Thinking and the Systems Approach

Different approaches for thinking about ‘whole’ systems

This is a summary of Chapter One of The Systems Approach (TSA). It is part of a series of blogging posts, which will cover the whole of Churchman’s The Systems Approach (TSA), a rather well-known book he wrote in 1968, of which I am convinced that it hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today. You are advised to first read my summary of the preface, since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Naïve thinking      Just about 50 years have transpired since Churchman wrote that the problems of the world can in principle be solved by modern technology, so why don’t we? Is there perhaps some deeper and more subtle reason why there is a global development conundrum rather than a global development challenge? One of the reasons is of course that we will not accept totalitarian methods to achieve total global development. “We [only] want to feed, shelter, and clothe the world subject to conditions that create a free society” (TSA 9). Other reasons are that the world´s problems are inter-connected and overlapping. We are not sufficiently well organized, because there is too much international mistrust, because a great proportion of the human population is ignorant about the fundamental problems of the world and their relationship to them, which requires a global education effort, but the problems of health and poverty need to be solved first. The world’s problems are complex, poorly structured, and circular. They also lack a clear starting pointing. Clearly, naïve thinking is not enough. Churchman here anticipates the articles by Rittel (1972, 1973) on wicked problems. See also Churchman, 1967, or my posts on wicked problems.

2.  Management science      … was well developed by 1968. Churchman was one of the people who had enthusiastically contributed to its creation. It is science’s way to think about systems as a ´whole´. Management scientists sometimes think of it as the “systems approach”, which differs from what Churchman sometimes refers to as the systems approach (see previous post). The “systems approach” is a great planning tool, which Churchman illustrates using the case of planning a manned moon landing. Such an endeavor requires a large number of subsystems, viz. for propulsion, a rocket, communication-control and trained astronauts. Each of these subsystems has subobjectives, which must meet specific standards. The ‘moon landing’ system has one very important subsystem, which is the management subsystem. This subsystem relates all the subobjectives to the central objective, checks whether subobjectives meet their standards, sets the standards, keeps an eye on the time and budgetary constraints, prepares alternative pathways in the case of problems. The management subsystem never stops thinking at all. This sounds wonderful, but there is a snag. It may still create a whole lot of nonsense or even evil: the moon landings were tremendously costly, full employment in Nazi Germany caused the death of millions of `undesirables´, international development can be terribly ineffective, but less fragrant examples can be observed in countless other forms of purposive activity.

3.  The systems approach       … is Churchman´s rational effort to address this fundamental problem of the scientific “systems approach” and similar approaches of systems as a “whole”. Its chief interest is not “in hardware systems like the rocket to the moon, but rather in systems with humans in them. These are systems like industrial firms, hospitals, educational institutions, and so on” (TSA 10). Churchman’s systems approach is intended to first of all think about the function of such systems, to reflect on their “overall objective and then to begin to describe the system in terms of this overall objective” (TSA 12). This means that any approach will never start with listing the components as was done in the case of the world problems. “From the systems point of view, we have to admit to ourselves that we may have begun incorrectly, because we began by describing the world in terms of its structure, not its purpose” (TSA 13).

4.  Debate      “Now of course, all this sounds quite reasonable, as it has to a great many people. The differences arise when we try to make these ideas more specific and applicable” (TSA 13). In his book, Churchman examines four different ideas as to what really constitutes the systems approach. He does so by juxtaposing them in the context of a debate. The debaters are: (1) the advocates of efficiency; (2) the management scientists who build ‘models’ of the systems that describe how they work; (3) the humanists, who first look at human values: freedom, dignity, privacy; they often say that the systems approach should avoid imposing plans; and (4) “the anti-planners, who believe that any attempt to lay out specific and ‘rational’ plans is either foolish or dangerous or downright evil” (TSA 14). The debate will show that the “systems approach” runs into the greatest difficulty in trying to cope with human values. The scientist may try to resolve this by an extension of economic considerations (monetary values), or by behavioral science. This is strongly opposed by the humanist and the anti-planner.

  • Churchman, C. W. (1967). Guest editorial: Wicked problems. Management Science, 14(4), B-141-142. PDF.
  • Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.
  • Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4(2), 155–169. PDF.
  • Rittel, H. W. J. (1972). On the planning crisis: systems analysis of the “first and second generations.” Bedriftsøkonomen, (8), 390–396. PDF.

‘The systems approach’ of Churchman is not available online, but some other books, reports and articles are. You may try for instance Churchman, C. W. (1968). Challenge to reason. McGraw-Hill New York. PDF. If you are looking for a more practical systems approach you may try Williams, B., & van ’t Hof, S. (2016). Wicked Solutions: a systems approach to complex problems (v. 1.03). [Lower Hutt]: Bob Williams. Amazon or partial preview.


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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