Real objectives, value and the systems approach

Client-purpose relationships, unfolding, evaluation and systemic agency

It’s always wise to raise questions about the most obvious and simple assumptions. (Churchman, 1968: ix)

What proof exists of any real, actual value added by the systems approach? At the beginning of Chapter 11. Values of The Systems Approach (Churchman, 1968: 179) it is stated that the answer to this question depends on the person who tries to answer it, e.g.: (1) millions of dollars (enthusiastic operations researcher); (2) no savings in the many cases that studies were not implemented (disappointed manager); (3) improved organizational effectiveness has in many cases resulted from systemic rationalization (receptive manager). Much depends also on what is meant by the systems approach and how it is applied. I am mostly interested in the fundamental-teleological understanding of the systems approach that corresponds roughly with Ulrich’s critical heuristics. Let’s see how this could work out.

Real objectives        In Chapter 3 of The Design of Inquiring Systems, Churchman distinguishes nine categorical conditions for conceiving human activity as a teleological system (see previous post). Three of these conditions are role-related (planner, client and decision-maker), three are central concerns (purpose, resources, and implementation), and three are conditions of assurance (measures of performance, environment, and guarantor). The nine conditions are closely related, but some are more closely related than others, forming trilogies e.g. purpose, measures of success and client. Perhaps the most central of all categories is that of purpose, which is not surprising considering that we are dealing with teleological (goal-oriented) systems. The purpose is the set of objectives an activity or intervention tries to achieve. In order to know whether or not something adds value requires that we know what these objectives are. Knowing the real objectives may prove to be less easy than it seems, no matter whom we ask: the client, the decision-maker or the planner.


General obscurity          Knowledge of the real objectives may first of all be obscured by, well, a lack of knowledge. We often don’t know why we are doing things, we just assume that they may be useful to do or at the very least better than doing nothing. This may seem silly, but under conditions of chaos it may be best to try anything, especially if it is something new and daring that may lead to long overdue innovation (see my post on Cynefin). In other cases, the real objectives may be unknown by lack of specificity, which in turn may be due to a lack of imagination or a lack of insight in the potential of a particular course of action. All this happens more often than we like to believe, because we live in a world of complexity. And because we like an occasional challenge.

The manager’s angle       … of the real objectives is often deceptively distorted because she wants to impress in order to garner support for certain proposals. To do so, she has to disguise the organization’s  true intentions, ignore or recast the negative consequences, and inflate the beneficial effects. The deception is often conflated by the involvement of multiple other decision-makers or the effect of multiple stages of decision-making while implementation is complicated by large numbers of intermediary objectives. All of these can be used as a smokescreen to enable decision-makers to hide their understanding of the real objectives of an activity or intervention. Finally, decision-makers may ask clients or customers what they think ought to be the true objectives, but there is nothing that categorically obliges them to do full justice to client needs or expectations. In fact, they can even ignore clients altogether by deciding not to serve them at all.

The client’s angle     … of the real objectives may seem less susceptible to deception, since the client is supposed to benefit from the added value produced by an activity or intervention. There are several difficulties (the dark blue concepts in the concept map), some reminiscent of those affecting the decision-maker. First of all, the client may not know her preferences. In the case of many interventions, the benefits are produced in a distant future. Clearly, the understandings of future clients or beneficiaries can only be guessed at. A further complication is that clients may belong to a larger group or multiple groups. Often it is not practical to ask all clients what they think. Similarly, clients may represent a larger group, such as his or her family. Finally, clients themselves have complexes of minds (conscious, subconscious, unconscious) that are difficult to consult, yet may contain powerful and important motivations in favor of one or another objective.

The planner’s angle     … of the real objectives is no less important than the other two. It is the planner’s task to build as accurate a model of the activity as possible, including its purpose. Of course he will start by asking the decision-maker what it is that must be achieved, but unfortunately she is notoriously unreliable. Unfortunately, the client is also not of much help. This means that he has to devise methods to approximate some kind of understanding of what the client really wants. A common approach is that of expressing all gain in monetary terms. The advantage is that it is possible to determine a net value, simply by subtracting the costs of the intervention needed to produce the gain. The problem is that it cannot really be used as a substitute for gains in humanist value, e.g. self-fulfillment, happiness and other forms of personal satisfaction that can only be judged by the client herself.

Valuing the intangibles       The planner can use various methods (‘tricks’) to incorporate intangible values in his valuation model. One of them is that of weighing the client’s preferences. He can also look at the actual behavior of the client and – in the fashion of Skinnerian behaviorism – use that to derive underlying values and valuation mechanisms. Finally, he can attempt to identify one or several representative clients or simply concoct an abstract client. But first and foremost he must be aware of the difficulty he is up against: the need to understand or design a purposive system without being able to determine in certain terms what the purpose really is.

Concordial tension       The point of this discussion is not to cause despair, but to understand more clearly the problem of approximation that the planner is up against. He has to be wary of the information obtained from the decision-makers and the beneficiaries or clients and careful when making his own assumptions about what the various stakeholders claim to be the real objectives, whether actual or ideal. Some form of agreement about the objectives will be necessary, though, even though the underlying assumptions among the stakeholders may differ. The only fair thing to do for the planner is to juggle all the available evidence and insights as dispassionately as possible, including his assumptions about the assumptions of the various stakeholders, including himself.

Systemic agency       The juggling doesn’t end there: it is from this point on that one can unfold the implications, i.e. make judgments about all of the ramifications of the system, seeking the most equilibrated teleological concordance (see previous post) and the best shared understanding possible, all the while taking into account that the underlying assumptions (and assumptions about each others’ assumptions) among stakeholders may differ very widely, indeed. But it is the concordant understanding (incl. mutual constraint acceptance) that energizes the implementation effort, which is what systemic agency is all about. In other words:

Human action and understanding are most effective and meaningful when conceived systemically. (the first principle of systemic agency, Van ‘t Hof, this blog, 2016)

systemic-agencyAnother way of explaining systemic agency comes from Paul Batalden (see youtube). The essence of it is represented in the concept map on the right. What he actually did is expanding the (health) system boundary to include ‘professional development’. It is Dr. Batalden who coined the phrase “Every system is perfectly  designed to get the results it gets.” For better or for worse, that is.


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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