Inquiring systems and asking the right question | Mitroff and Linstone (1993) – Coevolving Innovations – David Ing


Source: Inquiring systems and asking the right question | Mitroff and Linstone (1993) – Coevolving Innovations


Inquiring systems and asking the right question | Mitroff and Linstone (1993)

Inputs, Operator, Outputs, Guarantor

Fit the people around an organization; or an organization around the people? Working backwards, say @MitroffCrisis + #HaroldLinstone, from current concrete choices to uncertain futures, surfaces strategic assumptions in a collective decision, better than starting with an abstract scorecard to rank candidates. The Unbounded Mind is an easier-reading follow-on to The Design of Inquiry Systems by C. West Churchman.

This scorecard metaphor shows up in the second of five ways of knowing (i.e. inquiring systems)

Inputs, Operator, Outputs, Guarantor
Figure 2.2 . An inquiry system [Mitroff & Linstone (1993), p. 32]

Chapter 3 is “The World as a Formula: The Second Way of Knowing”. A case study commonly used in business school education is described.

To illustrate the use and meaning of the Analytic-Deductive IS in a social realm, we’ll apply it to a situation that on the surface at least is as “simple” as the question that occupied us in the last chapter. There is a somewhat dated yet classic case in the Harvard Business Review that provides a perfect depiction of the Analytic-Deductive IS. [5] Four men are running for the presidency of a fictitious life insurance company, Zenith Life. Background information on their strengths and weaknesses, families, career history, skills, and so on, is given for all four, although we do not receive the same information for each of them. Thus, we know more about one candidate in one category than we do about another. Also, the history and current nature of Zenith Life itself, its prospects and problems, its opportunities as well as threats, are described. The central question of the case is, “Which of the four candidates is best qualified to head Zenith Life, given both its past history and its current condition?”  [pp. 41-42]

  • [5] Abraham T. Collier, “Decision at Zenith Life,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1962, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 139-157

In all the years that we have given this seemingly “simple case” to scores of students and executives, the typical response has remained remarkably the same. Almost every student and executive — whether they worked individually on the case or in small groups — built a single, simple model that selects one and only one of the candidates as best for Zenith Life. The models are virtually the embodiment of Analytic-Deductive reasoning whether the students and executives were aware of this or not; in most cases, they were not.

The models essentially work as follows. A set of attributes that are characteristic of leadership is determined or specified: for instance, how charismatic each of the candidates is; their capacity to inspire others; the ability to formulate a vision of what Zenith Life needs to be in the coming decade; to present one’s ideas in a direct and persuasive manner so that others will want to join on; a clear sense of ethics and the ability to make decisions that are ethical and moral; their past job performance — job history, personality, and so on. Other variables such as”family support” were also included. Each candidate is then scaled on each attribute to the degree that the individual either embodies or possesses it. Typically, a score of “1” represents the absence of a particular attribute or poor performance on it, whereas “10” indicates the complete possession of an attribute or high performance. On more sophisticated models, the attributes are weighted differently so that, for example, the category “ethics” might be rated three times more important than one’s score in the area of “past job performance.” The “best candidate” to run Zenith Life is then selected on the basis of who has the highest score on all the attributes and their weightings.  [p. 42]

So, the scorecard would look something like this:

Attribute Weighting Candidate #1 Candidate #2 Candidate #3 Candidate #4
Charisma a % ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10
Capacity to inspire others b % ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10
Ability to formulate vision for next decade c % ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10
Presenting persuasively for followers d % ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10
Ethics, moral decisions e % ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10
Past job performance f % ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10 ? / 10
—— —— —— ——
Weighted total ? ? ? ?
Rank (of 4) #? of 4 #? of 4 #? of 4 #? of 4

By the analytic-deductive scorecard, the “objective” top-ranked candidate has the highest weighted score. However, this may not be the “best” way to select a candidate.

Almost never does an individual or a group build more than one model in order to demonstrate explicitly that, depending on the initial assumptions one makes, not only can one specify very different leadership attributes — and hence build very different models — but, as a result, one can select very different candidates as “best.” Even rarer is the individual or group — although this has occurred — who turns the whole case on its head by working backwards with the presumption that each of the candidates is “best,” but for a very different kind of company. That is, suppose one starts by assuming that each candidate is “best” and then asks the critical question, “What are the characteristics of the different kinds of companies for which each is ‘best’?” This approach thus creatively reverses the whole decision as one of specifying a new company to carry Zenith Life ahead in the coming decades.  [pp. 42-43]

The criticism comes from Mitroff having been a coauthor of Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing for approaching ill-structured problems (much of which was developed alongside West Churchman’s doctoral supervision).

In essence, nearly everyone who reads the case and analyzes it assumes, almost without question, that it is a bounded, well-structured problem. Most people believe that the attributes or characteristics of leadership are obvious or self evident; much like a machine, that phenomenon of leadership can be decomposed or broken down into its constituent parts. In addition, not only do they assume that any individual’s leadership abilities can be scaled in terms of each of the separate components, but, further, that the weighted sum of scores on each component makes sense and is virtually the same as the whole phenomenon itself. To put it mildly, this is quite a body of assumptions.

While there is often much argument and heated debate between various individuals and groups over who has the single best or the right model, very few individuals or groups doubt that “out there, somewhere, the definitive book, expert, or mathematical model on leadership exists. In essence, the fundamental assumption is that critical human problems can be reduced to a formula, a cookbook mechanical procedure. The trick is just to find the right model and apply it correctly.

It’s all that simple — or is it really? Of course not. Indeed, it is often far easier to convince people that there are no simple models than to persuade them that there are. To see this, suppose we change the questions of this and the last chapter.  [p. 43]

It’s possible that the preference for an “objective” answer is to reduce conflict. For greater creativity, perhaps more conflict is desired.

Instead of asking the seemingly neutral question that in turn seems to call for a factual response, “What are the expected tonnages in steel for the U.S. versus Japan in the year 2000?,” suppose we had asked instead a much more volatile question such as, “Suppose someone very dear and close to you and in their early teens had been raped brutally; whom would you appoint as a panel of experts to make the critical decision whether to grant an abortion or not?” Further, instead of asking for a model on something so prosaic as leadership as we did in this chapter, suppose that we had asked instead, “Build a model to make the decision whether to grant an abortion or not?” It comes as neither a great shock nor a surprise that these questions are treated very differently and evince very different responses. Now different assumptions become extremely vital. The discussion becomes even more heated between individuals and groups. The consensus over experts or models that may have flowed freely and easily before has all but evaporated. Everything has suddenly become contentious, as well it should. The problems or questions are no longer well structured. The very phrasings of the initial questions, which were not in dispute before and perhaps were even irrelevant, now become exceedingly critical. The ways in which the questions are posed and the assumptions made bear heavily on what counts as answers. The feelings aroused are so strong that they spill over to the supposedly more neutral and well structured issues, so that if we ask the question of forecasting steel production in the year 2000 and the selection of a president for Zenith Life after we have asked the more inflammatory questions, then these have become ill-structured issues as well. [pp. 43-44]

Way later, in the book, in Chapter 6 “Unbounded Systems Thinking: The Fifth Way of Knowing”, I noticed an exceptionally concise compression of the linkages from Edgar A. Singer (the doctoral supervisor of C. West Churchman) down to Ian Mitroff’s thinking.

In 1896, the great American philosopher William James of Harvard University wrote a letter to Provost Harrison of the University of Pennsylvania recommending Edgar Arthur Singer for a position in philosophy at his institution. James wrote that in his thirty years of teaching philosophy, Singer was the “best all around student” that he had had “in the philosophic business.” There was no aspect of philosophy that Singer could not do well.

Singer went on to a long and distinguished career in American philosophy. Among his many outstanding students was C. West Churchman from whom Mitroff studied philosophy of science at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1960s.

The point of this all too brief bit of history is not just that the first author can trace his intellectual lineage back to one of the world’s most distinguished philosophers, and one whom both authors admire greatly, but that Singer was one of the most important participants in the founding of the modern systems approach. Churchman in turn extended Singer’s ideas significantly and their ideas form the philosophical basis for the modern systems approach. [p. 92]

With that, the Systems Approach is briefly described.

The upshot of Singer’s analysis was that there were no elementary or simple acts in any science or profession to which supposedly more complex situations could be reduced. Every act or action performed by humans was complex and therefore had within it a complex series of other actions. Furthermore, unlike the scientists and the philosophers of his day who believed that some sciences such as mathematics or physics were the most basic or fundamental, Singer believed that there were no fundamental sciences to which all others could be reduced. Since it was necessary at some point to involve every science in the actions of every other science, all the sciences and professions were equally fundamental. No single science stood at the top of the totem pole or hierarchy of science and in essence, every science depended on every other.

This fundamental notion of interconnectedness, or nonseparability, forms the basis of what has come to be known as the Systems Approach. In essence, the Systems Approach postulates that since every problem humans face is complicated, they must be perceived as such, that is, their complexity must be recognized, if they are to be managed properly. Notice the emphasis on the critical words “managed properly.” As a critical human activity, science, or the creation of a very special kind of knowledge, must be conceived of and managed as a whole system. [pp. 94-95]

The Unbounded Mind has been an easy-reading entry into the Systems Approach for many. It’s worth reading.


Churchman, C. West. 1971. The Design of Inquiring Systems: Basic Concepts of Systems and Organization. Basic Books. Alternate search at . Snippet view at

Mitroff, Ian I., and Harold A. Linstone. 1993. The Unbounded Mind: Breaking the Chains of Traditional Business Thinking. New York: Oxford University Press. Alternate search at Preview at