Investigation and/or intervention

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I don’t know why this penny didn’t drop before – it seems so obvious now that it has….how systems thinking approaches and tools are sometimes framed as approaches for investigation and other times as approaches for intervention – or even as some sort of ‘woolly’ in between….

There was some person … who had caused the intervention to happen, someone without whom, there would not be an investigation at all…

Checkland and Poulter, 2010, p. 211 [my emphasis]

Applied Systems Thinking for Health Systems Research: A Methodological Handbook

Cover of book Applied Systems thinking for health systems research. Expected publication October 2017

It is very common that systems thinking approaches get talked about as tools for investigation or research.  Take this book that will be published soon as an example.  Here systems thinking approaches are being applied to do research (investigation).  It is very common for systems thinking approaches to be framed in this way in journal articles too.  They are seen as methodological tools – akin to surveys or qualitative interviews – ways to approach the design of a research project with an impact on data ‘collection’ and data analysis methods.  This isn’t a new way of framing the role of systems thinking approaches – a book edited by Rosenhead in 1989 covers a number of similiar approaches to this new volume – under the title of ‘Rational analysis for a problematic world’ – they are billed as problem structuring methods.

But in addition to this formal research literature, this ‘systems thinking as investigation’ orientation was integral to the way I learned to ‘do’ systems approaches during my MSc, particularly the module TU811 where the approaches were taught. Each assignment asked us to select a situation of interest and analyse it using a systems thinking approach and as a result of that analysis develop recommendations for strategic intervention.  Looking back now, it felt quite linear – the analysis or investigation precedes the action or the intervention.

There were subtle signals in the teaching materials – such as the quote above from Checkland and Poulter (2010) – that this separation wasn’t really that neat.  There was also a particular challenge in the People Stream materials that I didn’t clock at the time – other approaches to change are much more concerned than systems thinking approaches with the skills of facilitation – such as being aware of emotional content of the situation, enabling different cognitive styles to fourish and asking clean questions – here the facilitation of a process using an approach is seen as an ‘intervention’ something to create change, not to precede it.  It isn’t a neutral data gathering exercise that helps with ‘investigation’, ‘research’ or ‘analysis’ in order to make recommendations about intervention – it is the intervention.

Investigations using systems thinking approaches are effective as first person enquiries.  We don’t necessarily think of it in this way but this is an ‘intervention’ – a single practitioner will use the approaches to create changes in their understanding.

Then the second you touch on working with others, the intervention element is even more prominent.  This is something that has been noted in social inquiry in general – it isn’t unique to systems approaches:

We first argue that social inquiry and its methods are productive: they (help to) make social realities and social worlds. They do not simply describe the world as it is, but also enact it. Second, we suggest that, if social investigation makes worlds, then it can, in some measure, think about the worlds it wants to help to make.

Law and Urry, 2004, p.390

The second point in this quote is really important.  Once you do recognise you are intervening, then you must take responsibility for the change you are creating.

That for me is where my interest in action research comes in.  This makes it very explicit that you are setting out to do research (investigation) with an intention to also create change (intervention).

So I guess it makes me feel a little uncomfortable that systems approaches are predominantly framed in terms of their role for investigation or research.  That people with poorly developed facilitation or development skills could end up using the approaches without due regard for the world they are making.  We have to remember that investigation IS intervention – a duality.



Checkland, P. and Poulter, J. (2010) Soft Systems Methodology, in Reynolds, M. and Holwell, S. (Editors), Systems approaches to managing change: a practical guide, Springer Publications, London, UK.

Law, J. and Urry, J. (2004), Enacting the social. Economy and Society, 33(3), pp.390–410.

Rosenhead, J. (Editor), 1989, Rational analysis for a problematic world: Problem structureing methods for complexity, uncertainty and conflict, John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK.

2 thoughts on “Investigation and/or intervention

  1. Hi Helen – thank as always for another gem of reflection about systems and associated thinking. Is the book publication date merely delayed? I looked the other day, but McGraw Hill & Amazon showed it as ‘out of stock’.

  2. Hi David
    Thanks for your comment.
    The information I have is that the book will be published ‘in October’. So I suspect it’ll be in stock in the next few weeks.

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