A synthesis of systems, critical and design thinking

Better be armed to the teeth. It’s a mess, out there!

It occurred to me last week that systems thinking, critical thinking and design thinking are just aspects of the same thing, which is humans trying to gain control over the process of designing better ways to make the world more accommodating to their desires. Over the past weeks (and years) I produced a number of concept maps that could be helpful in making a final synthesis that seems to have been lacking so far, except perhaps in a tacit or subconscious form. The hominids that were our ancestors started doing this three to five million years ago, and we are the end result of these efforts. I am not claiming that below synthesis is perfect. I will be happy if it can be understood and somehow resonates with the reader’s own thinking experiences. Note of warning: the different thinking methods had to be strongly simplified in order to fit in a comprehensible framework (see concept map).

Systems      The central part of below concept map contains the iceberg metaphor, in which systems are considered to be made up of structures that enable events to form patterns in the pursuit of goals. The design, change or understanding of such structures requires mental modelling. To the extent that this is conscious we can exercise some control over it. It is this conscious modelling that turns systems, both man-made and natural, into human systems and therefore social systems, since humans have social primate ancestors, many of them quite clever, too. My guess is that socialness triggered human evolution, not bipedalism or thumb opposition.

Purpose    The conceptual or conscious modelling of systems and their goals is one thing, recasting and changing them to serve a human purpose quite another. The only thing that can redefine system goals as purposive is ‘the ideal’, which itself is shaped by desiderata, which are the engines of human change efforts in the unfolding world of events. (See also my post on the design of inductive inquiry.)

Design       … is a compound of rational, ideal, and pragmatic inquiry. It involves ‘the ideal’, ‘the real’ and ‘the true’ (see e.g. previous post on design judgment). Designs are conceptualized by humans in the role of planners. Every design is an intervention of sorts (a set of ‘actions’) seeking a transformation of sorts. In real-life situations there is no limit to the number of possibilities to do that. There is a need for inquiry and judgment to identify the best imaginable possibility.

Decision-maker      … is another human role. The person playing the role of planner can be the same as the one playing the role of decision-maker or a different person. If a particular intervention design is to the liking of the ‘decision-maker’, he or she may approve of its implementation. Actual implementation will also depend on how it affects the other responsibilities of the ‘decision-maker’. To this end, ‘decision-makers’ use measures of performance of multiple systems addressing multiple situations or ‘messes’.

Messes    … is the short, general term I use to connote ‘problem situations’, ‘problématiques’, ‘wicked problems’, ‘ill-structured problems’ etcetera. A mess, in Russ Ackoff’s words, is a system of problems. So, in a sense, systems thinking is an approach which seeks to address systems problems systemically. In a fundamental way, any decision-makers life is a ‘total mess’, which he or she tries to make sense of by trying to make ‘the real’ approximate ‘the ideal’. In this it must be realized that ‘the ideal’ is itself also an approximation, so often the accommodation goes both ways. The point is that ‘we have [..] come to realize that no problem ever exists in complete isolation’ and the same applies to interventions. I made the ‘messes’ concept green just like the three role concepts of Churchman’s systems approach, because the ‘wicked problem’ concept was described by one Churchman’s associates, Horst Rittel. The link between the two has been explored in Wicked Solutions.

Truth      … could be considered an extreme form of belief. Alternatively, belief is an approximation of truth, ‘the true’. Truth is a concept, an idea, a construct. It does not exist. What exists is reality, ‘the real’. As approximations, beliefs are not relative to each other, but relative to the real. Humans use inquiring systems to investigate ‘the real’ in order to form beliefs. One of these systems is the scientific method. Science is particularly good at finding facts, or elements of ‘the true’, in controlled versions of ‘the real’. These separate or loose facts can be joined to form models or representations of ‘the real’. Science is doing a great job. It gives us a high level of assurance. Where would we be without it? But also: Where does it leave us?

Values     The purpose of systems design is to increase the value of systems provided to clients, customers, beneficiaries, stakeholders etcetera. Sometimes the client role is played by the same person as the one playing the planner or designer role. It is certainly true that clients not only enjoy the value, but often also evaluate it, which turns them into some kind of decision-maker. In different roles we have different perspectives, perceiving actions in systems in different ways. There is no such thing as a perfect perspective, each one has its own deceptions. By combining and debating them we can arrive at a better overall view. That’s the essence of participation, although there may be an element of empowerment as well.

Open-mindedness      Creativeness, innovation, and serendipity are important aspects of systems design. This means we must make use of thinking methods that create the conditions for their occurrence. In the most general sense this means we need thinking methods that heed the principles of active open-mindedness. We must actively search for alternative possibilities and for evidence that may strengthen one over the other. Or for counterevidence, which is one of the hallmarks of the scientific method. Hence the emphasis of Popper on falsifiability.

Uncertainty      In real-life problematic situations scientific certainty (for what it is worth in this age of paradigm shifts) is not normally available. We have to deal with uncertainty. A common example of a thinking method in situations of uncertainty is legal argumentation. The bottom line is ‘reasonable doubt’. Beyond it, certainty is considered sufficient for passing a judgment. The legal system, which is now almost universal, evolved in the West in the 12th century AD on the basis of Roman law as an alternative to trail by ordeal. Philosophy and legal thinking are two classical approaches to the design of thinking methods. We could add military strategy (e.g. here or here).

Biases and heuristics      Over the past forty or fifty years cognitive psychology has been able to develop precise descriptive models of how people actually think and decide about problems. This has resulted in some great books on critical thinking (Halpern, 2014, Thought and Knowledge) and decision-making (Baron, 2008, Thinking and Deciding). Numerous biases in our thinking have been quantified and heuristics (i.e. thinking tools to help us think and decide; some are not helpful at all) have been identified. Studying these and similar books help raise the awareness of our proneness to many, many thinking errors. The dialectical systems approach of Churchman does the same for systems thinking. Interestingly, systems thinking does not seem to be often considered in the critical thinking literature, a critical gap I would say. What we need are heuristics such as Churchman’s to help us avoid the many thinking traps and biases (anchoring, myside bias etc.), including the wrong beliefs and assumptions, e.g. about the nature of the problems we are dealing with. We live in a systems age and should be suitably armed to the teeth for survival. It’s a mess, out there!

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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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One Response to A synthesis of systems, critical and design thinking

  1. antlerboy - Benjamin P Taylor says:

    Reblogged this on Systems Community of Inquiry.

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