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An enjoyable and thought provoking romp through systems thinking

Never ask one question where three will do...

Our Education Committee brought together the Worshipful Company of Management Consultants and Systems and Cybernetics in Organisations for a delightful evening exploring systems thinking and why management consultants are behind the curve. The speakers, including our very own Benjamin Taylor, delivered their insight, experience and wisdom with perfect timing.

But what did we learn, and where does it take us? Here’s my take on what was said and what it means (with apologies for any grievous misinterpretations) including some thoughts on the questions from the floor.

A video of the event is now available at with questions and answers at

What exactly is systems thinking and who are systems thinkers?

Systems thinking is... a different way of going about thinking. It involves systems laws and methodologies. It incorporates such things as system dynamics, soft systems methodology and viable systems modelling. There are a diversity of systems thinking approaches, but all of them have something in common at an abstract level, for example: that in order to understand, we need to see things as an organised whole. The whole system has properties (known as ‘emergent properties’) which belong to no individual part, but only exist through emergence.

If you want to think about systems then look at the car. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The speed of a car is a property of the car not the components of the car. An individual component won’t generate the speed.

Systems thinking involves us looking at causal loops rather than linear causality. Systems thinkers are like cats. There are no loyal, slavish dogs in the systems thinking world.  

And why would systems thinking be of interest to consultants? Well, when you’re stuck (and let’s face it, you often are), then systems thinking always gives you a coherent alternative. We need to be honest and face up to the fact that most strategy, change and project management doesn’t work. Systems thinking solves the problems you can’t solve.

One example of systems thinking is the ‘Viable System Model’ (VSM), which has a very different view on how organisations work from conventional approaches, and provides radically different answers to many common and intractable management problems. Based on a model of the brain as applied to the organisation, it allows us to see the organisation as a living thing.

It’s not always a question of which approach is better – but rather a question of which can work.

Not new but a better paradigm

Systems thinking is not new – it originated in the 1920s and arguably arises from the work of Aristotle. Systems thinking becomes part of our identity when we act as systems thinkers – a benefit but also a risk, as some people become more attached to the identity than the results they can achieve!

Other barriers to systems thinking were explored:

·         Capability is an important consideration. There are different levels of capability of thinking, different paradigms of thinking – not everyone is capable of systems thinking at any given moment, depending on their personal development and perhaps what’s going on in their lives.

The nature of incentives and procurement methods are not helping clients achieve the best outcomes because the thinking is being boxed in.

·         The nature of systems thinking is about creating questions more than generating answers but that can be threatening. Innovation is threatening. How might we make clients (and consultants) more comfortable with their discomfort? That we don’t need to rush to a standardised answer?

·         The consultancy profession suffers from paradigmatic blindness – why has the world not changed with me? Systems thinking enables us to offer a better explanatory paradigm – the concept of “explain more.”

Sufficient is no longer sufficient

The capabilities of management which were sufficient in the past are no longer sufficient in a world of ever increasing complexity. We need a new way to address capability and thinking. For instance, why is the front row of the seminar always empty? It results from our experience of education. It creates a broad pattern (avoiding the front row) which becomes a systemic issue.

There’s an old story about a drunk looking for his keys. He looks under the lamp post in the light and the good Samaritan approaches him and asks him where he lost them. “Over there,” he says. “So why are you looking under the lamp post,” says the good Samaritan. “Because the light’s better over here” says the drunk. Ultimately the drunk is using the ‘frame’, (the lens and the light) that he has to find his keys, even though that’s not where his keys are, and it means he will never find them within that frame. It’s time to change the frame.

We need a new mode of thinking. Too many senior executives admit to being completely baffled and we’re not helping them. So what’s the answer?

Firstly, define the problem. We need to help the organisation get past its silos, we need to ultimately get better at organising the organisation. And we need to recognise that current management training simply encourages silos.

Organisations can’t emerge bottom up, rather the organisation is coherent - when you understand how then it becomes easier to understand and simpler.

Issues or opportunities?

·         Learning mindset or expert mindset? Experts can take us into corners. It’s more important that we each have a learning mindset rather than an expert mindset. Life-changing events are good at developing the shift which encourages an interest in learning and growth.

·         Artisan or highly trained kids? We need artisans in consulting (and management) to solve the problems. Clients usually want one of three things (a) an answer, (b) a method or (c) a brain transplant. We can take clients on a journey from Concept (the basic laws) through Methodology to Method and Practice. However, we shouldn’t start where the highly trained kids in some consulting firms start – at the Method end. That’s the destination, not the start of the journey, and not the place which enable the best outcomes.

·         The trouble with MBAs? An MBA is an expensive education and it trivialises systems thinking in how it is taught. MBAs are great at breaking down things into little bits. This works for some things but not for others. It’s easy to put a bicycle back together but not a frog.

·         The trouble with language? Organisations are full of words – yet words don’t always support thinking but rather constrain it. We need a new way of thinking. We need to relearn thinking.

Where is the value for the client?

Consultancy sales forces are often pressured (much like sales forces anywhere else). It leads to people gaming the system – making (juking) the stats and evading the information. Ultimately no one trusts the information but the organisation keeps on collecting it anyway with more and more devious means of faking it. What a waste! We need, as consultants at least, to change the metric to ‘value for client’, rather than hours/fees billed to hit the target.

The key value of the systems approach is it shows when something will work and when something won’t work.

It’s fundamentally simple stuff, not completely mysterious – we know it, we’ve got to join the domains.

The trouble with values

You can’t move for values statements these days – but what do they actually mean?  Are behaviours (arguably an embodiment of actual values) not more applicable? Isn’t purpose the ultimate indicator?

Each organisation has an identity. An organism is literally the ‘characteristics of being alive’. We need to look at, and learn from, biology and self organising systems to make better application of organisations. There is a huge disconnection from values statements created in retreats which ultimately mean nothing back in ‘the real world’. Systems thinking allows us to describe the same thing from different points of view. Cybernetics is the undiscovered brilliant idea of the 21st century.

Where does systems thinking in consultancy go from here?

Systems thinking has value in backing up gut instinct and the use of learned expertise. We need to remember that tools only project a model.

There is a market perception issue re systems thinking which may explain why it is not used more widely – a less than positive brand. It would be extremely useful to develop a methodology and a common language of systems thinking within consulting. Whilst systems thinking is arguably not consistent (or completely agreed upon) within its own community, it makes it less likely to be appropriately championed and utilised in the consultancy sector to the benefit and value of clients. There are lots of students of systems thinking but a small market for them to enter. There is much to offer but the connection is not quite made.

That sounds like a job for a consultant but hopefully one taking a systems thinking approach!

An edited version of the video of the event will be made available on the WCoMC YouTube channel in due course. A big thank you to Angus Jenkinson, Patrick Hoverstadt and Benjamin Taylor for their six minute insights (and answering questions on the panel) and to the delegates from the floor for incisive questions (sometimes in multiple parts) and some interesting feedback.

For more on Systems Thinking Practice and to join a community of Systems Practitioners, take a look at and for a deeper grounding in Systems Thinking take a look at Ray Ison’s work at









Dr Simon Davey, Freeman

All errors acknowledged and are the authors own. Omissions and corrections will be published in the next addition of this newsletter....