Systems thinking approaches

Midgley’s three-way classification

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 23/10/2018 11:24


Gerald Midgley (2000) presented three classes of systems thinking approach as an evolutionary sequence.

This paper challenges Midgley’s classification and notion of critical systems thinking as a major advance.


Midgely’s three-way classification of system thinking approaches. 1

The deep schism in systems thinking. 4

Afterthoughts. 5


Midgely’s three-way classification of system thinking approaches

Social systems thinkers like to classify systems: e.g. into organisms, animal societies and machines.

They also like to classify approaches to thinking about systems and solving problems.

Midgley wrote of three phases of inquiry, which brought with it a new set of methods.

His reference dates run suspiciously neatly in sequence from class 1 through class 2 to class 3.

Class 1: “Hard” systems thinking approaches

Midgely wrote that hard systems thinking focused on solving concrete ‘problems’ where there was perceived “unity of purpose”.

He listed these so-called “hard” systems thinking approaches.

1956 General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy)

1956 Classical (classical) cybernetics (Ashby)

1957 Operations research (Churchman et al.)

1962 Systems engineering (Hall)

1963 Socio-technical systems (Trist et al.)

1965 RAND-systems analysis (Optner)

1971-72 System Dynamics (Forrester; Meadows et al.)


Read Some system thinkers and their ideas for more on von Bertalanffy and Ashby.

The fact is that approaches above are used where there the purpose of the system is not agreed.

Class 2: “Soft” systems thinking approaches

Midgely wrote that soft systems thinking began by taking a wider perspective on people and their perspectives.

And focused on problems where the purpose of the system is not agreed.

He listed these so-called “soft” systems thinking approaches

1971 Inquiring systems design (Churchman).

1972 Second order cybernetics (Bateson)

1972 Soft systems methodology (Checkland)

1981 Interactive management (Ackoff)

1981 Strategic assumption surface testing (Mason and Mitroff)

1988 Cognitive mapping for strategic options development and analysis (Eden)


Read Checkland and Soft Systems for more on Ackoff and Checkland.

Checkland observed the distinction between hard and soft system approaches is slippery.

The distinction between hard and soft systems is also questionable.

By contrast, the distinction (below) between classical and second-order cybernetics is fundamental.

Class 3: “Critical” systems thinking approaches

The word “critical” implies a dialectic, a logical investigation or discussion of the truth of propositions.

This was a feature of Hegelian philosophy, and 19th century Marxism, which tends to promote discussion over evidence.

Critical theory emerged from the Frankfurt school of sociology, which came to prominence in the 1930s.


Midgley presented critical systems thinking as the latest development in a historical progression

He listed these “critical” systems thinking approaches.

1983 Critical system heuristics (Ulrich)

1990 System of systems methodologies (Jackson)

1990 Liberating systems theory (Flood)

1991 Interpretive systemology (Fuenmayor)

1991 Total systems intervention (Flood and Jackson)

2000 Systemic intervention (Midgley).


Again, Midgely’s reference dates run suspiciously neatly in sequence from class 1 through class 2 to class 3.

Is it meaningful or useful to regard class 3 as an evolution of class 2? Or class 2 as an evolution of class 1?

Does critical systems thinking really bring new methods, essential to the task, that could not be seen in earlier approaches?


A logical investigation?

Ulrich (1983) might have been thinking of critical theory when he added the word “critical” to “systems thinking”.

He defined three heuristics of the approach.


·         Making sense of the situation: understanding assumptions and appreciating the bigger picture

·         Unfolding multiple perspectives: promoting mutual understanding.

·         Promoting reflective practice: analysing situations – and changing them.


OK, but all systems engineering methods start with understanding the context and motivations.

They stress the importance of stakeholder management and viewpoints.

Even a architecture framework like TOGAF recommends defining views and value propositions for each stakeholder group.

And it recommends analysing the current situation and considering changes.

So what is new?


A system transformation framework?

Midgley presented critical system thinking approaches as a post 1980 development of hard/soft systems thinking approaches.

The terms “total” and “systemic” (in the book titles he listed) imply these approaches lead to a root and branch transformation.

The result, if not a revolution, is a major generational change from a current state of being to a new state of being.


OK, but a “hard systems” approach like TOGAF is a transformation framework designed to help people.

1.      model a current system (N): analysing, discussing and criticising it, envisaging changes.

2.      model a target system (N+1): discussing, reviewing and agreeing it.

3.      plan the change from system N to system N+1.

4.      change system N to system N+1.


Of course, formalising a systems thinking approach involves documenting mental models for discussion and agreement with others.

The approach should recommend the kinds of model you can or should document.

And it should recommend techniques such as stakeholder management and risk management.

You can recognise all the ideas above in both hard and soft systems thinking approaches.

So what is new?


System encapsulation?

One reader has suggested encapsulation of systems is a feature of critical systems thinking.

Yet agreeing the boundary of a system (expanding it, contracting it, or shifting it) has always been a feature of general system theory.

So what is new?


An advanced approach?

Of course gurus like to present their preferred approach as the latest development in a historical progression.

That doesn’t mean their approach evolved from past ones, or applies the core ideas of general system theory.

Read Marxism and System Theory for a challenge to the notion of inexorable progression.


A unified approach?

It is proposed that critical systems thinking unifies different systems approaches, and advises managers how best to use them.

But this is to gloss over the fact that there is a deep schism in systems thinking.

The deep schism in systems thinking

A major schism in systems thinking arose around 1970.

Some system thinkers and their ideas contains different classification of system thinkers and their ideas.

The first category is classical cybernetics – which is about system state change by regulation

In introducing cybernetics, Ashby insisted we distinguish two kinds of system change:

·         System state change by regulation: regulating the values of defined state variables to stay within a desired range.

·         System mutation by re-organization: changing the state variables, or the rules that update variable values.


Second-order cybernetics relates to system mutation by re-organization

It is about self-organising systems; it is the recursive application of cybernetics to itself.

It was developed between approximately 1968 and 1975 by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster and others.

It allows systems actors to be system thinkers, who re-organise themselves.

So, actors can not only play roles in a system, but also observe and change the roles, rules and state variables of that system.


Second-order cyberneticians speak of social groups and businesses as complex adaptive systems.

IBM is certainly a complex, adaptive, self-organising entity.

But IBM realises countless describable and testable systems.


Second order cybernetics introduced a fundamental confusion into systems thinking.

It confuses a business entity with the many systems it realises.

Of course human flexibility is essential to all businesses.

People are much more than business system components.

They play roles in business systems, but also act independently of those systems.

In a "work to rule" they choose to do nothing but play roles in defined systems.

They refuse to use the many other abilities the business entity requires of human beings they employ.


One of those abilities is to stand back from their role in a system and propose changes to it.

But if IBM’s roles and rules are continually modified by its actors, then there is no describable or testable system.

How to extend classical system theory to embrace second-order cybernetics?

The answer is given in the conclusions below.


If we say IBM’s roles and rules are continually modified by its actors, then there is no describable or testable system.

How to extend classical system theory to embrace second-order cybernetics?


Differentiating social groups, systems and cells

To call every problem, situation, society or social group “a system” is unhelpful.

We can distinguish social groups from the systems they realise.


A social group (or social entity)

A social system

a set of actors who perform activities they choose.

a set of activities performed by actors.

a continually evolving entity.

a set of roles and rules described and changed under change control.

a concrete entity in the real world.

only that part of a real world entity that conforms to a system description.


To social groups and social systems, one may add social cells.

A social cell is a social group in which actors find that realising the roles and rules of a particular social system is so attractive they resist any change to it.


Restoring the system concept to second order cybernetics

How to extend classical system theory to embrace second-order cybernetics?

The answer is to:

·         Distinguish a social group (composed of actors) from the many social systems it can realise.

·         Distinguish meta systems from operational systems.

·         Allow actors to switch between roles as rule followers in operational systems and rule definers in meta systems.


The trouble is, if the roles and rules of a system are continually modified, there is no describable or testable system.

How to maintain the integrity of the system concept?

The answer is to insist that actors make incremental (generation-by-generation) rather than continual changes to system roles and rules.


Thus, it is the social group (not the social system) that has self-organizing dynamics.

Read System Stability and Change for more on separating the meta system from the system


These afterthoughts are only that – not essential to this paper.

Every enterprise employs actors who interact, directly or indirectly.

The enterprise may well be called a social entity, but is it also a “system”?

The answer depends on what kind of systems thinker you are.


Process and target-oriented management

The table below contrasts two management styles which correspond to this schism in cybernetics.



Process-oriented management

Target-oriented management

Processes are

Behaviors are

People are given



tightly constrained

processes to follow

call centre people given scripts


loosely constrained

targets only

door-to-door sales people given targets


Classical cybernetics

Second order cybernetics.


Hard and soft systems thinking approaches usually involve modelling roles and processes.

And intervening to change some of those roles and processes.


By contrast, in an extreme version of target-oriented management, you ask a group of people to meet some goals by doing whatever they choose.

You rely on the individuals’ abilities to interpret your direction and choose behaviors that lead to the goals you set.

If the nature and nurture-given abilities of the actors are up to it, they may succeed better than you expected.


Most people management involves something of both process and target-oriented approaches..

The question here is not which is better or worse, more or less advanced, it is whether it target-oriented management is well-called “systems thinking”.

There is a social entity, but is there a social system?


In classical system theory, a group of actors only form a system where, when and in so far as they agree some roles and rules and follow them for a while.

If the actors do agree some roles and rules, the system they describe is probably a simple one.

Whatever else they do – that is ad hoc, irregular, unrepeated, disorderly - is not systematic or part of that system.



System thinking or situation thinking?

System thinking can be seen as a kit bag of ideas and techniques for “situation thinking”.

It may lead to the description, testing and implementation of a new of changed system, or it might not.


From the 1970s onwards, systems thinkers have claimed institutions are in crisis, and something must be done.

Surely, institutions will always have problems, and system thinking will never provide a final answer to those problems.

It will always be necessary to intervene now and then.

Where an intervention involves describing regular behaviors, realizing them and testing the outcomes, it is an application of classical system theory.

But consultants may make interventions of others kinds – with little or nothing by way of process definition or testing of outcomes.

It isn’t always clear that the situation addressed is a “system” in any sense beyond being a named entity - a named organization or named group of actors.


If every problem or situation is called a “system”, then the word system tells us little or nothing.

A problem/situation might be a system, or it might not; a solution might be a system, or it might not.


More on the schism

Some modern system thinking is about defining purposes, goals or targets and motivating people.

You may assemble some people and motivate them to work towards given goals, paying little or no attention to how they do the work.

That group is a certainly a social entity, and perhaps a successful one, but it is not a system in the sense Ashby would recognise.


The fact is: the “system” in second-order cybernetics is radically different from the “system” in classical cybernetics.

There is a schismatic distinction between.

·         A social system - in which actors realise roles and rules - describable in accord with classical cybernetics.

·         A social entity - in which actors choose their own behaviors to reach agreed goals - as in second order cybernetics.


In classical cybernetics, a system is describable as a set of roles, rules and regular behaviors.

If you change the roles and rules, then you change any concrete system that realises that system description.


In second order cybernetics, a system is a social entity - a named entity or organization – in which actors are engaged.

The actors may change the roles and rules of the entity they are engaged in (perhaps even change its aims).

As long the system name remains the same, people speak of it as same system, though its roles, rules and behaviors may be very different.


Social entity thinking tends departs from general system theory in one or more of the ways listed below.

General system theory

Not general system theory

General to all domains of knowledge

Specific to situations in which humans interact

About roles, rules and regular behaviors

About individual actors (purposeful people)

About systems at the base level of interest

About meta systems that define and change roles and rules

About describing testable systems

About solving any problem in any consensual way


Promoting a “participative democracy”


These differences are further explored in related papers at

The suggestion here is that social systems thinkers and enterprise architects can benefit from gaining a deeper understanding of general system theory, and respecting it more than they do.

System theory is good to know, good for the soul, and practically useful in all kinds of thinking about systems.


Of course, seeing a business as a social entity is important; and is a primary responsibility of business managers.

Management consultants continually generate approaches to identifying problems in social entities and solving them.

The question here is whether classifying all these approaches as varieties of "systems thinking” has a useful meaning.

If every problem or situation is a system, if every entity we name or point to is a system, then the term “system” is meaningless.


This table maps the 3-way system thinking classification we started with to the 2-way schism discussed in this paper

3-way classification


4-way classification

2-way classification

Class 1 hard systems thinking

Systems in which actors perform regular behaviors

General Systems Thinking

General System Theory and

Classical cybernetics

Class 2 soft systems thinking

Systems in which human actors perform regular behaviors

Social System Thinking

Named organizations in which humans determine their behaviors

Social Entity Thinking

Second order cybernetics and

Management Consulting

Class 3 Critical system thinking

Problematic situations

Situation Thinking


On science and scientism

Classical cybernetics is scientific in so far as its deals with behaviors that are regular, or deterministic, or reproducible.

Actual (empirical) performances of behaviors can be tested for conformance to abstract (theoretical) descriptions of those behaviors.

As, for example, the actual orbits of planets are tested for conformance to astronomers’ descriptions of those orbits.


Evidence-based medicine is scientific; a medicine man (or shaman) is scientistic.

Some social systems thinking ideas are scientistic, meaning there is little or no evidence to verify or falsify them.

It easy to find problems in human organizations, more difficult to propose viable changes, and more difficult again to make them.

And then sometimes even more difficult again to prove whether the change was for the better or not.


A new system classification?

Here is the latest of several system classifications I have toyed with.

I don’t mean to present this as a scale of complexity, or a progression of any kind.

System kind

Actors relationship to scripts


Strong or Involuntary

Actors/parts use no script


Solar system


Cuckoo Clock

Actors/parts rigidly follow scripts


Biological organism


Software system

Weak or Voluntary

Actors/parts interpret scripts


Orchestra, Church

Actors/parts script their own roles


Marriage, Small business



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