Thinking and Action: The Systems Challenge and Response[1]           BACK

Johan Strümpfer[2],  University of Cape Town




Public and private enterprises are in trouble in many instances because of a failure of action. In South Africa, the country’s transformation is seriously hampered by a failure to implement at all levels of government. In these circumstances, the general cry is for action. The argument here is that there is in fact not a lack of action and implementation, rather a preponderance of action and implementation, but action of an ineffective kind. The action is ineffective and counter-productive because the implementation is acted out on the basis too shallow thinking about the situation. It is therefore not a failure of action, but a failure of thinking.




I  must start off with a health warning. If you believe that most of society’s institutions are working well, and are mostly successful, my presentation will raise your blood pressure. I do not share that view, and will explore some of the reasons why this is so.


There are many companies and institutions that perform their function relatively successfully. However, the general situation is that there are numerous private and public institutions that, if not teetering on catastrophe, muddle along in perpetual disorder. Sometimes things come together, and a good service or product is rendered, or good income is generated, but in many cases our institutions are stressed in coping with changes and dilemmas both inside and in their external environments. A scan of the headlines in any newspaper, and it need not necessarily be a business newspaper, will amply illustrate this point. A general label for these failures would be “non-delivery” (and this is not a political comment). Non-delivery means that the there is a perception in the  minds of important stakeholders of the organisation, that it had acted in a manner which did not satisfy them. Specific current examples are in government, around the RDP and the economic plan, but one can look a virtually any local government to see many of these examples. (I will return later to bashing private companies.)


After twenty years of consulting in some form of organisational problem solving, my conclusion is that I am not about to run out of demand or market. It appears to me that when institutions work, or work well, it is almost a surprise, and certainly only a temporary phenomenon. In these cases they have acted, or are acting, in such a manner as to satisfy most if not all their stakeholders expectations. The large number of failures does not mean that organisations do not survive – many do – but it is the exception to find an enterprise that consistently enjoys what I will refer to as a high quality of (organisational) life, I am not referring to the quality of life of its employees (let alone top management); I am referring to that mercurial quality of sailing un-perturbed through troubled and stormy waters.


Unfortunately,  organisations require people. They are not entities that can function,  i.e. think, act , and adapt, without being populated by people. As such they are what I will refer to as people populated systems. While there are numerous, but mostly unappreciated, implications of dealing with people populated systems. For the moment I will only concentrate on what it means to steer, guide or organise a people populated system, that is managing an organisation. I will use the term “management” or “managing” not as a job description or a rank indicator, but to refer to the function of navigating institutions through uncharted waters.


Understanding and effectively managing complex systems, e.g. a business satisfying its customers’ demands, or implementing a services provision for a community, are complex tasks. In many cases stakeholders experience the ineffectiveness of action, or lack of action, and ascribe it to, well, lack of appropriate action. The reasoning seems to be that I, as the stakeholder, have legitimate expectations which are unmet because of a lack of appropriate action on the part of the institution. Depending on the circumstances, significant pressure can be brought to bear on the institution to mend its ways trough public and political pressure (power) applied to the institution. It becomes a dynamic of power applied and actions taken.


When one enquires about why the action was inappropriate in the first place, a lack of relevant understanding with the people involved in the actions often surfaces. In most instances, it is not a lack of action that best explains the situation, but a lack of understanding and comprehension. The complexity of large institutions are such that the comprehension required often surpasses the capabilities of even the most gifted of people. Institutions are literally being managed at the edges of comprehension capabilities. It is no wonder that there is such a rise in the number of one person or family businesses: This is simply a natural systemic response to try to reduce the complexities that have to be comprehended and managed. From a systemic perspective, this reaction for coping with complexity would have been a meaningful solution to the complexity comprehension problem, were it not for one serious dilemma.


The systemic dilemma that we are faced with is that human development, if not human survival, is directly related to our ability to get institutions working. What I am referring to here is the need to have in place systems of collective decision making, at a level higher than that of the individual decision maker. It is a “tragedy of the commons” problem. These types of problems have the characteristic that, even if the individual decision maker comprehends that the system of which he or she is a part, there is nothing that they can do through their individual decision making to save the system. The only solution is to get a level of decision making in place that integrates the actions of all individuals in the system. If therefore we split up our institutions into smaller parts, such as one person firms, these parts will fail because there will be large classes of problems that they are powerless to deal with because there is no level of integration, i.e. a higher organisation level, in place to allow them to collectively deal with their common system.


Summary Points this far:

·       Organisations are faltering in many instances

·       We must make our institutions work to survive






The failure of action

I have indicated above that results which  we ascribe to a failure of action, is most often better explained as a failure of comprehension. The problem is worse than this however, because of a factor I will refer to as a culture of action.


We live in what is best described as a culture of action. This culture values actions: “It is action that counts.” The response to failure, i.e. the perception that there is a legitimate unmet need, or that the wrong consequences resulted from a well intended action, is more action. The sequence is: Action, action, action, failure, failure, failure,…, and then, maybe, reflection and thinking. The more important the situation the more urgent the action is seen to be and the less pressure there is to think. Action is demanded, not inquiry and thinking. It goes against this culture to, when the chips are down, take time out and build up the required comprehension to make the actions effective. At the very best is inquiry and thinking are equated with paying taxes, i.e. something you do at the lowest possible level, and only when the summons is served. Thinking is seen as un-natural, wasteful and belonging to a university campus; it is not what serious people, those interested in results, do.


This culture has been bred into the very fabric of our institutions. Let me ask you this: If you are faced with appointing some-one, are you more likely to chose the person with a tract record of action or are you going to select the reflective orientated person? Irrespective of your own views, your job may be at stake if you appoint the reflective type, because the culture will measure your decision as a failure of comprehension on your part. So we select and promote the shoot-from-the hip people, they can in turn not get along with the indecisive reflective types (ever heard about personality clashes?) and so select, appoint and promote the same personality styles. So it carries on, until in a very small space of time our institutions are staffed with very good actors, but no play writers. Natural selection has vetted out any possibility of high up people delaying the action because “we need to think about this some more”. And so the action, action, action sequence starts. 


If you doubt this state of affairs, I challenge you to do a statistical survey of senior staff in your organisation, using some style preference indicator such as Meyers-Briggs. I will be prepared to wager that it will be only in exceptional institutions that you will find a significant number people with a reflective or theorist preference, especially in the senior staff categories. For example, some years ago an important SA Government department had less than 5% of its senior ranks in this category. (The prevalence of people with these preferences in the general population is much higher.)


In this way the culture of action has bred a culture of non-reflection. This would be acceptable, if our institutions required action alone to survive. Unfortunately, they require appropriate action. Determining what is appropriate requires reflection, thinking, inquiry and learning, personality traits we have now carefully centrifuged out of institutions. In doing so, these institutions are transferring their non-reflective culture to the wider society. The consequence is that there is, I believe, a steady decline in the value placed  by society on intellectual capabilities such as learning, comprehension and reflection. In doing so society is building a time bomb within itself: It is not promoting the development of the type of people it will ultimately depend on to make its institutions work.


I am not advocating that we give retrenchments packages to the action preferring type of people and apply affirmative action for personalities with a reflective preference. Institutions need both, or rather all, as there are more style preferences than simply these two. A more current version of leadership, stresses the need for effective group functioning to include a wide variety of personality style preferences, and a group to self-aware seek its leadership from those persons who are best able to deal with the situation the group finds itself in.


Nor am I arguing that knowledge alone is sufficient for action, or an intervention, to succeed. The fact of the matter is that many actions in organisations do yield ongoing results. In this sense the intervention is sustainable. The question is how much effort it is soaking up; I feel high effort interventions do yield at least some of the desirable results, but  often action with a lower effort level but based on more comprehension could yield equal or better results; this one of the core ideas of systems thinking.


Summary Points this far:

·       Organisations are faltering in many instances

·       We must make our institutions work to survive

·       Failure is not of action but of reflection and inquiry

·       Our institutions filtered out the reflective skills required  for inquiry









Pre-Conditions for Effective Action[3]

“Managers are faced with a system they need to manage. They have to intervene in such a way as to guide the system so that it moves from less to more desirable behaviour. [To do this they need to have ....]

·       A feasible and acceptable mental model of desirable behaviour [of the system];

·       A representative mental model of the current less desirable behaviour;

·       An adequate mental model of how the world works in this particular situation;

·       A belief based on these 3 models that the system can be improved by managing it.”

A mental model is an image or representation of reality one has in ones mind:

·       “A mental model is a representation of some aspects of reality;

·       Our actions are based on the mental models we hold of a situation;

·       The confidence of our actions is based on our belief in our mental models;

·       The effectiveness of our action is determined by the appropriateness of our mental models.”


In brief, our ability to deal with the organisational complexity depends on our comprehension of the institution and its situation. This comprehension is nothing but a mental model, and the only question is how appropriate the mental models are that we are using in dealing with a particular situation. It is the argument presented by Bouwer[4] that it is the “shallow reading” of situations that lies at the root of institutional failures.


We build up our comprehension, or alternatively, we develop our mental models through processes of learning and inquiry. Inquiry is a deliberate effort to develop a mental model more appropriate to the situation at hand. Many fields require some form of “inquiry”: E.g. doing research is a form of inquiry, but so is planning, problem solving and decision making in general. Whenever one deals with a form of inquiry, there are assumptions about how the situation works, and what one should do to find out more about the situation, in order to make an effective intervention. There are tools form the systems world that can aid one in accelerating the development of such mental models.


So far I  have made the point that effective action requires effective inquiry and comprehension. The problematique is however much more complex. It certainly is a requirement to read the situation deeply, but a manager having such a comprehension is a danger to the system. The problem of implementation, as described for example by Churchman[5], is that one person with “the answer” acts as an inhibitor to the inquiry and learning by the rest of the people who needs to have an appropriate mental model for taking effective action. In these cases the only recourse is to institutions organised as power hierarchies, with the role of managers one of ensuring that the “workers” act in concert on the basis of mental model in the custody of “management”. This results further in a view that management must  monitor and control, and this is a requirement  in such institutions. The image I want to leave you with, is that of a group of musicians making music without knowing the score, only playing notes as directed by the conductor. While it may work,  the resulting music would not be unlike the performance we see from many of our institutions.


There is however a different way of making our institutions work[6]. This approach is based on a participative way of managing the actions in the organisation. If I use the music analogy, it means a range of individuals, each skilled in their own instrument, play to a common and known score, not under the control of a conductor, but using the information given by the conductor to adjust individual actions. What I am talking about this the idea of having a shared mental model. The role of the shared mental model is similar to that of the common score. It lays out what the individual actions should be, whilst ensuring that music, and not cacophony, ensues. The shared mental model ensures that the individual actions are integrated. Integrated means that there is a synergy, or resonance between the actions of the individual parts; it makes sense against in terms of a wider whole. We have a concert.


The catch in this is that we require a shared mental model. The assumption is that while individuals may be coerced to act on some-one else’s mental model, that sustainable acting requires that people share, at least to the extend that it is mutually compatible, a common mental model. In this role traditional management is under developed: Most managers know about control and monitor, but far fewer are skilled in joint inquiry and facilitating groups in learning together. Participative or group inquiry, where the participants share not their knowledge but ignorance, is required to build up a relevant and shared mental model.



Summary Points this far:

·       Organisations are faltering in many instances

·       We must make our institutions work to survive

·       Failure is not of action but of reflection and inquiry

·       Our institutions filtered out the reflective skills required  for inquiry

·       Inquiry must build effective mental models

·       Shared mental models are required


The Systems Response:

The problematique is even more profound than that illustrated before. For even in cases where some significant effort is expended to think about the action, often the thinking patterns are conditioned, through classical patterns in thought, into ways that are inappropriate to the situation. For example, often the long term interactions of actions, or the whole situation is not properly considered. Systems thinking helps to counter these inquiry habits by introducing additional ways of considering the situation. The following description by Vickers[7] provides the appropriate image:


Lobster pots are designed to catch lobsters. A man entering a man-sized lobster pot would become suspicious of the narrowing tunnel, he would shrink from the drop at the end; and if he fell in, he would recognise the entrance as a possible exit and climb out again--even if he were the

shape of a lobster.


A trap is a trap only for creatures which cannot solve the problems that it sets. Man-traps are dangerous only in relation to the limitations on what men can see and value and do. The nature of the trap is a function of the nature of the trapped. To describe either is to imply the other.


I start with the trap, because it is more consciously familiar; we the trapped tend to take our state of mind for granted - which is partly why we are trapped. With the shape of the trap in our minds, we shall be better able to see the relevance of our limitations and to question those assumptions about ourselves which are most inept to the activity and experience of being human now.


What Vickers is saying is that because we got trapped in a particular way of thinking and acting, we do not recognise that the way out lies in revisiting our patterns of inquiry and thinking. Peter Senge asks the same question rhetorically in the third chapter heading of his book[8] when he asks: [Are we] prisoners of the system, or prisoners of our own thinking?


I believe that what we are talking about is not understanding our own patterns of reflection and inquiry, and climbing out of traps the way a clever crayfish would seek its own freedom from the cage. What we are talking about is destroying the cage that traps us in the first place.


It is in this regard that systems thinking can contribute. Systems thinking provides guidelines for more effective inquiry leading to more appropriate actions. It improves the quality of the inquiry in the time that is available for the inquiry. To relate a description form a recent systems thinking student[9]: Systems thinking stresses the need to evaluate long-term consequences of one’s decisions, to consider side effects of one’s actions, to detect signs of future problems, to think about the whole as well as the parts, to see multiple rather than single causes and to detect inter-relationships and to recognise their importance. Senge captures this effect of following these principles in the following comment on the purpose of systems thinking:

Some ways of thinking are more powerful than others. Some ways of thinking contribute to clarity, purposefulness, and competence--that is, ability to produce intended outcomes. Other ways of thinking reinforce a sense of overwhelming complexity, isolation, and powerlessness.


Systems thinking helps to overcome the lack of comprehension and shallow reading of situations and consequently improves the effectiveness of action. It ought to be used in supporting group inquiry when it is used inside organisations. Systems thinking methods structure and support this inquiry as a learning process by directing and maintaining the conversation between participants. It uses a systems view of reality to help place attention on those aspects where agreement and disagreement can have the greatest impact on the performance of systems. It is a tool for increasing the effectiveness of our inquiry.



Summary Points:

·       Organisations are faltering in many instances

·       We must make our institutions work to survive

·       Failure is not of action but of reflection and inquiry

·       Our institutions filtered out the reflective skills required  for inquiry

·       Inquiry must build effective mental models

·       Shared mental models are required

·       Systems thinking can aid appropriate inquiry.







The time has come to stop acting, and to start thinking: We cannot afford any longer the cost of ineffectual action based on shallow comprehension of what we are doing, and the consequences of our actions. Likewise, we can not simply resume thinking in patterns that lead to the ineffectual action in the first place. We have to recover our senses, reflect and inquire using sound and rigorous principles. And then act on the basis of a deeper comprehension.











Johan Strümpfer

December 1996

31/07/2006 Thinking and Action, Version 2.doc

Revision 1.0







[1] Address delivered at conference, From Thinking to Action: Making Systems Work, University of Cape Town, 5-8 November 1996, at Old Mutual, Cape Town.


[2]  Address: Dr JP Strümpfer, Programme for Systems Management, Menzies Building 522, University of Cape Town, 7700 Rondebosch, South Africa. Tel +27-21-650-2600; fax +27-21-689-27-37; e-mail: jps@engfac.uct.ac.za

[3]  This section draws on the work of my colleague, Tom Ryan, School for Engineering Management, University of Cape Town. Quoted sections are from unpublished material by TB Ryan. 1995-1996.

[4]  L Bouwer, Nedcor. Unpublished workshop material. 1996.

[5]  C W Churchman, Design of Inquiring Systems, Basic Books 1971; or: The Systems Approach and Its Enemies, Basic Books, 1979.

[6] J Strümpfer, Understanding and Achieving Meaningful Participation in Organisation and Management, Paper presented at the conference for South African Institute for Management Scientists, University of the Western Cape, September 1994

[7] G Vickers, Freedom in a Rocking Boat, Penguin Press, 1971.

[8]  P Senge, The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday-Currency, 1990.

[9]  A van Buisbergen, Nedcor. Unpublished internal report, October 1996.


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