By Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley
Systems leadership involves organisations, including governments, collaborating to address complex issues and achieve necessary systemic transformations. So, if this is the case, how can systems leadership be helped by systems thinking?
Systems leadership is concerned with facilitating innovation by bringing together a network of organisations. These then collaborate between themselves and with other stakeholders to deliver some kind of service, influence a policy outcome or develop a product that couldn’t have been achieved by any one of the organisations working alone.
Recognising that a network of organisations can achieve something that emerges from their interactions involves a certain amount of implicit systems thinking. After all, the classic definition of a ‘system’ is an identifiable collection of two or more parts that has properties, or achieves outcomes, that can only be attributed to all of the parts interacting, not any one of the parts in isolation. These properties or outcomes may be intended (eg., a service, policy or product), unintended (eg., contributing to climate change), or both.
However, systems thinking, when pursued explicitly, involves much more than just recognising that a network of collaborating organisations is a system. It helps leaders review a wide range of opportunities for change by encouraging them to question the existing system – the boundaries of it, different perspectives on it, the relationships within it (and between it and its wider environment) and how the parts cohere into a system with particular emergent properties, achievements or impacts. Any or all of these forms of questioning could be relevant to addressing a complex issue and achieving a transformation.
Through systems thinking, leaders can generate deeper insights, guard against unintended consequences and co-ordinate action more effectively. Various systems thinking approaches exist. They can help guide (but should not dictate) processes of deliberation to improve complex problematic situations and develop more desirable futures.
Although each individual systems thinking approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, the true power of systems thinking comes from exploring the unique context at hand and designing a bespoke programme that draws on the best of many approaches. Principles and methods may be borrowed from one or more of the available approaches and creatively combined. Some of these are discussed below.
How to question assumptions
Decision-making is inevitably based on underlying assumptions about the boundary of the issue at hand, and therefore what purposes should be pursued and what values are relevant. Systems thinking can be used to surface these assumptions and consider alternatives. A number of approaches address this, including:
- Boundary Critique, or who and what should count?
By asking who and what should count early in a project, conflict and marginalisation (of both people and issues) can be identified and addressed. Understanding power relationships helps people decide which subsequent systems approaches are going to be most appropriate for policy or service design.
- Critical Systems Heuristics, which offers twelve boundary questions.
Questions such as: ‘who or what should benefit from the service, and how?’ and ‘what should count as expertise?’ help guide reflection on what the system currently is, and what it ought to be. They support people in thinking about motivation, decision-making power, sources of knowledge, and legitimation. The full set of questions can be found in a blog post by Gerald Midgley on Critical Back-Casting. The questions can be phrased in plain English, and can therefore be answered by ‘ordinary’ citizens as well as policy makers. They are particularly useful in multi-agency settings when there is a need to rethink governance.
How to explore wider contexts
Although it can seem overwhelming to explore wider contexts, there are established approaches that help with mapping the bigger picture and thinking about strategic responses:
- The Strategic Choice Approach for joined up decision making and handling uncertainty.
There are four phases of strategic choice:
This helps people think about uncertainties and contingencies. It also offers a tool to visualise multiple interacting areas of policy or practice, the options available, and how compatible they are with one another. Thus, policy or service packages can be assembled that address a range of economic, social and environmental challenges.
- shape people’s understandings of the multi-dimensional problem;
- design several packages of possible policy responses;
- compare these packages; and
- choose between them.
- The Viable System Model for assessing the responsiveness of an organisation or multi-organisational network to a changing world.
An organisation has an environment, comprised of all the changing economic, social and ecological needs, demands, opportunities and threats that the organisation might have to respond to. The Viable System Model looks at how an organisation responds to its environment in terms of operations (eg., service provision), coordination, management, intelligence about the future, and strategic oversight. The model can be used at multiple scales, so, where appropriate, relationships between local, regional, national and international systems can be visualised. It can be used to diagnose problems in existing organisations and networks, or to design new ones. Although the visual representation of the model can look complex at first, it is widely applicable and can yield powerful new insights.
How to engage people
Systems thinkers need to welcome a variety of stakeholder and citizen viewpoints, and account for them in designing or refreshing policies, services or products. Common approaches include:
- Soft Systems Methodology, offering visual techniques for exploring different stakeholder perspectives.
This involves four main activities:
Soft Systems Methodology helps stakeholders learn collaboratively about complex situations and generate better mutual understanding of their different viewpoints on desirable and feasible change.
- ‘rich picture’ building, to get a visual ‘map’ of people’s perceptions of a complex problem;
- identifying possible transformations that could be pursued from different stakeholder perspectives, and visualising the actions that would be needed;
- reflecting on the options and asking what kind of transformational approach is likely to best address the problem situation; and
- finding accommodations between stakeholders to agree the most desirable and feasible way forward.
- Community Operational Research for citizen-engaged transformations.
Community Operational Research is about working participatively with local communities. It draws on several systems thinking approaches, including those discussed above. The focus is on meaningful community engagement in setting agendas for transformation and acting on those agendas. This work resists the top-down design and implementation of policy in favour of co-design and co-production with multiple stakeholders, communities and citizens.
Implications for systems leadership
All of the above are design-led approaches. They can aid us in thinking and acting more systemically, and they generate ‘on the ground’ insights by cultivating collective intelligence. Most of the approaches can be used in workshops, either bringing stakeholders together, or working with separate groups when power relationships make that more appropriate. Since the onset of COVID-19, many such workshops have been moved online.
If informed by these kinds of systems thinking approaches, the systems leadership practice of the future could be more exploratory, design-led, participative, facilitative, and adaptive – addressing complex, multi-faceted ecological, social, cultural, economic and personal priorities through the deliberate adoption of a process of shared endeavour. It could also help leaders better tackle the single-organisation or single-department ‘silo’ mentality that so often threatens to undermine systems leadership.
Questions for readers
What has your experience been in using systems leadership and systems thinking to address complex problems in government or other organisations? Do you have additional methods, tips or experiences to share? Do you think that useful distinctions can be made between the terminology of systems leadership and systemic leadership?
To find out more:
This blog post is adapted from the following resource, written for and published by a branch of the UK Government:
Hobbs, C. and Midgley, G. (2020). How systems thinking enhances systems leadership. National Leadership Centre, London. (Online): https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/926868/NL-thinkpiece-Systems-Leadership-HOBBS-MIDGLEY.pdf (PDF 340KB). This also provides references for all of the approaches described.
In addition, the format of this National Leadership Centre think-piece was based upon three of the five operational principles around ‘what matters?’ drawn from Catherine Hobbs’ Adaptive Learning Pathway for Systemic Leadership. For a fuller account of the Adaptive Learning Pathway and summarised descriptions of more approaches (eg., strategic assumption surfacing and testing, metaphor, Cynefin, causal loop mapping, interactive planning, lean, and vanguard), see Catherine Hobb’s (2019) book: Systemic Leadership for Local Governance. (Online): https://www.springer.com/gb/book/9783030082796?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIxfrNgcmR7wIVDSIYCh0-yQKuEAQYAyABEgIvUPD_BwE; and, her blog post Adaptive social learning for systemic leadership.
Biography: Catherine Hobbs PhD is an independent researcher located in North Cumbria, as well as being a Visiting Fellow at Northumbria University in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. She is a social scientist with experience of working in academia and local government, with a focus on developing multi-agency strategies in transport and health. She is interested in developing better links between the practice of local governance and scholarly expertise in order to increase capacity to address issues of complexity through knowledge synthesis. She is also interested in the potential of applying and developing a variety of systems thinking approaches (in the tradition of critical systems thinking), with the innovation and design movements in public policy.
Biography: Gerald Midgley PhD is Professor of Systems Thinking in, and Co-Director of, the Centre for Systems Studies in the Faculty of Business, Law and Politics at the University of Hull, UK. He also holds Adjunct Professorships at Linnaeus University, Sweden; the University of Queensland, Australia; the University of Canterbury, New Zealand; Mälardalen University, Sweden; and Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. He publishes on systems thinking, operational research and stakeholder engagement, and has been involved in a wide variety of public sector, community development, third sector, evaluation, technology foresight and resource management projects.
19 thoughts on “How systems thinking enhances systems leadership”
Thank-you Catherine and Gerald for your article. During a long career in management consulting preceded by working in a range of industry and government agencies, I found that what I used to call “Complex Adaptive Systems Thinking” (CAST) had universal application in managing all human endeavours. The first key I would mention is to understand that “partially autonomous agents” or individuals (having their own values, interests and incentives, having particular resources and relationships they can exploit, and having capacity to form alliances) capable of influencing results, are indeed entities in the “system” (and its environment) being managed. Second, is the need for leaders to adopt and follow a small number of straightforward management principles, and then to promote alignment (and in turn encourage leadership) among their people.
That makes sense. One of the oft-repeated principles of systems thinking is that “human systems are different” (compared with natural systems without human components), as the purposes of the parts (people) may or may not align with the purposes of the system they are part of – and they can change over time too.
Thanks, Graeme, for your interesting comments. I like your terminology of “Complex Adaptive Systems Thinking” as having universal application in managing all human endeavours. I wholeheartedly agree that enhancing an ability for humans to be adaptive is a core (joint) endeavour. Regarding your comment on your first key, my experience is that certain individuals would find leeway or ‘wriggle room’ within a ‘system’ and its environment being managed, to think and work differently. These curious people tend to favour a collaborative style of working and don’t have a hang up about saying they don’t know something! Leading to your second key – promoting alignment and in turn encouraging leadership among their people – such leaders who work differently to the visible norms are perhaps inherently willing to ‘give’ their leadership away, thus being able to galvanise human resources more broadly, whether they are senior in a hierarchy or not. I do think many people have this style naturally and can happily function beneath the radar. However, we now perhaps need this sort of aligned effort around principles that you describe to be better acknowledged, rewarded and more overtly accepted.
This discussion on both leadership and systems thinking is quite relevant today. One key aspect is how you make things happen. Knowing about different systems and model based approaches to problem solving is not enough. It also matters how you implement the approaches. There is always a personal impact. People have different styles and competences. This is the theme studied in the new emerging area of Behavioral Operational Research see e.g. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0377221713001197.
Complex problem solving with systems thinking is not a one-time event with stakeholders but a participatory process with different stages of modeling and stakeholder engagement. This whole process needs leadership. Managing a modeling approach or a systems thinking session is not enough. A leader does the right thing whereas the manager does the things right. There are different leadership styles and it is important to assign the leadership role to someone in the project. We have discussed this in our recent paper which was referred to in our blog post: https://i2insights.org/2021/02/02/leadership-in-participatory-modelling/ .
The personal systems skills of the leader are important. This relates to the type 3 systems leadership referred to in the post of Benjamin P. Taylor. Taking a systems perspective from outside is insufficient. This is emphasized in the work of Senge et al. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_dawn_of_system_leadership which is nicely summarized in the review by Harry Begg : https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/945426/Systems_Leadership_Rapid_Review.pdf
We have developed the concept of Systems Intelligence to emphasize the personal skills needed in succeeding in complex settings. Problem solving creates a social system but the system and its context also matters. A system thinker always becomes part of the system of problem solving. She needs to understand her impact on the social system and the impact of the system on her. The Systems Intelligence perspective suggests a personal and action oriented focus on systems where emotional aspects are also emphasized. For more texts visit http://systemsintelligence.aalto.fi/ .
Thank you Raimo for making these points about relevant links with Behavioural Operational Research, leadership in participatory modelling, the ‘type 3’ personal systems leadership skills and your concept of Systems Intelligence, as well as for providing links to further reading. I shall read your papers and about the work of the Systems Intelligence Research Group with interest.
It seems that there has been a rapid development in thinking and action which aligns systems thinking and leadership skills: that is all to the good. I have also found this paper of Sue Goss a helpful one: https://traverse.ltd/application/files/4915/3062/4273/Systems-Leadership-A-view-from-the-bridge.pdf – “Systems leadership is at core a learning process”.
Due credit to the National Leadership Centre for the series of think-pieces around four leadership themes (one set on the theme of systems leadership) (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-leadership-centre-research-publications), the rapid literature reviews (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/nlc-public-service-leadership-literature-reviews) and for organising a series of leadership-themed roundtable interactive workshops last year in the UK (which Gerald and I were both involved in), all of which went on to inform key areas of research interest and were reflected in the iteration of NLC’s leadership development programme and network activities. Their intention for the think-pieces was for “evidence-based provocations to drive transformational change in the way leaders collaborate, and influence how public services are led and delivered’.
Thanks for those resources. I am particularly keen on your last point about emotional aspects being included. I have found these to be pivotal, both in terms of enabling (even in some projects almost ‘compelling’) engagement of stakeholders who could otherwise walk away, and also in the sense that a good systemic process takes people through an emotional journey. Emotionally flat workshops are rarely transformative.
This emotional journey is indeed the key element. As the traditional system thinking approaches do not suggest direct ways to improve our ability to take socio-emotional systems phenomena into account in people engagement we need new tools. Systems intelligence suggests a perspective and tools for this such as the self-evaluation test ( http://salserver.org.aalto.fi/sitest/en/ ) and the gamified learning approach ( https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/sres.2750 ). In a longer lasting problem solving projects it is not only the facilitator or systems specialist who needs to learn to deal with the socio-emotional dynamics but that is also required of all the participants. On the organizational level a proficient leader is able create systems intelligent behavior in the whole organization
It’s not entirely true that systems thinking approaches are completely blind to the role of emotions. There are a number of people who use Maturana and Varela’s (1992) understanding of the ‘braiding’ of rationality and emotion. This suggests that “changing one’s mind” is a matter of switching between two rational domains (i.e., two coherent but mostly closed language games), and the switch happens via the emotions, which redirect attention to the need for a new way of thinking. There are some good examples of this informing systemic intervention – for instance, Bilson (1997) in the journal Systems Practice. He has a couple of great case studies of intervention into emotional understanding. Having said this, I think there is much more to be considered than just this understanding of rationality and emotion, but the opportunity is to enhance systems thinking in this way rather than abandoning it.
Hello, I find the point about “Boundary Critique, or who and what should count” especially illuminating. Too many times the sensemaking process that proceeds decision making was done by a selected small group of people or by external expertise (eg. consultants). I believe it is a big reason why we end up with bad decisions — people who count were not included. Rethinking boundary, getting away from expert and inviting “outside” voices in is one of the key shift we need to make in practicing systems leadership.
Yes, I’ve been writing about this for thirty years now. There are theories of conflict and marginalization within that body of literature as well, which can usefully inform understanding the dynamics that lead to destructive decision making.
Hello Gerald – and delightful to see all the institutions, including Hull, that you are still contributing too – QU too! I hope all is well with you and yours as I am sure it is. I really like your idea here of a systems group, almost like an action learning set, which can do the work, demonstrate the benefits relevant to a specific context, while maybe enabling championing/social and formal learning opportunities in strategic locations to support that transformational change in high risk settings. And as Catherine also says – hello Catherine! – we are certainly seeing tipping points even in Australia with the type of leadership you are describing … it’s still a matter of the wave gathering force before it overwhelms the cliff though…. the place of systems thinking and practice in supporting the whole system (dualist and beyond) through this dynamic of change is paramount for institutional stability that is not based on power imposition and damage to people, but appropriate intelligence that holds wellbeing at its centre.
Thanks, Susan. “appropriate intelligence that holds wellbeing at its centre” is a very apt phrase as the basis for this. You may be interested in the Human Learning Systems approach if you have not already come across it: https://www.humanlearning.systems/
This is all useful stuff in my opinion, and the Commissioning Academy and latterly Transformation and Place-Based Systems Leadership Academies, delivered first the Cabinet Office since 2011 or so and since 2016 by the Public Service Transformation Academy have been trying to help public service leaders to develop these skills, and by no means alone in that either! We now have the level 7 systems thinking practitioner apprenticeship which should help too.
In August last year I did a little bit of an overview here: https://stream.syscoi.com/2020/08/03/what-might-systems-leadership-be-and-how-does-it-relate-to-systems-change-a-happily-tentative-essay/
To summarise, I said that I see broadly these types of ‘systems leadership’
1- systems leadership as a thing – a form of ‘better’ leadership (focusing on the leader)
At its worst, this is ‘personal development masquerading as leadership development’, but at its best it is more inclusive, mobilising, and ‘systems aware’.
2- systems leadership as an ‘activity’, more likely to focus on a focus of change from outside the established ‘system’ – as I said, this shades into ‘systems change’ and ‘systems convening’ (the latter forthcoming from Bev and Etienne Wenger-Trayner, https://wenger-trayner.com/systems-convening/)
I see a lot of this, particularly, in the NHS, highly focused on institutional ‘systems’, often with lip-service to one or two of the more obvious critical perspectives. This may be a bit harsh, but gives an indication of the pattern. Very often, this has been the ‘holy trinity’ (as taught at Warwick and on the children’s services development programme) of: Adaptive Leadership, Keith Grint’s definition of ‘wicked problems’. and Mark Moore’s public value theory, somewhat aligned with the Myron Rogers/Meg Wheatley approach – I give four sub-categories in the main link.
Then there’s (3) ‘purpose of change emerging from within the system’ – we might call this ‘facilitative’ system leadership.
And (4) ‘systems innovation’ – typically a ‘growing seeds of the new within the existing system’ (but this, like all the ‘names’ here, is pretty nebulous).
Not forgetting, of course, that there are a number of really excellent approaches called ‘systems leadership’ which are about *seeing the organisation* (or occasionally wider) *as* a system, and working as such; Barry Oshry’s Organic Systems Framework and Mac Associates Systems Leadership Theory (from the Elliot Jacques heritage) are my favourites.
My suggestion, which I think I still stick to, was:
• Worst form – static systems mapping and mechanistic intervention
• Also worst form – complexity woo, handwaving
• Best form, epistemological and ontological complexity (or, better still, non-dualist complexity), appreciation of fundamental human/systems/complexity/cybernetic laws, ethical considerations not mistaken for means, attention to ever-changing nature, contested power and ethical and other dynamics, multiple definitions of system-in-question and of leadership, practical action and triple-loop shared learning.
This latter clearly focuses on the boundary/framing critique that you raise here, and on some of the approaches you highlight.
I do think that this, and the latter part of your piece here, rather undermines the entry point ‘recognising that a network of collaborating organisations is a system’ – because that is probably a rather inadequate definition of a ‘system’, taking as it does the ‘observer’, the broader environment, and the public and other organisations rather out of the picture? I think that is your intention, in fact?
You also asked ‘Do you think that useful distinctions can be made between the terminology of systems leadership and systemic leadership?’
Frankly, I personally find that the real meaning of this (which I know a number of good people value) always eludes and confuses me (and I’m left with just systemic as ‘procedural, programmatic, thorough’, which I know is not the intended distinction); so I don’t find it useful in practice. But I now see it is in the title of your book, Catherine, which I really loved when I read it – I will revisit when next I am united with the RedQuadrant library 🙂
Thanks for those thoughts, Benjamin. Just to pick up on your comment that my focus on systems thinking undermines the earlier, rather simplistic definition of systems leadership – yes, absolutely. The original idea of the piece was to call it “systemic leadership”, defined as the use of systems thinking as part of facilitative leadership, but the referees of the piece wouldn’t have it – they insisted that we use the “systems leadership” terminology. We therefore decided to do it, but tackle the very limited notion of systems leadership and show how it can be enhanced.
Also, I had the experience a couple of years ago of writing that paper on systemic innovation, where Erik Lindhult and I (when we surveyed the literature) found that over half of it was just about cross-organizational collaboration for innovation. We found four different definitions of systemic innovation, but only the least-common one involved systems thinking. That made us write about the need for a paradigm change, but the paper was desk-rejected from the journal “Research Policy” because we were not towing the accepted ‘party line’ on systemic innovation. The editor actually said to me “why don’t you rewrite the paper showing how your explanation of systemic innovation can add value to the conventional one, instead of undermining the conventional one. I realised that he had not understood the fundamental point that “being systemic” is not about working across organizations – you can have systemic innovation even within a single organization. That paper is now under review for “Systems Research and Behavioral Science”. On the one hand I’m glad I didn’t compromise the argument, but on the other, it will end up in a journal that only systems people will read, so I will be preaching to the converted. Shame.
A fascinating insight into the way discourse is shaped! Thanks for that
Thank you, Benjamin, for your thorough response and the links to other material. I particularly like your ‘best form’ list.
There are interesting and crucial linguistic observations raised here. Words are indeed descriptive of what evolves, rather than being static and prescriptive. In the UK and elsewhere, there has been a recent keen interest in ‘systems leadership’ over at least the past 10 years or so. Making distinctions about different meanings and interpretations of ‘systems’ and ‘systemic’ is, to my mind, a fundamentally important opportunity for the field of systems thinking. In this blog – adapted from a commissioned think-piece – we are expanding a commonly-used phrase in new thinking (systems leadership), towards also being informed by allied and more dynamic meanings (systemic leadership) which, in current times, could help with social learning and adaptation. As one of my local governance representatives said when I undertook my local governance-based doctoral research in the UK:
“With a local authority, the ground is shifting constantly. So you can have a testable hypothesis, but the situation changes. The testing approach relies on having a stable platform, like laboratory conditions. So there are two points to be made about this. Firstly, in practical terms it may not be deliverable due to the context changing. Secondly, in empirical terms, you’re studying a diachronic phenomenon by taking a synchronic approach. I think you’re right not to do that.” (2015)
That emphasises the necessity of flexibly adopting a variety of established systems thinking, complexity and operational research approaches (as well as other approaches already in use), each of which (such as Boundary Critique as referred to above) can play a valuable part in transformation. This form of flexible approach permits deeper insights and creativity, and helps move in to the ‘adjacent space of possibility’.
An openness to new approaches was also referred to when I undertook my doctoral research interviews:
“This approach depends on the willingness and openness of the people involved. I think that sort of openness is greater than it once was; the challenges are large and complex. Authorities are accepting that there are different ways of interrogating ourselves as an organization – “what could we do differently?” If you had asked me four years ago, the answer would have been different [i.e., less scope for openness]. This goes back to the granularity you mentioned earlier, the old best practice model isn’t sophisticated enough to cope with that complexity. This is more fuzzy around the edges, turning weaknesses into strengths, instead of going in circles and not progressing.” (Local governance representative, 2015)
I think this awareness, willingness and openness has expanded yet further since then, especially since the onset of COVID. I am aware of what I would call systemic curiosity in the UK at local, national and OECD level. Taking these varied scales of curiosity together, this simultaneous occurrence surely presents an Overton window of potential transformation for the field of public policy, in which established systems thinking approaches can play a valuable part and, in the time-honoured tradition of systems thinking, be developed further to meet new needs and demands.
But the point is that cherry-picking one or two approaches isn’t good enough – what’s needed is the knowledge of a variety of them, as they each do different things, so that these approaches (and indeed new ones) can be developed and applied appropriately. This is an area of high ambition, and a great area of new opportunity for those at an early stage of their career to take on its many facets. Wish I was younger! It’s very encouraging that – amongst other thriving research activities – systems thinking apprenticeships have been underway since 2011.
Really positive and insightful as always – and encouraging to see that this is a government funded publication. Have been trying to introduce systems thinking to government work places for many years, but have found that while people are interested in anything that looks like a solution, there is little appetite to step into the conceptual realm it requires, and little capacity to make the structural changes and bring a whole workplace along with the leadership to make systemic practice capability a reality. It is a big ask even when the policy pressures are huge. There is always a tendancy to fix problems with what people know rather than what they don’t know and trust.
Thanks, Susan, for your kind comments. I have shared the same frustrations and difficulties for many years and certainly agree with you that there has been little appetite to step into the conceptual realm it requires. I think, however, that there is more of a keen awareness now about the need for systemic practice and learning. Sticking with what people know also resonates, and I’ve encountered suspicion about a preponderance of quick fix ‘toolkits,’ amongst which established systems thinking approaches have jostled and fanned in and out of popularity. But I think that something much more fundamental is happening now in a dynamic sense, which needs coaxing in a positive and fruitful direction:
– Developing an openness to starting from where people are (whether academia, policy or practice) and synthesising knowledge and experience. This requires shedding the skins of our previous lives: some people find this easy, some find it hard, if not impossible
– Emphasising that this is not necessarily about (expensive) restructurings but, more simply, the way we think and work together, and involve others
– Adopting ways of social learning as a systemic skillset with which we could better address current opportunities and constraints, rather than adding to the list of toolkits to get fast results.
Hi Susan. Good to hear from you. My experience in the UK is that we’ve hit a tipping point, and there is now massive interest in systems thinking, especially in government. I am in continuing communications with people from several government departments. I reckon the culture in Australia is comparatively anti-conceptual though compared with the UK – very macho, where people seem proud of ‘strong leadership’ rather than collaboration and reflective engagement with complex issues. Perhaps that’s too much of a stereotype, but that’s how it seems when I hear Australian politicians talking. There is real understanding where I am that we need to address wicked problems differently from tame ones, and there are systems groups now in several national government departments, and in many local governments. This has happened relatively recently – perhaps the last three or four years.
Concerning skepticism about what people don’t know and trust, I quite like Sperber and Wilson’s “relevance theory” (but in a moment, I will propose an important modification of it, which matters in this context). Relevance theory suggests that the relevance of a new idea to a person is determined by the ‘cognitive inferences’ that they can get from it (i.e., the value it adds in practice) minus the work they have to do to assimilate it. In other words, if the benefits are not clear, or it will take too much work to learn, people will not see it as relevant. The trouble with systems thinking is that the benefits are really only clear once we have experienced them: until then, its transformative potential just sounds like overblown claims by advocates. Also, because there are so many methodologies and theories, all with their own jargon, it looks like a hell of a lot of work to learn. This is compounded by there being no neat formula for application: it requires exploration of the context and the design of a systemic approach that is appropriate in that context. So it appears to offer uncertain benefits (unknown cognitive inferences) and a lot of work to assimilate.
Now my modification of this idea – SOCIAL CONTEXT MATTERS. If you are part of an organization where a systems approach is valorized, or even expected, then other trusted people are saying that the cognitive inferences are substantial, and the work involved in learning systems thinking is worth it. The social context can tip the balance, making people take it seriously when they would otherwise be dismissive. This is precisely what I am seeing in the UK government context – it’s very, very clear that it’s being institutionalized, and that makes all the difference.