What is it with the systems approach?

… and explaining what it is about and how it works?

Yes, what indeed?       This post presents one more explanation of the systems approach. I am convinced that everybody does it – I mean the systems approach (in a probably unconscious way) I hasten to add –, but hardly anybody seems to be aware of this. Perhaps it is so ingrained in our cognitive apparatus that we can’t see it. Since we can’t see it, we can’t really understand it very well or very easily. But without understanding, we can’t bring it to a level in our mind that we can consciously start applying it with rigour to particular situations we are confronted with. In my experience, trying to understand and explain the systems approach is a rather mind-bending exercise. Whatever may or may not be the case, I will give the explanation of the systems approach one more go and, by so doing, add an additional version to an already large number of previous efforts. I promise that one day I will compile all the various explanations I have presented so far into a single presentation that will elucidate once and for all the systems approach as the pathway to understanding complex issues generally, and “the answer to life, the universe, and everything” possibly (the last 10 words formed a joke, don’t let it put you off!).

Always these concept maps          I know the ‘spaghetti’ (strings) puts off the majority of readers (don’t worry if you are one of them), but I insist on first composing a concept map. I insist first and foremost because it helps me understand stuff better. That’s why Joe Novak – the inventor of concept maps – claims it is the key to meaningful learning (for an example and explanation, see my post on seasons). A concept map is simply a collection of inter-related propositions (or strings of words, more particularly sets of two concepts coupled by a verb). The concept with the most verbs is the most important one, so in our case that’s “systems as [a] whole”, bang in the middle of the concept map. Now ‘systems as a whole’ is nested with ‘multiple perspectives’ in a single node that I called ‘systems approach’, so there you have the essence. You have learned a lot, so you could consider stopping here. No, no, no, wait, I forgot! Did you know that systems, at least when humans are involved, don’t exist as such? They are just loose and tight-coupled sets of inter-relationships with boundaries as perceived and/or agreed upon from the combined perspectives of part or all of those same humans. How about that for a definition? What’s more, it’s perfectly in line with Churchman’s notion of the environmental fallacy. Not to forget Wicked Solutions, which uses inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries to explain in a very practical way how you can apply the systems approach yourself. Now you can stop.

the systems approach with principles

The systems approach         … , therefore, deals with ‘systems as a whole’ that have ‘multiple perspectives’. These ‘multiple perspectives’ help perceive ‘systems as a whole’. According to Macmillan ‘to perceive’ means ‘to understand or think about something in a particular way’. In other words, the systems approach was designed (by C. West Churchman) to make sense of systems as a whole using multiple perspectives to arrive at a less particular (i.e. a more inter-subjective) way of understanding. Now looking at a system as a whole is an exercise in non-linearity that is very different from the linear model of inquiry we are much more familiar with (see post on linearity/non-linearity). Non-linear(ity) and systemic(ity) are synonyms. Linear approaches are typically used in scientific logic and have a way of ignoring (complex) inter-relationships to arrive at some kind of abstract, ‘objective’ truth (see also my post on design judgment. In complex issues of reality we seek inter-subjective, social ‘truths’). When dealing with ‘systems as a whole’, an effort is made to understand complex inter-relationships (by identifying key patterns and processes), especially in relation to the ‘whole system’ and particularly when it comes to the overall effectiveness of the ‘whole’. It can be used to avoid wasting time and resources or to prevent irreparable harm.

Wicked problems             Talking about harm, the systems approach was developed partly as a response to the realization of a new category of problems, named wicked problems by Horst Rittel, a German architect who worked in Berkeley on the linked social, economic and environmental issues affecting US inner cities or ghetto’s.  Allow me to quote from an earlier post: “Wicked problems are mischievous – and perhaps even evil – because their “solutions” often turn out to be worse than the symptoms. Wicked problems are social systems problems (and therefore public policy problems) that cannot be solved using classical planning methods, whereby the problem is defined, information is gathered, and a solution or intervention is designed by one or several professionals, more or less in linear fashion. Instead, problem formulation is impossible (until the formulation of a solution), the information is confusing, values are conflicting, and the impact of the intervention is indeterminable, or found to be so after some time.” Churchman was the first to give the term ‘wicked problem’ academic status (1967) and went on to develop his systems approach (1968,1971, 1979), of which elements can be traced to Churchman’s earlier work and training, even before World War Two. The concept of problem wickedness is now generalized to areas way beyond planning and policy.

Common interests        The ‘solution’ of a wicked problem depends on what world views and different frames stakeholders use for understanding the problem. So, the wicked problems present a ‘framing’ problem. The best way to address this ‘new’, second-level problem is to ask stakeholders to agree on a set of loosely formulated common interests (‘framings’) and use these in a process of inquiry (‘boundary critique’) and intervention design. The term ‘boundary’ refers to the ‘system boundary’. Boundary critique leads to insights of what the ‘contours’ of the main system (whether as a problematic situation or a systemic intervention) may have to look like. It is only at the very end that a solution is ‘designed’ and the problem is ‘finally understood’. If stakeholders cannot or will not agree on common interests, it must be assumed that the system as a whole will not be effective, i.e. it will not contribute to these common interests (or greater good etc.). Some believe this to be characteristic of a zero-sum mentality. A different, more optimistic mentality may well argue that the advantages of pursuing common interests to all participants cannot perceived beforehand, i.e. before an innovative, transformative design is ready for inspection.

Boundary critique and heuristic             In Churchman’s systems approach use is made of a heuristic to structure the various resolving issues that mess up a wicked problem. The heuristic consists of a set of 12 inter-related categories of critical issues. The stakeholders are encouraged to ask questions on these issues to gradually develop a better understanding of the problem and obtain ideas (or boundary choices) that have some potential to help resolve the wicked problem. Once an adequate picture of the situation is obtained it is possible to design a systemic intervention by making the best possible combination of boundary choices.

Principles of perception-deception        Churchman formulated a set of 4 principles of perception-deception of the systems approach. The main idea is that deception is the inevitable fate of everybody, systems thinker or not. The systems thinker has the advantage of being aware of this and the added advantage of how to improve his perception by using multiple perspectives (principle 1), knowing very well that a single perspective leads to more narrow perception and – by implication – a broader deception (principle 2). Nobody can escape this fate, not even the expert (principle 3), simply because there are always other perspectives that he or she cannot take into account. Principle 4 is that the systems approach is not a bad idea. It is not perfect, but there is no alternative. Some people will not agree. They are the so-called enemies of the systems approach. Typical examples include the sceptic who doubts we can understand reality, the determinist who doubts we can control and change it, or the religious believer who thinks there is a divine plan. A very vociferous, but also mythical one is the “excellent” manager who is convinced he can quickly take the right decisions due to his experience, perceptive mind, and intuition. Think what you will. I stick to principle 4.

Difficult or not?       Well, that wasn’t all too difficult, was it? Keep it in mind for the next time you are confronted with a wicked problem (probably very, very soon, if you are not overwhelmed by them already) and consider the possibility how you may handle it if you only knew how to apply the systems approach. But first you will need to identify a wicked problem for what its is. For most of you that’s probably the most difficult thing of all.


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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