Behavior in the Systems Approach

Adding some ‘soft’ empiricism to ‘hard’ rationality

This is a summary of Chapter Twelve 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 summaries of the preface and chapters 1 through 11 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Behavioral science     …. tries to bridge between the economic-feasible approach to the change of systems and the humanist demand for the representation of “real” human values. It investigates what the human being is like in terms of his or her behavior. As an empiricist, the behavioral scientist is much less interested in model building. He focuses on the individual rather than the whole system. He tries to observe how and why the individual makes his or her choices, sets goals, has beliefs, develops concepts of reality, and expresses values. Combined these types of behavior form patterns that structure the way groups, societies and cultures are organized. The systems approach rather works the other way around. In theory the behavioral scientist´s approach could complement the systems approach. 

2. Human conflict     …. Is one of two key problems that need to be addressed in the systems approach. No matter how well-balanced systemic interventions are designed, there is always the risk of non-implementation. Behavioral science may offer a way out. One way to study human conflict is by means of game theory. It is sometimes defined as “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” But there is more to it. Some of its findings have been tested under controlled conditions (in laboratories) or semi-controlled conditions. This has resulted in theories involving cooperative and conflict types. Human conflict can also be studied in real cases. These studies have given rise to ideas concerning possible principles of organization and group motivation with direct relevance to applying the systems approach in practice.

3.  Resistance to change     … is the other key problem that needs to be addressed in the systems approach. It is perhaps even more about non-implementation than human conflict. It is a topic in the field of social psychology. It could help develop an approach to systems that combines the best of both worlds and that could be called the sociotechnical systems approach. Churchman points out that one of the best ways for handling resistance to change is by avoiding the problem of alienation of the planning system (see Ch. 10). This implies the need for companies to transform into learning organizations, an idea that was successfully promoted by Peter Senge and others a quarter of a century afterwards.

4.  Gaming and social accounting     … are two other fields of study in which behavioral science could play a role. Both are of direct practical relevance. Business games and international games are examples of serious or applied games that can give entrepreneurs and diplomats a direct feel of and insights in the conflictual situations they are operating in. One could surmise that such games may also help the system approacher in ensuring actual implementation of his or her proposals. Social accounting has grown considerably in importance since Churchman wrote The Systems Approach. It is useful in supporting concepts and ways of thinking that are used in the systems approach.

Churchman, C. West (1968). The systems approach. New York: Delta. Worldcat.

‘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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