Benjamin has 20 years experience at public service transformation in the UK. As Chief Executive of the Public Service Transformation Academy, a not-for-profit social enterprise awarded the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy, he is a leading thinker on system leadership, service design and transformation. He is an accredited power+systems trainer, a visiting lecturer in applied systems thinking at Cass Business School, City University, and has lectured at Nottingham Business School and Oxford Said/HEC Paris.
Some things I’ve learnt:
- Learn the difference between complexity and complicated, technical challenges.
- Dealing with complexity requires collaboration. To succeed co-design, enlist discretionary effort, be honest, accept you don’t have all the answers.
- Community is the antidote to uncertainty.
- To get more power, you have to give up control.
- Take time to ‘see’ the system. Think about illuminating the rules of the game, the effort and learning it takes to stay dysfunctional, the power of community.
- Listen out loud, ask good questions, start from strengths.
- Ask: Who do we want to be? What could I do to create a shared view across the whole system for the people in it? What thoughts or questions does this raise for me?
- Confront people with their gifts.
- Think massive, start very small. Help people to explore and experience change and shape it, within limits.
- Make your best prediction about how your changes will land. Take responsibility for all the outcomes, the actual experience of all the people in your organisation and all the people in your community, however great or sh*t it is. And as it turns out different from your prediction (because it will), think about why that is. Then you’ll be working in learning world too.
- Experimentation is the antidote to certainty, confront people with reality.
- Real change is dirty work. Don’t fool yourself you’ve learned anything until you have tested it in the real world. And even in the ‘real world’, don’t think you are learning if you’re not predicting and reflecting. When we take responsibility for learning about outcomes, we will get there
Some of the challenges:
I see the locus of challenges within our communities of systems practice, rather than externally:
- There are a growing number of systems ‘gurus’ who in my view are all about creating ownership to develop power. This is well covered by the title of a blog piece Richard Veryard wrote on a related subject: ‘Wrecking synergy to stake out territory’. (could you share the link, I cant seem to find this)
- There are ‘Systems Curmudgeons’, the people who stand on their expertise and attack those who ‘get it wrong’.
- And early-stage systems enthusiasts who create new movements that follow a ‘hype cycle’ which ends in failure, that is completely predictable to those who know the history.
- Funding can be a problem too – funding initiatives that take systems thinking out of managing business risk. Doing so makes programmes less organic, less well-adapted, and less effective.
- I think that the only way to counteract all of this is to patiently and consistently build network links, explain weaknesses and try to come up with an overarching narrative that talks about what each model explains, explains what they don’t explain, and explains why.
Systems of interest
I work on helping public services in the UK (and Australia) to transform themselves. More broadly, helping to change people's experiences of organisations, as employees and as customers/citizens. And, wider still, helping people to see systems and change them.
My systems change network
I am a systems change network enthusiast – more of a curator and a learner/sharer than a joiner. I work at the overlap of theory and practical organisational change. Some of the networks I’ve been involved in:
- SCiO – Systems and Cybernetics in Organisations – the best learning group I've experienced. It includes Practitioner development days and Peer speaker days with about 250 people. This is cheap and accessible.
- The London design and systems thinking meetup group (200+ folk)
- On LinkedIn, Systems Thinking Network and on Facebook, The Ecology of Systems Thinking.
- The ISSS and UKSS (International and UK Systems Societies). I am a visiting lecturer on the very interesting Cass Business School undergraduate Applied Systems Thinking course.
- The Public Service Transformation Academy, a not-for-profit social enterprise I founded, which supports capacity and capability building for public service leaders, and the Cabinet Office Commissioning Academy, which we run. The PSTA will publish its first annual 'State of Transformation' report on public service transformation in April next year - collaborators and sponsors are very welcome!
- Model Report is list I curate as a way of organising articles and links on systems thinking.
- RedQuadrant is a network consultancy which very much welcomes applied systems thinking. We work with about a hundred associate consultants a year from a pool of over a thousand.
- Barry Oshry's work –Power and Systems and The Systems Letter. Watch Barry at SCiO and PwC.
- Navigating Complexity, Arthur Battram
- Viable System Model, Stafford Beer – start with the explainers on SCiO then go on Beer, and try Patrick Hoverstadt's Fractal Organisations. Patrick’s Patterns of Strategy, co-authored with Lucy Loh, should transform the field of strategy and is enormously valuable in many contexts.
- For a 'the process as a system', try Joiner's Fourth Generation Management, Scholtes' Leader's Handbook and Team Handbook, for public services try Richard Selwyn's free Outcomes and Efficiency, dip a careful toe into I Want You to Cheat and other works by John Seddon and from the same stable, but stepping into ‘the community as a resource’ or strengths-based approaches, try Richard Davis' Responsibility and Public Services.
- For a beautiful little summary that goes way beyond its title, look for Total Quality Management by Develin.
- The Little Book of Beyond Budgeting by Steve Morlidge is another tiny read that sneaks systems thinking in by the back door and makes total sense, and Beat the Cuts by Rob Worth brings us back around to a Deming-esque view of public service processes (not necessarily systems – but critical to know).
- Try anything from Peter Block, especially Flawless Consulting and his work on Abundant Community. Anything from Marv Weisbord, particularly the short Tools to Match Our Values, and some Ed Schein... and I could go on! Adaptive Leadership by Heifetz and Lipsky is valuable too, as is the literature on 'wicked problems' and related concepts.
- I think there's little more powerful in organisational life than combining the Viable Systems Model with Elliot Jacques' Organisational thinking (updated, and with valuable additions, not all of which I agree with - in the brilliant but very academic Systems Leadership Theory by Macdonald et al). Luc Hoeboeke's Making Work Systems Better is perhaps the only work I know that combines them, as I do in my work.
- Two fairly recent additions are Ed Straw's video Stand & Deliver: How consultancy skills and systems thinking can make government work
- And I haven't even mentioned soft systems method, Nora Bateson's work… or the book I co-authored (not systems thinking in a meaningful way, but opening up thinking) - The 99 Essential Business Questions.
As a systems network builder, how do you fund yourself?
All pro bono! I can't help myself – I just find myself doing it – and I've never received a penny (well, about £150 per 'visiting lecture' – but that means forgoing a bit more income for a consulting day). We don't even pay expenses at SCiO. However, it shades right across my day job(s) at RedQuadrant and the PSTA, so I support myself somehow. One day I would like to make all my living in systems-related work, (though isn't every type of work systems-related?), and I certainly get amazing value from the networks I am in.