The problem may be people

Yet, we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Relating Systems Thinking and Design   … is the title of a symposium held in Banff, Canada on September 1, 2015. The keynote was delivered by Don Norman, whose work mostly involves user-centred design (e.g. at Apple in the 1990s) or its advocacy. The keynote was lightly based on a paper written with Pieter Jan Stappers, who teaches Industrial Design at Delft University of Technology. I have written a bit on design and systems thinking, hence my interest. Serendipity being what it is, the keynote gave me totally unexpected insights, which was excellent, because I was sorely in need of them. A likely case of a Jungian synchronicity/sensemaking mash-up?

don norman's keynote

Complexity and sense-making  … is what the keynote (Youtube) was about, whereas the paper emphasizes that the main challenges of complex sociotechnical systems such as healthcare, transportation, governmental policy, and environmental protection “stem not from trying to understand or address the issues, but rather arise during implementation, when political, economic, cultural, organizational, and structural problems overwhelm all else.” In his speech Norman points out that people are constrained in sense-making of complex situations and their “solutions” by a variety of psychological factors, including a preference for understanding problems by way of linear simplicity and a strong dislike for the loopiness of complexity. Clearly, people’s preferences are completely at odds with complexity’s demands.

Accommodating linearity       Norman concludes that for the sake of implementation we need to accommodate this preference for linearity by means of a three-pronged strategy: (1) cut up inquiries or solutions in more or less self-contained modules; (2) do not go for the best possible solution (that risks not being implemented at all), but rather accept a workable solution that allows a few steps forward; and (3) see the benefit of taking small steps at a time (incrementalism or “muddling through”), because any design for improving complex sociotechnical systems runs a high risk of going haywire anyway. Now clearly, implementation is very important. Without it, nothing happens. Churchman, the “inventor” of the systems approach, elevated implementation to category status in what is now known as the “critical heuristic”. The question is whether accommodating linearity by incrementalism, modularity, and satisficing is (always?) the best way to ensure it.

Systems approach as the baby         I didn’t tell you yet that I am a systems approach buff. Well, I am and I like it so much that I spent the last three years thinking and writing about practical ways of applying it (see Wicked Solutions). So, caving in to people with a general preference for linearity is hardly an option. It would mean denying everything systems thinking stands for and feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Yet, Norman and Stappers have a point. Implementation is key. I can think of two solutions: (1) “muddling through” may be acceptable in the case of conflict, i.e. in situations where it is impossible to find common ground in a win-win and a zero-sum approach must be accepted temporarily. Yet, even then it is good to have some idea, by means of some form of systemic design, in which direction non-zero-sum solutions are likely to be found; (2) it may be possible to reformulate the analysis and its solution in a linear frame. I suspect this is often done in practice, without people being aware that some considerable systems thinking has preceded a relatively simple solution (this is actually the meaning of the bi-directional arrow with the question mark linking the ‘psychology’ concept with  ‘systems thinking’).

The magical number seven       The second solution of linear reframing is what I am currently working on. The reason is that a systemic inquiry and its solution involves a large number of ideas. While one is at it, it is just about possible – with some effort, heuristics, and paper – to handle say forty or fifty ideas. But once the inquiring and resolving is over, there is a serious problem of communicating the result. In 1956, George A. Miller wrote a paper about the limits of short-term memory, which seems to be at the bottom of this. My idea is that both the systemic inquiry and the systemic intervention design need to be recast in a more linear (or at least considerably less loopy) form to convince everybody concerned. This ‘recasting’ is in fact also a ‘design’ of sorts. It involves some kind of ‘chunking’ to remain within Miller’s limits. Ideally, the ‘linear’ intervention redesign must follow logically (i.e. in a ‘linear’ logical fashion) from the ‘linear’ inquiry redesign.

Lao Tze      Here is a suitable piece of Chinese wisdom to end this post with: “Therefore the ancients say, ‘Yield and overcome.’ Is that an empty saying? Be really whole, and all things will come to you.” I interpret this as follows: OK, people want linearity, so give it to them, but as much as possible stick to the core principles of systems thinking , which in my case means the systems approach. (Lao Tze is a legendary figure who is reputed to be the author of the Tao Te Ching[2] and who purportedly founded religio-philosophical Taoism in the same amazing 6th century BCE that pr0duced Greek asceticism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, the Maya civilization, Jainism, Buddhism and Confucianism.)


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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