Monday, May 10, 2010

Changing how we think

@benjaminm quotes John Seddon "Change in performance requires a change to the system and to change the system, management have to change the way they think". But (I wondered) does he mean new beliefs and mental habits (content) or a new method of arriving at beliefs and mental habits (process)?

@benjaminm would say both: "they need to unlearn assumptions/develop new ways of 'knowing' by studying the system". @benjaminm adds that "Seddon seems admirably focussed on an intervention model based on managers/teams studying the work to discover for themselves", and recommended @dpjoyce's write-up of Jeremy Cox's workshop at the Vanguard Network Day 25th February 2010.

However, although this piece explicitly references both Chris Argyris' double-loop learning and Gregory Bateson's second-order learning, much of the rhetoric seems aimed at simply replacing one set of assumptions and beliefs (which Vanguard calls "Command-and-Control View") with a new set of assumptions and beliefs (which Vanguard calls "Systems Thinking View"). 

Top-down, hierarchy
PERSPECTIVE Outside-in, system
DESIGN Demand, value and flow
Separated from work
DESIGN-MAKING Integrated with work
Output, targets, standards: related to budget
MEASUREMENT Capability, variation: related to purpose
Manage people and budgets
ROLE OF MANAGEMENT Act on the system
ETHOS Learning
Reactive, projects
CHANGE Adaptive, integral
source: John Seddon, Systems Thinking in the Public Sector, Triarchy 2008, p70.

Vanguard clearly regards the new set of assumptions and beliefs as "true"; thus the question about "changing how managers think" becomes a tactical question - how do you create a learning environment in which managers adopt the Vanguard principles for themselves, without obvious coercion. So the new beliefs (content) are primary, and the process of arriving at the new beliefs is merely a secondary means to an end. This is where the Vanguard notion of "Systems Thinking" diverges radically from those schools of systems thinking that focus primarily on the process of thinking deeply about systems, and regard the insights that emerge from this process as important but secondary.

Whatever advantages Vanguard's "Systems Thinking View" may have over the "Command-and-Control View", the two views appear to be at the same logical level in Bateson terms. Simply replacing one set of assumptions with another set of assumptions is merely changing WHAT you think, not HOW you think.

So I fully agree with @antlerboy, when he commented "as a starting point, mgrs/teams studying processes is brilliant. But not same as studying 'system' / knowing..."

If you just want people to adopt a new (replacement) set of mental habits, then this calls for mental training. If you want people to adopt a new (replacement) set of beliefs, then it calls for rhetoric and indoctrination. (Which is what makes Vanguard workshops look a bit like Alpha courses.) But if you want people to change their learning style, this is a much more fundamental and difficult change.

I just did an internet search for the phrase "changing how we think", and found a number of eloquent pages, many of them trying to reframe some familiar topics.
I also found some psychological pages, trying to encourage and enable people to think "positive" rather than "negative" thoughts.
Finally, I found some pages suggesting that various systems and technologies could alter our thinking processes, for good or ill.


  1. The argument is based upon a lack of understanding and profoundly misses the point.

    Firstly the belief that one set of assumptions is replaced by another set. My reading of Seddon suggests that this isn't the case. There is a philosophy that underpins command and control. It isn't a particularly effective one, but it is a philosophy all the same and it works after a fashion.

    There is also a philosophy that underpins his angle on systems thinking. It is this philosophy that supports his principles and rules.

    When applied to an organization these principles work with the grain rather than against. So they begin with the customer and then flow from that point. The measures he uses appear to allow the organization to understand how well they are meeting that need (I suspect he would say meeting the demands being placed upon the organization).

    This allows the organization both to experiment with different principles, rules, approaches etc and therefore to explore and innovate.

    So actually Seddon's approach does allow the organization to ‘study’ and ‘know’. In fact it provides a sounder basis than much of the traditional systems thinking movement extant.

  2. Our anonymous friend complains that I've missed the point. I described the contents of the table as assumptions, and interpreted the table as replacing the set of assumptions in the left-hand column (COMMAND-AND-CONTROL THINKING) with the set of assumptions in the right-hand column (SYSTEMS THINKING).

    What's wrong with calling them assumptions? For example, on Systems Thinking in the Public Sector page 52, Seddon provides some examples of what he calls "Fundamental Thinking Problems", starting with "Treating all demand as though it is work". For Seddon, this is a false assumption; the correct assumption is that only some types of demand (namely value demand) can be regarded as work, while other types of demand (failure demand) should be regarded as waste.

    Our anonymous friend doesn't like the word "assumption", and prefers the word "philosophy". (Frankly, I don't see that makes any difference.)

    Having argued for the superiority of one philosophy over the other, Seddon then derives some principles from his preferred philosophy: (1) train against demand, (2) make the worker the inspector, (3) measures for control and improvement, and (4) management's job is to act on the system (pp 74-76).

    But I can't find anything in the book about experimenting with these principles. Seddon clearly wants his readers to adopt these principles.

    The table is headed It's a different way of thinking. Obviously it's different not just because you believe different things (e.g. about the nature of demand and variation) but also because you are paying attention to different things.

    But it is not fundamentally different in terms of epistemology. As @antlerboy points out, there is a subtle but important distinction between "studying and knowing" (which is what our anonymous friend credits to Seddon) and "studying knowing" (which is where I think Bateson's approach, or even Checkland's, would provide a philosophically sounder basis than the Demingite school of systems thinking to which Seddon belongs).

  3. Richard, I think you're making an interesting and useful distinction here. Are you familiar with Richard Rorty's work on irony? It's the only serious attempt at defining a way of thinking that enables one to shift among different sets of beliefs. I found that it perfectly describes how I myself evaluate and embrace different sets of beliefs. So much so that I long ago started to label myself an "ironist" in Rorty's sense of the word. See my blog bio for an excerpt describing an ironist from Rorty's excellent "Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity": . In 30+ years of reading philosophy, etc., I have not seen anyone else address as clearly as Rorty the fundamental issue of shifting among core beliefs.

    Here is a small excerpt from the larger excerpt I linked to:

    All human beings carry about a set of words which they employ to justify their actions, their beliefs, and their lives. These are the words in which we formulate praise of our friends and contempt for our enemies, our long-term projects, our deepest self-doubts and our highest hopes. They are the words in which we tell, sometimes prospectively and sometimes retrospectively, the story of our lives. I shall call these words a person's "final vocabulary."

    It is "final" in the sense that if doubt is cast on the worth of these words, their user has no noncircular argumentative recourse. Those words are as far as he can go with language; beyond them there is only helpless passivity or a resort to force. A small part of a final vocabulary is made up of thin, flexible, and ubiquitous terms such as "true," "good," "right," and "beautiful." The larger part contains thicker, more rigid, and more parochial terms, for example, "Christ," "England," "professional standards," "decency," "kindness," "the Revolution," "the Church," "progressive," "rigorous," "creative." The more parochial terms do most of the work.

    I shall define an "ironist" as someone who fulfills three conditions: (1) She has radical and continuing doubts about the final vocabulary she currently uses, because she has been impressed by other vocabularies, vocabularies taken as final by people or books she has encountered; (2) she realizes that argument phrased in her present vocabulary can neither underwrite nor dissolve these doubts; (3) insofar as she philosophizes about her situation, she does not think that her vocabulary is closer to reality than others, that it is in touch with a power not herself. Ironists who are inclined to philosophize see the choice between vocabularies as made neither within a neutral and universal metavocabulary nor by an attempt to fight one's way past appearances to the real, but simply by playing the new off against the old.

    -- Nick

  4. Richard-

    I don't see the assumptions piece in the same light. Having used the Vanguard Method I find that the important part is change is emergent (also from the Vanguard method). This is a theory of work, not a new set of assumptions.

    This is why lean manufacturing tools have been found not very applicable to service. The tools were made to fisparticular problem and these are not the same problems as service. The assumption is that these tools transfer.

    In using the method, I understand as Deming did that there is no perfect model, but some are useful. The Vanguard Method is useful and as I have learned no 2 interventions are the same. We have a set of principles that provide a different perspective than the command and control one. Perfect . . . no, but have proven better than the old one. We constantly bounce this theory against what we learn and we (I) have learned a lot. As with most theory we learn and improve.

  5. Tripp, I am perfectly happy to acknowledge that Vanguard Method may be useful in some situations. But it isn't "systems thinking" as this term would be understood by the followers of Bateson, Checkland, Churchman, Vickers, and many other major systems thinkers.

    (Further discussion between Tripp and myself can be found on the POSIWID blog: Easier Seddon Done.)