Crisis management and the systems approach

The need for instilling crisis management capability in organizations

Nobody has been promoting Churchman’s systems approach as well as Dr. Ian I. Mitroff. He did so in a variety of (indirect, practical) ways, but his most sustained effort is in the form of promoting crisis management as an essential management capability. Crisis management is: (1) reacting in the best way possible after a major crisis occurs; from which follows (2) preparing in the right way for reacting in the best way possible; and, best of all , (3) preventing major crises from happening in the first place. Mitroff has an author page at Amazon ( and a website of his own organization at I recently came across two 3-minute video’s (1, 2) in which Mitroff explains what crisis management is all about. I took the liberty of producing a concept map of my interpretation of both short video’s and adding some notes to it.

Key points      1. There are always tell-tale signs that crises are looming, which is why we can and must proactively improve matters and try to prevent them from happening; 2. the causes of crises are wicked problems or messes; 3. we often operate on assumptions that cause crises; 4. being alert to crises and preparing for them is good business; and 5. we are not taught in schools about wicked problems, only about ‘exercises’, thus turning us in certainty-simplicity junkies that are incapable of dealing with crises, wicked problems and messes.

Proverbs for paranoids     “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, then they don’t have to worry about the answers.” (Gravity’s rainbow). In fact, there is nothing new about this: Theodore Roosevelt claimed to have used a similar trick when starting the construction of the Panama Canal without the approval of the US Congress. The quote has a more insidious meaning here, in view of key point 5 above: most people have been so thoroughly trained in non-messy problems (e.g. algebra or physics or chemistry exercises) that they cannot imagine asking “the right stupid questions” about messy, wicked problems, leading directly to the fundamental problem of trying to “Solve the Wrong Problems Precisely” (Mitroff 2010). This is perhaps the main reason why most people ignore the signals that are send to warn us of a looming crisis, even if the signals are shouting in their faces. Nothing paranoid about that. It happens all the time.

Crisis management       …. does three things: (a) respond to crises; (b) prepare for crises; and (c) prevent crises. The Romans already knew that: “nulla calamitas sola” or ‘disaster never comes alone’. One crisis entails another. Crises are inter-connnected. That’s why Russ Ackoff – Churchman’s long-time co-worker – appropriated the term ‘mess’ “to stand for a dynamic, constantly changing system of problems that so highly interconnected and bound together that they can’t be separated either in principle, practice, or in their basic existence” (Mitroff et al, 2013) . That’s also why Churchman formulated the principle of non-separability: we simply cannot isolate (a usually more manageable) part of the problem without distorting the basic nature of the problem as well as the entire mess. Crisis management differs fundamentally from risk management, which tends to look at potential crises in terms of probability (e.g. 9/11 was considered highly unlikely, so ignored).

Crisis management capability     … is central to Mitroff’s approach to messes and wicked problems. It is a capability that has to be instilled at management level and probably at other levels in the organization as well. It is more likely to enable management to pick up warning signals before it is too late, recognizes wicked problems for what they are, sees the connections between wicked problems in larger messes, knows how to scope out and bound wicked problems, and understands how the proper handling of a crisis depends on the formulation of the (wicked) problem.  Crisis management capability also helps organizations to strengthen the quality control of their products and processes, which in turn has a positive effect on their (long-term) profitability.

Interdisciplinarity        Crisis management capability also understands that no single discipline or expertise can ‘solve’ the wicked problems or messes thrown at it. Every discipline has its own biases and blind spots that require another discipline or expertise to bring it to light. This follows from the four principles of deception-perception that were formulated by Churchman in 1968. It also implies that we need an open, learning attitude as opposed to thinking that our own expertise is more than enough to come up with the right answers (yes, within the bounds of your own discipline, but no, not beyond them). Learning is the cunning way of the systems approach and other, similar methods (often based on the systems approach or a weak, narrow version of it) to handle the problem of non-separability, to address the problematic situation ‘as a whole’.

Education     Critical thinking and interdisciplinarity are two topics that have been high on wish lists of education reform in the West, but it seems decision-makers are unaware of the tools or methods that could help implementing them in actual curricula. Churchman’s systems approach, Mitroff’s crisis management concepts, and Checkland’s soft systems approach are just a few examples of the methodologies that have been around for decades, used in practice, and reviewed extensively by peers in all continents. It is time that secondary and tertiary education around the world take wicked problems and methods to address them seriously, because “the membership in the class of non- wicked problems is restricted to the arena of play: nursery school, academia and the like” (Churchman 1967).


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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