The systems approach is value-based

But why are values so important?

Last June “Wicked Solutions” was published to provide readers, facilitators, and stakeholders interested in wicked problems with a generic systems approach for addressing them. The book is selling quite well, but the large majority of potential buyers may have some difficulty in seeing why a value-based systems approach is the most effective thing around. To satisfy their curiosity I made a new concept map of the current situation (verbs in red) juxtaposed with the proposed solution (verbs in green). Both will be described briefly followed by a more than a dozen value-related aspects that were identified during the problem-solving process used for the worked case (on irrigation development) in Wicked Solutions. For an outline of this problem-solution process check out my previous post: Wicked Solutions: one more explanation.

problematic situationA wicked problem     Climate change has led to the demise of traditional agriculture along major rivers in the Sahel. The problematic situation is that projects mounted to introduce pump-based irrigation have failed to make smallholder irrigation sustainable. In the simple, adjacent stock-and-flow diagram targeted traditional farmers are transformed into irrigation farmers, but after a while they fall back to their old state. Somewhere in the interaction between actors and factors something doesn’t add up. In both the actual and proposed situations, donors support irrigation development with the ultimate aim to enhance food security. But from there the intervention designs may differ.

Problematic interventions      … were designed as a “classical” aid-based development projects with several turn-key elements for full control: a limited number of farmers is targeted, hardware (pumps) is procured using a simple tender system and given away, irrigation and agronomy specialists are brought in to make sure of high crop yields, first by direct supervision and as soon as possible by capacity building for a successful handing-over in due time. It was assumed that the project would have reached a state of sustainability by then. It was also assumed that farmers would sell just enough of the crop to pay for the running costs and replacement costs of the hardware. This should leave them with enough food to cover their family needs. No particular efforts were made to ensure that the value proposition was optimized. No other income needs were considered.

The proposed intervention      … to address the wicked problems that resulted from the actual intervention is designed as a market development initiative with built-in provisions for the emergence of key inter-relationships to ensure sustainability. It is considered that smallholder irrigation schemes will only be sustainable if they are well served by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). For irrigation schemes to be served well, these the services of these SMEs need to be optimized and affordable to the farmers. By targeting the SMEs as direct beneficiaries of the intervention the number of farmers is no longer limited, on the contrary: as long as farmers come forward as clients for the SME services, the market will grow until all demand for irrigation is satisfied. Growth will enhance SME profitability. Optimized pumps, maintenance and financial services to better suit the farmers needs and capacities can only be established with the assistance of enterprise development and technico-commercial specialists. The donor(s) must insist with the government that it provides an enabling environment that ensures integrity in customs, absence of false competition (especially on the pump and food markets), and a stable river flow (by limiting possible negative consequences of upstream developments).

is and ought compared for irrigation development

Wicked Solutions´ systems approach       The book is styled as a workbook with three levels. At the most advanced level the reader is guided through 10 steps: (1) issue selection; (2) rich picture drawing; (3) stakeholder analysis; (4) stake identification; (5) formulation of insightful framings to create an initial, unifying view of the situation; (6) rich picture exploration; (7) outlining the ideal situation; (8) boundary critique, involving answering a large number of critical questions that were formulated using a heuristic composed of 12 categories; (9) developing innovative corrective action using a method called stakeholding development and entrenchment; and (10) synthesising ‘is’ and ‘ought’ world views using a dialectical method known as option one-and-a-half. Values are most clearly at work in the final 4 steps, but also play key roles in the preceding steps.

Twelve critical or PRicKLy questions      … are used to identify value-related issues to address the wicked problems that result from the original intervention type. Wicked Solutions recommends a systemic inquiry or “boundary critique” of both the actual “is” situation and a possible ideal “ought” situation. The “is” and “ought” situation are formulated during earlier of the problem-solving approach. The questions and variants uthereof include: who or what are/is or ought to be: (Q1) the client or beneficiary; (Q2) the Purpose; (Q3) the measurements; (Q4) the decision-maker; (Q5) Resources; (Q6) environment; (Q7) experts; (Q8) Knowledge; (Q9) guarantees; (Q10) witness; (Q11) Legitimacy; and (Q12) world view. It is not very difficult to see how the various propositions in the concept map are derived from these questions.

Values in the problematic intervention      The actual, problematic situation is by and large the result of the “old aid narrative”, which gave ample room to using “targeting” for “ideal delivery” of aid (Q2) to a supposedly inert population (to use the words of Amartya Sen). It used technical (or technocratic) and organizational (top-down bureaucratic) means (Q5) to make sure the delivery was effectuated and the aid works, thus masking the sustainability deficit. The underlying assumption was that the donor organization can itself guarantee (Q9) that the required knowledge (Q8) is abundantly available and that any expertise (Q7) can be brought in if deemed necessary. Unfortunately, there were difficulties on all these counts. Because supposedly adequate (or perhaps even “perfect”) knowledge was used for the design, no need was felt for measuring (Q3) whether the perfectly formulated purpose would be achieved: measures of implementation would suffice. It is also assumed that no negative side-effects to anything or anybody occurs (Q11), criticism by activists, whistleblowers, or grumpy staff can be ignored, and donor world views (Q12) need no revision. There is no wicked problem in sight! “We don’t even know what that is?!” (Do I hear Seinfeld talking?)

values underlying irrigation development

Values in the proposed intervention      … can be linked to a more contemporary emphasis in development co-operation on sustainability and entrepreneurship (Q12), social or otherwise. And the recognition that after the development dust has settled, only farmers and businesses will remain and cannot but depend on each other. The direct beneficiaries (Q1) will be the SMEs, so the purpose will be one of market development (Q2). The farmers as indirect beneficiaries (Q1) will no longer be defined as a targeted group, but rather as an expanding group with a strong irrigation demand that needs to be served. Both groups must be allowed a reasonable income. During the intervention period, the donor must change his habit (Q12) from total control to system design, in which emergence and learning (Q8) play a key role. Functions such as supervision, carried out by the donor previously, must be transferred to enterprises. Other specialists (Q7) must acquire highly specific knowledge (Q8) to optimize the various services and make them affordable. The donor is no longer the sole decision-maker, but crucial input is needed from key actors (Q4), bringing in additional resources (Q5). Masking non-sustainability with false guarantees (Q9) is no longer an option. The government must be asked to strengthen its role of providing an enabling environment (Q6). The ecological, governance, and liberal narratives involved reflect an entire new set of values.

Framings and accommodation      It can be seen that the values in the proposed situation are not simply the reverse or opposite of those in the actual situation. Accommodation is a complex, value-based process that is guided by framings that reflect the stakes of key stakeholders. This is itself also a value. A value-based model makes it is possible to get under the skin of the problems at hand and encourages the development of smart, win-win solutions that accommodate the stakeholders instead of settling for simple compromises that consist of tit-for-tat exchanges of benefits and liabilities. It is interesting to note that every change of insight leads to a cascade of changes in the whole intervention design. This is typical of systemic design: one cannot simply take certain design elements and glue them together. The process of “composition” is a delicate one. The process of accommodation and composition is described in detail in Wicked Solutions.

Measurement and evaluation      In the proposed intervention a whole battery of measurements and observations (Q3) must be carried out during implementation to ensure learning takes place and operations are adjusted accordingly. Most of the information generated is not of the type that can be used in “big data” initiatives. Worthwhile measurements could pertain to: (1) the cost-efficiency and affordability of services; (2) the appropriateness of financial services; (3) possible hiatus in supervision; (4) emerging farmer-private sector interaction; (5) crop yields and food security; (6) crop marketing and farmer income; (7) profitability of SMEs, competition, and innovation.

The meaning of “value”      According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “the theory of value begins with a subject matter. It is hard to specify in some general way exactly what counts, ..” So values help express that something is “good” or “bad” in relation to a particular action. Values, like rules and norms, can be internalized. We may no longer know why we value things. Or we may somehow start valuing things and later consider it can be generalized or codified in some absolute sense. That’s the domain of ethics. C. West Churchman, not unlike Freud and Jung, thinks our mind is a highly complex and often inscrutable whole or system with conscious, subconscious, and unconscious elements. Many people have many values. Not all of them are equally well articulated. They can be expressed as aspirations, goals, values, norms, purposes, motivations, biases, and even world views. We can let them speak for themselves or rephrase them. They need interpretation. Our value systems are as much a tangle as the wicked problems we are dealing with. Wisdom is justifiable action, which means we must find a way to combine value with action. Both, value and action are ultimate particulars. Humans must design value-action wholes. A systems approach may help. That’s why the fourth principle of a deception-perception approach to systems says that: “The systems approach is not a bad idea.”


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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