A basic conceptual framework for systems learning

Inter-relationships, boundaries, and perspectives revisited

Last week I was struggling with three systems concepts: inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries (IPB). All I was trying to do was to fill out a so-called IPB table to summarize my understanding of the stages in a systemic process as described in Wicked Solutions. A free example of such a table in Spanish can be seen here (English versions are available here, here and here). In my case boundary ideas cluttered my perspectives column, while processes intruded in my boundary column. Somehow I failed to distinguish clearly between one concept and the other. So I went back to the drawing board (in my case concept mapping) to see if I could clarify my understanding. In the process I came up with a novel basic conceptual framework for systems learning generally and the systems approach, specifically. The main source of inspiration has been Wicked Solutions.

Inter-relationships, boundaries, perspectives      … are the three key concepts that a group of systems and evaluation experts after three days of deliberation had come up with to enable systemic evaluation without evaluators having to adopt, accommodate and learn specific systems methods. The underlying reason was that the pathway of evaluators learning all the necessary systems methods and methodologies had been demonstrated to be impossible. The meeting took place in Berkeley in the mid-naughties (2004 or 2006, I believe), i.e. very near to where C. West Churchman did most of his work (6th floor of the Space Sciences Laboratory). It had been sponsored by the Kellogg Foundation, because it had recognized that wicked (i.e. systemic) problems hampered much of their work on programs for optimal child development. The three concepts have made it into Kellogg’s 2017 evaluation manual, be it only just. Bob Williams was one of the experts present and he has been promoting the three concepts vigorously ever since (see here). Last week, in one of my efforts to better understand how this might work in practice, I gave the three key concepts centre stage in a novel conceptual framework, be it in a slightly different order: perspectives, boundary choices, interactions.

The conceptual framework       … in one sentence: perspectives help explore boundary choices that may transform the interactions, patterns and processes of a problematic situation to enable stakeholders to better pursue their interests. These situations or problematiques typically do not have clear boundaries. Hence the need for a formal or informal (or even partly conscious) boundary debate, whether individually, in teams or in parliaments. In their potential sense, boundary choices are systemic planning options. Planning is what stakeholders do to pursue their interests. In any complex, systemic human problem situation different stakeholders pursue different interests. All life is problem solving (Popper, 1994). Humans continually pursue their interests, which means that this conceptual framework is about human behaviour in a very fundamental and generic way. Human values, missions, aspirations, and motivations give meaning to stakeholder interests and affect their perspectives. These perspectives determine how people perceive reality. This reality is often in the form of wicked problems. The term wicked problems was coined by Horst Rittel in the context of inner city problems, probably in mid-1967, but it is widely applicable to human problem situations generally (i.e. all life). Many people don’t know what wicked problems are, yet they deal with them their whole life. Wicked problems need taming. This requires understanding. But one’s understanding depends on one’s perspective. Single perspectives are deceptive when dealing with “creatures as complexly motivated as ourselves” (Bateson, 1954). Multiple framings (two to four one- or two-word statements of what wicked problems may be about, see Williams & Van ’t Hof, 2014) must be agreed upon for guiding the group exploration (i.e. boundary debate) of the problem and resolution space. The boundary debate may be structured to become a full-blown boundary critique using C. West Churchman’s dialectical heuristic (Churchman, 1968-1979) or its simplified derivative, Werner Ulrich’s critical heuristic. In both these heuristics, the main stakeholders of a wicked problem are considered through the lens of role categories (e.g. beneficiary/client, decision-maker, planner/expert, systems philosopher/witness, see also Harold Nelson, 2003). Each role category is particularly concerned with two additional categories, but there are many linkages among the twelve heuristic categories in all (see e.g. here). Some of these linkages follow general patterns, others are specific to the wicked problem at hand. The twelve categorical ‘lenses’ serve to seek assurances, or the lack thereof, in existing or new plans dealing with wicked problems. With some adaptations, the same heuristic can also be used for evaluation purposes (see e.g. Bob Williams, 2016, English 5$, free Spanish).

Metacommunication by framing      Framing is a powerful tool that is often (mis-)used in politics and journalism. Gregory Bateson (1954) demonstrated that no communicative move, verbal or nonverbal, could be understood without reference to a metacommunicative message, or metamessage, about what is going on (Tannen, 1993). As an example of singular framing Bateson (1972) quotes Keynes (1919) who witnessed how the allied prime ministers Clemenceau and Lloyd George took POTUS 28 Woodrow Wilson to war cemeteries “to make him ashamed of not hating the Germans.” The shame was the metamessage. It coerced Wilson, who had just suffered multiple strokes, into agreeing to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles, which, according to many, has been one of the main causes of World War II, killing 70-80 million people. Clearly, singular framing can be very deceptive. In that sense, multiple framing follows directly from Churchman’s principles of deception-perception. In the Wicked Solutions version of the systems approach multiple framing to create complementary perceptions to demarcate an expanded ‘problem and resolution space’ for innovative group exploration and critique of wicked problem boundaries. Framing is also used to formulate an ideal situation in, say, 5-10 years’ time.  Without that it would be impossible to contrast the ‘is’ perception of the current state of the wicked problem with the ‘ought’ anticipation of its future improvement.

IPB or PBI or IPBI     IPB stands for inter-relationships (or interactions), perspectives, and boundaries. In Wicked Solutions (ebook, paperback, Amazon) Williams & Van ‘t Hof use IPB to communicate the essence of the systems approach. This reflects the fact that very little can be understood about perspectives or boundaries without first having a good idea of the inter-relationships of a complex issue. In this post I changed the order to PBI to explain the purpose and logic of the systems approach: “perspectives help explore boundary choices that may transform the interactions, patterns and processes of a problematic situation to enable stakeholders to better pursue their interests.” The preparatory need for knowledge about the inter-relationships is hidden in the ‘perspectives’ perception of the ‘wicked problem’, which in turn emerges from the complex of interactions, patterns, and processes. In a way this points to the non-linear character of the systems approach: the three concepts are focal points in a process of iteration, leading to ever more clarity in details.

Systemic intervention design        … does not follow in a clear and direct way from the boundary critique, but the boundary insights can be very helpful in a (more) systemic intervention design. Ian Mitroff, one of Churchman’s students and an authority on his work, has come up with various methods of systemic intervention design, including Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST) and Policy Argumentation. I am convinced that SAST (which draws out pivotal assumptions from a group) and Policy Argumentation (which presents the assumptions in a clear argument) can be adapted in a somewhat simpler form to the general methodology of Wicked Solutions. The development and refinement of such a Policy Argumentation of Pivotal Assumptions (or PAPA) could be used by planners in the areas of the wicked problem concerned as a basis for an intervention design that is both professionally acceptable and systemically desirable.

The big picture      … can be seen at the bottom of the concept map. I have distinguished three phases in the systems approach: (1) systems mapping using preliminary heuristics; (2) boundary critique using dialectical heuristics (or critical heuristics); and (3) intervention assessment using systemic evaluation design. Iteration may start when the evaluation indicates that the intervention was less than satisfactory. This multi-scale infinite process of iteration is what we call civilization, especially when the relationships between the role categories can be made to become more harmonious. The preliminary heuristics and systemic evaluation (or research) design use both some adaptation of Churchman’s fundamental heuristic. An intermediate example of Ulrich’s and Churchman’s categorical framework that serves as the basis for their heuristics can be viewed at the end of my post of October 21, 2016. You may also note that some of the light-blue concepts in the concept map of that post correspond with those in the concept map of this post. A future knowledge map will bring that out more clearly.

The systems approach       As mentioned elsewhere in this blog there is not one systems approach, but many. Churchman distinguished five main systems approaches in chapter one (‘Thinking’) of ‘The systems approach’, his seminal book of 1968 and the first of his trilogy. The first four approaches focus on efficiency, science, human values, and anti-planning. The systems approach (the emphasis is Churchman’s) focuses on dialectics and incorporates the other four – to the extent possible, which is, of course, a matter of debate. Churchman has reflected at length about the nature of this debate and the structure (or ‘metastructure’) of the dialectics. Perhaps one could say, the ‘framing’ of the dialectics, or even ‘metaframing’. In his third, 1979 book (pp. 79 ff.), the last of the systems approach trilogy, he describes a 12-category framework (up from an earlier 9-category version in his second, 1971 book, which in turn can be easily traced back to his first, 1968 book in the trilogy). He explains in his trilogy why the framework is necessary, both practically, teleologically and philosophically. The term ‘teleological’ is important, because it is at the root of the 12-category framework design of Churchman’s inquiring system. It points at the goal-oriented quality of all human action. The Churchman heritage, therefore, is this 12-category framework, along with the many examples of how it can be used to gain better insights in the systemic nature of the human problems and the justification (or lack thereof) of human action by seeking assurances. It is the best combination of assurances that justifies an intervention. The dialectical process of inquiry is known as ‘unfolding’, which means the identification of overlapping and conflicting patterns, some assuring others worrying at varying degrees, across the categories. In my concept map I used the term ‘systemization’.

Proof of the pudding        The proof of the pudding is in the eating, not in its price, the recipe, its proliferation, the ingredients, the stove, or its cook’s references or fame. The systems field is vast and Churchman’s 12-category framework is only a small part of it. He is very well cited. Berkeley’s Nobel prize winners used to come to his seminars. Churchman has been cited by Noam Chomsky as the only professor from whom he learned anything. He pioneered both hard and soft systems and as such influenced many scholars and practitioners. He recognized the hiatus in the first and the complexity of the second. He never developed a full methodology, but insisted on the appropriate use of a range of principles. Some of these principles may seem rather theoretic or idealistic, but that may be a case of framing, too. The systems world is also a market place. Many methodologies are gaining the upper hand because they appeal to users or because they work (somehow, somewhat) or because they have a well-structured, step-wise approach or because they are more suited to showing off the consultant’s expertise or because they are easier to teach or because they suit a potential adopter’s biases and worldview better. Things that are not necessarily measures of intrinsic value. It has a track record of over 30 years of use in the form of critical systems heuristics (e.g. Reynolds & Holwell, 2010; Midgley, 2000). The proof of the pudding is in the eating, so Churchman’s dialectical systems approach needs to be tried, before judging it. This is now easier than ever by following the steps in level three of Wicked Solutions, which offers an accessible form (available here, here and here).

In one sentence          Let me try to define Churchman’s dialectical systems approach by expanding a bit on the single sentence I used earlier, all the while reflecting key ideas from this post’s concept map. The dialectical systems approach is “an inquiring system in which multiple perspectives help unfold boundary choices across twelve teleological categories to transform the interactions, patterns and processes of problematic situations in such a way that all stakeholders are in a better, more effective and sustainable position to pursue their interests.” Shorter still, Churchman’s dialectical systems approach is a tool of first and last resort to discover, justify and evaluate what is important to us and to provide clues as to how we best pursue this.


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 https://csl4d.wordpress.com/ or http://www.bobwilliams.co.nz/Systems_Resources.html
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