The pertinence of the systems approach

… to wicked problems faced by planners generally

There is no simple, coherent way of explaining the systems approach and how it is able to help planners deal with the wicked problems they face. This is a key hindrance to adoption of the systems approach by planners, because “failure to explain” almost automatically entails “failure to convince”. Logic dictates that the principles of the systems approach must follow from the characteristics of wicked problems. My effort to follow that logic resulted in a mildly complicated explanation. Before you read about it in this blog post, you must know that 1. I will not explain here how the systems approach can be carried out (this was done elsewhere); and 2. wicked problems abound everywhere at enormous cost to business and society, so the widespread adoption of the systems approach – and therefore convincing planners of its practical necessity – would appear to be a matter of considerable urgency. So far, the systems approach has not gained much traction.

Slideshow         In below slideshow I use 10 slides to explain a concept map that presents an integrated conceptualization of the logical relationships of the core characteristics of wicked problems with the basic requirements and workings of the systems approach. This should provide the necessary scaffolding for a meaningful understanding of the design principles underlying the the systems approach, including the version described in ‘Wicked Solutions’.

Wicked problems         The term wicked problem emerged in a context of social planning in the 1960s (Rittel, Churchman). Most people now agree that wicked problems do not only abound in administration, but also in business, communication, development, and education. As a result of their complexity, wicked problems (or rather ‘problematic situations’) defy problem definition. This means that, typically, there is disagreement among stakeholders on what ‘the problem’ is or whether there is a problem or not. Without such agreement, the search for solutions remains open ended. So, the first step is to stop looking for a solution (in sensu stricto), but instead to start thinking in terms of intervention design.

Whole system rationality         The special approach for systemic intervention design and inquiry is commonly known as the systems approach (the plural ‘systems’ is an American habit). The systems approach attempts to consider the ‘system as a whole’, which in turn may be composed of (sub-)systems intertwined with other systems. The ‘whole system’ produces effects (results and consequences, positive or negative), which change stakeholder perspectives and ultimately may require design changes, bold or mild.

The importance of perspectives        Wicked problems typically involve different stakeholder groups with contrasting or opposing perspectives with different takes on the nature of the problem and how it should be addressed. This implies that perspectives, problem definition and intervention design must be considered simultaneously. A good design will also reflect common ideals. Disparate perspectives may relate to vested or future interests, value conflicts, various constraints (resources, culture, politics), and ideals. A strong divergence of perspective does not just complicate matters, but is also bound to enable a better understanding of the problem leading to a better design.

Perspectives and creativity      A key problem of wicked problems is that they are all unique, and evolving in their own unique way. This follows from their complexity. This uniqueness or individuality requires innovation to deal with it properly. A good thing about wicked problems is that the possible range of problem definitions and intervention designs cannot be enumerated. This provides the opportunity for endless creativity. Harnessing divergent perspectives using the systems approach stimulates such creativity.

The role of planners         Planners do not just carry out planning in one way or another. They are also stakeholders and as such subject to inquiry. They must realize that they are unable to disentangle the diverse range of perspectives (e.g. of their own roles). This implies that they must ensure that all perspectives are engaged in the best possible way. Moreover, planners are liabe for any negative or suboptimal effects, consequences or results of ‘the system as a whole’.  One of the most difficult aspects of systemic intervention design and inquiry is the absence of a stopping rule: there are always other perspectives to consider; one can always sweep more aspects into one’s ‘system as a whole’, thus effectively expanding it; or one can always continue debating the boundaries of a ‘system as a whole’ to make it more ‘manageable’.

The systems approach          A systems approach must be able to accommodate the main characteristics of wicked problems in its fundamental planning methodology, including the fact that wicked problems have multiple intervention points (which is one of the reasons why problems are wicked) as well as multiple leverage levels, e.g. as relating to efficacy, efficiency or effectiveness (see also “rules of thumb and leverage points”). Wicked Solutions is a recent version of the systems approach  that adopts a practical, step-wise approach.

1. Systems approach explained to planners

Wicked problem characteristics          … have been formulated by Rittel and Webber (1973), Jeff Conklin (2006), Robert Horn (2007) and many others (e.g. see here). The concept map described in above powerpoint incorporates 8 out of 10 for Rittel’s list, 5 out of 6 for Conklin’s, and 10 out of 14 for Horn’s. The ‘missing’ or tacitly assumed characteristics could have been added to the concept map, but would have made it more complicated without contributing much to the overall logic. It doesn’t mean that the missing characteristics are less important.

Wicked solution principles             Three fundamental  systems concepts are used in Wicked Solutions, viz. inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries. The first two clearly have their place in the concept map. The question remains what happened to the concept of ´boundaries´? In Wicked Solutions ‘boundaries’ mark “what is ‘in’ or what is ‘out’, what is important or valid and what is unimportant or invalid; what is included and what is marginalised.” In ‘Wicked Solutions’ they present a way for facilitating a stakeholder debate on the boundaries, the so-called ‘boundary critique’. In the concept map, this idea is presented as the way for using divergent perspcectives to consider stakeholder interests and perceptions of constraints in problem definition and intervention design. The wording differs, but the idea is the same.

Churchman’s systems approach        C. West Churchman (1913-2004), the Berkeley management scientist and philosoopher who developed the systems approach in the late 1960s and 1970s, never formalized it. A final question is to what extent the above concept map manages to encompass the basic ideas underlying the systems approach as originally intended by Churchman in a manner that is both concise and comprehensive. I have no doubt that such a case could be made, but the necessary argumentation needs to be considered carefully and will therefore be deferred to a later occasion.

Planning transformation      The aim of this post is to contribute to a transformation in the way wicked problems are addressed. This means that planners – in the broadest sense of the word – must be able to recognize wicked problems and must understand the need for adopting the systems approach to be able to design systemic interventions that are likely to improve problematic situations rather than complicating them or making them worse. The concept map in this post provides conceptual handles for the entire pathway:

     PI→WP→SA→SI, where
PI = problem identification, WP = wicked problem,
SA = systems approach, and SI = systemic intervention


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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