The three ways in which we think about systems


Professor Peter Checkland has written a number of books about systems, and in 1981 published Systems Thinking, Systems Practice.

As one of the commentators on Amazon writes, the book elegantly describes the history of thought that led from early Greek logic displacing the religious and faith based approaches through to stunningly successful scientific reductionism and then to systems thinking.

The modern world is so much a result of reductive thinking – of breaking things into parts and understanding how they work – that we sometimes think that’s the only way to look at things.

The systems approach captures the idea of emergence – the fact that some things cannot be explained just by looking at its components – the idea that the whole is more – is something other – than the sum of its parts.

Many of us want to know the detail – how did something happen – what did someone else do, so that we can replicate or copy those tactics and apply them in our own lives and situations.

This works sometimes, and doesn’t at other times. Human beings and the way we function cannot be reduced to formulas.

If anything, human societies are constantly changing how we act in response to what we learn about what happens when we act the way we do.

So, when it comes to systems, Checkland suggests that there are three ways we tend to approach them.

First, a system could be looked at as a black box – with inputs, outputs and feedback. We look at what comes out of the box and adjust the inputs to get what we want.

This approach is mechanistic and assumes that the same input will always give the same output all else being equal.

Which it rarely is.

A stable system, however, that operates within a reasonable range, will give a set of outputs that are more or less regular, and we could use statistical methods to then figure out what might come out of the system.

Other people want to look inside the system, to figure out how it works.

That’s another approach – more reductionist – as we look at the workings of the system in detail and see what happens.

It’s like dissection – we can keep going through organs, cells, all the way down to atoms.

So, given that we can look at systems from the outside, or try to look inside them, Checkland writes that we tend to adopt three approaches.

The natural historian looks at the system and describes it. This is like an academic’s approach to social studies – we have no interest in changing what is there but we do want to try and capture what is happening.

A manager tries to organise things so that the system works well. This involves moving bits around and trying different approaches.

A designer tries to come up with a new system or modify an existing system so it does something better or differently.

All three look at the same system, but from different points of view. And this means that they have to work hard to understand what the other is doing.

A designer wants to change things around, and could be impatient with a manager that wants to do the most with what is there.

And the natural historian doesn’t want things to change, but does want to know what is going on.

The point is that we need all three – we can’t manage what we can’t describe, and we can’t design something when we don’t understand what we are trying to achieve.

Just like the starting point, trying to break things down into roles and pieces just doesn’t help when we’re trying to understand the entirety of something.

We’re trying to get at the whole thing – and that is what it means to take a holistic approach.

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