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 | , , , , , | 2 Comments

If you see what is required in good time why is it so difficult to open minds of opinion formers?

Those with the classical education know about the fate of Cassandra. For others suffice to say that by telling truth to power got her into deep trouble. This may not be so dangerous in our times, yet it is certainly not appreciated and most likely totally ignored.

Just follow the controversy brewing about Sir Gus O’Donnell’s comments reported in the Financial Times about the vacuum at the top of US Treasury civil service in times of real crisis. We can add to this the thoughtful follow up by Willem Buiter in his Maverecon blog post To the victor go the spoils: who answers the phone in the US Treasury? in the same paper who points out the costs The price of the US spoils system: the emasculation of US macroecononomic policy making. However, only two days earlier in the same paper two eminent USA professors have declared about the same situation that When a house is on fire, you put all your initial effort into putting it out.

Lets turn to the economic situation in UK. A day earlier in the same paper we have an article where Gillian Tett in Lost through destructive creation starts off with:

Six years ago, Ron den Braber was working at Royal Bank of Scotland in London when he became worried that the bank’s models were underestimating the risk of credit products. But when the Dutch statistical expert alerted his bosses to the problem, he faced so much disapproval that he eventually left.

“I started off saying things gently . . . but no one wanted to listen,” Mr den Braber recalls. The reason, he believes, lay in “groupthink . . . and pressure to get business done” – as well as a sheer lack of understanding about how the models worked.

Tales of that nature go some way to explaining how the west’s big banks brought themselves to their present plight and tipped the world into recession.

Now remember, this is the paper that has twice ignored the attempts by Norman Strauss to point out how these issues can be addressed at the fundamental level first in Q3 2008 and then in December 2008. Yet the Editors are willing to give space to the contributions like the most recent An unruly phenomenon in constant need of social control.

Let Cassandras have their say! Otherwise we will be indeed stuck with the closed circle of Future of Capitalism Top 50 leaders with no new face from another discipline, a young thinker or an old rebel among them framing the debate about all our futures!

PS I have just spotted a letter that fits some of the contrarian criteria Let a few uncomfortable truths appear on your pages, FT by Dr Roman Wolczuk. A case of synchronicity or?

March 12, 2009 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Future of Capitalism, Government, Leadership, Letters, News, Politics, Strategy | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The case for live wires in Whitehall- how far has it happened 25 years on?

Above we relate why The case for live wires in Whitehall is relevant today in the financial crisis. Simply, it would appear that little has changed in the Civil Service from those days almost 25 years ago! One needs only read Sue Cameron articles in FT, like Can-do civil servant in a world of wait-a-minute men and Tory cleansing of clipboard men to see that this is still a far of goal.

Yet, we are now in the grip of a crisis that affects UK at large and requires decision making capabilities in the Government and within Civil Service that far exceed those available. We do not have years to get this into place. And external consultants per se would not do. Ray of hope is that some Ministers like Lord Drayson recognise this you can hear his specific suggestions stated at NESTA on 4th December 2008. He emphasised the need for fast decision making, ability to take risks and need for taking responsibility by civil servants working in his Department.

May the real reforms begin.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Government, Innovation, Leadership | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Times Archive – what does the lecture from 10th January 1984 have to do with NHS Reform and constitution?

When I was doing my PhD in Artificial Intelligence it used to be said that ‘it takes 17 +/- 3 years’ for ideas or research to move from academia to marketplace.  It would seem that the same equation holds for the advanced ideas to be revisited again in the public life.  Trouble is that while in technology and IT we can see the impact of their implementation from the results in the marketplace, when it comes to UK Government (Labour as well as Conservative) and Civil Service of the day (Central / Whitehall as well as Local Government) it remains at the level of rhetoric.

So, the enclosed article summarises Norman’s ideas from as long ago as early 1980’s.  Now, almost 25 years later, one can quote major parts word for word and the reader could be forgiven for thinking they are newly written.  Try the two excerpts below:

Mr Norman Strauss behaves similarly with ideas, packing more into one lecture than others would use during a year. On occasion, there is a need for interpretation. That is, I believe true of his recent speech on constitutional reform.

It starts from the well-worn, but topical, theme that the complexity and difficulty of modern government are setting a task clearly beyond the current system. He therefore identifies, as I would, what is essentially a management problem in the broadest sense. “Productivity and efficiency can apply just as much to ideas about improving central government as they can to say, the health service.

and immediately after:

Norman Strauss’s worry is that information and technology seem to be outgrowing the competence of governments to manage them and at the same time to provide adequate satisfaction for citizens and maintain their trust. This is happening in an age when demands for information for knowledge and for participative democracy are becoming strident. Here is the first new twist in the argument. Mr Strauss believes that “some issues are now so complex that leaders must no longer be allowed to monopolise facts, knowledge and resources. This is especially true when higher standards of education coupled with the information revolution make it possible for those with special expertise, interests or insights to comment on what is happening and to do so for the wider benefit of society”.

In Mr Strauss’s view, this goes beyond freedom of information legislation, in suggesting a fundamental change in structures and organization. He sees the new technologies as giving the possibility for the government to make available not only the facts it possesses, but also insight into its thinking, analysis. decisions and strategy.

So, compare the above with the rather simplistic NHS Report changes and the laughably pedestrian, actually downright dangerous measures and one-dimensional, targets still applied for measuring progress in spite of the unprecedented technological advances. Yet, the powers that be are closed to listening. This applies as much to the professionals with vested interests however good their intentions, as it does to politicians in Government. Worse still, the Opposition is even more blinded having learnt nothing from the Thatcher years!

Any ideas?

And now, enjoy the full article.

Times 200184 Thatcher critic_Sir Douglas on Norman

One can only hope that Lord Darzi does not take Yes Minister he is bringing with him to Desert Island as the way things have to be!

July 3, 2008 Posted by | Civil Service Reform, Leadership, Strategy, Systems | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment