Conversations about change

Tony Miller
David McAra

The themes

 In the 1940s and 50s, Eric Trist and his research team at the Tavistock Institute were looking into the effects of mechanisation in the mines of the British Coal Board.   They found some rare examples of mines which were more successful because they had managed to avoid subordinating the needs of the humans to the needs of the new technology.  (You may like to see Eric Trist in conversation with Stuart Winby.) 

Even now, the general rule seems to be the other way about.  Technology sets the imperative and the workforce must find a way to cope.  As Graham Hayward points out with his aviation metaphor, bureaucracy, still our predominant form of organisation, is designed for stability, immune to the perturbations caused by the individuals who come and go.

The challenge of managing an organisation – particularly a large one – seems to be, how to make good decisions with limited knowledge.  The necessary knowledge does exist but it is distributed throughout the organisation.  Each employee, from top to bottom, has access to a fragment of the total picture and any of these fragments may be critical to a decision made far away. 

Trist’s discovery gave rise to the concept of ‘socio-technical systems’.  Where the social component of the system had not been disrupted, greater trust and openness enabled more freely flowing communication.  So better information was available faster and closer to where it was needed, enabling better decisions and better performance.

It may be interesting to note that in 1956 the Nobel Prize for Physics went to a team of researchers working on semiconductors.  They had discovered the transistor effect (  Trist’s innovative thinking about organisations has had less impact than the transistor, sadly, although it can be seen in many creative approaches to change management.  This is the type of change our journal is focusing on this Spring: the change that emerges when humans are recognised as beings not resources.  

Our concern about sustainability arises from personal experience of seeing the highly significant beneficial effects of successful projects lasting only for a short time, seldom longer than the team that experienced the change remained in place.  In Trist’s account:

“Having reached the whole organization system level, our research efforts (though on independent funds) were again stopped when a new divisional chairman took over.”  

The evolution of socio-technical systems (1981, p16)

So, at e-O&P, we decided to test our impression that this was typical of a general pattern; hence our survey and these conversations.  Our findings have been varied.  We have been reminded of truisms: communication is subtle and complex, even between two well-meaning and considerate individuals.  We also see a diverse range of outlooks, each containing valuable fragments of experience and knowledge but -unshared or misunderstood – they may not be available to the decision maker.  So we come to appreciate the challenge of achieving lasting change within a system.

The articles

Tony Miller opens the edition with a cautious defence of the concept of systems.  It can sometimes leave us feeling overwhelmed and paralysed but it helps us to look in the right direction for enduring change.  Instead of exhorting (directing, managing, motivating, incentivising, rewarding, manipulating) people to behave in a required way, we must pay attention to the design of the organisation, taking due account of the ‘socio’ element.  Then we will find people taking better decisions quite naturally.  

Graham Hayward’s aerodynamic analogy illustrates this neatly.  Like aircraft, organisations can be designed for stability or agility but not both.  So, if we want to change the behaviour of an organisation and of the individuals within it, we must pay attention to its design. 

Norton Bertram Smith has lived this experience.  He told David about working with Sir John Egan on the design and construction of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport.  Sir John came from the automotive industry with a transformational vision that the whole supply chain can work together as a team – different parts of the same system.  Norton was witness to the heroic efforts which had to be sustained over several years by the client and the contractors, who had all been comfortably habituated to adversarial routines throughout their careers. 

Glenn Corr, in his conversation with Tony, focused on decision-making and saw it as his strength.  He’s a ‘good guy’, listens well, open with his people and works with, rather than against them.  But he’s there to make the decision … and off they all go.  While he doesn’t seem to have a strong sense of ‘systems’, his respectful and collaborative attitude towards people brings a ‘socio’ element to his sphere of influence.  

Tom Hart is another who has not been gripped (or hampered) by the power of the systems concept.  In their long and layered conversation, David has been trying to persuade him of the benefits of dialogue over debate.  But you can’t talk forever.  When the time for decision comes, there may still be differences: of opinions, mindsets, values.  While hostile to any ‘new paradigm’ and doubting that harmony and consensus are always possible (‘heaven on earth’), Tom agreed that dialogue might at least prepare the ground for better debate.  

The survey

Here David introduces the preamble and the questions while Tony analyses the responses.  Trist speculated about ‘dynamic conservatism’ (attributing the concept to Schon), to explain the relentless pull, back towards the pre-change state but our survey responses didn’t really reflect this.  Greater acceptance of the change was a more frequent pattern, followed by abrupt relapse when new management was introduced from outside.  There didn’t seem to be any instances of gradual drift.  One respondent, Matt Black Systems, turned imminent failure into remarkable success and embedded the changes in a highly unconventional re-design of the organisation.  Ten years on, it’s still looking good … but the leadership team hasn’t moved on yet.  

Correspondence arising from the inquiry

LinkedIn discussions

Posting the survey in LinkedIn led to a number of conversations which developed in online discussion groups and by email. 

Arlin Pauler introduced us to the idea that hierarchies are held together by energy which could be harnessed for change.  He proposes that this energy might be derived more from love than from fear. 

John Adams has worked all his life as an academic and consultant in the field of change.  We are  thrilled to be able to include someone who knew Eric Trist and worked with some of the giants of OD in the 1970s and 80s.  He points out that change movements all seem to invent their own skills and tools from scratch and sets us wondering if some kind of coordinating body might enable some synergy to emerge. 

Roland Sullivan works with large groups, ‘getting the whole system in the room’.  He provides the simplest prescription for transformational change we have ever heard.  “If you want engagement, provide valid data and free choice.”  We still wonder whether the courageous leaders who embrace this challenge will manage to pass on their learning to the leaders who come after them. 

Personal correspondence

The following contributions arose from personal correspondence between David and some of the people who introduced him to ideas which reflect the socio-technical perspective – and enriched his life. 

John Tripp has applied his working life to the communication of Eli Goldratt’s Theory of Constraints.  Goldratt turned his physicist’s eye on management, took careful observations and applied a logical analysis.  But the logic wasn’t ‘cold’.  It took account of human needs (because they showed up in the observations) and led to many counter-intuitive findings and spectacular breakthroughs in performance.   The resulting transformations remain susceptible to regression.

In the 1990s, Michael Simmons was a principal of the Institute for a New Leadership Initiative which contrasted ‘traditional’ leadership with the ‘new’, the difference being a greater respect for and involvement of the human in the organisation.  His tombstone will say, ‘It was going so well until the new CEO arrived’, he laughs and is determined to keep at it as long as he is able to work. 

John Raven has been providing the deepest challenges to our assumptions about learning and education since the 1990s.  In this wide-ranging conversation, he helps us to grasp the scale of the challenge implied by trying to understand and intervene successfully in a system of which we are a small and interdependent part.  Will we ever even be capable of examining and understanding our own thinking? 

John Seddon’s mantra is, ‘understand how the work works’ and his Vanguard Method makes explicit the end to end processes, from initial inquiry to ultimate satisfaction, before going to work on improvement. His interventions, like John Tripp’s, lead to significant breakthroughs but are still not immune to the arrival of a new ‘divisional chairman’.  He remains pragmatically optimistic, counting in thousands the individuals whose thinking has been permanently transformed, even if only in tens, the organisations where transformation has remained embedded. 

Doug Allanson has been a social worker all his working life.  He introduces us to ‘narrative therapy’ which is clearly a human-oriented approach.  He also describes an important moment when an outspoken staff member coaxed him, as the manager, ‘back to the floor’.  There he was reminded, by direct experience, of ‘how the work works’ and suggests that, for transformation to be sustained, continuous exposure to high quality feedback from the front line to the decision makers must always be available.  

Where are there opportunities for synergy? 

Doug’s point about high quality feedback reminds me of an appeal we heard John Raven make for transparency.  We believe people generally want to do ‘the right thing’.  Otherwise, ‘valid data and free choice’ wouldn’t work.  When we can see clearly and without distortion we take better decisions.  So how will we discover our own distortions?  Only by generous listening and inquiry and the seeking out and consideration of diverse views. 

Thank you

Tony Miller and I would like to thank all our conversationalists for their contributions: the survey responders, correspondents, interviewees, editors and authors.  Few of our contributors were left to their own devices.  Mostly we have quarried their pieces from correspondence, interviews and other sources and moulded them to focus on our inquiry into the sustainability of change.  We appreciate their trust.  Thanks also to Bob MacKenzie for meticulous proof reading and sense-checking. 

When we have finished, Linda Williams and Juliana Goga-Cooke go to work drawing the attention of as many readers as possible with their eye-catching digest and Ned Seabrook also helps to improve accessibility by separating out the individual articles.  Grateful thanks all of them. 

The library is a cubic container for people to study in.  Yet look at the patterns on the outside. Similar in style but all – I think – different.  There is no clear repetition.

The building is starkly geometric and yet what we see is fluid.  And the sun and the sky are reflected in the glass.

Designed by man and his desire for order, but very aware of the living world around it.

Photograph and observations on Aberdeen University’s Sir Duncan Rice Library by Tony Miller


Trist, E., 1981. The evolution of socio-technical systems: a conceptual framework and an action research program, Occasional paper /​ Ontario Quality of Working Life Centre ; no.2–files/capitulo%3Aredes-socio-tecnicas/Evolution_of_socio_technical_systems.pdf

Eric Trist in conversation with Stuart Winby

Image of Eric Trist from the Modern Times Workplace website by kind permission of Bert Painter on behalf of the Trist family

About the editors

Tony Miller Gained his degree in electrical engineering and his PhD at Aberdeen University.    He  worked  in  industry,  both  in  the  UK  and  abroad, and  subsequently returned to academia.  He retired in 2012 from Robert Gordon University.  As well as undergraduate   engineering   subjects, he   lectured   at   post-graduate level   on   the application of the philosophy of W.  Edwards Deming to safety management and the science of management.  He has been involved in the Deming Learning Network for over two decades and has published a short book on people management under the title ‘Letting Go – Breathing new life into organisations.’

David McAra spent the first 15 years of his working life in engineering.  The Engineering Industry Training Board helped him to discover a career in learning and development which suited him very much better.  He is presently in transition between work and retirement and remains a member of AMED Council and the e-O&P Editorial Board.   He is studying person-centred counselling at Aberdeen University. 

Share this article