Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Systems Thinking in Public Sector -has the time for application finally come?

It started with the Stefan Stern article in the Financial Times ‘Change the way you work’. However, failure of large systems, whether in financial services, public sector or industry, is not big news any more. Yet, little has been said about practical and long lasting ways to deal with this global and endemic problem. So, it is refreshing to read the following:

Systems thinking requires a profound shift in … the design and management of work,…reversing current norms to go from ‘push’ to ‘pull’, and placing the development of workers, individually and collectively, at its heart.”

If companies want to get better at what they do, then their people have to be able to learn. …
Working within a rigid framework that is designed to achieve imposed targets makes it almost impossible for employees to learn.

Then today The Times has article ‘New way’ thinker John Seddon aims at council targets’
While ‘systems thinking’ here is an interpreted version, the approach is clearly catching attention and strikes at the core of some burning issues by:

Mr Seddon advocates what he calls “systems thinking” — designing services entirely to meet the demands of local customers. …

Mr Seddon rejects the term “best practice”, replacing it with “better practice” because, he says, each problem requires its own solution. He believes that the focus on best practice has caused “the worst ideas from the private sector to be copied in the public”. …

“… I’m in the business of helping people to think,” he says bluntly.

In reply, Norman Strauss wrote the following comment also published in The Times:

Mr Seddon is right to champion systems thinking. The customer’s
appreciation systems ( my phrase ) are indeed the ultimate and proper
masters and arbiters of public services, their design, systems, processes,
products, people, costs and delivery.

However, care must be taken to ensure that learning systems, innovation
systems and service ecosystems are not driven by public opinion ab initio;
or nothing strikingly new will ever be envisioned, created, tested,
developed and produced again.

Major improvements and new demand technologies have to be created by
visionaries, made to work, and their purpose explained effectively, before
they can be best appreciated and needed by customers.

Progress does not come easily.

Simplistic targets can indeed prevent creativity, design and change. They
can kill commitment.

Researching present and future customer needs/demands cannot be done by
focus groups or surveys alone.

Customers cannot create major technological, scientific or industrial
breakthroughs. They can only comment on them once they have been
developed, communicated and used to create new demands.

The phrase alternative demand technologies says it all.

What all three items show is that the time of real application of systems thinking has come. The expertise needed to make this happen is not widely spread in spite of a growing number of knowledge workers in the workforce.


July 31, 2009 - Posted by | Business thinkers, Civil Service Reform, Government, Letters, News, systems thinking, Vision | , , , , ,


  1. Hi Lilly,

    this must be one of the few sites that has not attracted a whole host of participants and commentary and I wonder why?

    Is it that the openning comments pose as many questions as John Seddon’s work on Public Services Reform seeks to remove?

    How then do we engage in learning? I genuinely don’t know, otherthan to commit to learning and re-learning and after 28 yeras of working in the public sector/services I now realise I know less than I’d ever thought I knew. That is to say, more precisely, I have less confidence in the prevailing thought leadership actually benefiting the intended recipients. what to do?

    Well, i’ve re-cast my own thinking back to the work of Alec Nove/Ernest Mandel (see new left review 159/161 in 1987) but also that of Rudolph Klein(Lloyds Bank Review June 1984)and added in John Broome’s work on Ethics and Economics and Transitivity and Existence Values. Why? well as far as my experience tells me the multiple perspectives, both ideologically and otherwise, have been put in the blender and i’m keen to step back and take a look at what has emmerged.

    Why, because there’s a need for a fresh thought basis for action, or for the spontanity of actions of those ‘othered’ by current conventions to inform new learning.

    I’d welcome your thoughts on this and what I do know is that many others would too, so, and if its Ok, i’ll pass this link on – its rather like someone turning the light on having spent some time fumbling around in the dark – not even knowing there was a light or switch in the first place.

    So, many thanks, to you and Norman

    warm regards,


    Comment by alec fraher | September 9, 2009 | Reply

  2. This is actually among the better reports with those that I have continue reading this specific subject these days. Great function.

    Comment by Maribeth Bascomb | November 16, 2010 | Reply

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