The whole systems enchilada

A dialectical total systems framework

Every now and then I think I have disentangled the whole systems enchilada. By this (i.e. the term ‘whole systems enchilada’) I mean that I am convinced that the systems approach of Churchman hasn’t lost any of its relevance to the decision-making problems of the world today, but that it is not a simple matter to visualize, know or show in what ways this relevance can be accepted and made effective in actual planning, decision-making and client participation processes. Over the past two months I have reread a lot of Churchman’s writings and the time has come to give this disentanglement a new go. Extra (and highly useful, not to say necessary) inspiration came from discussions over the past few days with Dr. Ken Doust (e.g. heads the SCU Master of Engineering Management Course, co-directs Australian Hub of the Urban Climate Change Research Network), who was visiting with his wife Joyce from Australia. As usual, the paragraph numbers refer to the numbers in the concept map. Or perhaps I should say concept enchilada.

1. ´The´ systems approach      … was designed by C. West Churchman. He wrote a first book about it in 1968, entitled `The systems approach´. What he meant by ´systems approach´ is that people use various approaches to deal with systems ‘as a whole’. So, there is not a single (‘the’) systems approach, but there are many: the efficiency approach, the scientific management approach, the political approach, the humanist approach, bureaucratic approach, participatory approaches, learning approaches, planning approaches etc. We need systems approaches, because humans make systems all the time with the purpose to produce or increase value. So we have businesses, economic systems, political systems, religious systems, education systems, health systems, family systems etc. These systems interact and overlap, just as our approaches interact and overlap. Often system activities have negative consequences. One of the main reasons is that we make all sorts of (false, wicked) assumptions to make our approaches work. This results in a certain messiness, which affects the effectiveness of value production and the way we value (or hate) the systems we live in. Churchman developed a dialectical systems approach to address this messiness. It is a rational approach based on attempting to approach the system as a whole, taking into account other systems approaches. One could say it is a heroic attempt to create a supersystem approach. However, the systems approach is an unattainable ideal. “Each person looks at [complex problems] in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost.” This notion is incorporated in the dialectical systems approach to turn it in the best imaginable systems approach. That’s why Churchman claims that “the systems is not a bad idea.” (see also my post on “Deception and systems approach.”

2. Who uses ‘the’ systems approach?      Well, hardly anybody. Ain’t that strange? Yes and no. One of the reasons is that it is not taught at universities and in secondary schools. One reason for that is that we do not think in general terms about our systems and the best ways to approach them. Another reason is that it is not used in practice. Or so it seems. On the one hand, Churchman’s approach seemed to most people to be a bunch of principles that lacked a stepwise, readily applicable method. On the other hand, Churchman’s ideas on the systems approach have over time influenced a great many systems thinkers and practitioners. These include Peter Senge (and his Fifth Discipline, which he calls ‘systems thinking’), Peter Checkland (and his ‘soft systems methodology’), Werner Ulrich and a great many more. Presumably, the systems approach lost out to the other approaches in the competition with their somewhat similar ideas, but how well-founded are their claims. At the same time there were systems approaches that do not consider themselves systems approaches. A good example are planning approaches that are part of management science. Their comprehensiveness can be so pervasive and domineering that there seems to be no need for another (overarching) systems approach to supplement them. Typically, such planning approaches work in tandem with the political approach, the bureaucratic approach and the participation approach to gain enough traction and support to not feel the need for an additional systems approach to make sure everything is OK in terms of sustainability or effectiveness and so on. This doesn’t mean – in my opinion – that the dialectical systems approach could not help us understand what is going on among those different approaches and improve initial planning, ongoing communication (in all its forms, including leadership, debate, early feedback etc.), and final evaluation. This blog post outlines a framework for case studies in that sense. A final hindrance is formed by the anti-planners. It is also one of the concepts in ‘the’ systems approach that enrich it beyond compare.

3. Wicked Solutions       … is a practical book written by Bob Williams and myself (see sidebar), which applies the principles of Churchman’s dialectical systems approach. The basic concept of the book was to allow people (both students and professionals) to get acquainted with systems thinking in general and the systems approach in particular using an easy, yet thorough stepwise method. Bob reduced the number of principles to just three: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries (see below or elsewhere in this blog; also look at older posts).The design of Wicked Solutions benefited of Bob’s worldwide decade-long experience as systemic evaluation facilitator and his knowledge of critical heuristics, which was developed by Werner Ulrich, a PhD student of Churchman in the early 1980s. Ulrich needed an approach to guide the debate between government planners and concerned citizens about all sorts of interventions. The approach had to be powerful enough to make government planners reconsider their plans after citizens made their criticism known to them. For this he developed a simple version of the so-called categorical framework of Churchman’s systems approach. Ulrich’s ideas were well received at several UK universities, where he has lectured for a good number of years. From there it spread to other universities, including The Open University (Martin Reynolds) and Hull University (Michael Jackson, Gerald Midgley). Critical heuristics has been used in combination with other systems approaches in a number of studies, especially for the initial planning phases.

4. Whole system rationality       Churchman views a system as a set of parts (or components or subsystems) coordinated to accomplish a set of goals. The components use resources and the environment to work towards the total system objectives. To understand the parts one must know how they fit in the whole, which itself is unified by the total system objectives. Whole system rationality is no stranger to some of the planning systems of management science (the “systems approach”). At this point it is important to note that Churchman was one of the founders of scientific management in the 1940s and 1950s. Churchman found that the models of scientific planning had their limitations, no matter how hard he tried to make them perfect. That´s when he discovered some of the principles of the dialectical systems approach (The systems approach) for which he is probably best known. The main principles are the four principles of deception-perception, the embedding principle (every system is embedded in another; every system has other systems embedded in them), the principle of nonseparability (this is the principal problem in science: in order to draw ‘significant’ conclusions, ‘environmental’ factors must be fixed, which in the real world is a fallacious assumption, unless one knows enough of all the relationships to be able to model them), and the principle of apperception (if you can’t see a purpose activity in two very different ways with different moods (!), you have failed to formulate the problem).

5. Sweeping-in and unfolding      … are concepts that Churchman borrowed from one of his mentors in philosophy, Edgar A. Singer Jr., a pragmatist and probably the best student of William James, one of the big names in American philosophy. Sweeping-in refers to the idea that one needs to ‘sweep in’ the whole – whatever its boundary – in order to understand its parts. Unfolding refers to the dialectical process of learning to see new relationships that are relevant to understanding the whole and its parts. A short-hand way of saying the same is that it involves ‘mapping inter-relationships and perspectives’ to enable a thorough debate or ‘critique’ of the ‘boundaries’ of the system (or ‘problem’ or ‘situation’). Part of the unfolding is looking at the worldviews underlying the perspectives of key stakeholders, including their biases, preferences and (wicked) assumptions. If you look at the concept map, you will see how the process follows from the principles. It is particularly interesting to see that process can be described in terms of the systems concepts of inter-relationships (‘relevant relations’ in the concept map), perspectives and boundaries that are used to explain systems thinking in Wicked Solutions.

6. Intervention design     The systems approach finds its origin in asking ‘stupid’ questions (see here), which over time help develop alternatives that are hopefully more effective (innovation). Churchman learned this lesson himself while being engaged as a scientist in Operations Research during the Second World War. This purported effectiveness is then put to test. Normally the scientist will be challenged to defend the right to ask such ‘stupid’ questions. A common answer involves the questioning of ‘stupid’ assumptions in the original, problematic way of doing things. One of the problems is that we do not always recognize a ‘stupid assumption’ or a ‘wicked problem’ when we see one (‘the elephant in the room’). Jeff Conklin rightfully writes (here) that “Failing to recognize the “wicked dynamics” in problems, we persist in applying inappropriate methods and tools to them.” (Note that Conklin uses the term ‘fragmentation’ instead of Churchman’s ‘nonseparability’). There are many design and planning methodologies that can be used once the main boundaries of a problem(-atic situation) and its (re-)solution have been decided upon. In practice, there is likely to be interaction between design or planning methodologies and the systems approach. In fact, some of the stakeholders in the dialectical process may actually be the planning experts using the subsequent planning methodologies. The design principles described by Harold Nelson and Erik Stolterman in their ‘The Design Way’ seemed particularly relevant, so I discussed them in relation to ‘Wicked Solutions’ in a number of posts. I also summarized a video lecture by Harold Nelson, but that seems to have been taken offline now. For a short, alternative video by Nelson click here.

Not a bad idea        At this point I would like to repeat that “this doesn’t mean that the dialectical systems approach could not help us understand what is going on among those different approaches [and methodologies] and improve initial planning, ongoing communication (in all its forms, including leadership, debate, early feedback etc.), and final evaluation.” This is so, because all approaches are limited. Even the systems approach is an unattainable ideal. “Each person looks at [complex problems] in such a one-sided way that the systems approach is lost. […] People are not apt to wish to explore problems in depth with their antagonists. Above all, they are not apt to take on the burden of really believing that their antagonist may be right.” So: (1) we must recognize that understanding our complex problematic systems (or situations) is our most critical problem; (2) we must admit that this problem, i.e. finding the appropriate approach to systems, is not solved and will never be solved; because (3) continuous perception and deception are in the nature of [complex, human] systems; so (4) we must resign ourselves to a continuing re-viewing of the world, of the whole system, and of its parts (Churchman, 1968: p. 230).

Future research         Considering that: (1) the systems approach is not a bad idea; and (2) the systems approach is hardly applied; it is recommended that all the question-marked connecting verbs in the above concept map are studied in (sufficient) depth, including: (a) to what extent could Wicked Solutions be considered an operationalization of the dialectical systems approach; (b) in which ways and to what extent could the dialectical systems approach be used to integrate or supplement other systems approaches and how would that improve the securization of intervention designs; (c) are there design or planning situations where systems approach dialectics would be a complete waste of time and how could we know that beforehand; (d) what is the nature of the interaction between systems approach dialectics and design methodologies and how could that be improved in different areas of practice, e.g. infrastructure planning, the design of development projects, government programme planning; (e) what other approaches exist apart from the dialectical systems approach to identify questionable assumptions and how do they compare in terms of effectiveness; (f) to what extent can other planning concepts than those used in the dialectical systems approach help in identifying better boundary choices and making better boundary decisions; (g) which factors may unduly force or tempt planners or decision-makers to ignore or fall back on other systems approaches; (h) is it a good idea to use the dialectical systems approach as an overarching approach to unify initial planning, ongoing communication (in all its forms, including leadership, debate, early feedback etc.), and final evaluation?; (i) could such an overarching approach provide the backbone for ‘total information management’? (j) could Churchmanian systems thinking provide a useful common language and philosophy to improve communication and thereby communication about systems design, implementation and evaluation? (k) in which ways and to what extent do statutory and legal requirements interfere with a more systemic understanding of organizations and agencies? (l) is a knowledge model (  for example of such a model) an effective means for conveying the fairly complex theory underlying the systems approach and what would such a knowledge model look like? (list to be expanded as ideas emerge)


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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