It’s the people; not the systems…

…I’m a student of Systems Thinking, I’m not saying I’m a good one, nor a bad one, it’s just that systems thinking appeals to my Spock like logic; my wife’s words not mine. I have similar ears which doesn’t help my case. As I’ve got older, thinking systemically is becoming more intuitive to me; whether its at the individual level, the community level, the organisational level, the economic level or the environmental level, all these things are inextricably linked and it seems increasingly undeniable that every action has impact elsewhere. If in doubt, ask Planet Earth.

Now, and not before time, the concept if not the practice of Systems Thinking is starting to generate some interest in the Public Sector, a Public Sector that finds itself wrestling with an increasing and diverse range of wicked problems, a Public Sector that has exhausted its existing stock of conventional off the shelf approaches and in these times of austerity is now also denied access to the “throw more money at the problem” option. It’s as if by default the penny might finally be dropping, perhaps the smell of the coffee could be starting to waft slowly through the crisp clean sanitised corridors of the Public Sector, the realisation that the world is complex, people can be complex and the simple silo thinking solutions that disparate government departments have doled out since 1066 are just not cutting the mustard (mustard; who ever came up with that one?). Wouldn’t it be marvellous if adopting a systems view of the environment started to become a necessary prerequisite step in developing an informed understanding of a situation. As HL Mencken famously observed, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” Did banning Class A drugs reduce their use, has sending every student to University in search of a degree guaranteed them a well paid job and did 24hr licensing create a continental style cafe culture in Britain’s urban centres…you get the gist.


However, there is an unfortunate, if not frustratingly predictable flip-side to this new found enthusiasm for systems thinking, so it’s not surprising that one of the more common phrases being used in Public Sector circles, one that is now trotted out regularly to explain each inevitable sad predictable failure that occurs is, “that it’s the system and not the people”…this simple explanation of why things go wrong is arrived at by people who have discovered the mantra that “every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets”…this comment is widely attributed to a Dr Paul Batalden, a Healthcare system improvement guru who is apparently also a big fan of the equally snappy phrase, “if we keep doing what we’ve always done we will get what we’ve always got”, which on the face of it sounds plausible until you realise that every once profitable business that has hit the wall of bankruptcy and disaster thought exactly that. To keep doing what you have always done and expect to get the same results is actually the real lunacy, once you realise that the world around you is constantly changing. Would Roger Bannister even make it into the stadium never mind into the record books in 2014?…”It’s ok Roger, just keep doing what you’ve always been doing, the fast people will have to slow down soon.” Hmmm…

Of course, the statement about systems being perfectly designed to produce the results they get is factually correct; my Spock like logic gets it. The “but” that you can feel coming is that each system also depends on the presence and compliance of the actors within it to achieve whatever results it gets. And this is where systems thinking can unwittingly become an excuse for amoral leadership; denying accountability by saying “its not my fault, its the system” is just too easy, and lets face it, it doesn’t work in a court of law so why we think it is a valid excuse for Public Sector failure is a bit of a mystery….”I’m so very sorry your honour, I didn’t mean to assault and rob that old lady, its just that the system was perfectly designed to make me do it”…would this simplistic excuse for a chosen course of action really be any different to a Public Sector leader saying, “I’m so sorry for wasting your money and failing to provide adequate services or care to your community, patients, service-users (insert as appropriate) that led to them being exposed to harm but the system was perfectly designed to make me do that”. It wouldn’t and shouldn’t wash with anyone.

The reality is that sometimes it will be the people and not the systems that are at fault, sometimes it will not just be the lack of courage, compassion or competence, but the malignant presence of conflicting motivations, selfish ambition and wilful blindness that are at work…and these should not be tolerated as coping mechanisms for helping hapless people navigate their way through imperfect systems, they are and should be seen as proactive choices to skew the system in the service of self-interest.

Live long and prosper…or as we say on Planet Earth, best wishes for Christmas and a peaceful New year.


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