The People versus the System

A discussion on the case against Systems Thinking

Tony Miller

Some time ago Chris Blantern had an online conversation with David McAra on the subject of systems and it was Chris’s remarks (see below) that set my mind a-thinking.

The case against Systems Thinking

Consider a person in charge of an engineering department within a fairly large organisation.  They can see how things could be so different, so much better, but how can that single person start a change that will affect all other departments in a large organisation?  It is as if, as soon as you see anything as a whole system, you walk into a trap of your own making.  You become powerless to make any meaningful change.

Everything is connected to everything else. Tweak this part and some other part squeaks. You enter the world of unintended consequences.

Systems thinking, although conceptually eye-opening, can be a particularly disabling concept.  It seems to answer the question, ‘What can I do to improve a complex social-technical system?’ with ‘not a lot’.  Unless, of course, you are the autocrat in charge of the whole system.  But even then, given the unknowable nature of complex systems, it will be somewhat of a leap into the dark.  Mao, the great Chinese leader, tried to dramatically improve the agricultural output of China; it resulted in the starvation of over 6 million of his people.

Posted by Chris Blantern

I can see that the use of ‘systems’ as an explanatory device can be helpful. It is in some sense satisfying as a way of accounting for interdependent activity. The problems for me with ‘systems’ as a concept though are:

  1. It tends to promote the idea of organising as some higher or larger abstracted sense of organisations as ‘ordained’ – i.e. that there is some big entity at work here. For me this takes inquiry away from the world of daily interaction. Gabriel Tarde (a French sociologist quoted by Bruno Latour) says ‘when we act socially – we don’t go out and through some big animal [society] before we can do anything’ – and I think the same might be said about ‘systems’. There are connections and effects of action – but the idea that there’s a governing system at work, for me, is unhelpful. I prefer ‘networks of connections’ which is Latour’s term – it appeals less to the idea of the ‘big animal’ whilst acknowledging dynamic effects.
  2. The ‘big animal’ notion steers us and others away from further inquiry.  If we settle for a style of sense-making that ‘systems’ affords us – then how, where and when do we intervene? Aren’t we inviting just lobbing pebbles into a pool. Yes – there’ll be ripples but how well aimed, how productive, how useful?

So searching for reality might be less important than making sense of interaction? I doubt that people act-in-the-moment in society at large or in organisations with much of a mental model of organising as an operative linchpin. More likely they have some more immediate expectation or goal to fulfil (like – getting my own way), or being seen to agree (sucking up), being better off in some way, maintaining situational credibility, making a valued contribution etc. etc.

In my view, we are better off concentrating on collective action experiments, to make – rather than teach – difference (change), in which case, any rationale for legitimising the need for change will do. Local rationales – i.e. those that resonate with participant’s interests are usually more powerful.

One thing we are agreed upon here, I think, is that, even when we espouse better ways, we are embedded in ways of inter-acting that sustain the old.

I think it points to giving attention a little more to ways of inter-acting and a little less to the infallibility of ideas, models and theories.

Sorry for the rant (steps down from soapbox!).

People Response

Yes – surely management is about people working with people.  Anything beyond that is for theorists who teach and sell books but seldom have real experience of getting the work done, on time and to budget, in an ever-changing world. 

System Response

Consider a large organisation run by spreadsheets and KPIs, with an HR department that collects data to manage the performance of staff, and upper management who consider maintaining shareholder dividends is more important than maintaining the workforce.

Surprisingly, all of the above is less about people interaction as it is to do with the structure of the system within which the people operate, and the philosophy that designed the structure.

Take the particular case of a relatively senior manager being interviewed by a Head Office HR executive, in order to review the manager’s progress in the last 6 months.  Their interaction is faultless.  Both interact with respectful assertiveness and integrity.  Both are polite and understand the pressures that each is under.  But neither sees that their inter-relationship, their conversation and its outcome are heavily influenced by the management system that created such a ‘staff development’ process in the first place.  The context of their interaction is provided by the particular system they work within, one that:

  1. confers a gradation of power and priority to the various staff roles,
  2. demands individual performance metrics based on KPIs,
  3. considers extrinsic motivation as the dominant means of controlling and rewarding staff.

Without an awareness of the ‘big beast’ they operate within, staff will:

  1. lack a unifying, motivating Aim (different from Vision),
  2. lack awareness of the need to actively define the boundaries of the system and then manage the system as well as the parts,
  3. lack a defence against the innate tendency to optimise locally, which very likely will sub-optimise the system,
  4. lack awareness of the system’s emergent properties, which are independent of the efforts of individual staff members,
  5. lack awareness of whether its processes and the system as a whole are operating in a stable or unstable state, operating in-control or out-of-control; the difference has significant implications on how managers should react and interact.

These are not just mental constructs you can take or leave; these concepts all call for management action.  Sadly, in most organisations they remain invisible.  Many of the maladies of present organisations are down to managers being unaware of the above aspects of their system.  This ignorance of system issues affects not just its technical and commercial performance, but fails to deal with the dis-ease that infects the people side of the business: the HR executive and the manager are locked in an uncomfortable ritual for reasons neither comprehends.

Consider the following list of organisations.

It is neither the people nor the managers that make these systems so different.  People in all the above organisations are the same people who go home after work, watch television, love their partners and play with the kids. Their behaviour at work is dictated by the system they find themselves in: a system made up of interacting ideas about management as well as interacting people. The heart of the beast may range between the need for hierarchical control to faith in the intelligence and good will of the company’s stakeholders, both inside and outside the system; which way it leans depends on the amount of mistrust and fear in the beast’s heart.

People Response

Accepting that there is such a thing as a system and emergent behaviour, and that a system requires managing – we are still left with the problem of how can any one individual or team change an entire system?  You will never get everyone to change, and certainly not at the same time.

System Response

There have been numerous books on change management; the ones I read some time ago have been technically reasonable, but sadly unconvincing.  They have focused on doing; following a reductionist approach they divide the change process into easily managed steps.  An example would be:

  1. Generate a shared Vision of where you want to be.
  2. Agree on where you are now.
  3. Identify the gap: what needs to be changed to transform the current organisation into the one we envisage?
  4. Create teams to break down the task, identifying the processes that need changing.
  5. Organise separate teams to work on separate processes, exploring possible alternative improvement strategies and choosing the best.
  6. Develop implementation plans, action those plans, measure outcomes etc.

It is based on the premise that everything is possible by simply getting people together, letting them explore solutions to the stated problems, and then managing the chosen approach through the implementation phases.  There is no mention of needing fundamental change in our thinking with new theories of management.  Everything is very rational. Where’s the problem? Just do it. 

The problem is that re-designing something from the same mindset will likely produce the same design.  What prevents the ‘new’ emerging organisation looking just like a polished-up version of the old organisation?

In the second half of the twentieth century, academics popularized the idea of mindsets and paradigms.  And their books told us that to manage in today’s world of change and innovation, new mindsets were required. But in those books there was little guidance as to how to convince an entire organisation to think differently.  There remained this hidden problem of how to convert enough staff to not only initiate the necessary changes but also to build a sustainable transformation. This is vital if the change is to become embedded in the organisation; the changed state must become independent of the leadership that initiated the change.

More recently, coming out of America, is an interesting approach that does propose a process of how to change mindsets.  With this new approach comes talk of new levels of awareness and consciousness.  One such approach is referred to as Theory U, originating from MIT and the team around  Otto Scharmer, Peter Senge and Ed Schein. 

The following is taken from their website: Presencing Institute

Theory U proposes that the quality of the results that we create in any kind of social system is a function of the quality of awareness, attention, or consciousness that the participants in the system operate from. 

Since it emerged around 2006, Theory U has come to be understood in three primary ways: first as a framework; second, as a method for leading profound change; and third, as a way of being – connecting to the more authentic, higher aspects of our self.

This approach is the other end of the range from the step-by-step change programs, where – let’s be honest here – management know what change they want and they develop a process for implementing that change.

With Theory U, you let the ‘future emerge’.  You provide a ‘holding space’ for those involved to fully assess the issues, and give individuals time for contemplation, when awareness of one’s own mindset can surface, and new ideas can be born and brought to the attention of the team.  The implementation phase is built on limited trials of possible new ways of working, with short timescales to provide early feedback. In this process of experimentation, system interventions are quickly tested and only those with promise are retained for more detailed or more widespread trials.  This is how you enable the future to emerge; let the system itself tell you what works best.

The Framework, or the mindset, provided by Theory U, is to see your organisation as part of a much larger system, which includes the society you serve, as well as earth’s fragile eco system which envelopes us all.  Any changes proposed must take into account the impact the organisation has on the larger system.  This framework takes us outside ourselves, and makes us think of the bigger picture of human existence and the wellbeing of planet earth.  Otto Scharmer talks of moving from Ego to Eco Thinking.

People Response

We like this approach.  The framework is timely and uplifting, and the methodology more democratic. It appears that each member of the team is given space to research and identify the issues – and perhaps even the issues behind the issues – and it is this team that comes up with possible solutions and takes them forward to experimental implementation and testing.

System Response

Problems still remain with this Theory U framework.  The change, the transformation, depends on a limited team of individuals.  The result may be systemic change, but only in the sense of the technical structure of the system, or a change to the design of certain processes.  There has been no change to the organisation’s mindset; such a change, if experienced, is only within the team.  

The team itself is encouraged to find this change of paradigm by delving deep inside themselves, and it is here that I begin to have doubts.  I’m conscious of the saying of W. Edwards Deming: ‘A system cannot understand itself’.  When it comes to achieving a change in our thinking, it appears we need outside guidance.

New paradigms are rare things.  They seldom sit within us ready to pop out.  We rely on others, gifted individuals, unusual individuals, to push human understanding forward.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) “Maxims for Revolutionists”

The bigger and more established the system, the more people and history involved, the greater is the force felt by the individual to adapt to its ways.  And as a philosophical aside, perhaps the bigger the system, the more likely it is to act in oppressive and immoral ways – see Reinhold Niebuhr’s book ‘Moral Man and Immoral Society’ (interestingly Niebuhr is Barack Obama’s favourite philosopher).

Actively adapting to the system, we find ourselves in seems to be in our DNA.  That is how we keep our jobs, and in some social systems our lives.

So we mustn’t assume that changing the world, or changing a system is going to be easy or that it happens often. It usually starts with an ‘unreasonable’ leader.  But transforming an organisation is like changing the personality of an individual.  To do that you have to mess with their head, which means altering the values and beliefs that the person has built up through their life experiences over many years.  To change the brain of an organisation is a similarly difficult task.  The brain has not only to entertain new ways of seeing the world, but has then to over-write the memory of those old life experiences with new, repeated and positive experiences originating from implementing the new mindset.

People Response

Everything in the end comes back to people and how they interact.  We can foresee problems with changing mindsets. Will not the HR department put up barriers to dismantling their anti-personnel performance management scheme? Will not upper management resist weakening their control procedures to allow power to the people?  A small team of well-intentioned individuals is no match for the defences that management can put up.  As human beings, they will strive to protect their hard-fought adaptation to the current ways of controlling the organisation.

System Response

Yes – I agree. I read somewhere that when America took over Japan in the aftermath of the 2nd World War, in order to revive Japanese industry, they started by removing all top management.  They then imported a set of management consultants who came with new ideas; among them were Juran and W. Edwards Deming.  Deming often repeated the message that he thought Japan would take 5 years to learn and start competing with the west.  “But I was wrong, they did it in three.”  Chopping the head off the beast would seem to be the quickest way to renewal.  Deming learnt not to waste his time consulting with an organisation unless the entire board of directors was committed to leading the change.

People Response

It seems there is no way into transforming an entire organisation that is not dependent on strong leadership that’s in it for the long haul, and an interaction that allows new thinking to spread downwards and be adopted across the organisation.   In nearly all cases, when there is no drastic change in upper management thinking, or if there is no drastic change in management personnel, transformation won’t happen.  It might flare for a short time, in this department or in that team, but the flame will inevitably die out, extinguished by the dominant ways of thinking and doing.

System Response

Granted there are at present more barriers than enablers.  How to manage a socio-technical system is still beyond our grasp, and we have so much more to discover. But as the philosopher Edmond Burke once wrote:

“Nobody made a bigger mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little”.

So the challenge is:

  1. How to change mindsets and
  2. How to change an entire system when we don’t have complete knowledge of the system. 

Let’s go back to W. Edwards Deming.  Maybe we can find at least a starting point.

Deming’s management philosophy subtly limited the definition of a system to one that had an agreed Aim. This is crucial to our considerations. He did not include un-managed social systems, such as alcohol abuse, or natural systems such as the weather. He focused on those systems, which are designed and managed by human beings, for an agreed purpose (Deming used the word Aim instead of purpose). Deming put it negatively:

“Without an Aim there is no system”.

This first idea helps us focus. We are dealing solely with what we ourselves have created. Our organisations will interact with bigger, un-managed systems such as society and climate change, but we then manage the interface not the entire enlarged system. So keep our system as limited as we can. Ensure that every one within our chosen boundary is bound together by a shared Aim.

The second idea is not to tackle both challenges at the same time, or necessarily by using the same people.  We can achieve this by exploiting the current system’s division of labour and hierarchical structure. 

Notice in Theory U they talk about creating a Framework first and then a Method for systemic change.  Therein may lie the path to solving our two problems. Let’s discuss the Framework first.


The challenge is to create a new organisational context that opens up the way to systemic change.  Seeing the organisation as a hierarchy of power, the responsibility of achieving this first goal rests with upper management.  It is this small group of people who have to be open to transformative thinking; the goal for them is to research and adopt a new management mindset. The goal of this mindset is that when implemented by upper management, it will create a supportive context for the rest of the workforce. This in turn will enable and encourage them to transform the organisation.  The task of upper management is fundamentally to remove the barriers to innovation.

The mindset must therefore include a systemic view of the organisation and society and the planet, some knowledge of psychology including leadership and motivation, knowledge of how to use measurements, which will include the use of statistics, and understanding the role of theory in learning.  For me the System of Profound Knowledge, proposed by W. Edwards Deming is the best place to start if you want radical new management.

The new thinking must not be overly specified or become stagnant.  The role of upper management is to be the brain of the firm, to be continually learning, and to remove all barriers, which deter the workforce from doing their jobs to achieve the system Aim.

Model for Systemic Change

Here we address the problem of the unknowable nature of complex systems.  First note that complex systems are only unknowable because of the amount of information required.  In organisations, the knowledge is distributed in the minds of hundreds if not thousands of people. Each person views and understands their part of the system differently from anyone else. The task is how to exploit that rich source of information.

The way forward here is not to ask the workforce to convert to the new thinking of upper management. There is no need for that.  Leave it to upper management. The majority of the workforce, given enough time, will adapt their behaviour and come to accept the new regime.  If upper management are doing their bit, the portcullis will be slowly rising to clear the way for the workforce to engage with their task, which is to propose and experiment with process changes. By the workforce, I mean middle managers as well as frontline workers. 

The education needed here is standard techniques in assessing problems (deployment flowcharts, fishbone diagrams etc.), proposing solutions, defining measures to sense success or failure, using control charts to present and interpret the outcomes. Staff are usually more than willing to learn and engage with such tools, for they have the joy of experiencing improvements, which they themselves have achieved.

People Response

I notice this all depends on upper management doing their job first.

System Response

Yes. The success of any transformative change depends on people. In the end, it all comes down to people and how they interact. But the idea here is that these people have purposefully redesigned the system they work within. No longer do they have to fight the system; the system supports and enables their interactions, and the interactions positively promote their common Aim.

About the author

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 2 decades and has published a short book on people management under the title ‘Letting Go – Breathing new life into organisations.’

Tony at the Berlin Wall


Scharmer, O. (2008). Theory U: Leading from the Future as it Emerges. San Francisco, CA; Berrett-Koehler Publishers


W. Edwards Deming, Food and Drug Administration,,

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