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Thursday, April 18, 2013

We Ought to Know the Difference

Is systems thinking really possible? Here's one reason why it might not be.

One of the concerns of systems thinking is the need to avoid the so-called environmental fallacy - the blunder of ignoring or not understanding the effects of the environment of a system. This is why, when systems thinkers are asked to tackle a concrete situation in detail, they often hesitate, insisting that it is wrong to look at the detail before understanding the context.

The trouble with this is that there is always a larger context, so this hesitation leads to an infinite regress and inability to formulate practical inroads into a complex situation. Many years ago, I read a brilliant essay by J.P. Eberhard called "We Ought to Know the Difference", which contains a widely quoted example of a doorknob. As I recall, Eberhard's central question is a practical one - how do we know when to expand the scope of the problem, and how do we know when to stop.

C West Churchman went more deeply into this question. In his book The Systems Approach and its Enemies (1979), he presents an ironic picture of the systems thinker as hero.

If the intellect is to engage in the heroic adventure of securing improvement in the human condition, it cannot rely on “approaches,” like politics and morality, which attempt to tackle problems head-on, within the narrow scope. Attempts to address problems in such a manner simply lead to other problems, to an amplification of difficulty away from real improvement. Thus the key to success in the hero’s attempt seems to be comprehensiveness. Never allow the temptation to be clear, or to use reliable data, or to “come up to the standards of excellence,” divert you from the relevant, even though the relevant may be elusive, weakly supported by data, and requiring loose methods.

Like Eberhard, Churchman seeks to reconcile the heroic stance of the systems thinker with the practical stance of other approaches. But we ought to know the difference.

This is an extract from my eBook on Next Practice Enterprise Architecture. Draft available from LeanPub.

John P. Eberhard, "We Ought to Know the Difference," Emerging Methods in Environmental Design and Planning, Gary T. Moore, ed. (MIT Press, 1970) pp 364-365

See extract here - The Warning of the Doorknob. The same extract can be found in many places, including Ed Yourdon's Modern Structured Analysis (first published 1989).

See also

Nicholas Berente, C West Churchman: Champion of the Systems Approach

Jeff Lindsay, Avoiding environmental fallacy with systems thinking (December 2012)

Updated May 14 2013


  1. A minor correction -- the title of the Moore book is "Emerging Methods in Environmental Design and Planning".


    1. Thanks Len. I had copied the reference from somewhere instead of checking it properly, and have now fixed it.

      Interesting how people read what they expect to read. In Reading it wrong (New York Review Blog, May 2013), Tim Parks shows how translators unconsciously revise a text to make it more predictable. If translators do this, we may suppose that ordinary readers must do it even more.

      Engineering? Emerging? We ought to know the difference!