Systems thinking approaches

Proposing a different way of thinking about system thinking

Copyright 2017 Graham Berrisford. One of about 300 papers at Last updated 21/11/2018 20:15


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

This paper challenges both this classification and the notion of critical systems thinking as a major advance.

It proposes a different way of thinking about systems thinking.


Midgely’s classification of approaches. 1

Design thinking. 5

Second order cybernetics. 5

Conclusions and remarks. 6

Further thoughts. 8


Midgely’s classification of 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

1)      Hard systems thinking approaches

2)      Soft systems thinking approaches

3)      Critical system thinking approaches


He presents each class as an advance on the previous class, bringing a new set of methods.

In my view, the classification scheme is misleading, for reasons to be explained.

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 the following approaches under this heading.

1956 General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy)

1956 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.)


Contrary to Midgely’s supposition, hard system approaches are used where the purposes of the system are not agreed.

Even mechanical engineers are taught identify stakeholders and their different perspectives of what a system is for.


Willard Gibbs (1839 – 1903) was a scientist, instrumental in the development of chemistry into a science

He defined a system as “a portion of the ... universe which we choose to separate in thought from the rest of the universe."


But if everything (every describable entity) is a system, then the term system has no particular meaning.

Let us call a portion of the universe of interest an “entity”

In introducing cybernetics, Ashby said a system is an abstraction from the complexity of a real world entity.

And that a system is characterised by exhibiting regular or repeatable behaviors.


Abstract system

A set of roles and rules.

Concrete entity

Actors playing the roles and acting according to the rules


One abstract system (e.g. the rules of tennis) may be realised many times (in many concrete tennis matches).

One entity in the world (e.g. a pair of tennis players) may realise many systems (many tennis matches and many games of chess).


Ashby distinguished two kinds of system change:

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

·        System mutation: e.g. re-organizing the system, changing the state variables, or the rules that update them.

We’ll return to system mutation later.


In introducing system dynamics, Meadows made much the same points as Ashby.

Today, akin to system dynamics, there are agent-based approaches to the analysis of systems.


Read Some system thinkers and their ideas for more on ideas used in hard system approaches.

Class 2: “Soft” systems thinking approaches

Midgely wrote that soft systems thinking approaches take wider perspective of people and their perspectives.

And focus on problems where the purposes of the system are not agreed.

He listed the following approaches under this heading.

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).


People do casually point to an entity (or aggregate of entities) in the world and call it a system.

But soft system thinkers see entities, or at least businesses and other social entities, differently.

Ackoff wrote that different observers of the same concrete reality may see it as different systems.

Checkland wrote that a system is a perspective of a reality or “Weltenshauung”.


Hmm... that is exactly what Ashby said about hard systems.

So, the distinction between hard and soft systems is questionable.

And there are different ideas of what a soft system is; read Soft Systems for several interpretations.


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

Most of the ideas in his methodology have counterparts in approaches used in designing deterministic human and computer activity systems


The main difficulty here is that much soft systems thinking discussion confuses two concepts: social network and social system.

More on this later.

Class 3: “Critical” systems thinking approaches

The word “critical” implies what some call a dialectic.

That is, a logical investigation or discussion of the truth of propositions.

In the 19th century, this was a feature of Hegel’s philosophy and Marxism (which tends to promote dialectic 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 the following approaches under this heading.

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).


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, which is an evolution of class 1?

Does critical systems thinking really bring new methods 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 that could be a description of Checkland’s soft system methodology

And “hard” systems engineering methods start also with understanding the context and motivations.

Using an architecture framework like TOGAF for system engineering, people are expected to

·        Look at the big picture

·        Identify stakeholders, their concerns and viewpoints.

·        Define views and value propositions for each stakeholder group.

·        Analyse the current situation and considering changes.


So what is in critical but not hard systems thinking?


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 in critical but not hard systems thinking?


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 in critical but not hard systems thinking?


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.

So what is in critical but not hard systems thinking?


A unified approach?

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

But it is questionable how comprehensive any unification could be.

Because there is a deep schism in systems thinking.

Design thinking

Before we get to the schism in systems thinking, it is worth mentioning another school of thinking.

Design thinking embodies principles described by Herbert Simon in “The Sciences of the Artificial” in 1969.

Designers spend a lot of time up front deciding the basic, fundamental (root) issue that needs to be addressed.

They don't search for a solution until they have determined the real problem.

They consider a range of potential solutions before settling on one.


The Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford promotes a design thinking approach with five phases.

·        Empathise – with your users

·        Define – your users’ needs, their problem, and your insights

·        Ideate – by challenging assumptions and creating ideas for innovative solutions

·        Prototype – to start creating solutions

·        Test – solutions


However, the design process steps can occur in parallel and be repeated (aren't strictly sequential)

And design thinking is less an approach than a label for a collection of ideas such as.

·        Capture the inspiration, the vision.

·        Take a human-centric view of business roles and processes.

·        Manage stakeholders and value propositions.

·        Treat all design as re-design, as a baseline to target transformation.

·        Make ideas tangible to facilitate communication.

·        Use visual languages, sketch diagrams and technical drawings to show abstract requirements may be met by concrete systems.

·        Double loop learning.


All these ideas have long and widely been used in conventional (hard and soft) system design methods.

The last idea is of particular interest here.


Remember the distinction made by W Ross Ashby in 1956 between system state change and system mutation?

Single loop learning is the everyday response to some condition.

E.g. A thermostat detects a room temperature less than the selected temperature, turns on the heating, and keeps it on till the room temperature equals the selected temperature.

By contrast, double loop learning analyses why the system exists, and considers ways to change it.

E.g. Why is the room heated at all? What is the best way to heat it? Does it need better insulation?

Second order cybernetics

Ideas found in soft systems approaches are found in hard system approaches.

Ideas found in critical systems approaches are found in hard system approaches.

Ideas found in design thinking are found in hard system approaches.


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 between classical and second-order cybernetics is fundamental.


Remember the distinction made by W Ross Ashby in 1956 between system state change and system mutation?

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

It was developed around 1970 by Margaret Mead, Heinz von Foerster and others.

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

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

It allows actors in a system to study the system and change it.

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

Complex adaptive systems?

Some speak of social groups and businesses as complex adaptive systems.

Often, they speak with no agreed measure of complexity or adaptability.

And continual adaptation undermines the concept of a system.


Some speak of complex systems versus complicated systems.

But this is to confuse social networks with social systems.

Each can be simple or complicated/complex in its own way.

Conclusions and remarks

A "situation" or "system" is not a “problem” per se; it is only a problem to an observer.

A problem is a measure of a system’s quality (cost, benefit, speed, etc.) that an observer does not find satisfactory.


It is important to distinguish between changing a social system and changing the social network that realises the system.

If the problem lies in the system’s structure and/or behaviors, then the system might be changed.

If the problem lies in the actors’ competencies and/or motivations, then without changing the system, the actors might be retrained, motivated or replaced.


There is plenty of advice on how to describe system structures and behaviors, and their qualities.

However, much systems thinking discussion has conflated two or more of the following four ideas.

·        People doing their own thing.

·        People communicating with other people.

·        People playing roles in systems.

·        People playing roles in meta systems that administer and manage those systems.


The next paper, Social networks versus social systems, explores the distinction between:

·        A social group or network in which people communicate

·        A social system in which people realise role and rules.


This table distinguishes three concepts.


Abstract social system



Concrete social system

Actors playing roles

Activities conforming to rules.

Social network

Actors who communicate

Activities chosen by the actors


In classical cybernetics, a social network can realise a concrete social system.

But it only does this in so far as its concrete actors follow the roles and rules in an abstract social system.

When actors act in ad hoc, irregular or disorderly ways, they act outside of that system.

And if they follow a different set of roles and rules (either in parallel or at another time) then the same social network realises a different system.


By contrast, in second order cybernetics, the actors in a social network can define the system they act in.

The actors may radically change the roles and rules of a system are engaged in - perhaps even change its aims.

For how to resolve confusion created by second order cybernetics, read Social networks versus social systems.


Reshaping Midgely’s classification

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

Management consultants continually generate approaches to identifying problems in social networks 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 expresses the schism between two kinds of “system thinking”.


General system theory

Social network thinking

Classical cybernetics

Second order cybernetics

General to all domains of knowledge

Specific to situations in which humans interact

About roles, rules and regular behaviors

About individual actors who are purposeful people

About describing testable systems

About solving a social or business problem in a consensual way


Promoting a “participative democracy”


This table reshapes Midgely’s 3-way classification into a 4-way classification.


A 4-way thinking classification


Midgely’s classification

General Systems Thinking

A network of actors performing regular behaviors

Class 1 hard systems thinking

Classical cybernetics

Social System Thinking

A network of human actors performing regular behaviors

Class 2 soft systems thinking

Social Network Thinking

A network of human actors who choose their behaviors

Class 2 soft systems thinking

Second order cybernetics

Situation Thinking

Problematic situations

Class 3 Critical system thinking


A 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.

General system theory remains good to know, good for the soul, and practically useful thinking about what is happening in social networks.

Further thoughts

Every enterprise employs actors who interact, directly or indirectly.

An enterprise is a social network that can realise many systems – even conflicting ones.


Activity-oriented versus aim-oriented approaches

Some approaches focus on defining aims (purposes, goals or targets) and motivating a group of people to meet them.

You may do this with little or even no attention to defining how those people act, with few if any roles and rules.

The table below contrasts two management styles which correspond to the schism in systems thinking



Activity-oriented management

Aim-oriented management

Processes are



Activities are

tightly constrained by rules

loosely or not at all constrained by rules

People are given

roles and rules follow

targets only


call centre operators

door-to-door sales people


Classical cybernetics

Second order cybernetics


At the extreme, aim-oriented management means simply asking a group of people to meet some goals by doing whatever they choose.

You rely on the individuals’ abilities to interpret your directions and choose behaviors that lead to the given aims

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”.

In soft systems thinking, there is a social entity, a social network, but is there a social system?


Scientific system thinking versus scientistic situation thinking

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

Actual (empirical) performances of behaviors are 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.


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

Some approaches are scientistic, meaning there is little or no evidence to verify or falsify them.


It easy to find problems in human organizations.

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.


It is more difficult to propose viable changes, and more difficult again to make those changes.

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.

Even after a change has been made, it can be difficult to prove whether the change was for the better or not.


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

If every problem or situation or social network is called a “system”, then the word system adds nothing to our understanding.

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

The solution might be the description, testing and implementation of a new of changed system, or it might not.


A new system classification?

The table below is one 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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