Systems thinking and hearing voices

Last summer, I read John Seddon's Systems Thinking in the Public Sector.  I have been intending and failing to set out some reflections on it since then – and have now left it long enough that I will have to read it again before I can write the sort of post I originally intended.  It is a brilliant book which is at the same time deeply flawed.  The brilliance is in applying the discipline of systems thinking to the world of target-based management and demonstrating the counter-intuitive and counter-productive results that that world produces – putting some real depth and insight to the simple statement of Goodhart's law.  The flaw – or at least the deep frustration – is that the style and tone will not readily engage the attention, still less the inspiration, of the public sector managers so deeply steeped in current ways of doing things that they find it next to impossible to imagine an alternative, let alone to apply it.  That's not as much of a criticism of Seddon as it may sound:  his frustration is palpable and understandable.  But it still makes it harder to use the book as the kind of tool which Seddon clearly intends it to be.

All that is prompted by the fact that he has just published a new paper, with the the slightly less than snappy title, NI 14 ('Avoidable Contact'): from the horse's mouth.  It is focused on the very specific question of avoidable contact or failure demand – with a central argument that you can't solve a problem caused by arbitrary and irrelevant targets by setting a new arbitrary and irrelevant target to get rid of the problems caused by the first lot.  It's two further advantages are that it's seven pages rather than a couple of hundred and that – for me at least – it strikes a better balance than the book between a central argument which is deeply critical of much of what underpins public sector management and a style which risks making the operators of that system more defensive rather than more open to change.

Thanks to the Great Emancipator for spotting it.

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