Integrating systems thinking and concept mapping

Shifting the burden archetype. Powell, 2003.

“Shifting the burden” is one of the eight original archetypes of systems thinking. It shows that actions taken to reduce problem symptoms can reduce the ability to take action for the long term. Examples of this common (management) trap abound, e.g selling more to existing customers rather than broadening the customer base, or paying bills by borrowing instead of going throught the discipline of budgeting. As Senge (1990, 2006) points out it applies to any addiction, anywhere, to anything. It is of interest to development professionals as it can be used to illustrate how the burden is shifted to an intervenor rather than to building development capability in the South. It is the basic tenet of Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead aid: why aid is not working and how there is another way for Africa”. One of the main mechanisms emphatically fingered in the book is the development of dependence on the side of the aid recipients, leading to disempowerment, which is the inability to pursue long-term solutions that are both more effective and recipient-based. Considering the massive amounts of aid directed to the South ($ 100 billion/year) it should come as no surprise that Moyo found many cases of “shifting the burden” in development practice and she has more recently found a few more in US and European fiscal policy in her book “How the West was lost”. So nothing is new here, not even the inability on the part of the West to adopt long-term, fundamental solutions. One of the problems with systems archetypes is that they are devoid of details that matter. These details need to be added on in systems or non-systems language. In the concept map to the right an effort is made to do so. It is still a picture of a generic situation, but it shows more clearly where the dependency syndrome comes from and where one could act to avoid the dependency trap. It also shows that sometimes there can be good reasons to opt for the short-term solution, e.g. if the long-term solution is simply more costly or time consuming. For the purpose of this blogiform initiative, the main conclusion is that systems thinking and concept mapping can indeed be combined to mutually reinforce the analytical and learning power of both.


About Sjon van ’t Hof

Development professional who worked in rural development, tropical agriculture, and irrigation development in Chad, Zambia, Mali, Ghana, Mauritania, Israel, Burkina Faso, Niger, and the Netherlands in capacities ranging from project design and management to information management. Conducted missions to India, China, Kenya, and Bangladesh. Experience in the development and delivery of trainings in irrigation equipment selection, information literacy, Internet searching and database searching. Explores systems thinking in relation to international development, education, and management, with an ever stronger focus on the systems approach of C. West Churchman. Knowledgeable in tropical agriculture, project design and development economics, agricultural mechanization, irrigation, plant pathology, environmental degradation and protection, rural development. Co-authored "Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems", a book written by Bob Williams and Sjon van 't Hof. It was published in June 2014 and provides a practical way of dealing with wicked problems. Wicked problems are complex, ill-structured, human problem situations. This book will help you design an inquiry and intervention in such messy, wicked situations. It does so by guiding you through the steps and stages of a systemic process that addresses your own wicked problem. For more information, see or
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