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Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers / Edition 1

Systems Thinking: Creative Holism for Managers / Edition 1

by Michael C. Jackson
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Too often, today's managers are sold simple solutions to complex problems. But as many soon discover, simplicity is rarely effective in the face of complexity, change and diversity. Despite apparent promise, quick-fix panaceas fail because they are not holistic or creative enough. They focus on parts of the organization rather than the whole, take little account of interaction, and pander to the notion that there is one best solution in all circumstances. As instances of such failure escalate, intelligent managers are increasingly seeking to improve results through Systems Thinking.
Whatever stage you are at in your study of Systems Thinking, this book will help. If you are new to the field then it will serve as a solid introduction. If you are familiar with a few concepts but not with how they can be linked and used by managers, then it will give you a greater understanding of how holistic ideas developed and how to use them in practice. And if you are expert in some approaches but not in others, then it will expand your knowledge and provide you with more choice. In all cases you will achieve competency in creative holism, emerge better equipped to solve complex problems, and ultimately become a more effective Systems Thinking manager.

“It’s neat, easy to read and easy to absorb...  It is a boon to students and executives alike..”

J P. von Gigch in Systems research and Behavioural Science

“ … excellent summary of the latest research findings and … very clear explanations and accessibility”

 “No other recent book in the systems field aims for such an accessible and at the same time rigorous interpretation of the major developments of systems theory”

D. Petkov in Journal of the Operational Research Society

“As far as I can tell there is no other book that includes all the major developments in systems thinking over the last fifty years”

Misha Hebel (Amazon Review)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780470845226
Publisher: Wiley
Publication date: 12/28/2003
Pages: 378
Sales rank: 336,448
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 8.98(h) x 1.09(d)

About the Author

Michael C. Jackson graduated from Oxford University and has since worked in public sector management, in academia, and as a consultant. He is Professor of Management Systems at the University of Hull, United Kingdom, and Director of its business school. Mike is author of Systems Methodology for the Management Sciences, Plenum, 1991; Creative Problem Solving, Wiley, 1991 (with R.L. Flood); Systems Approaches to Management, Kluwer/Plenum, 2000; and numerous articles in academic and professional journals, including some of the most cited in the field. He is also editor-in-chief of Systems Research and Behavioral Science and associate editor of Systems Practice and Action Research. Mike has been Chair of the UK Systems Society and President of the International Federation for Systems Research and the International Society for the Systems Sciences. His work has been translated into six languages and he has given invited lectures in over twenty countries. He is a Fellow of the British Computer Society, the Chartered Management Institute, and the Cybernetics Society.

Read an Excerpt

Systems Thinking

Creative Holism for Managers
By Michael C. Jackson

John Wiley & Sons

ISBN: 0-470-84522-8

Chapter One

The Systems Language

The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realise that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent. Capra (1996)


Simply defined, a system is a complex whole the functioning of which depends on its parts and the interactions between those parts. Stated like this, it is clear that we can identify systems of very different types:

physical, such as river systems;

biological, such as living organisms;

designed, such as automobiles;

abstract, such as philosophical systems;

social, such as families;

human activity, such as systems to ensure the quality of products.

The traditional, scientific method for studying such systems is known as reductionism. Reductionism sees the parts as paramount and seeks to identify the parts, understand the parts and work up from an understanding of the parts to an understanding of the whole. The problem with this is that the whole often seems to take on a form that is not recognizable from the parts. The whole emerges from the interactions between the parts, which affect each other through complex networks of relationships. Once it has emerged, it is the whole that seems to give meaning to theparts and their interactions. A living organism gives meaning to the heart, liver and lungs; a family to the roles of husband, wife, son, daughter.

It is not surprising therefore that there exists an alternative to reductionism for studying systems. This alternative is known as holism. Holism considers systems to be more than the sum of their parts. It is of course interested in the parts and particularly the networks of relationships between the parts, but primarily in terms of how they give rise to and sustain in existence the new entity that is the whole - whether it be a river system, an automobile, a philosophical system or a quality system. It is the whole that is seen as important and gives purpose to the study.

Holism gained a foothold in many different academic disciplines, benefiting from the failure of reductionism to cope with problems of complexity, diversity and change in complex systems. In what follows we look at the encounter of holism with philosophy, biology, control engineering, organization and management theory, and the physical sciences. We see how the systems language associated with holism was developed and enriched in each case. Particularly fruitful were the encounters with biology and control engineering, which gave birth to systems thinking as a transdiscipline, studying systems in their own right, in the 1940s and 1950s. This produced a language that describes the characteristics that systems have in common, whether they are mechanical, biological or social.

In a conclusion to the chapter I seek to explain why this language is particularly powerful for the purposes of managers.

More detailed accounts of the development of holistic thinking can be found in Checkland (1981) and Jackson (2000).


The classical Greek philosophers, Aristotle and Plato, established some important systems ideas. Aristotle reasoned that the parts of the body only make sense in terms of the way they function to support the whole organism and used this biological analogy to consider how individuals need to be related to the State. Plato was interested in how the notion of control, or the art of steersmanship (kybernetes), could be applied both to vessels and the State. Ships had to be steered safely toward harbour by a helmsman. A similar role needed to be fulfilled in societies if they were to prosper.

Holism was pushed to the margins of philosophical debate for many centuries, but the golden age of European philosophy, during the 18th and 19th centuries, saw a renewed interest in what it had to offer. Kant and Hegel were particularly influential in this respect. Kant was an 'idealist' who argued that we could never really know reality or whether it was systemic. However, he believed it was helpful for humans to think in terms of wholes emerging from and sustained by the self-organization of their parts. Hegel introduced process into systems thinking. An understanding of the whole, or the truth, could be approached through a systemic unfolding of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Each movement through this cycle, with the synthesis becoming the new thesis, gradually enriched our grasp of the whole.

It was these philosophical ideas that impacted on the scientific disciplines, where they were given a more rigorous formulation.


The fruitfulness of the relationship between holism and biology can be accounted for by the complexity of the problems encountered by biologists in trying to understand whole organisms. Whole organisms seemed to resist the attempts of scientific reductionists to reduce them to the sum of their parts. In the 1920s and 1930s, as a response to this, more holistically inclined biologists began to argue that organisms were more than the sum of their parts. They conceived that a hierarchy existed in nature - molecules, organelles, cells, organs, organisms - and, at certain points in the hierarchy, stable levels of organized complexity arose that demonstrated emergent properties, which did not exist at levels below. An organism was one such level.

It was argued that an organism (e.g., an animal) had a clear boundary separating it from its environment and was capable, as its main emergent property, of a degree of autonomy. An organism sustained itself in a steady state by carrying out transactions across this boundary with its environment. It had to be capable of making internal transformations to ensure that it was adapted to its environment. The processes that maintained the steady state were referred to as homeostatic, an example being the self-regulating mechanism controlling body temperature. The behaviour of an organism could not, it seemed, be explained by the properties of its parts in isolation. It arose from the particular interdependence of the parts, which gave rise to a new level of organized complexity. Biology was seen exactly as the science appropriate to this level and could not therefore be reduced to physics or chemistry.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy has become the best known of the biologists who argued that organisms should be studied as complex wholes. In 1950 he published an article in which be made the well-known distinction between closed systems and open systems. A closed system engages in no exchanges with its environment. An open system, such as an organism, has to interact with its environment to maintain itself in existence. Open systems take inputs from their environments, transform them and then return them as some sort of product back to the environment. They depend on the environment for their existence and adapt in reaction to changes in the environment.

Von Bertalanffy's lasting fame and influence has derived from his suggestion that the sorts of behaviour he witnessed in open systems in biology could be seen demonstrated by open systems in other domains. Thus, he initiated and named 'general system theory' (see von Bertalanffy, 1968) - a kind of transdiscipline in which systems were studied in their own right and which allowed insights from one discipline to be transferred to others. General system theory was soon embraced by management thinkers who transferred the open system model to their study of organizations.

The biological system model is represented in Figure 1.1. It shows a system separated from its environment by a distinct boundary. The system has a complex structure, being differentiated into subsystems that themselves have parts (systems arranged in a hierarchy of systems). The close interrelationships of mutual influence between the subsystems must ensure homeostasis - the maintenance of a steady state. One subsystem is acting in a kind of 'management' capacity, trying to ensure integration and co-ordination. The system takes inputs of material, energy and information from its environment, uses some to sustain itself and transforms the rest into outputs. These outputs may themselves allow the system to secure, through a cycle of events, more of the useful inputs it needs to survive.

The open systems perspective propounded by von Bertalanffy, and so influential in the 1970s and 1980s, has more recently been challenged by the biologists Maturana and Varela (1980). They emphasize instead the closed system of interactions that occurs in living entities. These interactions ensure the self-production of the system and its autonomy. Such self-producing, or autopoietic (from the ancient Greek for self-production), systems respond to environmental disturbances, but not directly or simply; the nature of the response depends on their own internal organizational arrangements. This does not mean that autopoietic systems cannot change their structure, but it does mean that they do this only with a view to keeping their fundamental organizational identity intact. The emphasis on the circular organization of living systems, and their resistance to change, offers a useful corrective to those general system theorists who stress the overriding importance of organization-environment relations.


The other figure who stands alongside von Bertalanffy, as a founding father of systems thinking as a transdiscipline, is Norbert Wiener, a mathematician and control engineer. In 1948 Wiener published a book on what he called, borrowing from the Greek, cybernetics - the science of control and communication in the animal and the machine. Cybernetics, Wiener argued, was a new science that had application to many different disciplines because it dealt with general laws that governed control processes whatever the nature of the system under consideration.

The two key concepts introduced by Wiener into the systems lexicon were control and communication. In understanding control, whether in the mechanical, biological or political realm, the idea of negative feedback is crucial. This concept allows a proper, scientific explanation to be given of purposive behaviour - behaviour directed to the attainment of a goal. It was Wiener's insight that all such behaviour requires negative feedback. In this process, information is transmitted about any divergence of behaviour from a present goal and corrective action taken, on the basis of this information, to bring the behaviour back towards the goal. In a central heating system a thermostat monitors the heat of a room against some preset temperature and uses the information that the temperature is too low or high to switch the system on or off. Communication is equally significant because if we wish to control the actions of a machine or another human being we must communicate information to that machine or individual.

Figure 1.2 shows a simple, negative feedback system. It operates by sensing the current output of the process that is to be controlled. The output is compared with the desired goal and, if it diverges from this, an activator adjusts the input to bring the process back toward achieving the desired goal. In this way, systems regulate themselves and are controlled, in the face of environmental disturbances, through the effective communication of information. It is of course very important that the sensor and comparator operate continuously and rapidly. This ensures that discrepancies are identified at the earliest possible opportunity and corrective action can immediately be initiated. It is also worth noting that it is not necessary to understand the nature of the process, which might be a complex system, in order to employ the negative feedback device. The controller can regard it as a 'black box' and adjust it simply by manipulating the inputs in order to achieve the desired outputs.

Although it did not impinge much on the consciousness of Wiener, another form of feedback, positive feedback, has become significant for systems thinking. While negative feedback counteracts deviations from a goal, positive feedback amplifies them. For example, one mistimed tackle in a soccer match can lead to a series of deliberate fouls, escalating into uncontrolled aggression from both sides. Identifying situations where the parts of a system are locked into a positive feedback loop, and its behaviour is spinning out of control, is of obvious significance to managers. A good referee can re-establish order with the astute use of a yellow card.

A final systems concept that I need to introduce in this section is 'variety'. Variety is a term first used by Ashby (1956) to refer to the number of possible states a system can exhibit. According to Ashby's law of requisite variety, systems can only be controlled if the would-be controller can command the same degree of variety as the system. Today, systems are complex and change rapidly; they exhibit high variety. Managers need to pay attention to reducing the variety of the system they are seeking to control and/or to increasing their own variety. This process of 'balancing varieties' is known as variety engineering. We shall see how it is done in Chapter 6.


Early attempts to marry holism with organization and management theory took two main forms. In the first some basic systems concepts were incorporated in the prevailing scientific management tradition to yield optimizing approaches, such as systems engineering. In the second there was a wholesale transfer of the biological analogy, especially as refined by von Bertalanffy, to yield systems models of organization emphasizing the importance of subsystems to overall organizational effectiveness and the significance of the organization-environment fit.

Both these early attempts met with difficulties because they failed to recognize that systems containing human beings are, what we now call, purposeful. The systems of components that engineers are used to dealing with are purposive - designed to reach the goal specified by the engineers. Biological systems are adept at survival, but if this is their purpose it is obviously something ascribed to them from the outside and not something they think about themselves. The parts of social systems however - human beings - can generate their own purposes from inside the system, and these might not correspond at all to any purposes prescribed by managers or outsiders. Social and organizational systems, therefore, have multiple purposes: they are purposeful.

It was soon clear that a different kind of terminology would be useful for describing and working with purposeful systems.

A number of roles had to be delimited relevant to purposeful systems and reflecting some alternative sources of purposes.


Excerpted from Systems Thinking by Michael C. Jackson Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface xiii

Introduction xix

Part I Holism and Systems Practice 1

1 The Systems Language 3

1.1 Introduction 3

1.2 Philosophy 4

1.3 Biology 5

1.4 Control Engineering 7

1.5 Organization and Management Theory 9

1.6 The Physical Sciences 11

1.7 Why is the Systems Language so Powerful? 12

2 Applied Systems Thinking 15

2.1 Introduction 15

2.2 Hard Systems Thinking 16

2.3 The Development of Applied Systems Thinking 17

2.4 The Main Strands of Applied Systems Thinking 24

2.5 Conclusion 28

3 Creativity and Systems 31

3.1 Introduction 31

3.2 Creativity and Metaphor 32

3.3 Creativity and Paradigms 37

3.4 Conclusion 39

Part II Systems Approaches 43

Type A Improving Goal Seeking and Viability 45

4 Hard Systems Thinking 47

4.1 Introduction 47

4.2 Description of Hard Systems Thinking 48

4.3 Hard Systems Thinking in Action 57

4.4 Critique of Hard Systems Thinking 60

4.5 The Value of Hard Systems Thinking to Managers 62

4.6 Conclusion 63

5 System Dynamics: The Fifth Discipline 65

5.1 Introduction 65

5.2 Description of System Dynamics 66

5.3 System Dynamics in Action 74

5.4 Critique of System Dynamics 78

5.5 The Value of System Dynamics to Managers 82

5.6 Conclusion 83

6 Organizational Cybernetics 85

6.1 Introduction 85

6.2 Description of Organizational Cybernetics 86

6.3 Organizational Cybernetics in Action 101

6.4 Critique of Organizational Cybernetics 106

6.5 The Value of Organizational Cybernetics to Managers 109

6.6 Conclusion 110

7 Complexity Theory 113

7.1 Introduction 113

7.2 Description of Complexity Theory 114

7.3 Complexity Theory inAction 125

7.4 Critique of Complexity Theory 128

7.5 The Value of Complexity Theory to Managers 131

7.6 Conclusion 132

Type B Exploring Purposes 135

8 Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing 137

8.1 Introduction 137

8.2 Description of Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST) 138

8.3 Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST) in Action 147

8.4 Critique of Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST)

8.5 The Value of Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing (SAST) to Managers 153

8.6 Conclusion 154

9 Interactive Planning 157

9.1 Introduction 157

9.2 Description of Interactive Planning 158

9.3 Interactive Planning in Action 168

9.4 Critique of Interactive Planning 174

9.5 The Value of Interactive Planning to Managers 177

9.6 Conclusion 178

10 Soft Systems Methodology 181

10.1 Introduction 181

10.2 Description of Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) 182

10.3 Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) in Action 197

10.4 Critique of Soft SystemsMethodology (SSM) 202

10.5 The Value of Soft SystemsMethodology (SSM) to Managers 208

10.6 Conclusion 208

Type C Ensuring Fairness 211

11 Critical Systems Heuristics 213

11.1 Introduction 213

11.2 Description of Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) 214

11.3 Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) in Action 222

11.4 Critique of Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) 226

11.5 The Value of Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) to Managers 229

11.6 Conclusion 229

12 Team Syntegrity 233

12.1 Introduction 233

12.2 Description of Team Syntegrity 234

12.3 Team Syntegrity in Action 242

12.4 Critique of Team Syntegrity 247

12.5 The Value of Team Syntegrity to Managers 250

12.6 Conclusion 250

Type D Promoting Diversity 253

13 Postmodern Systems Thinking 255

13.1 Introduction 255

13.2 Description of Postmodern Systems Thinking 256

13.3 Postmodern Systems Thinking in Action 267

13.4 Critique of Postmodern Systems Thinking 269

13.5 The Value of Postmodern Systems Thinking to Managers 272

13.6 Conclusion 273

Part III Creative Holism 275

14 Total Systems Intervention 277

14.1 Introduction 277

14.2 Description of Total Systems Intervention (TSI) 278

14.3 Total Systems Intervention (TSI) in Action 289

14.4 Critique of Total Systems Intervention (TSI) 295

14.5 The Value of Total Systems Intervention (TSI) to Managers 297

14.6 Conclusion 298

15 Critical Systems Practice 301

15.1 Introduction 301

15.2 Description of Critical Systems Practice (CSP) 302

15.3 Critical Systems Practice (CSP) in Action 315

15.4 Critique of Critical Systems Practice (CSP) 321

15.5 The Value of Critical Systems Practice (CSP) to Managers 323

15.6 Conclusion 324

References 324

Conclusion 327

Index 329

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