Seeing the words “Critical Systems Heuristics” may tempt you to run screaming from this post, but please hang in there while I distill what this important framework and addition to the systems thinking body of work has to offer our social change efforts! CSH is attributed to Swiss social scientist Werner Ulrich and his efforts to bring critical analysis to the boundaries that we construct around and within systems. Far from being primordial, these boundaries and divisions are an expression of what people see and value from their particular perspectives. As Ulrich writes, ” The methodological core idea [of CSH] is that all problem definitions, proposals for improvement, and evaluations of outcomes depend on prior judgments about the relevant whole system to be looked at.” His effort is to help make these boundary judgments explicit so that both those affected by and those implementing such judgements might see alternatives that better serve the whole.
Ulrich is also careful to say that what he has to offer is less a step-by-step technique and more of an attitudinal approach and invitation to deeper reflection, one marked by the understanding that our perceptions are self-limiting. A starting point then is for each of us to understand what “facts” and “values” are included and which are left out of our perceptions of different systems. Ulrich highlights what he calls the main “boundary issues,” that together help us to understand the nature and validity of a claim (about a problem, opportunity, outcome):
- Basis of motivation – Where does a sense of purposefulness and value come from?
- Basis of power – Who is in control of what is going on and is needed for success?
- Basis of knowledge – What experience and expertise support the claim?
- Basis of legitimacy – Where does legitimacy lie?
And he goes on to offer some more focused questions that correspond to each of these issues that help to surface not just what is but what “ought to be.” These have some interesting parallels to and overlap with questions we raise in our practice at IISC around stakeholder analysis.
Sources of Motivation
- Who is (ought to be) the client or beneficiary? That is, whose interests are (should be) served?
- What is (ought to be) the purpose? That is, what are (should be) the consequences?
- What is (ought to be) the measure of improvement or measure of success? That is, how can (should) we determine that the consequences, taken together, constitute an improvement?
Sources of Power
- Who is (ought to be) the decision-maker? That is, who is (should be) in a position to change the measure of improvement?
- What resources and other conditions of success are (ought to be) controlled by the decision-maker? That is, what conditions of success can (should) those involved control?
- What conditions of success are (ought to be) part of the decision environment? That is, what conditions can (should) the decision-maker not control (e.g. from the viewpoint of those not involved)?
Sources of Knowledge
- Who is (ought to be) considered a professional or further expert? That is, who is (should be) involved as competent provider of experience and expertise?
- What kind expertise is (ought to be) consulted? That is, what counts (should count) as relevant knowledge?
- What or who is (ought to be) assumed to be the guarantor of success? That is, where do (should) those involved seek some guarantee that improvement will be achieved – for example, consensus among experts, the involvement of stakeholders, the experience and intuition of those involved, political support?
Sources of Legitimation
- Who is (ought to be) witness to the interests of those affected but not involved? That is, who is (should be) treated as a legitimate stakeholder, and who argues (should argue) the case of those stakeholders who cannot speak for themselves, including future generations and non-human nature?
- What secures (ought to secure) the emancipation of those affected from the premises and promises of those involved? That is, where does (should) legitimacy lie?
- What worldview is (ought to be) determining? That is, what different visions of ‘improvement’ are (should be) considered, and how are they (should they be) reconciled?
How do these critical boundary questions shift your thinking about a change opportunity?