An example of different boundaries: Rwandan woman overlooking the hills.

Bucking the system

Systems concepts and development

Bob Williams | December 02, 2008

Over the last 50 years the systems field has expanded to encompass more than 1,000 methodologies. In this article, Bob Williams describes three core concepts of systems thinking.

Many of the issues that systems thinking tries to resolve are familiar to people involved in international development: power, control, unanticipated consequences, unacknowledged interests, differing motivations and rapidly changing circumstances. But the systems field is broadening its scope. According to some estimates, as many as 1,000 separate methodologies and methods fall under the systems banner.

This is in part because there is no single agreed-upon definition of a ‘system’. The systems field has moved increasingly away from descriptions of how the world works to a set of constructs that allow you to think about the world. For instance, ‘soft systems’ concepts essentially discount the idea of a universally identifiable thing called ‘the banking system’. Instead there is a set of activities that one person calls ‘the banking system’, while someone else may choose a different set of activities to define it. Soft systems thinkers argue that comparing and contrasting ideas of what constitutes a banking system provides more powerful insights than just trying to identify a unitary concept.

Instead of chasing definitions of ‘system’ or arguing the merits of particular systems methods, those in the field have sought to identify what core concepts underpin all the methods and definitions floating around, and what exactly systems thinking is. There are many different ways of understanding what thinking systemically is all about. This article identifies one way that has been pursued recently. It involves three core concepts that emerged as part of the historical development of the systems field over the past 50 years. 

Three core systems concepts

During the 1960s and 1970s the focus of the systems field was very much on inter-relationships. Methods were developed that explored them in depth, such as system dynamics and the Viable Systems Model. By the mid-1970s it was clear that the inter-relationships were not neutral concepts. The relative importance of particular inter-relationships depended on the different purposes you could ascribe to any single situation. Thus methods were developed, such as soft systems methodology, that helped explore the implications of applying different perspectives to the same situation. However, by the mid-1980s it was clear that these perspectives were also not neutral. Perspectives determined what was seen to be relevant and what was not; they determined what was ‘in’ the system and what lay outside it. Whoever defined the dominant perspective controlled the system’s boundary. Thus the importance of studying boundaries and critiquing boundary decisions (and those who made them) became the third key element of a systems approach.

Hollandse Hoogte / Danilo Balducci

Rwandan villagers standing around boxes.

These three concepts are essential both for understanding systemic interventions and for distinguishing them from other approaches to dealing with complex situations. They underpin all the models, metaphors, methodologies and methods used in the systems field. I will use the example of an HIV/AIDS project in Ghana to illustrate what this means in practice.


‘Inter-relationships’ is the most familiar systems concept, partly because it is also the oldest. How things are connected and with what consequence stems from the earliest thinking about systems. It is also the concept most strongly embedded in the popular imagination. When we talk about the filing system, or the health system, the image we have in our minds is of a set of objects and processes that are interconnected in some way.
The study of inter-relationships is key to any systemic inquiry. In particular, systems approaches look at the following aspects of inter-relationships:

  • dynamic aspects (where the way the inter-relationships affect behaviour of a situation over a period of time)
  • non-linear aspects (where the scale of ‘effect’ is apparently unrelated to the scale of the ‘cause’; often but not always caused by ‘feedback’)
  • the sensitivity of inter-relationships to context (where the same intervention in different areas has varying results, making it unreliable to translate a ‘best’ practice from one area to another)
  • distinguishing the behaviour of ‘simple’, ‘complicated’ and ‘complex’ inter-relationships.

The systems field draws on many methods that focus on inter-relationships. These include system dynamics, Cynefin (which was the subject of the article ‘Shaping behaviour’ in The Broker 10), causal loop diagramming, concept mapping and social network analysis. However, all of them explore five fundamental questions:

  • What is the nature of the inter-relationships within a situation?
  • What is the structure of these inter-relationships?
  • What are the processes between them?
  • What are the patterns that emerge from those processes, with what consequences for whom?
  • Why does this matter? To whom? In what context?


A systemic approach is more than a study of how boxes and arrows fit together or networks operate. Just looking at the ‘bigger picture’ or exploring interconnections does not make an inquiry ‘systemic’. What makes it systemic is how you look at the picture, big or small, and explore interconnections. When people observe inter-relationships they ‘see’ and interpret those inter-relationships in different ways.
People participate in a project for many different reasons. Think of your own involvement in the international development field. How many different ways of seeing your involvement are there, and how do they affect the kinds of decisions you make? These interpretations, these motivations and the behaviours that flow from them may have little or nothing to do with the formal goals or objectives of a project or programme. Yet they will affect how the programme performs and what the results are.

Thus we cannot comprehend the behaviour of a program without identifying and understanding a wider range of perspectives. Perspectives help to explain and predict unanticipated behaviours because they give us a window into motivations. They also acknowledge the reality that it is people who make programmes work, and not some imagined ‘logic’ like Logical Framework (LogFrame).

The introduction of ‘perspectives’ as a core systems concept was profound. First, it highlighted the notion that you can ‘see’ the same situation in different ways, and this affects how you understand the system. This isn’t the same as ‘stakeholder’ perspectives. Different stakeholders may share the same perspective – one stakeholder can hold several different perspectives. If you think about it, we rarely have a single perspective on any set of events, yet the theories of management that dominate the international development world tend to force us to pick one.
Second, it drew the focus away from the ‘system’ as it supposedly exists in ‘real life’ and allowed us to consider alternatives; what it might be like, could be like or even should be like. Or how different people imagine how it might be like. This opened up the systems world, because not only could you draw conclusions based on a study of the world as it is, but you could also compare alternative perceptions of what they think it is with what actually is, or with perceptions of what is or with what might be. The similarities and differences between what is and what might be create puzzles, and contractions can achieve deeper learning. It can also generate better insights into the real-life behaviour of programmes.
The systems field draws on a number of methods and methodologies for exposing and exploring perspectives. These include soft systems methodology, dialoguing and activity systems methodology. All tend to address the following questions:

  • What are the different ways in which this situation can be understood?
  • How are these different understandings going to affect the way in which people judge the success of an endeavour?
  • How will it affect their behaviour, and thus the behaviour of the system, especially when things go wrong from their perspective? With what result and significance?


Boundaries have always been an important systems concept. They drive how we ‘frame’ systems. A boundary differentiates between what is in and what is out, what is deemed relevant and irrelevant, what is important and what is unimportant, what is worthwhile and what is not, who benefits and who is disadvantaged. Boundaries are fundamentally about values – they are judgements about worth. Defining boundaries has always been an essential part of systems thinking.

However, by the mid-1980s questions were being asked more explicitly about how boundaries are set, who sets them and what the consequences are. It’s fine to map relationships and it may be fine to acknowledge that there will be different perspectives on those relationships. But those relationships and perspectives are not neutral – someone somewhere decides which are most important.

Boundaries are the sites where values get played out and disagreements are highlighted. A lot of power issues are wrapped up in boundaries – just as the person with the magic marker controls what goes on the whiteboard, the person whose perspective dominates a project decides the boundaries. Context matters, too. Boundaries do not just define differences, but define differences that make a difference and have impact.

Thus systems approaches take a deliberate and often debated approach to boundary identification and choice. They often focus on four areas: entrenched values, command and control; dogma and righteousness.

Systems thinking and holism

One consequence of the focus on boundaries is that it shows how the word ‘holism’ is often misused. It doesn’t mean you are looking at ‘wholes’ – that’s an intellectual and physical impossibility because nothing is a ‘whole’, except perhaps the cosmos. It just means you are acutely aware of how the parts fit together and the consequences of focusing on one set of parts rather than others.
There is another reason ‘holism’ is problematic when applied to the systems field. It implies that systems thinking only applies to big issues. I’ve often heard people talk about dealing with issues ‘at the systems level’ – implying systems concepts are primarily used at a large scale. In fact the systems field was originally developed as a problem-solving approach and thus tends to work best at the medium or small scale – at the level where you can actually do something with the insights you’ve gained.

Systems thinking and the international development scene

The reassessment of international development over the past decade, the debates surrounding the potential negative effects of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the focus on results-based management methods and the shift toward capacity development at a national level raise many inter-relationship, perspective and boundary questions. The potential for using systems concepts has increased. In particular, the ways in which systems methods pose questions of boundaries provide an intellectual base for and practical means of resolving many of the big issues confronting international development. These issues include at what scale (national, trans-national, local) should interventions be conceived and assessed, who should be the primary beneficiaries and who or what could be harmed by that choice, can that tension be resolved, what expertise is considered relevant to an intervention and who should control what resources? The Ghana example is too brief to bring out the full force of systems thinking, but the potential I hope was exposed.

Given the scale and choice of options, where and how do you start using systems concepts? Generally speaking, the best choice is to start with where you are right now. Do the notions of focusing on inter-relationships, perspectives and boundaries help you improve your own methods of assessment? If they do, then start there. If that is inadequate, then pick a systems method or approach that seems promising for you. I first used ‘soft systems’ approaches because of their emphasis on perspectives, but have added other methods over the years as needed. My main recommendation is don’t do it on your own. Find someone with a sophisticated understanding of the systems field and a good knowledge of one or two methods. Learn that method with them and then branch out. Whatever approach you choose will provide a fascinating, insightful and useful journey.

This article is based on previous writings by the author and contributions from Gerald Midgley, Richard Hummelbrunner, Amy La Goy, Iraj Imam, Martin Reynolds and Glenda Eoyang.


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Werner Ulrich’s home page.

Photo credit main picture: Hollandse Hoogte / Danilo Balducci