Systems, design and inquiry

Two more concept maps, like it or not

Yesterday I started rereading Churchman’s 1971 book on “The design of inquiring systems: basic concepts of systems and organization.” The opening chapter introduces a few basic concepts, such as system, design and whole system in very general way. It is a problem of the systems field that thinkers and practitioners use different sets of terms for more or less the same concepts. Efforts to clear this away are notoriously difficult and controversial. I hope to demonstrate how the terminology of Churchman can be reframed in the terminology of Wicked Solutions, which uses inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries.

Systems, design and inquiry       … are the three basic concepts that Churchman writes about in his trilogy of the systems approach (1968, 1971, 1979). I use the same three concepts in my own short definition of the systems approach, which I understand to be a way of carrying out systemic intervention design and inquiry. You can also rearrange the three concepts to produce the title of Churchman’s book “The design of inquiring systems”, i.e. systems or approaches for better understanding the ‘systems’ designed by humans to be able to improve the performance of certain tasks. Since these systems (e.g. as in ‘transport systems’, ‘systems for providing shelter’ etc.) are designed, they can also be referred to as ‘designs’.


Collaborative activity systems       Churchman points out that it is in the nature of humans (Homo sapiens and predecessors) to develop collaborative activity systems to generally make life and society easier, safer, more productive, more comfortable or more in agreement with a common good. They do so by exercising their mental capabilities, including those for inquiry and design (see also intelligence for getting an idea of the complexities involved). The controlled use of fire for cooking, warmth and protection was one of Homo’s first designs and may date back to 400,000 years ago, perhaps contemporary with the design of very simple houses, but it came a long time after designing stone, bone or wooden tools, perhaps as much as 3.3 million years ago.

General professional design       Modern man evolved at the same time as professional specialization into stone cutters, hunters, shamans, farmers, warriors (what are you?). Circumstances are never the same, so the development and transmission of design capability became part of professional life. One of the common types of design is ‘general professional design’. This type of design is often technical in nature in a way that it is exercised by a particular class of professionals. So, architects design ‘shelter’, engineers design ‘transport’ (solutions), medical doctors design health treatments, lawyers design contracts or legal defenses. In the world of organization and management we may think of planning, operations  research, programming, and budgeting. The most common model for this type of design is that of linear thinking based on the cause-effect-sequence logic, which lends itself very well to statistical proof of efficacy. The particular forms of this general cause-effect-sequence logic as used in professional design are specific to carefully demarcated professional areas of application.

Universal human design       An alternative is the use of nonlinear thinking based on whole system rationality, which intends to improve the quality of human lives in a more holistic way, not of separate systems. This is the domain of the systems approach. Having a qualitative purpose, it uses qualitative methods. Not so much by preference, but by necessity. It follows logically from the compartmental approach of professional design in the sense that in real life separate systems get intertwined. Designs of separate systems or subsystems may make perfect sense, but once intertwined their logics often interfere with each other and result in wicked problems. Probably, people use nonlinear, whole system rationality all the time, just not consciously, explicitly or thoroughly and often reframing the results in terms of cause-effect-sequence rationality.

Spatio-temporal manifolds      In other words, complex or wicked problems occur in spatio-temporal “manifolds of interconnected problems” (This notion can be correlated with Wicked Solution’s concept of ‘inter-relationships’). The adjective ‘spatio-temporal’ suggests that these problems have four dimensions, but the situation is more complex than that. The reason is that these interconnected problems give rise to often overlooked normative-cognitive issues (This idea can corresponds with Wicked Solution’s concept of ‘perspectives’). Untangling these critical issues is the purpose of systemic inquiry.

The origin of wicked problems        …. and the need for the systems approach stem systems-design-and-inquiry-2from the fact that multidimensional problems of spatio-temporal-normative-cognitive complexity mess up the cause-effect-sequence logic of professional designs (see also here).  It is simply impossible to avoid interference between more or less well-designed systems with each other. The adjacent concept map illustrates how this works. It is based on the example of a wicked problem in the book Wicked Solutions, which used a project for smallholder irrigation development to explain a novel method for applying the systems approach. The types and levels of interaction between the project or intervention and the associated systems are such that the project shows dissatisfactory performance of the project as a whole and some of its parts. Clearly, the problem as a whole cannot be improved by addressing unfavourable patterns separately (this is one of the key characteristics of a wicked problem).

Boundaries in the systems approach       The systems approach provides a way of dealing with the above type of mash-ups. It attempts to collect key (systemic) insights in complex problem situations with a view to designing interventions that improve overall effectiveness. Particular attention is paid to what Churchman calls “behaviour patterns”. Alternative sets of behaviour patterns are discussed, combined and communicated. In the book Wicked Solutions the discussion of the relevance of behaviour patterns that are critical to the set of behaviour patterns as a whole is called the boundary critique. Several techniques are used to guide and stimulate the debate, including ‘framing’ and outlining an ‘ideal situation’. Because behaviour patterns of key stakeholders can only be explained by their motivations and aspirations, the boundary is multidimensional, i.e. both spatio-temporal and normative-cognitive. The boundary is traced, then, by including or excluding certain behaviour patterns in the final design. These patterns can be existing ones, new ones, or modified ones.

Whole system rationality       … is an idea that applies only to the intervention design (i.e. plan, or project or programme) in a problematic situation. As a general concept it is easy enough to grasp, but what exactly does “whole system” refer to? For starters, it does not apply to the whole of all of the systems relevant to an intervention, but only to the relevant part of these systems.  That’s quite a relief, because it would be impossible to take all those systems in their entirety and in relationship to each other into consideration. Instead, the notion of ‘boundaries’ is closely linked to that of ‘whole systems’ as explained in the previous paragraph. An intervention is ‘valid’ to the extent that it represents a common agreement of a systemic intervention to address a wicked problem. There is no need for key stakeholders to agree on common perspectives, they just need to agree on the intervention as a collaborative activity system.

Not just common ground         All this means that none of the behaviour patterns that are discussed are in themselves valid or relevant. Their validity depends on the way the behavior patterns contribute to the intervention as a whole, i.e. by the set of behaviour patterns selected for the final design of which they are part. The systems approach transcends the relativity of individual opinion by seeking inter-subjective co-ordination rather than concordance. Therefore it involves more than just seeking common ground. It requires a critical and innovative stance of all stakeholders using a framework sometimes referred to as the critical heuristics. Inter-subjective concordance/co-ordination, boundary critique and whole system rationality are but facets of the systems approach. They are best understood conjointly. The best way to achieve this is by conducting a proper systems approach. This was the rationale for writing Wicked Solutions.

Implications for relevant systems       The second concept map above lists 14 relevant systems and sub-systems,  from the planning and evaluation systems of international development organizations to the targeted society of beneficiaries. The viability of these systems depends on the contribution they can make to other systems or interventions that concern various other systems.This implies that if the contribution is insufficient in the sense of causing or allowing wicked problems to emerge, the question must be raised whether these systems are not in need of some form of redesign or readjustment. Such a redesign may well benefit of applying the systems approach, which goes to show that systems may very well be conceived as ‘wicked solutions’ and as such remain susceptible to coevolution and emergence.

P.S. I am not only a Churchman adherent for systems, but also a Whitehead aficionado for process. Here’s a quote that seems to have some bearing on this post:

Insistence on clarity at all costs is based on sheer superstition as to the mode in which human intelligence functions.

Adventures of Ideas (1933), p. 91

To let this quote float without further comment, is not very helpful. Let me start by giving you a link to the page on which the quote can be found, here. The page is in chapter V of `Adventures of Ideas`, a chapter that is entitled `From force to persuasion´. Whitehead´s main argument is that reasonable persuasion has been essential for the upward evolution of civilization. What he argues against is the drawing of wide-ranging conclusions from simple laws or rules. Instead we must pay attention to the ‘perplexities of fact’. I don’t doubt that he could well have agreed with a general need for ‘systems approach-like’ forms of reasoning to address the ‘wicked problem-like’ perplexities.


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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