time. He picks a social framework (e.g. science, management, politics, religion, education) and applies it to another in order to facilitate self-reflection using the whole system. One example was given in a previous chapter of Challenge to Reason (“The role of the well-informed public”) where Churchman shows that:

“the evolution of the rationality of politics will include the development of politics as a science, as a management, as a religion, as an educational system. In other words to make politics more of an educational system, that is, to develop a political life of our society in which politics will create the well-informed public.”

The maximum loop      is the title of Part II of Challenge to Reason. At the end of the present chapter Churchman outlines what he intends to explore in the remaining chapters of Part II:

“It is impossible to determine the rationality of conduct in one framework alone, as those who try to develop basic axioms of rational behavior attempt to do. Nor is rational conduct simply a development along certain prescribed lines, as evolutionary theory suggests. The test of the rationality of an institution, or a company, or a person, is the determination of the manner in which X functions as Y, and the way in which Y functions as X. For something to be able to look at itself, it must look at itself as though it were something other. What is not explained is the meaning of “function as.” What is entailed in “considering” management as science, or science as management? In the end, the answer will probably be, “I’m not sure.” But a few explorations of the idea in the chapters that follow may help to clarify as well as to confuse.”

Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. Retrieved from http://www.ask-force.org/web/Discourse/Churchman-Challenge-Reason-1-223-1968.pdf

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Real objectives, value and the systems approach

Client-purpose relationships, unfolding, evaluation and systemic agency

It’s always wise to raise questions about the most obvious and simple assumptions. (Churchman, 1968: ix)

What proof exists of any real, actual value added by the systems approach? At the beginning of Chapter 11. Values of The Systems Approach (Churchman, 1968: 179) it is stated that the answer to this question depends on the person who tries to answer it, e.g.: (1) millions of dollars (enthusiastic operations researcher); (2) no savings in the many cases that studies were not implemented (disappointed manager); (3) improved organizational effectiveness has in many cases resulted from systemic rationalization (receptive manager). Much depends also on what is meant by the systems approach and how it is applied. I am mostly interested in the fundamental-teleological understanding of the systems approach that corresponds roughly with Ulrich’s critical heuristics. Let’s see how this could work out.

Real objectives        In Chapter 3 of The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman distinguishes nine categorical conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological system (see previous post). Three of these conditions are role-related (planner, client and decision-maker), three are central concerns (purpose, resources, and implementation), and three are conditions of assurance (measures of performance, environment, and guarantor). The nine conditions are closely related, but some are more closely related than others, forming trilogies e.g. purpose, measures of success and client. Perhaps the most central of all categories is that of purpose, which is not surprising considering that we are dealing with teleological (goal-oriented) systems. The purpose is the set of objectives an activity or intervention tries to achieve. In order to know whether or not something adds value requires that we know what these objectives are. Knowing the real objectives may prove to be less easy than it seems, no matter whom we ask: the client, the decision-maker or the planner.


General obscurity          Knowledge of the real objectives may first of all be obscured by, well, a lack of knowledge. We often don’t know why we are doing things, we just assume that they may be useful to do or at the very least better than doing nothing. This may seem silly, but under conditions of chaos it may be best to try anything, especially if it is something new and daring that may lead to long overdue innovation (see my post on Cynefin). In other cases, the real objectives may be unknown by lack of specificity, which in turn may be due to a lack of imagination or a lack of insight in the potential of a particular course of action. All this happens more often than we like to believe, because we live in a world of complexity. And because we like an occasional challenge.

The manager’s angle       … of the real objectives is often deceptively distorted because she wants to impress in order to garner support for certain proposals. To do so, she has to disguise the organization’s  true intentions, ignore or recast the negative consequences, and inflate the beneficial effects. The deception is often conflated by the involvement of multiple other decision-makers or the effect of multiple stages of decision-making while implementation is complicated by large numbers of intermediary objectives. All of these can be used as a smokescreen to enable decision-makers to hide their understanding of the real objectives of an activity or intervention. Finally, decision-makers may ask clients or customers what they think ought to be the true objectives, but there is nothing that categorically obliges them to do full justice to client needs or expectations. In fact, they can even ignore clients altogether by deciding not to serve them at all.

The client’s angle     … of the real objectives may seem less susceptible to deception, since the client is supposed to benefit from the added value produced by an activity or intervention. There are several difficulties (the dark blue concepts in the concept map), some reminiscent of those affecting the decision-maker. First of all, the client may not know her preferences. In the case of many interventions, the benefits are produced in a distant future. Clearly, the understandings of future clients or beneficiaries can only be guessed at. A further complication is that clients may belong to a larger group or multiple groups. Often it is not practical to ask all clients what they think. Similarly, clients may represent a larger group, such as his or her family. Finally, clients themselves have complexes of minds (conscious, subconscious, unconscious) that are difficult to consult, yet may contain powerful and important motivations in favor of one or another objective.

The planner’s angle     … of the real objectives is no less important than the other two. It is the planner’s task to build as accurate a model of the activity as possible, including its purpose. Of course he will start by asking the decision-maker what it is that must be achieved, but unfortunately she is notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately, the client is also not of much help. This means that he has to devise methods to approximate some kind of understanding of what the client really wants. A common approach is that of expressing all gain in monetary terms. The advantage is that it is possible to determine a net value, simply by subtracting the costs of the intervention needed to produce the gain. The problem is that it cannot really be used as a substitute for gains in humanist value, e.g. self-fulfillment, happiness and other forms of personal satisfaction that can only be judged by the client herself.

Valuing the intangibles       The planner can use various methods (‘tricks’) to incorporate intangible values in his valuation model. One of them is that of weighing the client’s preferences. He can also look at the actual behavior of the client and – in the fashion of Skinnerian behaviorism – use that to derive underlying values and valuation mechanisms. Finally, he can attempt to identify one or several representative clients or simply concoct an abstract client. But first and foremost he must be aware of the difficulty he is up against: the need to understand or design a purposive system without being able to determine in certain terms what the purpose really is.

Concordial tension       The point of this discussion is not to cause despair, but to understand more clearly the problem of approximation that the planner is up against. He has to be wary of the information obtained from the decision-makers and the beneficiaries or clients and careful when making his own assumptions about what the various stakeholders claim to be the real objectives, whether actual or ideal. Some form of agreement about the objectives will be necessary, though, even though the underlying assumptions among the stakeholders may differ. The only fair thing to do for the planner is to juggle all the available evidence and insights as dispassionately as possible, including his assumptions about the assumptions of the various stakeholders, including himself.

Systemic agency       The juggling doesn’t end there: it is from this point on that one can unfold the implications, i.e. make judgments about all of the ramifications of the system, seeking the most equilibrated teleological concordance (see previous post) and the best shared understanding possible, all the while taking into account that the underlying assumptions (and assumptions about each others’ assumptions) among stakeholders may differ very widely, indeed. But it is the concordant understanding (incl. mutual constraint acceptance) that energizes the implementation effort, which is what systemic agency is all about. In other words:

Human action and understanding are most effective and meaningful when conceived systemically. (the first principle of systemic agency, Van ‘t Hof, this blog, 2016)

systemic-agencyAnother way of explaining systemic agency comes from Paul Batalden (see youtube). The essence of it is represented in the concept map on the right. What he actually did is expanding the (health) system boundary to include ‘professional development’. It is Dr. Batalden who coined the phrase “Every system is perfectly  designed to get the results it gets.” For better or for worse, that is.

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Systems approach as teleological concordance

A complete concise understanding of the systems approach

When I started this blog (CSL4D, i.e. Concept & Systems Learning for Design) almost 5 years ago (January 8, 2012), I had just discovered concept mapping as a great learning tool. At the same time I had a great interest in systems thinking, but found it hard to get to the bottom of it. So I decided to use concept mapping as the main tool for my pathway of personal learning in systems thinking. This resulted in over 100 posts, 1 book and several (so far mostly unpublished) reports. There is still a great deal to learn, but I think that I have achieved something rather special today: a complete concise understanding of the systems approach in the form of a concept map consisting of 4 inter-related submaps. It is something I have been after – as if it were the Holy Grail – since my discovery of the work on the systems approach by C. West Churchman in 2013 as an essential part of my co-authoring Wicked Solutions, for which I will remain forever in debt to the main author Bob Williams. As to the concise understanding, I am sure I could not have achieved the same without concept mapping. I am equally sure that I will not be able to communicate my ‘discovery’ to you very clearly without the use of concept maps, so I recommend you make a print of the concept map on which this post is based before you start reading. If at the end you decide to quote from this post, make sure you give the full source.

Four sub-maps       The four sub-maps are: (A) a summary of need and purpose of the systems approach; (B) the basic categorical pattern for improving value creation (published Oct. 21, 2016); (C) the nine conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological whole (published Oct. 28, 2016); and (D) the fundamental reason why the systems approach is not applied more often. A detailed description of the sub-maps follows below. In between the sub-maps you will find the relationships between three key systems concepts used in Wicked Solutions to explain systems thinking: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries.  These concepts have been marked red and have been linked in blue to other concepts or parts in the different sub-maps. If you find the explanations long-winded (the systems approach is not as simple as some people imagine it to be), you can jump to the end of this post where I summarize the lot in just a few sentences.


Sub-map A: informed change        This sub-map is essentially a kind of four-quadrant matrix with on the left-vertical axis the level of desirability,  where “is” indicates low, actual desirability, i.e. the current problematic situation and “ought” means a future, more ideal situation or a more practical approximation thereof. On the bottom-horizontal axis is the level of understanding, which is low on the left and more advanced on the right. Since we are dealing with complex or wicked problems, there is no full understanding, i.e. all understanding is subject to the principles of deception-perception. In the quadrants you will find four concepts: (1) an ‘initial concern’ that is triggered by a perceived gap between “is” and “ought”; (2) an ‘ideal’ to which you may aspire; (3) a ‘systemic intervention design’, which represents the best way imaginable to approximate the ‘ideal’ in practice; and (4) a ‘reinterpreted problem situation’, which represents the best imaginable problem formulation following increased understanding. The improved insight is the result of intersubjective deception-perception (intersubjective = commonly agreed upon, esp. to achieve the next best thing to objectivity). The idea is simply that sufficiently different perspectives can lead to complementary insights to provide a better understanding of the situation as a whole. The line around the concept for ‘reinterpreted problem situation’ is dotted, because its boundary is subject to critical debate (i.e. boundary critique). In this sub-map the systems approach could be defined as an approach that addresses an initial concern by approximating an ideal situation as well as possible by designing a systemic intervention, i.e. a plan that looks at the whole (also in terms of sustainability and effectiveness), based on an intersubjectively informed reinterpretation of the problematic situation at hand.

Sub-map B: patterned teleology       The systems approach applies system teleology to human activity in order to improve value creation. This could be interpreted as a clever answer to a very interesting question, the short version of which is: “What fundamental pattern underlies all human activity?” Or, formulated in another way, “What must we know for studying concerns of effectiveness?“ Human activity is what the systems human-activity-as-teleological-system approach deals with in the broadest sense (1, light-blue). The systems approach provides principles for inquiring into and redesigning the complex relationships (2) that characterize human activity (3). In the systems approach, ‘the bigger picture’ is an important concept, because it is necessary to better situate both complex inter-relationships and human activities (4). Human activity can be considered to be a teleological system (5). This means that human activity is best understood by its ends or purposes. This simple idea is the foundation of the systems approach (6). According to Churchman a common, fundamental pattern characterizes all human goal seeking (7). This pattern underlies the systems approach, i.e. the systems approach explains what the pattern is and what principles must be followed for its application in practice (8). At its most simple the above pattern is the logical connection of fundamental concepts, three of which are: design, resources and value (9). The ‘bigger picture’ is also part of this fundamental pattern (10). The general purpose of human activity could be said to be the creation of value (11). Part of the human activity is the use of resources (and environmental factors) to create value. Another part is design, which attempts to understand what value to create, why, and how. Three roles can be distinguished: the designer, the client and the decision-maker (12). Everything else follows from there, including ideas on planning, effectiveness, management, evaluation etc. But before we get there, we must first take a closer look at the fundamental pattern that characterizes system teleology.

Sub-map C: concordant conditions      In Chapter 3 of The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman distinguishes nine conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological system (S, see below concept map). First of all S has a Purpose P (1) or goals or objectives, otherwise it would not be teleological. It must also have a Measure of performance M (2), or else we cannot know how well the purpose is achieved. The purpose must serve somebody’s interests according to his or her values (3a). This somebody is the Client (C) or beneficiary, whose value pattern (motivation, aspirations, ethics, and aesthetic sensibility) is the standard for M (3b). The system has components (4) and an Environment (E, 5), which together coproduce M. The components are managed by the Decision-maker (Dm), who is in a position to improve M (6a). Dm can do so by assigning Resources (R) under his or her control (6b) to be used by one or more components. The Designer (D) conceptualizes the system (i.e. the elements and relations listed so far, including himself and whatever follows) (7) with the intention to maximize the satisfaction of C. This conceptualization is the plan, which activates Dm. D must consider by what Guarantee (G) S can best ensure its Implementation (I) or ultimate realization (9), because without it human activity is pointless.   In Chapter 2 of The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman develops the idea of Leibnizian ‘fact’ nets after starting his inquiry on the design of inquiring systems with Descartes and Spinoza. The notion of radical doubt by Descartes inspired Spinoza and Leibniz, but also Churchman. How can we know anything for sure? Who is actually the client, who the designer, and who the decision-maker? Who else benefits? Are the roles not overlapping? Are there not multiple clients etc.? Who ought to be the client etc.? What ought to be the measure of performance? What transformation or change do we actually desire? What things outside the system (E, environment) constrain it from delivering its purpose to the beneficiaries? Churchman gives many examples of how these critical questions can lead to surprising and novel insights that can help one to redesign a system (or plan or intervention) and increase its overall and ultimate effectiveness. All other systems or management ideas and concepts can fit into this, so it is a good idea to have the systems approach precede any other systems or management methods. So it should be used a lot. Allow me at this point the interested reader that I summarized Churchman´s philosophical underpinnings of the systems approach last November.

Sub-map D: built-in wicked feedback loop        This sub-map explains why (i.e. for what fundamental reason) the systems approach is not used as much as it should. The problem is that the systems approach is based on a number of basic principles as explained in sub-maps A to C. Most planners (consultants, experts, designers) fail to appreciate the systems approach (1, light-purple). This may in part be because they don’t understand well enough how wicked problems are different and why they are important. In spite of the fact that the systems approach is the most generic form of systems thinking that encompasses all sub-forms (3), planners generally prefer to use these sub-forms (2), which they also find easier to learn (4) since they follow more straightforward, specific methodological formats. And sub-forms are not wrong per se. They can be very good for the purpose for which they are designed. Unfortunately, wicked problems are too complex to be addressed (i.e. identified and resolved) using a clear format. Not in the last place because wicked problems are unstructured, i.e. lack a clearly definable problem-purpose nexus to which a particular methodological format can be applied. Therefore, the systems approach necessarily lacks such a clear methodological format (8). The overall result is that most planners fail to address wicked problems in an effective, sustainable way (5). Especially if they are smart. We must raise awareness of this ‘wicked’ feedback mechanism to break the loop.

Wicked Solutions       There are two main ways for raising awareness of the need for using the systems approach more often: (1) explaining the necessary logic of the systems approach and why people don’t use it (achieved, see above; just spread the news); and (2) enabling people to apply the systems approach directly to a wicked problem of their own, using a series of steps resembling a methodology, yet retaining most or all of the principles in full that make up the systems approach. This second way for raising awareness has been achieved with the publication of ‘Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems‘ in 2016. Wicked Solutions is special in the sense that it has simplified the message without losing the essence, i.e. the principles. The simplification involves three concepts (inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries) to explain the systems approach while guiding the reader through their practical application. One may wonder how these three concepts fit in the explanation of the systems approach above. To clarify matters I added these concepts (to the extent they were not already included in the sub-maps) to the overall concept map and linked them in the usual way, using dark-blue arrows and numbers: (1) the stakeholders or actors involved each only see their part of reality, but together they can create a bigger picture for a fuller understanding of the problematic situation; (2) this bigger picture (as a step a ‘rich picture’) enables them to better situate the complex inter-relationships that produce the ‘wicked problem’; (3) a key part of these complex inter-relationships are the diverging perspectives (and motivations) of the stakeholders; (4, 5) the diverging perspectives are used in critical debate or boundary critique to gain a better, intersubjective understanding of the many, confusing aspects of both wicked problems and their systemic resolution; (6) to this end use is made of a concordant pattern of categorical conditions that need be satisfied for conceiving human activity as a teleological whole; (7) there is no limit to the (range of tools for gaining) insightful (non-)systemic patterns that may assist the stakeholders in enhancing their intersubjective understanding as long as the concordance between the categorical conditions remains a primary concern. This is the reason why it is unwise to use subforms of systems thinking or other approaches without first or simultaneously using the systems approach (or at least keeping it in the back of your mind).

Systemic patterns              There is no end to insightful systemic patterns that can help us understand the many, confusing aspects of both wicked problems and their systemic resolution. A well-known example is that of Peter Senge´s systems archetypes (see e.g. my representation of a balancing system using concept mapping). In fact, my first post was on The Fifth Discipline in Uganda. Looking back at this post, we see that it describes mostly how my interest in the application of systems thinking in the developing world was kindled by a little Youtube film and a slight reference to the use of Senge´s approach to leadership issues. Looking back at the many things I learned about systems thinking in a more distant or not so distant past, I can only conclude that Senge’s approach does not satisfy the requirements of teleological concordance as demonstrated by Churchman. The same applies to many other methods and tools and frameworks (e.g. Osterwalder’s business model canvas). Perhaps all these methods and tools and frameworks together could be reconceived as proto-language of systems patterns (or wicked problem insights and design practices). The original idea for such a language came from Christopher Alexander and luckily brought to me by David Ing. Some ideas for such a language could be gleaned from my post on Rules of thumb and leverage points or from the chapter Expanding your ability to think systemically in Wicked Solutions. But the first thing is to keep thinking by means of our brains, the greatest thinking thing in the universe as far as we know. And to do so properly, let us be guided by the principles of Churchman´s systems approach.

Teleological concordance        Teleology means goal-oriented activity. Most (but not all) human activity is teleological. Having a goal implies the need for a beneficiary, a decision-maker (to allocate resources to achieve the goal), and a designer (to make a good plan to achieve the goal) and some other so-called categorical conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological whole. These conditions can be used to generate questions in relation to the effort to achieve the goal, i.e. to move from the unsatisfactory actual situation “is” towards a more satisfactory, ideal situation “ought”.  The categories or conditions are inter-related. This means that if you change one category, it has implications for the others. The systems approacher (and the stakeholders in the ‘system’) must acknowledge these implications. This activity is known as ‘unfolding’. Its aim is to make sure that all the categorical conditions work as a concordant whole, which is the overall (categorical?) condition. One of the categories is ‘environment’. The allocated resources need certain environmental ‘factors’ to achieve the goal. A common error in all human planning is the so-called ‘environmental fallacy’, which means that essential environmental factors or conditions are not taken into consideration. It is crucial that the correct relevant elements of the environment are ‘swept in’ to achieve the goal. Similar reasonings can be used for our inquiry into the other categories. This is a reiterative process, because one insight ‘unfolds’ into another.

A man has two reasons for what he does, a good reason and the real reason.
J. Pierpont Morgan

For good measure            … just a few remarks about the beneficiary (or client), the decision-maker and the designer (or planner). Churchman understood as no other that with “humans into our problem situation, all bets are off, so to speak” (Hester and Adams, 2014). It are the humans that in most problem situations are responsible for much of the complexity. On close inspection (e.g. using the systems approach or the common sense of Everyman), this appears to be the case even for seemingly simple problems. Without considering the hidden motivations and biases of key stakeholders, it will not be possible to envisage sound and durable solutions. A very simple example will maket that clear. In the case of a policy or project it may seem simple to know who “is” the beneficiary, but on close inspection it may well also be the decision-maker, e.g. if the programming and its evaluation can be manipulated to run ‘hitch-free’. This shows several things: (1) the “beneficiary” (or client) in the systems approach is a role, that can be played by any of the stakeholders; (2) in the ideal case there is ‘concordance’ between the stakeholders about how the role is to be conceived (in fact, in the ultimate ideal case the beneficiary, decision-maker and designer show complete convergence); (3) the application of the systems approach requires general acceptance, not only in the form of ‘good will’ (e.g. to make honest assessments), but also to ensure mutually understandable communication (without which the critical debate will lose all traction). This last point (3) puts the fear into many potential users of the systems approach, but this need not be the case, because: (a) “barking dogs don’t bite”, i.e. the systems approach is not a judicial system, but a system for inquiry and design, where the final design does not normally contain anything harmful to the key participants (or else it would not be sustainable); (b) applying the systems approach takes a lot of effort, which means that it will only resorted to if an activity or plan or policy has failed seriously with no hope for a future turn-around; and (c) for truly innovative solutions it is necessary to dig deep without fear. It is exactly the unsettling part of the systems approach that gets people to think outside the box.

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From efficacy to efficiency to effectiveness

Four approaches and two meanings of ‘approach’

When I first read Churchman’s ‘The systems approach’ I was missing a bit of structure to let everything fall into place. I went on to read more of his books and other systems books to get to grips with the subject. I gradually became convinced that perseverance won’t harm a person bent on getting to the bottom of systems thinking. I am currently rereading the same book (‘The systems approach’) that I started off with a couple of years ago and I believe I have made some progress since then. So here is my new version of my reading and interpretation of ‘Chapter 2. Efficiency’ (pp. 16-27). It provides an alternative way for quickly understanding what the systems approach is about, by situating it in a context of other approaches most people are more familiar with.

 The efficiency approach      Churchman has worked as a management consultant before anybody had thought of the term. As such he has worked a lot with people who talked a lot about efficiency in its various guises. Efficiency is all about getting rid of unreasonable waste in terms of money, time, or equipment. Churchman gives several examples: (1) unused inventories; (2) idle equipment; (3) overstaffed workforce (in bureaucracies or hospitals); and (4) ill-targeted welfare assistance (due to dishonesty). There is huge ‘slack’ in our government and business organizations, so “cost reduction programs always make sense within the narrow confines of each division of the organization.” However, according to the management scientist, mere attention to cost reduction by itself may be counter-productive due to feedback mechanisms. A productivity approach (operations research) could prevent that.


A productivity approach      The question is: what’s wrong with efficiency in a narrow sense? And if anything is wrong, how should you best avoid it? That’s where operations research comes in. In fact, Churchman helped establish operations research in enterprises as an academic discipline, after he had worked in operations research for military operations during World War II. A good example is an airport with a single airstrip, where busy periods are alternated with periods of slack. On average, there may seem to be room for increased efficiency, i.e. more aircraft, but in practice there may be the problem of planes  having to wait too long, which is also a form of inefficiency. In such a case one inefficiency has to be balanced with another. To do so requires a mathematical probability model and some calculation power in the form of a computer. One might say that operations research is a kind of (overall) productivity approach.

An effectiveness approach      The systems approach is all about effectiveness in a broad sense and could therefore be called the effectiveness approach. Just like operations research could be considered a comprehensive version of the efficiency approach, the systems approach encompasses operations research. Whereas efficiency means “doing the thing right,” effectiveness means “doing the right thing.” This gives the systems approach primacy over the other two. Before you can start doing the thing right, you must make sure that you are doing the right thing. Or else, it will mean you are wasting a terrible amount of money, time and personnel.

How the systems approach works?      An example of how the systems approach works can be found in above concept map: one of the effects of the efficiency approach can be unemployment. From a humanist’s point of view this may be a cause for concern, simply because people need work to be happy and to earn money to function normally in our modern society. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing; a gradual increase in work productivity is part of a healthy economy. Yet, suppose now that the efficiency approach leads to so much unemployment that the increase in work productivity per worker no longer leads to an increase of productivity of the society as a whole. As a consequence there may be fewer buyers for the products that are produced more efficiently. So, what first looked like a concern for the idealist suddenly gets a practical twist. By defining the scope for operations research to narrowly, this important aspect is kept out of sight. By bringing it into the planning process, it may be possible to resolve the issue with benefits for all concerned.

The scientific approach     Churchman is a management scientist, who has worked at Berkeley for most of his academic career. Now, I defined the scientific approach as the approach that deals with the problem of inadequate ideas. Take gravitation: before Newton, people knew very well that things fall to the ground. The difficulty was how to describe this in a way that we can apply the principle to all sorts of object, including planets and satellites. So Newton managed to do that in a very neat mathematical way. But how efficacious was his theory. Could gravitation be described in an even better way? Einstein used some simple thought experiments to show that Newton’s theory was inadequate and went on to develop his general theory of relativity. Churchman did something similar. He saw that the narrow effectiveness of operations research was not enough and developed his theory of the systems approach to enlarge the scope of inquiry, using his double background in operations research and philosophy (more later, see also the rest of this blog).

The four approaches compared        The idea of contrasting approaches is entirely Churchman’s. The idea to compare and tabulate them is mine. I won’t claim to have followed Churchman to the letter. I leave the reader to look at the table without much comment. The focus of the systems approach is to determine whether some human activity makes sense or not. Whether or not the systems approach yields quick results depends on a lot of factors, which is why I added an asterisk to my characterization of the speed of adjustment of the situation. For more information see my post on Thinking in systems: twelve leverage points for systemic intervention design.


Name of the systems approach      The term ‘systems approach’ is composed of two words: systems and approach. Both words have a double meaning. Let’s start with ‘systems’. The systems approach in a broad sense is an approach for inquiring how well components of a system work and interact to achieve purpose. It is important to recognize that the word system here does not mean an easily identifiable system, but rather a diffuse ‘whole’, the boundary and relevant content of which needs defining as part of the approach. As to the systems approach in a narrow sense: according to Churchman, human activity is best conceived as a (teleological) system using a set of nine conditions. This implies that the act of applying these nine conditions as a heuristic for systemic inquiry and design is the systems approach (in a narrow sense). The purpose of the systems approach is to understand a complex situation or ‘wicked problem’ as well as possible and to address this by designing the most effective intervention imaginable. Any particular way thinking about or dealing with something is an approach. In the case of wicked problems it is normally only possible to deal with them in an approximative sense. This is the second meaning of ‘approach’.

Relevance of the systems approach          Some people may not directly see the relevance of the systems approach. To do so, it is best to look at two common other approaches, the efficiency approach and operations research, as we did above. Operations research is a way of taking into account important feedback mechanisms that thwart the effectiveness of the efficiency approach. Similarly, the systems approach is a way of taking into account human perceptions that thwart the effectiveness of operations research. The scope of operations research may be relatively broad, but it usually excludes human values, since they are considered immaterial. The interesting thing, though, is that human values, human motivation and human perspectives are closely intertwined. By letting them in, especially in the form of several of the most relevant perspectives, it is possible to get a more complete view of the wicked problem at hand and the possible choices that could be make up a solution. This process is often known as ‘sweeping in and unfolding’: additional ‘environmental’ factors, motivations, perspectives are swept in and the implications of their inclusion for the wicked problem and its possible solution are unfolded. If done properly by willing and knowledgeable stakeholders, this can lead to more outside the box, innovative and effective solutions than would otherwise be the case. Methodologically, much will depend of course on the original logic and correct application of the nine-condition heuristic (see elsewhere in this blog). Another issue is the fact that some people may have totally different approaches to wicked problem and are unable to acknowledge the need for a systems approach. Often these are the so-called enemies of the systems approach.

P.S.  systems approach    Here follows a description of the systems approach using the attributes of the table above. The systems approach was developed by Churchman for human activity systems, i.e. in fact all systems involving people, both as participants (decision-maker, client, beneficiary, designer, planner) or as spectators. The results of its application are innovations or novel designs for human activities in the form of ‘effective interventions’. The underlying problem in a generic sense is that the scope for the original activity could not be justified, i.e. failed to make sense, which gave one or more participants a sense of urgency for change, the so-called heroic mood. The overt problem is typically something called a ‘wicked problem‘ (or problematic situation), i.e. a problem that is complex and not solvable in linear fashion. If it would have been easy to solve, one of the other approaches would have worked well enough. The (re)solution model is that of non-linear planning, often with an adaptive or co-creative element. The systems approach is value-inclusive, i.e. takes human values and motivations seriously. To do so practically and effectively, it makes use of the doctrine of teleology, which holds that final causes, design, and purpose exist in (human) nature. I called this doctrine soft teleology to differentiate it from the cybernetic, hard teleology used in operations research. The systems approach in a narrow sense is the application of a set (or heuristic) of nine (or twelve) teleological categories to a problematic situations. According to Churchman, the essence of the systems approach can be summarized by the four principles of deception-perception. In practice, this implies that every perspective is “terribly restricted”.  By means of critical debate the different perspectives can be combined to get a better overall view of the system as whole*. There is no predetermined limit to the system as a whole, but in but in practice a so-called boundary critique among key participants will indicate what is relevant within a multi-dimensional boundary and what is not. To this end, the scope of inquiry must be expanded. The systems approach was designed to achieve broad, long-term effectiveness in terms of time, space, and values. In practice, the process of adjustments necessary for carrying through an effective intervention design, can be difficult and slow. This too can be part of the intervention design. A full description of the systems approach is tedious. You can easily see that it differs strongly from the other three approaches (see table). The systems approach was designed as a necessary complement to these earlier approaches. The best way to appreciate the systems approach and its practical value is by applying it to a problem of your own. One of the easiest ways for doing so is explained in Wicked Solutions, a workbook designed for the purpose.

The final touchstone     ….for the success of judgments based on the systems approach is simple: does the result make sense to the key stakeholders involved after the risk of deception has been minimized by applying the various teleological and epistemic principles.

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Solving the wrong problem precisely

“A problem well put is half solved.” Dewey, 1938

In 1998, Ian Mitroff adapted an article from his book Smart Thinking for Crazy Times, which dealt with preventing misdirected thinking, or the time, talent, and resource drains that result from solving the wrong problems. In all its brevity the article made a lot of sense to me, so I turned it into a concept map, which I will briefly describe in this post. The article was called Solving the Right Problems. In another article, Errors in systems approaches (Adams and Hester, 2012), my attention was caught by a table in which Ackoff (1974, 1999) summarizes the characteristics of two types of problem solving, those of the machine age and those of the systems age, roughly corresponding with linear and non-linear management, respectively. In this post I will combine Ackoff and Mitroff to show the essence and relevance of both, not only in politics but also in business.

Management fads         solving-wrong-problemMitroff’s main point is that management (or political leadership) is prone to fads, i.e. falls victim to the idea of management programs (e.g. Total Quality Management, reengineering, downsizing) as total cure-alls. These are not wrong per se, but as hyped ‘cure-alls’ they typically fail to address the right problems that are hidden in complex issues. Their continuation or adaptation should be subject to critical thinking and, most of all,  wisdom.

True competitive edge      Mitroff states the bottom line of systems thinking as follows: “Those who are adept at smart thinking know how to cut through complex issues, ask the right questions, and solve the right problems. The ability to spot the right problems, frame them correctly, and implement appropriate solutions to them is the true competitive edge that will separate the successful individuals, organizations, and societies [and worlds??] from the also-rans.”

Some good questions      According to Mitroff, some of the most basic questions facing all institutions, public and private, include:  What business(es) are we in? What business(es) should we be in? What is our mission? What should be our mission? Who are our prime customers? Who should our customers be? Continue reading

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Constructive journalism

… and how it could benefit from the systems approach

This morning (Dec. 2, 2016), the somewhat sceptical article on constructive journalism by Adri Vermaat in Trouw (a Dutch newspaper, article not free) triggered me to write this post. We live in a complex world, so it is inevitable that many things go wrong, even to the point of threatening all or part of humanity. Therefore we need tools to deal with complexity, not only in debates (as in democratically elected parliaments) but also in news reports. From my point of view (as a systems approacher) journalism is one of the many professions that would do well to get acquainted with the knowledge and skills to apply the systems approach. How could this idea fit in a framework for constructive journalism? Contrary to what you may think, the systems approach is not so much about efficiency (although it is), or models (although it is, be they mostly in your head), but rather about values and world views. It provides principles and methods to understand and improve problematic situations as a whole. The key issue is that both, the inquiry (i.e. understanding) and design of interventions (e.g. policies) in complex situations are themselves also complex and therefore difficult (complex) to communicate. This is not just a matter of resources (posing limits to the number of people to interview), but also a matter of communicating systemic complexity itself. I suggest that only the systems approach can offer the theory and practice for linking ‘the particular’ of positive emotions with ‘the general’ of solution information.

Cathrine Gyldensted      … is the Danish reporter who coined the term “constructive journalism”. She did so together with Karen McIntyre, who completed the world’s first Ph.D. dissertation on the subject in 2015. Gyldensted is obviously a person in what Singer called “the heroic mood“, which drives people to take on uncertainties (about what is right, true or good) in ever new disguises. In the case of Gyldensted, she wants to make news reports more meaningful.


Homeless woman     In a Ted speech in Dresden, Germany, Gyldensted recalls interviewing a homeless woman in 2008 in crisis-struck Washington, who had lost her job and her home, but not her hope and strength. Reader response to this story of ‘constructive’ hopefulness rather than ‘negative’ homelessness gave her the idea that a focus on positive emotions can be newsworthy, too. Gyldensted currently teaches constructive journalism at the Academy of Journalism of Windesheim University of Applied Sciences in Zwolle, The Netherlands.

Conventional journalism      The trouble with conventional journalism is that it focuses too much on flaws and disconnects, especially in government policies and institutional decision-making. The underlying logic is that the press is the watchdog of government, to see that it does what it says it does, and to bring to light Continue reading

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The pure land of a(nti)teleology

Reversing the table on rationality, again and again

self-portrait-van-goghReading Churchman is like riding a conceptual rollercoaster. He never shies away from looking at things from totally different angles, opposites in particular, and not just occasionally but in quick succession, again and again. We have already seen that the systems approach is all about teleology, i.e. the idea that humans purposefully make designs to add value to their working lives, to improve the quality of their lives. Yet, many people distrust all this scheming and planning and much prefer to seek satisfaction in other ways. Instead of the systems approach, with its mixture of benefit and cost, assurance and risk, they prefer their lives to have a certain non-decomposable grandeur, passion, purity or unity, e.g. as in the way that a painter experiences his or her painting, a singer sings, an actor acts. This post summarizes Chapter 14 in Part II of Churchman’s “The design of inquiring systems”.

Speculations on systems design     … is the title of Part II of “The design of inquiring systems”. In previous posts I have written mostly on Part I “A classification of systems [of inquiry]”. In Part II, Churchman speculates on the nature of inquiring systems. Teleology (or the science of goal-seeking) is the conscious attempt to create a better world or a better live. One of the questions is: which aspects of an inquiring system to create the necessary knowledge or understanding cannot be made conscious? But if not all aspects can be made conscious, then how can we guarantee that it is right? What are the limits of artificial intelligence? How do we handle the relationship between relativism and non-relativism? Human nature is non-relativistic, so the concept of the guarantor comes out of their own individuality.


Simple teleology      In Churchman’s teleological model the designer plays a key role: not only does he design an intervention to improve (a problematic situation in) reality, but also does he or she design (or adapt) or choose inquiring system to produce the necessary knowledge that accurately represents reality. It is important to note that “the designer” is a role within the systems approach; this role could be played by a client (or beneficiary), a decision-maker or a hired expert. Continue reading

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