Holistic Understanding

Holistic understanding of systems age messes requires problem solvers to formally account for elements contained in both hard and soft approaches to complex problems. A hard system perspective includes notions such as objectivity, unitary viewpoints, and quantitative assessment; while a soft systems perspective evokes subjectivity, pluralistic perspectives, and qualitative assessments. The attributes of the hard and soft systems approaches are depicted in Table 2.2.

The contrast between the views represented by the soft and hard systems approaches leads to significantly different perspectives of the problems encountered by the problem solver or problem solving team. The soft perspective considers organizational, managerial, policy, political, and human factors, while the hard perspective tends to deal with only technical elements, those that can be reduced to

Table 2.2 Attributes of hard and soft systems approaches (Adams & Meyers, 2011, p. 167)


Hard systems view

Soft systems view


A real world exists external to the analyst

Perspectives of reality are dynamic and shifting


Factual, truthful, and unambiguous data can be gathered, observed, collected, and objectively analyzed

Data are subjective in collection and interpretation—analysis strives for transparency


The system in focus is unaffected by either the analysis or the analyst

The system in focus is affected by both the analysis and the analyst



The results of analysis are replicable

Results of analysis are credible and capable of compelling reconstruction


The analysis can be conducted free of value judgments

The analysis and interpretation of analysis is value-laden


The system in focus can be bounded and the analysis can be controlled—this is both possible and desirable

Bounding of the system in focus is problematic, control of the analysis is questionable—emergence is dominant

Fig. 2.3 Messes as the intersection between hard and soft perspectives

objective measures. The hard perspective is more appropriate as a stand-alone approach for dealing with machine age problems concerned primarily with technical solutions, whereas the soft perspective is more concerned with social systems, ones that are primarily devoid of technical considerations. Figure 2.3 shows how both approaches contribute to the development of understanding for systems age messes. Messes occur at the intersection of these two perspectives and thus, require both soft and hard perspectives to be considered in order to achieve an appropriate level of understanding.

The most fundamental, and therefore first, step in achieving a holistic understanding of a mess is to first formulate articulate its constituent problems in a manner that is conducive to further exploration.

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