The bare bones of the systems approach

Principles of deception-perception revisited

Systems thinking          There is no end to the types and forms of systems thinking, some are more specific (e.g. the self-determination theory of human motivation), some are more generic. Capra and Luisi (2014) developed a unifying, systems view of life. They distinguished 8 characteristics of systems thinking: (1) shift of perspective from the parts to the whole; (2) inherent multidisciplinarity (i.e. applicable to biology, ecology, sociology, politics and business); (3) from objects to relationships; (4) from measuring to mapping; (5) from quantities to qualities; (6) from structures to processes; (7) from objective to epistemic science; and (8) from Cartesian certainty to approximate knowledge.

The systems approach       … is one of the most generic forms of systems thinking. It can easily be modified to suit different purposes as shown by Ulrich (1983). It was developed by C. West Churchman. He writes (Churchman, 1968, p. 230-231): “each person looks at [a systemic] problem in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost.” And even the systems thinker is “biased and deceived.” So, what can and must we do? On the one hand “the understanding of the systems in which we live” is “the most critical problem we face today.” “On the other hand, we must admit that the problem – the appropriate approach to systems – is not solved.”

No appropriate approach to systems      It “is not in the nature of systems” that the problem of the appropriate approach to systems can be solved. “It’s not as though we can expect that next year or a decade from now someone will find the correct systems approach and all deception will disappear.” “What is in the nature of systems is a continuing perception and deception, a continuing re-viewing of the world, of the whole system [or rather the system as a whole], and of its components.” “The two [deception and perception] are inseparable aspects of human being” (emphasis added).
Side note: There is (systemic!) competition between people drawn to dealing with systemic (or wicked) problems in politics and business. Unfortunately, the honest tend to lose out to the glib, fortunately-unfortunately for both acceptable and bad reasons.

Essence of the systems approach       Churchman states that deception-perception (close-coupled, because that’s what they are!) is the essence of the systems approach. He mentions four basic principles of a deception-perception approach tot systems: (1) the systems approach begins when first you see the world through eyes of another; (2) the systems approach goes on to discovering that every world view is terribly restricted; (3) there are no experts in the systems approach; and (4) the systems approach is not a bad idea. These principles are not generally well understood, not even by systems thinkers. So I designed a concept map to clarify these things, both to me and you, and in which I numbered the principles in the same order.


Addressing wicked problems         The systems approach was developed to address complex issues also known as wicked problems (hence the title of “Wicked Solutions”). The systems approach does this by developing frameworks of inquiry to enable systemic inquiry, which studies the “systems’s” functioning as a whole, which is the cause of the wicked problem(s). Once we have a good enough understanding of the functioning of the system as a whole (by mapping and other methods), we are in a position to outline an intervention (or systemic solution) to transform the functioning of the system as a whole, which we believe will more effectively achieve our purposes. We speak of purposes or objectives, because human beings are purposive animals. They need things to make sense. They are equipped with a cognitive apparatus, the brain, which gives them the basic systemic sensibility to guide them into the right direction. The average individual may not be able to oversee the entire wicked problem, but the general public as a whole always knows more than any expert (that’s principle number 3). All my experience with talking to Western citizens or African smallholders confirms this.

World views     … are the key to the systems approach. Any framework of inquiry is underlain by a particular world view, which exhibits inadequate perception because of persistent deception (that’s principle number 2). This inhibits the formulation of a final, systemic solution. That´s why systems thinkers (and many others) do no longer “solve” problems, but “address” them. What we can hope to obtain is adequate or “good enough” knowledge of the system and its problems by confronting opposing or contrasting world views in the form of dialectics. It allows different stakeholders or participants to see things through the eyes of others (that’s principle number 1). It is the free and unrestrained exchange of ideas, insights and perspectives that makes democracy potentially a good arrangement, and less of a good thing when power issues start to interfere. Some training in the systems approach might also help.

Systems approach not a bad idea         That’s principle number 4. Its phrasing is humorous to most people, because this litotes has an unexpected undertone of modesty, simply by calling it a principle and it being the last sentence of a book. As explained in paragraph 2 above, the systems approach is a very good idea, because it addresses wicked problems in the only sensible way possible, namely systemically. It is perhaps not a very good idea because it has ‘imperfections’: it produces only approximate knowledge and tentative ‘solutions’. However, people must recognize that these imperfections are inescapable, they are inherent to the nature of wicked problems (see my earlier posts on that topic). Finally, many people are opposed to the idea of a systems approach. Churchman dedicated a book to that: The systems approach and its enemies (1979, see my post in the CSL4D blog).

Wicked Solutions        In their book on the systems approach, Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014) emphasize the importance of three concepts to make the systems approach operational: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. In the above concept map, you can pinpoint them easily. The inter-relationships are mapped to constitute a complete view of the problematic situation. Combined, these inter-relationships produce the wicked problem. The perspectives are the divergent or opposite world views of the main stakeholders, which we need in order to come to a better understanding of the problem by using a dialectical approach. This helps us determine the contours (or boundaries) of possible transformations and the interventions needed to achieve them.

Systems thinking and the systems approach     How do the eight characteristics of systems thinking as identified by Capra correspond with the essence of the systems approach? Starting with characteristic 1, we see that the systems approach studies the whole. As to characteristic 2, multidisciplinarity, the systems approach can only be applied to wicked problems (i.e. human problem situations). That excludes biology or ecology, but includes a wide range of other important areas, from business to politics, and from education to evaluation. It is important to note that systems thinking was originally and specifically designed to deal with cross-disciplinary phenomena. The characteristics 3, 4, 5 and 6 are subsumed under characteristic 1. Characteristic 7 (‘epistemics’) involves a shift from ‘objective’ science to ‘intersubjective’ validation. This corresponds to the idea of the dialectical use of opposite world views or perspectives. Characteristic 8 is subsumed again under 7.

P.S.       What I didn’t describe here is: (1) how to map the system’s functioning as a whole; (2) how to establish a framework of inquiry; (3) how to carry out the dialectics; and (4) how to redesign the objective/solution/transformation/intervention. This involves quite a few steps and stages that are explained in detail (with a worked example) by Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014).

  • Capra, Fritjof and P.L. Luigi. 2014. The systems view of life: a unifying vision. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Churchman, C. W. (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta.
  • Churchman, C. W. (1979). The systems approach and its enemies. New York, London: Basic Books.
  • Ulrich, W. (1996). A primer to critical systems heuristics for action researchers. Hull, UK: University of Hull, Centre for Systems Studies. Retrieved from
  • Williams, Bob and Sjon van ’t Hof. 2014. Wicked solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (First edition). Wellington, New Zealand: Bob Williams. Available from

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