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Mastering systems thinking in practice
Mastering systems thinking in practice

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2 Purposeful and purposive behaviour

It is possible, as observers, to ascribe a purpose to what we or others do, the actions we take. How particular actions, or activities are construed will differ between observers because of their different perspectives, which arise from their traditions of understanding. Even if we do not ascribe purposes to our own actions, another observer may infer our purposes by observing our actions and their outcomes, so that in their eyes we implicitly have a purpose to our actions. Ascribing purpose is an important process in taking a systems approach to managing complex situations. It also raises the question as to whether there is any relationship between what an observer can distinguish when he or she wishes to claim an overarching goal, a common purpose, a set of shared values, or a common ethic. When I think about these I see little difference, but each term means different things to different people, and each has a particular history of use in different intellectual traditions.

Within systems thinking, purpose is a contested notion. However, purpose is always attributed to a system by someone. Within systems practice the attribution of purpose can be a creative, learning process. I am reminded of Peter Checkland’s story of working to improve prison management and seeing purpose – and thus system – in terms of ‘rehabilitating criminals’; ‘training criminals’; ‘protecting society’; etc. Stafford Beer said: ‘the purpose of a system is what it does’. But for me this is too constraining as it runs the risk of objectifying ‘the system’. I would rather employ the notion of purpose in a process sense, within the process of inquiry. This would lead me to ask: what might we learn about the situation if we were to think of a prison as if it were a system to train criminals?

For me there is also a risk in reducing the notion of purpose to mean an objective or goal that can be achieved, and in some cases optimised. I make this distinction because the important aspect of systemic practice, compared with systematic practice, is exploring or inquiring of a situation: ‘What would I learn from attributing purpose to this situation?’ Alternatively the question might be posed as ‘In reflection what purpose do I attribute to my own actions in this situation?’

Thus two forms of behaviour in relation to purpose have also been distinguished. One is purposeful behaviour, which Checkland (1993) describes as behaviour that is willed – there is thus some sense of voluntary action and is particularly applicable to human activity systems. The other is purposive behaviour – behaviour to which an observer can attribute purpose, which can be ascribed to engineered or even natural systems. This is also at the heart of the difference between thinking about systems as ontological or epistemological devices.