Some problems with the systems approach

Why isn’t it applied more often?

Simple explanations        I am convinced that the systems approach is a very good thing. Like many ‘believers’ it is hard for me to understand why so many people think otherwise. In other words, how non-systems practitioners can think that they can and must address wicked problems without it. It seems so terribly irrational. Why can’t they see that without the systems approach all their efforts are doomed to sterility and will remain unsatisfying and irrelevant? In some of my previous posts I have talked about the environmental fallacy, the hidden workings of the Systems Approach and a host of other related subjects. I am now working on a new post that deals with introductory Chapter 1 of ‘The systems approach and its enemies’ entitled ‘On systems and their design’. The new post is about the history of some basic ideas underlying the systems approach and is likely to become a little bit complicated, so I decided to make this simple, introductory post first.

Whole system rationality         The systems approach was developed to sweep in and unfold the complex reality of wicked problems in an effort to resolve them. This sweeping wicked problems 2ain and unfolding is the operational part of ‘whole’ system rationality. We simply need to look at the context within which wicked problems present themselves to us in order to understand them. This is what people say time and again in many different words. This morning (the morning-after of the Brussels attack) I heard two terrorism experts say that the simple approaches of Belgian and other governments won’t work. By simple approach they meant the security lock-down on Brussels, the surveillance of large numbers of individual terrorists and so on. By ignoring the broader problem environment, a satisfactory resolution will always elude us. So a much broader sweep of the issues at hand is necessary. That’s the ‘whole’ system rationality.

Pragmatism and innovation        Churchman is a philosopher from the American school of pragmatism, which says that a thing is what it does, it’s all about the ‘doing’. His mentor is Edgar A. Singer, who says that in order to know what a thing does, you need to sweep in enough of the context of the ‘doing’. But sweeping in is not enough. It is necessary to look at the effect of the context on the ‘doing’ and the effect of the ‘doing’ on the context. This approach (the systems approach) becomes particularly useful when we debate wicked problems such as islamic terrorism. It is also useful when we try to describe something simple such as a table or something a bit more complicated like a car. So, a car is no longer a ‘motorized platform on four wheels’, but rather a ‘convenient means of transport for one or more individuals’. This also shows the direct relationship between systems thinking and innovation.

Enemies of the systems approach        Many people could be designated ‘enemies of the systems approach’. They deal with complex human problems, i.e. systems designed for human needs and desires that are no longer able to serve the original purpose, but they reject ‘whole’ system rationality by using non-systems approaches. This itself is part of many wicked problems and actually deepens them. This is not to say that the systems approach would directly give perfect results, but adopting its whole system rationality would seem a better pathway to getting closer to a more satisfactory resolution. When overseeing the ‘systemic battlefield’, one might conclude that the non-adoption of the systems approach is itself also a wicked problem, which in turn might benefit of adopting a systems approach.wicked problems 2b

A first inventory of reasons for non-adoption         …. of the systems approach starts with the observation that many people have never heard of wicked problems. And if they have heard of them, can’t recognize one if they see one, or know little of their characteristics, let alone that they start designing appropriate strategies to cope with those characteristics effectively (which would imply adoption of the systems approach).  Now, the systems approach is a form of systems thinking. Many people have a very narrow view of systems thinking, thinking that it is a highly technical way of modelling reality with little practical relevance. In short, they don’t see the relevance of systems thinking or the systems approach. Then there are people who are sympathetic to the systems approach, but are not aware of any successful examples of its application. On the other hand, there is a long tradition of applications of other approaches, some of them even somewhat successful or seemingly so. Some of these other approaches have certain forms of systemicity built into them, which may be particularly appealing if they were developed for particular fields or types of problems. Examples of approaches with systemicity include politics or economics. The trouble with them is that they are insufficiently equipped to take the ‘whole’ system context into account, often with devastating effects.

Conclusion     Multiple reasons for non-adoption of the systems approach seem to exist, but none of these reasons comes close to defeating the ‘whole’ system rationality of the systems approach. That’s why Churchman was right to insist that ‘the systems approach is not a bad idea.’ Churchman developed his own take on the ‘enemies of the systems approach’, see e.g. my blog post on anti-planning. The term ‘anti-planning’ is perhaps an indication of Churchman’s disappointment about non-adoption of the systems approach. A practical form of the systems approach can be learned from ‘Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems‘. This book not only explains the nature of wicked problems, but also teaches you how to design systemic interventions for a wicked problem of your own.

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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 https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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