To think (systemically) or not to think, that´s the question

The systems approach is often ignored or ill-applied

Many people believe that systems thinking is pointless. Many others suspect it is difficult. Churchman says everybody does it, sort of. So one might surmise that it can impossibly be pointless or difficult. Below I will show that: 1. systems thinking is not pointless but necessary; 2. systems thinking, necessary or not, is not really applied by political decision-makers or scientific specialists, yet without them giving any reasons for that; 3. a lot of lip service is paid to systems thinking – including those same politicians and scientists -, but nobody seems to realize that lip service cannot save the essence of it; 4. the systems approach is one of the most eminent ways of systems thinking and can be applied in five steps. What I don´t say is that systems thinking, even if the steps are easy to understand, still requires you to put in a considerable thinking effort, hence the title of this post. A better but slightly longer title would have been: To think very hard systemically or not to think a great deal, that’s the question. You must be prepared to think very hard indeed. This applies to systems thinking on your own (because you must imagine the perspectives of others as well as you can, no simple feat), but also to systems thinking as a team or in a group (because you must keep group or team members motivated, or else they will mostly stop thinking altogether, see Senge).


A school founded on wonder. Partial view of Philosophy (School of Athens) by Rafael Stanza della Segnatura, Vatican Palace, Rome, Italy, 1509-1511. For my comment on some parallels between Platonism and systems thinking see post scriptum 3 below.

Complex problems: Like philosophy begins in wonder (Aristotle, Plato), so systems thinking starts with the discovery and admission that a problem is complex or wicked (i.e. having multiple stakeholders with diverging or contradictory perspectives, values and priorities). Illogically, many people, when faced with wicked problems, continue to opt for simple solutions, whereas there isn´t any. This points to the necessity of spreading the knowledge about the general nature of complex problems (so people will know how to recognize them) and the approaches needed to address them.

A case in point is the conflict in northern Mali. By saying that the conflict is caused by the Tuareg it is implied that an agreement with those same Tuareg will end the conflict. Western and Malian diplomats forget that this has failed four times previously, so what’s the point of trying to follow the same path again. The supposition ignores the obvious possibility that deeper, more complex problems must be addressed to bring about sustainable peace. But don’t take me wrong: I am not saying the Tuareg are justified in doing what they are doing. Peace is best understood as a complex adaptive system, which must be designed to evolve (or: allow subsequent redesigns). The world would be a better place if diplomats were well versed in systems thinking and wicked design.

Problem and solution space: In the case of a complex problem it is impossible to point out one specific cause. Instead, there is a complexity of causes that is specific to every new problem situation. Both the causes and possible solutions can only be determined in conjunction with one another (i.e. not analysed). This requires going back and forth between causes and solutions: through the lens of possible solutions one looks back at the possible causes and vice versa. This means that both problem and solution space must be large enough to prevent meaningful alternatives from being excluded beforehand.

A good example is the tunnel vision which simply defines a food problem as a food problem. This reduces the solution space to such a small size that one can no longer hope to find a sustainable solution as shown in the case of smallholder irrigation development in West-Africa . This is odd, because it is easy to see that “the market” must play a role in all this. Ironically, there is now an 180 degree turn by defining food problems as a market problem. This will not work either, at least not for the majority of smallholders.

Joint decision-making: The intersubjective process needed for systemic decision-making cannot take place in a meaningful sense without involvement of the main stakeholders to make sure that their stakes are reflected in the solution (ownership). Without that the implementation will turn out to be uncontrollable again. It is possible to simulate the process in a small group of knowledgeable people or even individually. The results of this will be better if one has a better idea of the diverging or contradictory perspectives, values and priorities of the stakeholders. Communication (on the nature of the process, the way it unfolds, and the manner in which it takes into account the different perspectives) is best fully interactive, but must at least have an element of feed-back and support, not only where results are concerned, but also with regard to the process.

In the case of the current decentralization of inclusion-oriented primary education in the Netherlands, there is one-sided emphasis on the ideals of full inclusion, while the underlying ideals are not at all shared by all parties. A similar thing happens in the conceptualization of what has been called the “participation society” (also in the Netherlands). People speak about this without any concern for the complexity that must be “solved” by it and for the dialectics and communication that are needed to make it work. In fact, whenever the words “participation” and “ownership” are used in conjunction, one may suspect a “wicked problem” is lurking somewhere.

Steps in problem-resolution: 1. represent the wicked problem graphically to ensure the fullest possible participation; 2. use a suitable way to to define the problem and solution spaces (e.g. framing, see Wicked Solutions); 3. Make use of appropriate models or heuristics for systemic intervention design and inquiry (e.g. Churchman’s systems approach or Ulrich’s Critical Heuristics); 4. Provide adequate opportunity during the problem-resolution process for it to tap into the tacit knowledge of the main stakeholders; and 5. reflect on values and ideals to guide the final design of the solution (e.g. double-loop learning, option one-and-a-half, see Wicked Solutions).

In Report nr. 93 “Towards a food policy” by the Scientific Council for Government (in Dutch only) there is no indication of what steps have been taken to arrive at the list of recommendations. This is surprising, because the report is permeated with systems concepts. It is difficult to understand why one would like to appropriate the systems nomenclature without the application of systems principles.

P.S. The case examples of northern Mali and inclusion-oriented primary education in the Netherlands have not yet been published. Links will be provided here, when they will be.

P.S. 2.  A Dutch version of this post can be downloaded here.

P.S. 3. After finishing this post I was knocked off my feet when I read in a Canon article by Greig Roselli that “θαῦμα [i.e. the word used in Plato’s Theatetus for wonder, SH] can translate as “puzzle,” “problem,” or simply, a “marvel”, which suggests that to wonder Platonically or Socratically is in fact to attempt “to solve a conundrum.” Now a conundrum is “a difficult problem that seems to have no solution” (Macmillan), which is mostly what a wicked problem is, too. Add to that what Gabriel Richardson Lear writes about Socrates as his wonder being “enthralled by the echo of a unitary “voice” behind the multiplicity” and the suggestion that there seems to be a great deal of parallels between Platonic philosophy and modern Western ideas on systems thinking needs no further explanation. This line of thought could include the need for Socratic-type midwifery to see wicked problems in the light of systems thinking for what they are: problems in need of wicked solutions.

P.S. 4. If you still consider my link between the beginning of philosophy and the start of systems thinking tenuous I have another argument of a more etymological nature. According to Philippa e.a. (2003-2009) Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands the origin of the word “wonder” is highly uncertain, but Kluge links it to the root of → wind (in Dutch: winden), which combined with the -ra affix originally may have meant something like `something entangled, incomprehensible’. This has a parallel with the word → perplex that went through a similar development. I rest my case. Perhaps philosophy is a special case of systems thinking. That’s an interesting thought, because Churchman, Ulrich, and Nelson refer to philosophy a lot, especially Churchman. So, perhaps “philosophy starts with a wicked problem”???? So the rise of philosophy may be linked to the rise of complexity in society, a democratic society in particular.


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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