The essence of the systems approach

How does ‘Wicked Solutions’ work?

In 2016, a new book was published to explain how the systems approach can be used to address wicked problems on your own or in small teams, something which most people found difficult so far, even after having practiced it at least once, e.g. in a facilitated workshop. In this post a simple concept map is used as a scaffold for explaining the workings of this book (‘Wicked Solutions´), the three basic concepts (inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries) that it applies, and a number of related ideas and themes, including: systems (as networks of patterns and processes), complexity, wicked problems, systemic sensibility, cognition, key tools (rich picturing, framing, ideal planning and critical heuristics), (Hegelian) inquiry, systemic intervention design, the principles of deception-perception, the issue of formalization of the systems approach, and the ongoing problem of opponents (overt or disguised) of the systems approach in spite of the fact that it is widely recognized as key to resolve issues of effectiveness, sustainability and innovation.

Wicked problems now recognized         There was a time when wicked problems did not seem to exist. No matter how complex the problem, there was a general belief that a solution could be found, more typically by so-called linear problem solving methods. This changed in the early 1960s when Horst Rittel found out that some problems need another, more systemic approach. He called this new class of problem ‘wicked problems‘. In a serpentine way new, non-linear approaches were developed to address wicked problems. A number of people were involved in this development, starting with Rittel himself, followed by C. West Churchman (‘the systems approach’), Peter Checkland (‘soft systems methodology’), Werner Ulrich (‘critical heuristics’) and Peter Senge (‘the fifth discipline’) to name just a few.

Basic systems ideas not mastered        Nowadays, many people are convinced that wicked problems abound in the world and are closely linked to such concepts as innovation and effectiveness. Although interest is rising, few people master the basics of systems thinking or the principles of a practical grasp needed to understand and address wicked problems on their own or in small teams. One of the world’s foremost practitioners of systems approaches is Bob Williams. He has decades of experience organizing workshops to facilitate planners in making evaluation efforts more relevant. These workshops were and are generally successful, yet many participants remained unable to use the approach on their own. In an effort to solve this conumdrum, Bob finally came up with a set of three concepts to make the approach stick: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. This in turn led to Bob writing a book, Wicked Solutions, with me as a co-author, to explain how these concepts can be made to work in practice.

Concept maps to the rescue       The number of steps in Wicked Solutions exceeds 10. The steps are not difficult to follow, but it is difficult to maintain a full conceptual oversight of what one is doing. This could well put off the most inquisitive minds, which
wicked solutionsare exactly the minds that stand to benefit the most of the systems approach, and by extension, of Wicked Solutions. I happen to be a staunch believer in concept mapping, so I have tried over and over again to summarize the essence of the systems approach as used in Wicked Solutions in a satisfactory way. This blog post is my latest effort (as per 28 February, 2016). As is often the case, the concept map can be understood on its own, but it is useful to provide an annotation with additional details for a fuller insight. Before you read any further, take a very good look at the concept map or make a print of it. It will help you understand the explanations that follow below.

Complexity in wicked problems        In an earlier post I described the Cynefin framework in brief. Similar to what we did here, Cynefin defines systems as networks. Every system is composed of subsystems and is tself a subsystem or aspect of a larger network. Cynefin distinguishes between ordered systems, complex systems, and chaotic systems. These systems differ in terms of causality. Ordered systems have predictable causality, whereas causality in complex systems is only evident in hindsight. In the first case, agents (or actors or stakeholders) can (and often must) follow field manuals or operational procedures. In the case of complex systems such guidance is lacking and designs are much more free. Cynefin recommends to: (1) open up discussion (and apply a systems approach, I would add); (2) enable self-organization by setting barriers (this goes a long way to HSD, see below, as do the following two recommendations); (3) probe, e.g. by stimulating attractors; (4) encourage dissent and diversity; (5) create an environment from which things can emerge. These are excellent ideas to keep in mind when designing certain parts of your wicked solution or when assessing earlier (often failed) efforts to address a wicked problem. But do not forget that it is not a good idea to apply the systems approach to ordered or chaotic systems. At the same time it would be unwise to mistake a wicked problem for an ordered system (see Deming elsewhere in this post).

Systems approach addresses wicked problems         The systems approach was developed by Churchman to address wicked problems. The term ‘systems approach’ simply means that it is possible and in fact necessary to approach wicked problems as complex systems. Wicked problems are human problems situations that occur in business, communities, platforms, (educational or development) policies, programmes, projects or society. Key problems of existing approaches are that they are not effective, not sustainable, or not fair in the broadest sense of the word. A fundamental cause is that key stakeholders fail to see ‘the whole picture’, blinded as they are by their own partial perspectives. Partiality is possible due to the tangle of inter-relationships that together form the situation ‘as a whole’.

Boundaries critical     There are unknown numbers of ways for not seeing ‘the whole picture’ each with their own perspective on the system boundaries. This implies that the boundaries of the system are contested. Contested boundaries can be taken to mean different things, e.g. there is no agreement on what is ‘in’ and what is ‘outside’ the problematic situation. Or, key stakeholders ignore or valuate differently some of the patterns and processes that together make up the complex system. All this means that key stakeholders should engage in a so-called boundary critique with a view to come to a common idea of what this boundary should be. A thorough boundary critique can bring out dozens of boundary ideas that require an in/out decision. It is on the basis of these ideas that that a new, systemic approach can be formulated, a solution that can be called wicked in the slang sense of the word because it is more effective than its non-wicked predecessor, which makes it capable of really addressing the original wicked problem.

The notion of ‘boundary’       At its simplest ,’boundary’ here means the limits of a system or human problem situation. The problem with this simple definition is that it uses a two- or three-dimensional, more or less physical model of the system, whereas it is multi-dimensional, i.e. not just looking at space, but also at time (as in our understanding of ‘sustainability’ or ‘effectiveness’) and relevance (as determined by human motivation, values, meaning). Definition 2a of ‘boundary’ in Macmillan Dictionary seems quite useful: an imaginary point separating two different qualities, ideas etc.  as in “The boundary between fact and fiction in her writing is often blurred.”  In the systems approach we could say that “the boundary between effectiveness and irrelevance in wicked problems is often blurred.” In short, the boundary critique tries to establish what is relevant, i.e. what can reasonably be expected to contribute to improving the situation?

Perspectives also critical      Although perspectives are at the root of many wicked problems, they are also important in finding a wicked solution. A combination of contrasting or even conflicting perspectives is better able to reveal the different patterns and processes that turn the system into a whole. Perspectives cannot do that on their own, they must be helped. There are different ‘tools’ that are able to give the revealing effort its bite. In Wicked Solutions they have been brought together in an ordered, step-by-step way and include: rich picturing (i.e. mapping), stakeholder analysis, stake identification, framing, ideal planning, critical heuristics and systemic intervention design.

Systemic sensibility       A key tool in all this is the human mind with its systemic sensibility, which evolved as part of humans’ struggle for regeneration and survival, together with improved reason (school, universities), technology (businesses), memory (libraries, Internet), valuation (philosophy, theology) and communication (speech, media), for all of which we develop methods of enhancement (outside our brain, see between the brackets in the lines above) with ever increasing risks of compartmentalized loss of coherence or systemicity. The systems approach, if well executed (as in Wicked Solutions) is the antidote that can help you achieve decompartmentalization in our current, ever more complex society. Probably, there will be a point where decompartmentalization is no longer possible. Or have we crossed that dangerous line a long time ago? Senge (1990) states that “experiments with young children show that they learn systems thinking very quickly,” because “the underlying worldview is extremely intuitive.” Systemic sensibility is a natural ability that can be developed further. Wicked solutions provides a first, effective step to becoming aware of one’s systemic sensibility by taking it directly to a higher level.

Truth, complexity and cognition      As reality becomes more complex, the truth about it becomes less clear. This doesn’t mean truth becomes irrelevant. People simply cannot do without truth and meaning. In the systems approach contrasting or conflicting perspectives bring out those aspects of the ‘truth’ that are most difficult to agree upon. With the right tools and attitude it is possible to hammer out an agreement on what the ‘intersubjective’ (i.e. common agreed upon) truth could be that makes sense to all (or most) parties. This requires a systemic perspective. In Churchman’s words, this requires seeing through the eyes of others to discover the restrictedness of one’s own perspective (including that of ‘experts’ or ‘managers’) and the need to abandon any claims of absoluteness. This has consequences for the tools that need to be used. To acknowledge the truth of a set of boundary decisions poses a problem to the human cognitive ability, which is often said to be limited to about 7 objects (also known as Princeton cognitive psychologist Miller’s Law). Whence powerful institutional incentives to simplify things, i.e. devaluing intangibles, seeking technological solutions, management by blame/fear/control, discounting systemic problems, suppression of diversity, excessive competitiveness and distrust (from W. Edwards Deming).

Systems tools          A good systems approach helps us enhance systemic sensibility and cross cognitive limits. Four tools in “Wicked Solutions” stand out as particularly systemic: rich picturing, framing, ideal planning and critical heuristics. Rich picturing is particularly good at ‘sweeping in’ relevant elements from the context, thus avoiding what Churchman calls the ‘environmental fallacy’. This should include the values and stakes of key actors, including biases, e.g. in the form of traditions, paradigms or preferences. This information is used to broadly reframe the purpose of the ‘system’ (e.g. an intervention in its context). Ideal planning helps us to imagine a future that needs to be aimed for, which serves as one of the conceptual references for a systemic inquiry. This (Hegelian) inquiry contrasts the actual (ís’) with the (Kantian) ideal situation (‘ought’) to identify ideas for improving the problematic situation. This is also called the boundary critique. A heuristic is used to formulate questions on 12 key issues that need to be addressed in any intervention, be it a law, project or business decision. This set of issues is itself also systemic in the sense that they are closely related and require all to be discussed in full for seeing the whole picture or ‘connecting the dots’.

Systemic intervention design and inquiry        Wicked problems have a number of characteristics that distinguish them from ordinary problems. One of them is that the formulation of the problem and of the solution are so closely related that it is impossible to do one without the other. This means that a systemic inquiry must look at the actual problematic situation as well as the desired, future situation without placing early limits on the scope of the inquiry of one or the other. This requires a mental paradigm shift for most of us, used as we are to approaching problems as docile, rather than wicked. We must stop asking “what is the cause of the problem?” and start asking “what is involved in this problem and how does that work?” It also means that a systemic intervention design can only be done at the very end, when you see the whole picture. In the meantime, we must leave open what the picture should look like. In other words: we need to keep both the problem space and solution space open to the end. This means that framing is a key step, because it does place some limits on that, but it does so in a very clever, unrestrictive, opening up kind of way.

Networks of patterns and processes          One way of looking at wicked problems is that they lack structure, or at least the type of structure that permits linear problem solving methods. So one could say that the systems approach is in fact a way of providing structure to what was previously unstructured. Some people are inclined to think that linear problem solving becomes feasible again. Unfortunately (or fortunately) things are not as simple as that. The type of structure that is provided by the systems approach is the structure of a system and in particular a complex system that is best considered as ‘a whole’ of inter-related networks of patterns and processes. The purpose of the systems approach is therefore to ‘see’ how the tangle of loose inter-relationships affect the system as a whole and use that to build of model of that whole. This is best done by using the systems tools of Wicked Solutions. Other tools exist, but these other tools are best applied once you have gone through the motions of the systems approach.

HSD, CLDs and system archetypes       Some of the other systems tools that can be applied after using Wicked Solutions are Human System Dynamics (HSD), causal loop diagrams (CLDs) and system archetypes. Let’s start with the last two: an example of how the resutls of critical heuristics can be translated into a complex CLD is shown by Setianto et al. (2014). In a follow-up they also identified 5 different systems archetypes (see also Senge’s five disciplines). Analysing system archetypes can assist in the identification of system leverage points. We should not forget, though, that leverage is more complex than that, see also Thinking in systems (Twelve leverage points for systemic intervention design). HSD takes another angle altogether: it looks at human problem situations in a dynamic way, identifying ways for the system to learn how to behave in a more systemic way. In our concept map, HSD could be said to be located where it says ‘evolve’ in the proposition ‘actors evolve contrasting perspectives’. HSD and CLD are just two fairly recent examples of the dozens of systems methods that have been developed over the past 50 years.

Wicked disciplines        Senge speaks of five disciplines: personal mastery, shared vision, mental models, systems thinking and team learning. Personal mastery is the personal spiritual urge and capacity to contribute to systemic learning and working. I prefer to call it ‘systemic agency’, because it comprises most of the other disciplines, including mental models (which I call ‘world views’ and which is  part of the Wicked Solutions methodology), shared vision (which in ‘Wicked Solutions’ is where TeamWork is required, which is all the time), and – obviously – systems thinking. One might say that the main difference between Senge’s Systems Thinking and Wicked Solutions’ systems approach is that Wicked Solutions doesn’t use the archetypes. The archetypes are useful to learn, but they are difficult to master in practice. Therefore it is better to postpone their use to a later moment.

Basic systems concepts      It is not uncommon to start systems learning books with three or more basic concepts. Every systems thinker seems to be able to formulate three or more framings of his or her variety of systems thinking that can be called concepts or principles, that more or less cover what systems thinking is about and that make the systems thinker in question unique. This gives rise to much confusion and bickering. The authors of Wicked Solutions are no exception. All we can do in our defense is to explain why inter-relationships, perspectives, and boundaries are so important that they deserve to be called good basic concepts for systems learners. In our view wicked problems need systemic triangulation to find effective solutions. This means we  should perceive the problem (and the solution!) from three angles as illustrated by wicked tri-anglethe adjacent wicked tri-angle : (1) a messy angle, involving mostly inter-relationships that need systemic inquiry to see how they contribute to the problem and how they may help in (re-)structuring to make them work towards a (re-)solution; (2) a human (or wet or soft systems) angle, involving perspectives of key actors; these perspectives contribute to the problem and need realigning to find a solution; and (3) a critical angle, which uses perspectives to reveal the networks of patterns and processes that make sense of the tangle of inter-relationships by showing the points of the system boundary that are relevant to delineating an effective solution. This issues directly into systemic intervention design.

In other words, Wicked Soluttions need: (1) a messy angle to sweep in the whole tangle of messy inter-relationships, (2) a human angle for divergent perspectives on ways to structure the situation; and (3) a critical angle to guide the debate and unfold the situation.

Angles work towards ‘whole’        Asking how these angles work towards developing a ‘whole’ view of the problematic situation can help us realize why inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries are important. In complex situations, the boundary of what needs to be considered is debatable. Many decision-makers prefer a narrow view (i.e. simplification) to make things ‘manageable’. But instead of manageability, we get partial, short-term solutions that somehow make a convincing case, at least temporarily, often by local bias or some urgent matter. Instead of these classical forms of brushing aside (what Churchman calls the ‘environmental fallacy’), it is better to take in more of the context by sweeping in ‘other matter’, especially of the relevant kind. It is in the nature of wicked problems that it is difficult to know what is relevant unless one can see the whole picture, so ‘sweeping in’ the lot (or at least more than many are in the habit of doing) is essential to finding wicked solutions. The same applies to perspectives, which works in two key ways: 1. additional perspectives not only help to show additional items to sweep in, but 2. they also help us see their relevance in a different, better (or equally important) light. Finally, the critique serves to debate (or ‘unfold’) the relevance of items (in or as networks of patterns and processes) to the ‘whole’. It is also a third way for sweeping in new items. In short, all three angles are important for sweeping in relevant items, seeing their relevance in a different light, or debating and unfolding their relevance.

Hidden workings       The ‘hidden workings of the entire exercise is that it allows you to intersubjectively reveal the networks of patterns and processes that form the system, i.e. that allow one to approach the messy, problematic situation ‘as a whole’, both for inquiry and design, without you being aware of that. The workings are hidden by the complexities of the boundary critique, the various preceding steps and the subsequent synthesis of formulating a comprehensive, wicked solution. The ´hiddenness´ of a wicked solution mirrors the ´hiddenness´ of the problematic situation ´as a whole´ of the wicked problem. It is not that it is really hidden; in fact, it is more open to inspection than ever. The real problem is that it is complex, which poses a cognitive challenge for many of us (at least for me). One may posit that it is this cognitive challenge, which pushes many wicked problems deeper into the zone of unsustainability by leaving it in the hands of the anti-planners, who often use bluff, power, self-deception, various disguising or simplifying techniques or other mechanisms to avoid the systems approach.

The primacy of  the IPB concepts       The IPB concepts (i.e. Inter-relationships, Perspectives, and Boundaries) can be called basic, not so much because they are fundamental to our understanding of the systems approach (which is about the problem of (re-)structuring a complex situation), but rather because they: 1. provide focal activity points (or angles) for key steps in the application of the systems approach; 2. broadly apply both to inquiry and design, to problem and ‘solution’; 3. are terms that are in common use and widely known. It is good to keep the wicked tri-angle in mind when going through the movements of Wicked Solutions. It is probably useful, when all is done and redesigned, to reflect on which key unstructured inter-relationships have found their way into ‘the whole’ of the systemic intervention.

Formalization of the systems approach        The triangular model of the Wicked Solutions version of the systems approach is just what it is: a model. It is slightly tautological here and there. It does not contain many aspects of the systems approach, just what I, as one of the authors of Wicked Solutions, think are the key ones. Churchman was the first to develop the systems approach. He did so in the late 1960s. He was a brilliant scientist, yet he never formalized the approach in the form of a methodology, simply because he thought (or knew!) it was impossible. Wicked Solutions tends towards a methodology. Does that mean that we are blinded by arrogance? The answer involves a little bit of yes and a big NO, of course not. The latter because we are aware that the systems approach is endless, both in terms of inquiry and intervention design. Yes, because tools such as rich picturing and framing were not available at the time. The systems approach evolved over years of facilitation practice by Bob Williams. The sources of inspiration have been discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Systems thinking means hard work        Perhaps systems thinking isn’t so difficult after all, that is, conceptually speaking. In practice, though, it means a lot of hard thinking. And ideally not by just one person, but by a team of people. So it can be quite costly in terms of manpower. This implies that the systems approach (or other forms of systems thinking) should only be used for wicked problems that really interest you. In the book a distinction is made between three types of problems: (1) a general situation of interest; (2) a particular issue or problem that puzzles you; or (3) a possible or actual solution to a particular problem. Wicked Solutions works particularly well for option 2 or a combination of option 2 and 3, but  while working on that you may find out you need a better insight in the systemics of the general situaton. If you don’t know where to start, option two is a good middle ground.

Principles of deception-perception      Finally, it always nice to end with Churchman´s fourth principle of deception-perception: “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
This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The essence of the systems approach

  1. Bob Williams says:

    Actually I didn’t come up with the Inter-Relationships, Perspectives and Boundaries. Indeed I’ve got into trouble when people say that I have. The basic notion has been kicking around the systems field for years, but entered its current form during a workshop at Stanford University by a bunch of systems folks in 2006 or thereabouts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s