Interview with Gerald Midgley by Dr David Somekh
GM: I think the really interesting thing right now is where we are in terms of the sudden realization that systems thinking is important in the world, and not just a marginal preoccupation in little research communities anymore. It is right at the centre of government, right across multiple stakeholders. It’s been maybe 15 or 20 years since somebody said to me, what do you mean? Computer systems? That kind of basic misunderstanding just doesn’t happen anymore: while people might not know all the different approaches out there, they certainly understand the basics now. The basic idea that we need a more systemic approach.
Compared to back then, when Senge had written the Fifth Discipline (in the nineties), it’s a huge leap forward; a completely different order. And I think several things have happened in the interim. I think the idea that we have an ecological crisis is mainstream, and people are seeing that the economic system is nevertheless still trundling on, in the same direction. Despite a lot of attempts to change things on a more superficial level, the bottom line is that we’re still emitting more greenhouse gases than we can cope with, and creating species destruction, and all of these things. So, people are beginning to ask, well, how can you actually change this? And the big thing that seems to impress people is a realization that we need to change the way we think.
You can’t carry on approaching these sorts of issues in the old ways. The way we think about things has to change, and the way we talk to each other has to change, in order to create any change externally. In my view, systems thinking is the best candidate I’ve found so far to enable that change in thinking and talking. I’m not saying it’s the magic bullet by which we will achieve everything we want. But what it does do is highlight the inevitability of incomplete understanding, and gives you some tools to help you manage that – not, I should emphasise, tools to overcome our human limitations.
You’re never going to get comprehensive understanding, but by doing things like thinking about different possible boundaries and ethical positions that might matter, thinking about different perspectives and what they mean, and bringing the different perspectives together, gives you a bigger-picture understanding of the issue. Thinking about how things connect together too; then you get into feedback processes. Thinking about how systems have properties that come from the whole and are not just caused by a single part. These basic ways of thinking give us a better handle on the complex problems, on the really wicked problems, than more traditional analytical ways of thinking.
DS: For me, while it absolutely makes sense, it’s the problem of how to gain the attention of those holding the levers of power – unless you argue that you somehow displace them by, you know, bottom up people power or something, which is all very well, that’s not going to happen in five minutes.
GM: No, that’s right, but I think the big change for me, the qualitative change, is that it’s people within those centres of power that are now welcoming this. I’m thinking of that in relation to government. So, whatever you want to say about the complexion of our current UK government, they have systems thinkers at the heart of government now, and they’re listened to. That’s sort of integral to the public services, and it’s true right across local governments too. Some of it, especially in the health space, is to do with the tidal wave of health care needs that are being caused by the aging population; and the fact that the current economic system can’t cope with it, meaning that you’re getting social care provided on a shoestring, and those sorts of issues.
I’m in conversations with local government who have responsibility for public health. They’re saying that they cannot continue the way they currently are. They have to find some way of working in communities now to prevent some of this, so their whole approach to health care needs to change, and they are talking about a systemic approach. They’re saying that, in one respect, it’s worth doing for its own sake, because you can actually improve social, mental, and physical activity in communities. That’s good in itself for the population. In another respect though, it’ll also save money. One director of public health I talked with said that the equation is pretty simple. It costs £90,000 a year to keep somebody in residential care. If you can postpone them going into care for a year by having them more active in their community, £90,000 is a lot of money. You can do something with that. We can actually set up a virtuous circle, so you invest it back in improving community relationships, which in turn helps save money on residential care, yielding more funding for investment, and so on.
DS: I think that’s something that, within my trade, has been well recognised for many years. It’s interesting though, that despite the common sense of the local people you’re talking to, you still hear this ridiculous rhetoric of saying we’re going to invest in the NHS by building more hospitals, which is really just going back to a time when policy was run by slogans, rather than any kind of common sense, or holistic systems view of the world.
GM: That is true. As an instance, in another conversation I was having with a director of public health, I asked, “what about the people who have a vested interest in actually increasing their empire of buildings, doctors and these sorts of things?” And he said, “well, it needs to change. We have to actually engage people in that discussion”. And I think engaging is really important. There was a paper by Mike Walsh, Dawn Mahal and colleagues from Stirling University, where they’re talking about how a new approach to community health failed to take off in a region in Scotland where they tried to introduce it. It basically failed because of resistance by the medical profession, as GPs didn’t want to see themselves as being part of an interdisciplinary team, equal with all the other disciplines: they wanted to remain the apex of the medical hierarchy. It was a matter of identity. They feared that their own expert identity was being compromised. The managers who introduced this approach didn’t take account of that. They didn’t engage them in discussion before launching the initiative, and there was resistance to it.
You actually need to engage those who you fear might resist, so they can be part of the solution. People rightly pay a lot of attention to engaging with marginalized stakeholders, but sometimes forget to involve those with the power to frustrate change – or they deliberately keep those people at a distance for fear that they will react negatively, but this only makes them more negative, and more likely to block change. I certainly made this mistake in one of my early projects, back at the start of the 1990s, and it was good learning for me. One of the advantages of many systems approaches is that they support stakeholders in collaboration, and they provide methods to help broaden the perspectives of all the participants and build better mutual understanding. In my experience, the vast majority of people participate in these kinds of projects in good faith, even if they initially have reservations. As long as they are listened to, they are willing to expand their horizons and they therefore buy into an emerging vision of change.
DS: I recall a similar change management exercise run by some scenario experts in Southern Sweden 10 years ago. This was an innovative project where they engaged local communities in developing the rationale of what their health care service would look like. I went and investigated progress, to see how it had embedded, by talking to people seven years later. Unfortunately, the project had disappeared. It had disappeared because it’d been systematically sabotaged by the doctors who had just gradually taken it to pieces. And it’s really a question of engaging the enemy, isn’t it, or seeing whether there’s the possibility of allies in that camp before you start. I think that’s true about change management in general, isn’t it?
GM: It is. Mainstream change management is not really systemic enough. In a conventional approach, it often starts with the management objective and then looks at how you can get people to implement it. And if there are different perspectives on the wisdom of the management objective, you just can’t push people into accepting it against their will without creating a great deal of dissatisfaction, alienation, poor performance and even outright sabotage. It’s got to be a more emergent process. One of the experiences I’ve had, and I must have run well over a hundred projects now, is that it’s a very small number of people who are really unreasonable, manipulative, willing to lie and cheat in order to get their way. With most people, if you treat them reasonably as part of the process, and they actually have some voice in the change, then it can work. That’s true, whether they’re currently at the apex of the system, or whether they’re marginalized: they’ll engage, and they’ll listen reasonably to others as well. I’m optimistic that it can be done if it’s approached the right way. There are good examples of those approaches, like the NUKA system in Canada, which has been going for 30 years. According to the stuff I’ve read on it, in the period where we’ve had such a massive inflation of demand on health services, they’ve actually reduced the use of services by around a third. And that’s not simply by withdrawing services, which would be a really cynical way to engineer that kind of change! It’s because it’s a whole community approach, focused strongly on the prevention of chronic health problems like type two diabetes. So, over time, demand for medical services reduces.
DS: Well, more difficult in big urban areas. But yes, it’s a good start. Tell me though, in terms of what we started with, your main point about systems thinking being taken more seriously, what do you see in the near future as possibilities that excite you?
GM: Several things. I think it’s interesting in the UK that a collection of employers got together and put together an apprenticeship standard in systems thinking. It creates the possibility of seeing systems thinking as a career. Once you’ve got some professionalization around it, it begins to take on a momentum of its own. We’re right at that point now. I was involved in the discussion of that standard when it was being developed, and now it’s been approved by the government. This means that, in the UK, we have a system where there’s a 5% tax on employers, and they can get that money back if they spend it on putting their own employees through apprenticeships. Now they have the opportunity to get some of them trained in systems thinking
I’ve done a bit of market research around that for my own purposes, because we’re looking at whether we can develop that sort of program in our university. And the great difficulty is that nearly every employer I spoke to said “yes, we’d like a couple of those”. So, we could easily fill a first intake of twenty students. The problem is, each employer only wants to train a couple of people – they don’t necessarily want a whole raft of systems thinkers – so a program might not be sustainable beyond one or two years. We have to look at this seriously, because it takes a good few years to recoup the up-front investment costs in launching a new program. So, we haven’t got to the point yet where it’s like an MBA; where it’s a norm that a lot of managers have one. We’re at the early stages, but it’s happening. It’s a good start.
The other really big area is community development. I’m seeing across the country, in relation to all sorts of issues, people recognising the relevance of systems thinking to community development.
When I started out in this field back in the late eighties, I used words like ‘marginalization’ that were just not in the average dictionary of managers and service providers in the public sector. Those words were just not used. Now it’s a regular occurrence to talk about marginalization, and not just in local government, but in the Civil Service at national level too. Things like the black lives matter movement have made it a central concern.
The effects of COVID are going to be a mixed bag, but on the positive side, I think there’s a realization that you have to actually look after sections of the population who can’t just fend for themselves. It feels like, despite all the grumbles about wearing masks and self-isolation, there is now a new recognition of our civic responsibilities. So, support for communities, and especially support for volunteer-led community empowerment and community action, is becoming a normal thing. Systems approaches are really useful in this context – that’s one of the things I have been trying to demonstrate, project after project, for the past thirty-odd years. If we can actually build on this new recognition of our civic responsibilities, it will be a positive legacy of COVID, rather than just letting things slip back to how they were.
I think that’s a positive development. It’s quite possible that politics will move more in our direction in future years. Not to be party political about it, but I would never have anticipated a Conservative government actually paying 80% of the salaries of workers in order to protect the economy. That’s a level of looking after people that just hasn’t happened before, and they did it reasonably quickly. Sometimes the events that politicians are faced with overwhelm their ideology, and they just have to do what needs to be done. And that can open new possibilities for change in the longer term.
(This is an edited version of a longer video conversation, edited and agreed by Gerald Midgley and David Somekh)