Values in the Systems Approach

The difference between soft and hard systems approaches

This is a summary of Chapter Eleven 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 10 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Evaluation    Many may wonder whether the systems approach pays off in practice. Adherents of the “systems approach” – aka the scientific systems approach of management scientists and the like – showcase savings of millions of dollars or claim increased effectiveness as a result of a more rational approach. Others point to the lack of implementation. Any evaluation of the systems approach depends on how we value. For an answer to this we must turn to the ‘real’ objectives of the system. The problem is that the ‘inhabitants’ of the system hide or don’t know the real objectives and constraints. They emphasize the positive aspects to garner support or admiration.

2. Roles      …. in the systems include those of the customer, the decision-maker and the planner. These are intricately linked. The decision-maker engages the planner to help him or her serve the customer (or client or beneficiary) better by changing the system. So it is up to the planner to clarify the real objectives of the system. The systems approach (the dialectical systems approach) argues that it is difficult to distinguish the roles very clearly. There may be considerable overlap, even in the case of a single person or group. Customers can be clients in a shop, stockholders, employees, union representatives etc. The planner cannot always ask customers what they want. Some of the system customers may not even been born yet.

3.  Real objectives          Finding out the real objectives of a system is a complex issue. It carries us directly into the minefield of design. An example is that of the planner-architect who asks the client-house builder what he wants. Another example is that of the planner-ICT expert who asks a client-website builder what he wants. It may seem simple at first, but is in fact a complicated and sometimes frustrating learning process of trial and error. Clarifying the real objectives resists verbal probing, whether by eliciting verbal statements or indicated behavior, esp. if it is about risk taking and risk aversion. The problem is that words or behavior can only express people´s values and preferences indirectly. And none of it is final, because we cannot interview future or past clients. Besides people are fickle or hold on to their ideas – or not – with varying degrees of intensity. Moreover, much depends on the information people have about the system and the worth of alternatives available to them.

4. Feasible problems     The natural inclination of most planners is to adopt a so-called engineering philosophy to problems. Two strategies stand out: (1) getting rid of multiple decision-makers by finding or designing a representative who is assumed to be able to represent the real objectives of the system; (2) getting rid of multi-stage problems by making other assumptions to reduce the objectives of the system to a single, simple goal. Both are tempting and practical, but deceptive. It is has a parallel in scientific inquiry which is also based on creating a controlled environment to enable precise measurements. This has enabled great learning in the physical domain, but not so much when social problems are concerned. And just as a reminder: the word social here is used as in ‘social institutions’ and includes administration, business, communication, development, education, finance, geography, history and so on.

5.  SS versus MM     Churchman makes a useful distinction between single-stage problems with a single decision-maker (SS) and multi-stage problems with multiple decision-makers (MM). The basic idea of the dialectical systems approach is that it is much more rational to approach MM types of problems as such and not to attempt to deal with them as if they are SS types of problems by making a panoply of assumptions, i.e. by using a hard systems approach to soft systems. This poses certain difficulties to the approach, especially in terms of the way we think about certain classes of problems, also known as wicked problems. According to Churchman we must recognize “that all real problems are MM.” (TSA 191). One year earlier he wrote that: “the membership in the class of nonwicked problems is restricted to the arena of play: nursery school, academia and the like.” (Churchman 1967). In ‘Wicked Solutions’ (see below) we suggest framings as a key step in dealing with MMs without falling in the trap of assumption making. Chapter 11 of TSA provides a key part of the theoretical basis for this.

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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