Hard, Soft…or Laminated?

Laminated manThis post is about something that I find very interesting – Systems Thinking as applied to organisations, and society – and about whether there are two different ‘factions’….or not.

I’ve had versions of this post in mind for some time, but have finally ‘put it on paper’3.

In the beginning there was…Biology

Well, not the beginning4. I’m referring to the beginning of modern systems thinking.

Back in the 1920s the Biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy challenged the ability of 19th Century Physics to explain living things – in particular the dynamics of organisms.

Reductionist Physics back then treated things as ‘closed systems’: reducing them into their parts and, through studying the forces acting on them, establishing principles of their behaviours. Such an approach works well for mechanistic systems.

However, von Bertalanffy’s research showed that:

“A whole organism demonstrably behaves in a way that is more than the sum of its parts. It exhibits synergy. Furthermore, much of an organism’s existence is characterised by increasing, or at least maintaining order.” [Flood5]

Open vs closed systemsHe went on to develop ‘Open Systems theory’, which considers an organism’s co-existence with its environment.

The interesting bit (to me at least) is that, rather than just maintaining a steady state (homeostasis) or, worse, declining into disorder (entropy), an organism can continually improve itself (self-organisation).

Whether it will or not, well there’s the thing!

Von Bertalanffy, wanting to realign the sciences through his new understanding, went on to develop ‘General Systems theory’ (1940s) – the derivation of principles applicable to systems in general.

…and so the modern systems movement was born.

Onwards and upwards (a.k.a ‘Hard’ systems thinking)

hard woodThe study of systems really got moving from the 1940s onwards, with many offshoot disciplines.

Some notable developments include:

  • World War II and Operational Research6 (analytical methods of problem solving and decision making): A team of scientists were brought together to advise the British army. They used mathematical techniques to research strategic and tactical problems associated with military operations. Their work aimed to get the most out of limited resources (the most efficient usage, for greatest effect).

Following the war, much effort was put into translating and developing the OR methods and learnings into (usually large) organisations, and their management.

  • Stafford Beer and Organisational Cybernetics (the scientific study of control and communication within organisations): Beer analysed how the human body is controlled by the brain and nervous system, and then translated this to model how any autonomous system (such as an organisation….or a country) should be organised in such a way as to meet the demands of surviving in the changing environment (ref. Beer’s ‘Viable System Model’)

  • Tragedy of the commonsJay Forrester7 and System Dynamics (understanding the behaviours of complex systems over time): Forrester and his MIT department set about modelling (using computers) how systems behave over time, employing the science of feedback, and thus seeing (often counter-intuitive) patterns within the complexity. The aim being to discern effective levers for change.

Their work grew from ‘industrial dynamics’ (e.g. the study of an organisation over time), to ‘urban dynamics’ (e.g. a society over time) to ‘world dynamics’.

Donella Meadows (a member of Forrester’s team) took up world dynamics, and research regarding the limits of Earth’s capacity to support human economic expansion.

Peter Senge (another MIT team member) wrote the popular management book ‘The Fifth Discipline’, which sets out the disciplines necessary for a ‘learning organisation’8. He identifies systems thinking as the “cornerstone”, though his explanations are heavily based on his System Dynamics heritage.

Those involved with System Dynamics articulated a set of (thought provoking) system archetypes – which are commonly occurring patterns of system behaviour, due to specific combinations of feedback loops (reinforcing and balancing) and delays. For example, you might have heard of ‘The tragedy of the commons’ (see system model diagram above) or ‘Success to the successful’.

Note: (it is my belief) that there are (understandably) huge overlaps between each of the above disciplines.

All of the above is centred around being able to:

  • identify ‘a system’ i.e. the subject of analysis (as if it were a real thing);
  • create a well-defined problem statement;
  • take a scientific approach to problem solving; and thus
  • reach some (presumed) solution to the problem

This has been labelled as the school of hard systems thinking (explained later), where a system is something that, if we studied it together, we would all describe/ articulate in a similar way – as in a ‘thing’ that can be set out and agreed upon….and almost touch!

If we combine that we can define, model and understand ‘it’ then, hey presto, we should be able to solve ‘it’…as if there is a solution. Excellent! Let’s get modelling and improving.

But there’s a lot more to it – ‘Soft’ systems thinking

soft woodSo where did that ‘hard’ term come from and why?

It was coined by Peter Checkland in the 1970’s to label what he thought of the current approaches, and to propose an alternative ‘soft’ view. Here’s his explanation:

“[hard systems thinking believes that] the world contains interacting systems…[that] can be ‘engineered’ to achieve their objectives

…[however] none of these [hard systems thinking] approaches pays attention to the existence of conflicting worldviews, something which characterises all social interactions…

In order to incorporate the concept of worldviews…it [is] necessary to abandon the idea that the world is a set of systems.

In [soft systems thinking] the (social) world is taken to be very complex, problematical, mysterious, characterised by clashes of worldviews. It is continually being created and recreated by people thinking, talking and taking action. However, our coping with it…can itself be organised as a learning system.”

Now, I’m not saying that understanding everything that Checkland writes is easy – it isn’t (at least not for me) – but whatever you think of his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ and the various models within, I believe that the fundamentals are substantial…such as his human-centric thinking on:

  • Problematic situations; and
  • Worldviews

I’ve previously touched on the first point in my post titled “what I think is…”, which perhaps can be lightly summarised as ‘problems are in the eye of the beholder’, so I’ll move on to worldviews, nicely explained by Checkland as follows:

“When we interact with real-world situations we make judgements about them: are they ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘acceptable’ or ‘unacceptable’, ‘permanent’ or ‘transient’?

Now, to make any judgement we have to appeal to some criteria or standards, these being the characteristics which define ‘good’ or ‘bad’ etc. for us. And where do such criteria come from? They will be formed partially by our genetic inheritance from our parents – the kind of person we are innately – and, most significantly, from our previous experiences of the world.

Over time these criteria and the interpretations they lead to will tend to firm up into a relatively stable outlook through which we then perceive the world. We develop ‘worldviews’, built-in tendencies to see the world in a particular way. It is different worldviews which make one person ‘liberal’, another ‘reactionary’. Such worldviews are relatively stable but can change over time…”

worldviews eyeThis ‘worldview’ concept is easily understood, and yet incredibly powerful. At its most extreme, it deals efficiently with the often-cited phrase that ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’.

I think that Checkland’s worldview explanation is profound (and yet, when thought about, bloody obvious). All worldviews (and hence perceived problems within) are personal, and a proper understanding of them (and why they are held) must be central to any meaningful approach of moving a social group (whether a family, an organisation or a society) to a better place.

It is just too simplistic for someone in a position of power9 to say ‘this is the system, this is the current problem, let’s get on and solve it.’

Checkland talks of getting people to think about their own thinking about the world.

Many people do that naturally and many people never ever do that – they simply engage with the world in an unreflective way.

If you are going to [really change the world then] you have to become [conscious about] thinking about your own thinking. You have to be able to stop yourself in a situation and ask yourself ‘how am I thinking about this? How else could I be thinking about this?

This is a meta-level of thinking, which is not obvious in everyday life – we don’t normally do it in day-to-day chat.”

Over in America

Whilst Checkland and his colleagues in the UK were questioning 1960s systems thinking (and deriving his ‘Soft Systems Methodology’9), two of his contemporaries were doing similar over in the US.

C. West Churchman and Russell Ackoff were there at the very start of Operational Research (OR) in 1950s America, but by the 1970s they understood the essential missing piece and felt the need for radical change. Ackoff broke away from his OR faculty and initiated a new program called ‘Social Systems Sciences’, whilst Churchman wrote:

“The systems approach begins when first you see the world through the eyes of another. [It] goes on to discover that every world-view is terribly restricted. There are no experts in the systems approach.” 

A side note: Sadly, I expect that Churchman and Ackoff would be ‘turning in their graves’ if they could be made aware of the lack of thinking, particularly of worldviews, by Donald Trump and his band of (ahem) ‘patriotic’ followers. Patriotic seems to have become proudly re-defined by them as ‘closed minded’.

…but, hey, that’s just my worldview speaking 😊.

Laminating the two together

I’m not a champion of ‘soft’ over ‘hard’ or vice versa. Rather, I find real interest in their combined thinking…as in laminating the two together.

I personally like to think about systems in a hard and soft format.

  • ‘hard’ because a logical model to represent a ‘thing’ (as if I can touch it) is incredibly useful for me; yet
  • ‘soft’ because it requires me:
    • to accept that I merely have a perspective…with a need to surface my beliefs and assumptions, and;
    • to understand the relevant worldviews of those around me….and change myself accordingly.

Similarly, some 30 or so years after first deriving the ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ terminology, Peter Checkland ends his last book with the following:

“New approaches (now thought of as ‘soft’), underpinned by a different social theory, have emerged. They do not, however, suggest that the 1960s theory was ‘wrong’ and should be abandoned. Rather the ‘new’ theory sees the ‘old’ one as a special case, perfectly adequate in certain circumstances, but less general than the social theory behind the ‘soft’ outlook.”

Perhaps the modern terminology for Checkland’s ‘Worldviews’ wording is ‘Mental Models’ – our internal pictures of how the world works – and this has become a major area of focus.

The need to surface, test and improve our mental models has, pleasingly, become entwined with systems thinking.

To summarise

Meadows, a giant systems thinker, embraced the need to expose our mental models:

“Remember, always, that everything you know, and everything everyone knows, is only a model. Get your model out there where it can be viewed. Invite others to challenge your assumptions and add their own. Instead of becoming a champion for one possible explanation or hypothesis or model, collect as many as possible.”


…and finally, where to from here?

Checkland’s incredibly important softening of systems thinking (i.e. to include the reality of human beings into the mix) leads on to the question of how meaningful interventions into social systems are to be approached…which (I’m hoping) will be the subject of my next post: on ‘Action Research’.


1. Laminated: “Bonding layers of materials together”.

2. Post Image: I was searching for an image that showed a human made up of two complimentary materials and found this lovely plywood sculpture.

3. Trigger: I partially wrote this post after reading a ThinkPurpose post way back in Nov. ’16. That post was a light-hearted critique of Peter Checkland’s ‘Soft Systems Methodology’ (SSM) and, whilst I enjoyed reading it (as ever), I had many thoughts going on…which were far too verbose to put into a comments section.

4. In the beginning: My understanding is that, before Biology, there was Chemistry (necessary for life to start), and before that Physics (back to a big bang and, potentially, the multiverse)…and we (human beings) are ‘still working on’ what (if anything) came before that.

Personally, I’m a fan of the never-ending loop (ref. Louis Armstrong Guinness advert). Every time science finds something bigger (as it regularly seems to do)…there’s always another bigger. Every time science finds something smaller (e.g. at CERN using the Large Hadron collider)…there’s always another smaller – surely it must just all wrap back round 🙂 If there’s a name for this proposition/ delusion, let me know.

5. Book reference:- Flood, Robert Louis (1999): ‘Rethinking the Fifth Disciple – Learning within the unknowable’. The first half of this book sets out the work and thinking of a number of the main 20th century systems thinking giants.

6. The origin of Operational Research is regularly attributed to Charles Babbage’s study of England’s mail system (the costs of transport and sorting), resulting in the Penny Post (1840).

7. Forrester wrote the original System Dynamics text book (‘Principles of Systems’, 1968) setting out definitions and system modelling.

8. Senge’s five disciplines are: Personal Mastery, Mental Models, Shared Vision, Team Learning and….drum roll…Systems Thinking, though obviously you’d need to read the book to understand what is meant by each of these phrases.

Senge’s chapter on ‘Mental Models’ is based primarily on the work of Chris Argyris (whom I wrote about in ‘Double Trouble’).

9. Power: It is highly likely (and unsurprising) that a person’s worldview is heavily influenced by where they ‘sit’ within an organisation’s hierarchy. It’s always informative (and often amusing) to compare and contrast the organisational beliefs of a CEO with, say, a front line worker.

10. Misunderstanding SSM: I should note that, probably rather frustratingly for Checkland, people (including many an academic) seem to misinterpret (and/or perhaps misunderstand) what he was putting forward within SSM. He wrote a whole chapter at the end of his last book titled ‘Misunderstanding SSM’.


An addition to ‘My Giants’

Another giantThis quick post is to let readers know that I have just added another giant bio to the blog.

I’m writing a post at the moment about hard vs soft systems thinking and, in so doing, I realised that I had written (i.e. drafted) a ‘giant’ page for Peter Checkland two years ago…and never completed it.

…so, for those that are interested, I have rectified that here. My next post will add much more ‘meat to the bones’ of hard and soft systems thinking.

FYI: I introduced some of Checkland’s thinking in an earlier 2016 post called “What I think is…”

Over and out for now,