What makes a systems approach?

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In the last week, I have been part of a great conversation in the LinkedIn STiP alumni group about systems approaches.  It started with a question from Arwen asking what other systems approaches there are out there, other than the ones that made up the core part of our TU811 Systems approaches for managing change curriculum.

Before that thread disappears too far into the archive, I wanted to capture here some of my key reflections.

Arwen’s question raised a whole conversation about boundaries – what would you say is and isn’t a ‘systems approach’…which led to Russell blogging about issues of ‘categorisation’ in Death to Venn Diagrams.  Russell’s comments are a helpful reminder that categorisation can be something subjective and unfixed – it isn’t an objective process.

My own thoughts were similiar, I remembered that Ison (2010,19) emphasises that systems thinking arises from a social dynamic (rather than being something that can be defined).  I thought that maybe it would be better to think in the same way about systems approaches.  So I re-framed the question from ‘what is a systems approach?’ to ”what would I have to experience to say something is a systems approach?’

In Tu811, the course team emphasise that the approaches they selected (Systems Dynamics, Viable System Model, Strategic Options Development and Analysis, Soft Systems Methodology and Critical Systems Heuristics) are to them systems approaches because to varying extents they help their user(s):

  • understand interrelationships (avoid trap of reductionism)
  • engage with multiple perspective (avoid trap of dogmatism)
  • reflect on boundaries (avoid trap of holism and pluralism)

Martin Reynolds confirmed this perspective in the LinkedIn conversation.

So, as a starter for 10, if I experience any approach that I think helps me to varying extents against one or more of these criteria then I am likely to think of it as a systems approach.

In addition, Ison (2010) highlights that if he experiences someone connecting to the academic lineages of Systems then he would see that as ‘systems thinking’.  Following that same line of argument, a systems approach is one that draws from one or more lineages of Systems thinking.  To be able to make that judgement, I’d have to be able to access and find some of the theory that underpins that approach – if all I have is a ‘tool’ but no systems-related theory behind it, then would I consider it a systems approach?

As an illustration of experiencing an approach and ‘labelling’ it as a systems one – at the moment I am reading about action research, the editors of the book I am reading (Reason and Bradbury, 2006) mention Mead, G Bateson and Lewin in the introduction.  These scholars are thought of as ‘Systems Thinkers’ (Ramage and Shipp, 2009).  This has led me to include ‘Action Research’ as part of my family of Systems Approaches because so much of the underpinning theory resonates.

There is a another dimension that isn’t explicit in my discussion to date.  Many of the activities/tools that I use when I design and facilitate workshops or events  are chosen to help people have the types of conversation or dialogue that means that can think, understand, imagine or learn together – in other words they aim to create the conditions where social learning will occur as well as promote engagement with multiple perspectives.  As social learning is a key part of ‘systemic change’ (they could be seen to mutually construct each other) I kind of capture all participative approaches into my ‘systems approaches’ family.  [Though in this case, when you are facilitating – rather than ‘doing’ yourself – you can’t guarantee that people will actively engage in inquiry together (you can take a horse to water but you can’t make them drink).]

I could stop there satisfied with those 3 plus 2 ‘criteria’.  But when I studied Tu812 Managing Systemic Change I learnt that systems practitioners make ‘epistemological choices’; need to juggle the C-ball (contextualise tools to the situation, with awareness of the limitations); and appropriately practice both systemic AND systematic thinking and practice (the duality).

So as a systems practitioner, I could appropriately go into ‘systematic’, goal oriented mode to achieve a ‘bounded’ piece of work (aka the P-word) and use the GANTT chart as a tool.  Then I could see that as a systems tool – it is helping me look at how a number of tasks inter-relate over time to achieve a goal. If I have actively made the choice to use systematic thinking (epistemological choice) and this tool (C-ball) and am doing so with awareness of the traps – then could it be that the GANTT chart is a systems tool?

This would then mean that a ‘systems approach/tool’ can be recognised as something used by an epistemologically aware, good juggler, systems practitioner! (Conversely, some people could use an approach declared to be a ‘systems approach’ but not use it appropriately/with awareness of its limitations etc – so in the hands of the wrong person could a systems approach not be a systems approach?)

So I end up thinking that the dynamic relationship between the practitioner, the situation and the approach/tool makes it a ‘systems’ one, rather than some inherent properties of the approach/tool itself.


Ison, R., 2010. Systems Practice: how to act in a climate-change world, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

Reynolds, M. & Holwell, S. eds., 2010. Systems Approaches to Managing Change: A practical guide, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

The Open University, 2010. Thinking strategically: systems tools for managing change:  TU811 Study Guide, Milton Keynes: The Open University.

The Open University, 2010. Managing systemic change: inquiry, action and interaction: TU812 Study Guide, Milton Keynes: The Open University.

Reason, P. & Bradbury, H. eds., 2006. Handbook of Action Research Concise Paperback Edition., London: Sage Publications.

Ramage, M. & Shipp, K., 2009. Systems Thinkers, Milton Keynes/London: The Open University/Springer Publications.

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