Critical System Heuristics : a very, very short introduction

The last of the five systems approaches of Systems approaches to managing change (Reynolds & Holwell, 2010) deals with critical system heuristics (CSH), which was mostly developed by Werner Ulrich. For those of us who like Joseph Novak’s work: CSH shows some resemblence to Gowin’s vee, but I won’t go into that. First of all, it is important to realize that systems have boundaries. In a way, a system is defined by the boundary imposed on it by the systems practitioner. CSH can help determine the validity of an actionable system or a project design as a basis for action by analysing four boundary issues: motivation, control, knowledge, and legitimacy. Each boundary issue gives rise to a number of critical questions. By answering them we can make explicit the judgements that have guided a particular intervention or decision. In international development – as in most other walks of life that really matter – it happens very often that decisions are taken that may seem ambiguous or actually really are ambiguous. This is probably the corollary of the complexity of the everyday systems we try to cope with and the selective nature of how we make up our minds . Of course there is nothing wrong with getting things done, but we risk losing a whole lot of credibility if we don’t pay attention to the boundary issues. For more information, see A Brief Introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH).

24 Nov. 2012 update: A systems approach is good if it helps structure ideas on a complex system (say a pro-equity “development’ intervention or a piece of legislation) in a coherent and logically compelling way without going out of bounds (remember: a system is also defined by its boundaries!). My first experiences with it suggest that CSH is indeed a great tool for coherence and highly practical. Try it for yourself by filling out Table 1 (unfolding normative boundary judgements for an intervention using CSH) using a case of your own. The table can be found in below reference.

P.S. This may do for starters, but I should probably review it with the full benefit of:
Williams, Bob, and Martin Reynolds. 2012. “Systems Thinking for Equity-focused Evaluations.” In Evaluation for Equitable Development Results, 115–141. New York: UNICEF.


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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