Systems narratives

Why at all is systems thinking necessary, explained simply? Several systems thinkers have pondered this question and have come up with some neat little narratives. Let me mention two of these explanations, one by Terence Love (Curtin University, Australia) and the other by Gene Bellinger ( According to Bellinger’s iceberg analogy, we – human beings –  are well able to see events, sometimes discern patterns, but generally remain ignorant of the underlying structures that cause patterns of events to occur. An example is the European debt crisis (“how long can a disruptive event continue to be called a crisis”) with its pattern of successive summits to “solve” it. Understanding the underlying structure will take some honest systems thinking, no doubt. In his article Complicated and complex crime prevention and the 2 feedback loop law, Terence Love points out that “human thinking, intuition and feelings are compromised by cognitive biases, biological limitations and fallacies.” He formulated the 2 feedback loop law thus: “The absolute limit of human thinking and intuition seems to be biologically limited to understanding the behaviour of situations with less than two feedback loops. These biological limitations of human thinking, intuition, feeling and understanding apply to EVERYONE.” Allow me to point out that “less than two feedback loops” is the equivalent of one feedback loop maximum. This is really very, very worrisome. It is almost tantamount to condemning democratic political decision-making as utterly futile. It means we can understand carbon dioxide –> global warming –> serious trouble, but not much more. It makes one wonder what should be the purpose of civilization. Maximum growth (the West, BRIC)? Maximum happiness (Bhutan)? Or maximum sensibility (nowhere)? Will we be condemned forever to obey the forces of the market economy guided by the blind irrationality of policy making? This seems to be the question discussed in Feedback, complexity and non-linearity undermine rational policy-making. A holistic approach is therefore more likely to succeed …: system failure, why governments must learn to think differently by Jake Chapman (2004). Read all about it! It’s free online. It is not surprising that leading systems thinkers such as Senge, Checkland, and Röling spend much of their time mainstreaming systems thinking into global politics and development practice.

A final warning by H. L. Mencken: For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.


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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