Critical systems heuristics

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Critical systems heuristics supports boundary critique, which aims to handle boundary judgments systematically and critically. It provides questions in four areas:

  • "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?"

The questions, which follow, are asked in the 'is' and 'ought' modes, to reflect fact and values, respectively.

(1) Who is (ought to be) the client or beneficiary? That is, whose interests are (should be) served?
(2) What is (ought to be) the purpose? That is, what are (should be) the consequences?
(3) 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?"

(4) Who is (ought to be) the decision-maker? That is, who is (should be) in a position to change the measure of improvement?
(5) 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?
(6) 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)?"

(7) 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?
(8) What kind expertise is (ought to be) consulted? That is, what counts (should count) as relevant knowledge?
(9) 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?"

(10) 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?
(11) 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?
(12) 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?"


The tool is a “framework for reflective practice based on practical philosophy and systems thinking” and was developed to aid “socially rational planning” (Ulrich 1983, Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Bern: Haupt. Paperback reprint edition, Chichester: Wiley 1994, p15).


Reference: Ulrich, W. (2005). A brief introduction to Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH). ECOSENSUS project website, The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK, 14 October 2005 (PDF 255KB).

Also available at website of Werner Ulrich: (PDF 255KB).

This tool is also included in the td-net Toolbox for Co-producing Knowledge featured elsewhere in I2S resources:

Posted: May 2011
Last modified: November 2015

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