systems thinking


Last weekend I went to my first unconference ; ScotGov Camp in Edinburgh. I had pretty high expectations as I always follow the London camps. There was real mix of people there - folks from Huddle, various Government orgs, Greener Leith, Openly Local, Learning Pool, We Make Sense, Firmstep, South Lanarkshire council, Helpgov, East Ayrshire Council, Flock local, Edinburgh council, Womens Aid, Digital Scotland and the NHS.

As always, hat tip to Dave Briggs for keeping us on our toes and making the room laugh. He kicked the day off with a blank agenda that quickly filled up with topics from around the room.

I stuck a post it up there about Big Society in Scotland and introduced the session by summarising my experience at The Future of Conservative Thinking in London ; an event that ended with "The Big Scottish Question" ...

You can watch the session on the video below ; featuring @kateho, @wemakesenseux ,@greenerleith, @improvementmike, @peterashe, @bretthusbands, @ScotGovCamp, @suchprettyeyes, @flocklocal, @cal444 ...

[vodpod id=ExternalVideo.962164&w=425&h=350&]

Lot's of interesting points of view and thank you to everyone for coming along!  For anyone wanting to know more about this stuff Carolyn recommended The Selfish Society: How We All Forgot to Love One Another and Made Money Instead - it seems to be a good resource for understanding how can we get back to basics.

The conclusion of the conversation was summarized by Peter reinforcing that it's not really optional ;

"If we keep going the way we are going we will have to build a 600 bedded hospital in Scotland every 3 years - starting in 2016"

This is a very difficult time for Scotland but one that is full of opportunity. Although, this optimism did waver at times with much discussion around the barriers we face and how this affects people without the capacity and resources - the end result being this should be about delivering services equally and social justice!

So how do we cause change? Will we even use the phrase the Big Society - probably not? You can read a write up of the session here. We choose to buy into this idea or we choose to ignore  it - regardless things have to change, in a big way and fast...summed up nicely by Brett;

"We can only do what we can do . We can choose to do it and that's it."

I then hung out in the Digital Scot session ran by Michael Fourman who started the conversation by asking the room "How can Scotland keep up with the rest of the UK?" I was surprised to hear that Glasgow has an under 40% uptake of broadband , compared to Aberdeen and Edinburgh having over 70%. Although it is something we think about alot over @Mypolice - we see evidence that many of these communities struggle to put food on their dinner table but have Virgin TV.

But what does "disconnectedness" really mean? How does effect people's lives? I agree that being digital is not an add on - it is communication that is part of an infrastructure. Someone used the analogy of transport to describe Digital Scotland with fibres under the road, lots of people travelling for different reasons in different ways. But is it just enough to give people a computer and give them broadband? What about learning?

"it's not about connectivity - it's about content"

Inspired by Mary from Learning Pool six of started our own little session in the afternoon to talk about how we can get more young people into government.  I now know that the average age of someone who works in a local authority is 47 years old and there is no one in Birmingham council under the age of 25...

The people in the room agreed that the way councils work is removed from the way young people work so it seems alien to them. We wondered if councillors feel responsible for spending tax payers money during their daily lives? the way MP's are being encouraged to do?

@cal444 told us about her trip to her local primary school where she asked some ten-year olds "What does the council do?" and the response really wasn't great, considering they deliver over 800 services. One lad claimed "They pay the rent when we run out of money" ...

It seems to be a recurring conversation in a local authority to ask "Why do I have to do it this way?" and hear "Cos it's the way we have always done it"

So the message is let's do things differently and dont' ask why just do it

Delivering Public Services That work

A little bird told me there has been a interesting follow up to John Seddon's book 'Systems Thining in the Public Sector' which is being described as 'proof of the pudding' Delivering Public Services that Work is a book of Case Studies showing how Systems Thinking has been applied to a particular public service in six local authorities. Each case study – written by the manager or project leader responsible – describes what was done, how it was done and the results achieved.

'Someone rang me just to thank me this morning. They didn't want anything. They just wanted to thank me. I've worked here for 8 years and that's never happened before. I was so surprised I didn't know what to say.' Team member, Stroud District Council, quoted in Delivering Public Services that Work

Seddon's prescription then and now (for the UK and for any other country using the quasi free market model for public services) is this:

  • scrap the myth of 'choice' (because the public don't want a choice of hospitals, they want a good hospital)
  • scrap targets (because they don't work and people spend their time trying to massage the statistics)
  • scrap specifications (because they're wrong and they don't work)
  • scrap inspections (because they're expensive to do and to prepare for and they only serve to ensure that people are doing the wrong thing correctly – meeting bad specifications)
  • scrap 'deliverology' (because it's nonsense)
  • scrap the obsession with sharing administrative and back-office services in huge call centres and 'data warehouses' (because they don't work half as well as front offices where people talk to the public)
  • scrap the Audit Commission (because it's a white elephant)
  • scrap the centralised regime that oversees the disastrous public sector (because it is the problem)

Then use systems thinking to understand and fix problems and deliver joined-up public services that ...

  • work better
  • work faster
  • save money
  • delight the public and
  • delight the people who deliver those services.

This book offers practical examples of how 'systems thinking' can both save money and transform services.

"There is currently a lot of talk of 'designing services around customers', of 'better community engagement', and of 'innovation in the front line'; all laudable ideas but with little more than hope that they will produce improvements in services.  This book showcases exactly how to go about realising those hopes; it lays out clearly the method to be adopted and demonstrates the results that can be achieved. It should be the first thing anyone aspiring to improve our public services should read." Andy Nutter, Director of Governance and Transformation, Islington Council

John Grant talks Systems and Services

Greengaged: Co-opportunityCo-opportunity: A Day for World Builders takes place on the September 22, 2009, 9:00am to 6:00pm at The Design Council.

"With a focus on the emerging structures of service design, John Grant has curated a day looking at systems; why they fail and how we can redesign them to work more effectively. Team up with John and brainstorm new sustainable business models for the banking system, presenting them to the dragon’s den!

It is now impossible to ignore the continual rise and impact of new service networks; from Freecycle, Wikipedia and city car clubs through to transition towns. So, how can the design industry apply an approach of ‘holistic system design’ to benefit topical commercial issues, such as the bank crisis, for example?

Co-opportunity is about how co-operative, community systems have the potential to build a more sustainable, resilient, prosperous society at all levels – working for the common good.

The day contains a rich set of case studies from the pioneers of new systems and experts in collaboration who will feed you with amazing new insight, ideas, and system-based models. In John’s engaging approach to workshops you will learn about co-operative systems by actually creating solution – starting with the world’s financial banking system – as an example of the power of systems redesign.

Co-opportunity is the title of John Grant’s next book, to be released later this year by Wiley."

Looks awesome and it's free to attend! Will you be going?

Systems Thinking v. Design Thinking

Fast Company's Fred Collopy writes about Lessons learned - Why the Failure of Systems Thinking Should Inform the Future of Design Thinking. Last month I read about Systems Thinking and spent an afternoon talking and asking questions about it.


Design and "design thinking" is gaining recognition as an important integrative concept in management practice and education. But it will fail to have a lasting impact, unless we learn from the mistakes of earlier, related ideas. For instance, "system thinking", which shares many of the conceptual foundations of "design thinking", promised to be a powerful guide to management practice, but it has never achieved the success its proponents hoped for. If systems thinking had been successful in gaining a foothold in management education over the last half of the 20th century, there would be no manage by designing movement, or calls for integrative or design thinking.

Callopy argues that Systems Thinking never really captured the imagination of business leaders. And we must learn from its mistakes. He proposes we learn and subscribe to a theory or system of thought that is based on ideas from design and managers and policy makers will become designers of a sort particularly suited to their circumstances.

Masterclass with John Seddon

Last week I attended a Master class with Professor John Seddon: Beyond Targets in the beautiful Oran Mor in Glasgow. Having recently read John's latest book "Systems thinking in the Public Sector" I was keen to learn more about the parallels and differences between a systems thinkers and a service designer. I attended on behalf of the team at Thinkpublic to learn more about the how the public sector and third sector can work together to move ideas forward.

The aim of Seddon's work is to get people to change the way they think. An array of subjects were highlighted throughout the day ranging from adult social care, pot holes, housing benefits to retail banking. Not to forget the familiar example of  why we have to stay in all day and wait for the fix it guy to mend our broken phone...but he never really fixes it does he?


A lady from the audience highlighted that the event may well have been called "Thinking in the Public Sector" and I agree. It seems that thinking with people in mind is quite rare in the public sector. Taroub Zahran from The Glasgow Housing Association revealed they now provide an ideal service as they have changed their availability from 9am till 4.30pm to offering 24 hour a day, 7 days a week help line. I was bewildered to hear them saying that putting people at the heart of their service was huge change in thinking for them.

"Millions of pounds of tax payers money is wasted because we design services badly"

I heard the phrase "It is a design problem" several times. Although, in conversations with John, council workers and social workers afterwards - they believe that system thinking is very different from service design. It seems to me they are very much the same thing. System thinker or service design you deal with problems before they happen, you understand problems and study systems to learn where change is needed.

People get too caught up in quick fixes and short term solutions. How do we move this thinking forward?Are we making the best use of our systems?How can the third and public sector work together?

Designing a system or a service is a journey of improvement and empowerment that is all about change. It is about an increase in pride - intangible satisfaction. Services need to match with the people, not the other way around. We need to work from the outside in - spend time understanding what we do - what we do right and what we do wrong.

I strongly recommend John's book for those of you who are interested in services and systems. Freedom Command Control Better and Profit Beyond Measure were also mentioned for further reading.

I propose Systems Thinking is a shift in perspective rather than something completely new.