Anti-Planning vs. the Systems Approach

The contribution of anti-planning approaches to planning

This is a summary of Chapter Thirteen 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 12 since I will avoid repetition as much as possible. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map.

1.  Planning philosophy      The idea that a planning philosophy such as the systems approach is the most appropriate philosophy to lay out the structure of a system and decide what changes should occur that best serve the customers of a system is an idea that is not shared by everybody. To the rationalist it’s hard to see how anyone could ever accept an anti-planning philosophy. The fact remains that there are a great many people that do is important. It is important not only to take that fact into account, but also to realize that “no approach to systems can stand by itself. Its only method of standing is to face its most severe opposition.” Such an opposition is mounted by anti-planning approachers. Thus, anti-planning can and must essentially be regarded as a fundamental part of the (dialectical) systems approach. This is all the more important, because the systems approach at best offers an approximation or a succession of approximations without any guarantee that it will ever result in the hoped for progress or that the progress will be really of the hoped for kind. If science cannot be the guarantor of progress, which it would seem it can’t, then it is best to subject any plans to the fiercest opposition imaginable.

2.  Anti-planning approaches     …. are in conflict in fundamental ways with some or all aspects of the (scientific) “systems approach” so they can play a very useful role in the opposition of it. They reject the idea of rationality, or the idea that something useful can be planned, or the notion of control, or the entire concept of a system. Churchman distinguishes 6 types of anti-planning approaches or approachers: (a) the ‘excellent’ manager; (b) the sceptic; (c) the determinist; (d) religion; (e) self-reflection; and (f) the non-intellectual. The (dialectical) systems approach is able to critically appreciate and these anti-planning approaches for the alternative essences of value they represent. To some extent it is also able to incorporate them in its approach.

3. The ‘excellent’ manager     …. Is the most common of anti-planning approachers. He is supposed to be a person with rich experience in the system and with a perceptive, brilliant mind. He examines a few aspects of the systems, receives some data and reports, and readily makes up his mind what should be done. “In most cases he cannot make explicit what steps he has taken and he feels no need to do so. If, as a young man, he has shown signs of being perceptive and a good leader, he is promoted. If not, he never climbs the ladder. In this anti-planning practical school, education takes place with the system and is never made explicit.” (TSA 215-216). They “know the business” and cannot see how some outsider could tell them anything significant. Nevertheless, it is hard to justify in what way they are great and perceptive decision-makers.

4. The sceptic and the determinist      … are also fairly common anti-planning types, though far less important than the ‘excellent’ manager. “The sceptic firmly believes that we can never understand even minor aspects of a system.” (TSA 217). “His approach is that there is no sound approach.” (TSA 218). We deceive ourselves when we think we are improving anything. He is the arrogant relativist, who simply shows the extreme difficulties of answering questions, which is something the dialectical systems approacher wholeheartedly agrees with, except for becoming a relativist, too. The determinist, on the other hand, believes that major human decisions are not in the hands of human decision makers, including Napoleon (Tolstoy, 1869). Everything is the product of social forces rather than the result of the doings of particular individuals. The determinist does bring up an important issue in that it is important to the planner to pinpoint the “decision makers” in the system, or else he will not have a way to produce the changes that are needed. The important issue is that this pinpointing is not as easy as it may seem. See also one of my previous posts.

5.  Religion and self-reflection     “The religious approach says that the real planning of the world lies in a power or mind that is greater than the mind of all men combined.” This implies that it is no longer up to a human being to try to decide on his own how the whole system must change using a rational approach. Rather he must uphold God’s plan, which is unalterable. This poses three main problems to the rationalist: (a) the lack of evidence for such a plan or its originator; (b) the conflict of dogmatic belief with scientific proof of the nature of reality; and (c) the conflict of dogmatic belief with rationally derived human values as in the Kantian ethics. On the other hand, the rational planner cannot possibly believe to have the correct plan. He must keep thinking of his activity as a series of approximations, in which each approximation is in principle better than its predecessor. But why should such a series of approximations lead anywhere? (TSA 219-223). The second anti-planning approach is based on the central position of the self. It has a great many varieties: the power-dominated self, the conservative self, the revolutionary self, the annihilated self (for whom all existence becomes trivia) etc. “The ‘recommendations’ of the management scientist are an expression of his inner being and have nothing to do with ‘optimal’ changes in reality.” (TSA 223). The debate becomes interesting when applying psychoanalytic theory to the “systems approach”: if “poverty” could be redefined in something other than economic terms, we might discover how many poor people there are in our rich culture. (TSA 225).

6. The non-intellectual approach     … does not belief that thinking in any of its senses is important in the development of human life. It is the approach that finds the essence of value in the song, the painting, the vision, the myth, the feminine, and ultimately the unspoken. Must we admit that the basic aspects of human values never can be represented by the scientific or behavioral systems approaches? It is a deep reminder that what systems approachers create or propose is deeply irrelevant or perhaps even partially destructive for the person who finds his life in the religious, or in the search for the self, or in the completely nonintellectual. Thus, anti-planning must essentially be regarded as a fundamental part of the (dialectical) 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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