Before Being Born, Until the Day We Die, We Depend on Systems

Whilst still in the womb we are totally dependent upon the health of our mother and her biological systems. Her health is dependent upon, or influenced by, a whole host of other systems which vary in many ways depending on the place she happens to live. The experience of giving birth also varies according to the systems available. The chances we and our mothers will survive childbirth also varies greatly, so does the chance of us surviving infancy and reaching adulthood.

Christopher Duffley was born in May 2001. He was very premature and weighed less than one kilogram (1lb 12oz). He was in a critical condition but survived. Fortunately, he was born in a developed nation. If he had not been he would almost certainly have died soon after birth.

Although he lived, he was found to be totally blind and had several other serious health conditions. His mother, a cocaine addict, was unable to look after him and he was taken into care. He was then taken out of care by relatives who adopted him. And at a young age he was also diagnosed as being autistic.

Remarkably Christopher’s story has a happy ending. Despite all the challenges he faced, and continues to face, he leads a happy and fulfilling life. Imagine how different his story might have been if he had been born in so many other parts of the world with less developed support systems. Think about the number of systems that influenced Christopher’s life before and after his birth, and how many he still depends on.

Your life, and that of every one of us, is also dependent upon, and influenced by, systems. But most of us have not faced the challenges Christopher has. As a result, we are largely unaware of our dependence on them, until we need them, or when they fail us — when governments and health systems seem unable to protect us from a pandemic, when the economy is in poor health and we cannot find work, when flood defence systems fail, the car breaks down, high levels of pollution impact our health, crime rates surge, we are the victim of a cyber security attack, or our internet connection fails.

Incomprehensible: The Potential for System Failures

The list of potential problems associated with system failures is incomprehensible to most of us. We just cannot see and appreciate the benefits we enjoy when everything is working well. The number, scale, and sophistication of the systems upon which we have come to depend represents one of the most remarkable achievements of our species.

When they work well, they are the means by which sustainable widely shared prosperity — human flourishing and wellbeing — is made possible. But they do not always function as we might hope, or in the way they were intended to. Failures can be mild, unnoticeable even. They can also be catastrophic. Most fall between these extremes. Some may be beyond our control. Others are entirely of our making.

Given their fundamental importance to each and every one of us, should we not have a far better understanding of systems — the way they work and their impact on us?

Systems in Need of Radical Improvements

Edelman Trust Barometer 2020 Conclusion

If we look at public opinion polling by the likes of Edelman, it is immediately clear, many of the most important systems upon which our ability to live well and flourish depend are not meeting our expectations. In many countries satisfaction with governments, the economy, healthcare, education, policing, welfare, justice, and other critical systems is very low. Each of these systems is managed by institutions. Our trust in them is also very low, and in decline. The same is true of the international institutions upon which we depend to keep the peace, manage international trade, or alleviate extreme poverty, for example.

If we are to address these problems, we need a better understanding of systems. And we must learn how to manage or influence them better. We also need to design new and better systems, or re-design existing ones. We need to ensure they are managed by organisations and institution that are fit-for-purpose — and will be fit-for-purpose in the future.

A big part of the problem has been the way in which we have thought about, and tried to understand, these systems. We often try to understand them using analogies. The most common is the mechanistic analogy for businesses, for example. It gives us the false idea we can control them as we wish and fine-tune them to achieve greater efficiency. It led to the notion of “scientific management”. But business is not a machine. It is a system-of-systems, some of which have more mechanistic characteristics, such as IT systems. They are the “hard systems”. But business is not primarily mechanistic. It is primarily a social system featuring a complex web of human relationships. This is the reason we sometimes call it a “company” in some nations and a “society” in others.

Systems as “Means” not “Ends”

Another problem is that in focusing on improving their performance we often lose sight of what we want them to do for us. “Getting it done” becomes the obsession and the “means” become the “ends”. Or, as Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos puts it, “the process becomes the thing” of importance, rather than the quality of the desired outcome.

In an article for the London School of Economics (LSE) in the Spring of 2019 I introduced the concept of Valueism. Martin Wolf, Chief Economics Correspondent at the Financial Times, said it sounded like a possible next evolution of capitalism, when I discussed it with him. I hope it may become that. The current form of capitalism is not working well in the eyes of many.

Research provides compelling evidence of the reasons for this: extreme and growing inequality, more than a decade of no increase in the real incomes for the vast majority in many countries, the corruption of democracies due to corporate lobbying, a failure to adequately address the climate emergency. These are just some of the many reasons, capitalism needs to evolve.

Capitalism: The System Must Evolve

Capitalism is the economic system favoured by in many countries worldwide, and it provides the foundations for their political systems. During living memory, it has come to be the dominant economic system, but we should not forget there have been many forms of capitalism. It has evolved over time and it exists in many different forms in the world today. Capitalism in some countries would be regarded as socialism in others, for example.

The dominant form of capitalism in recent times has been the American and British model, based on neoliberal economic theories. It is this model, rather than capitalism itself, that has lost support. Key elements of this neoliberal economic model have been roundly rejected in recent years.

One element is the theory made famous by economist Milton Friedman which came to be known as shareholder capitalism. It argues the only purpose of a business is to maximise returns to shareholder. Very recently, it has been widely rejected in favour of the idea business must also benefit other stakeholders including employees, customers, suppliers, and society, for example.

In my opinion, the Shareholder v Stakeholder battle is nonsense, based on a false dichotomy. In a recent article on this topic I argued that if the focus were the long-term success of the business itself, management decisions would better serve the interests of all stakeholders, including shareholders. It would need to focus on the creation of value in ways that satisfy all, whilst generating profits to sustain itself and grow.

Here I am not trying to get into a big debate about the purpose of business and who it serves. I mention it to further illustrate the importance of systems and the need to understand them better. It also highlights the fact some systems are larger and more important than others, and that systems are interrelated and interdependent.

Complex Systems-of-Systems

If we look at the economy, we also see it is a highly complex system-of-systems: finance & banking, trade, employment, regulatory and legal, taxation, supply chains and logistics, for example. And the economy has relationships with, and dependency upon, many other systems both natural and man-made: natural resources, energy, education, health and care, transportation, and communication, for example.

Again, we overlook the benefits of all these systems when they work well, and are aware of them only when they fail — if there is a shortage of resources, if the price of some increases significantly, or if the relationships they depend on break-down in a trade war, for example.

Importantly, we must recognise that systems also break down, or fail to keep up, when rapid innovation causes significant disruption. By way of example, globalisation has generated major benefits for some and significant costs for others, whilst digital disruption has facilitated perhaps the greatest disruptions, both good and bad.

Given how essential systems are to us, from the day we are conceived to the day we die, and to the prosperity — health and wellbeing — of societies, I believe it is essential we focus far more attention on protecting the natural systems we depend on, whilst cultivating the other systems we can thrive on.

What Causes System Failure?

In 2019 I began researching the causes of the ever-growing number of corporate crises, and why so many business leaders seem to be overwhelmed by the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity in what we now call a VUVA environment. I found that whilst we do live in an increasingly VUCA world, the real cause of most corporate crises has far less to do with external factors, and far more to do with the internal problems associated with the way businesses are managed. This is clear from the evidence presented in the PwC Global Crisis Survey 2019. Of course, external factors such as a pandemic, an economic crisis or natural disaster do exacerbate problems considerably, but “predictable surprises” are all too common.

My research was for a talk I gave to a DBA student cohort at Warwick Business School. The title was Undaunted: How Successful Leaders Face Up to Wicked Problems. It was followed by a conference I ran at the Royal Society of Arts in London just before the first Covid induced lockdown in the UK. The conference title extended my previous talk title to include “…and avoid predictable surprises”. A fantastic line-up of speakers included experts in the management of major government projects, systems thinking, strategy dynamics, crisis management, the insurance industry, and the investment industry. They included practitioners, professors, policy makers, authors and thought leaders.

Critical Systems Thinking

Among the speakers was Dr Michael C Jackson (OBE) who had recently published Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity: Responsible Leadership for a Complex World (Wiley 2019). It is the most authoritative and comprehensive book on systems thinking published to-date. And Jackson is an internationally recognised leading authority and pioneer of the discipline.

The book provides a history of the development of the discipline and an overview of Jackson’s life’s work in advancing what, I am certain, will come to be regarded as one of the academic discipline and professional practice of the greatest importance to our species, and in the pursuit of our sustainable widely shared prosperity.

It is my strong belief that Systems Thinking, and Critical Systems Thinking and practice particularly, have far more to offer us than economics or any other single discipline. This is partly because, as a discipline itself, Critical Systems Thinking advocates a multi-disciplinary and transdisciplinary approach, plus the employment of multiple methodologies.

In future articles, I will introduce more details based on a thorough review of the book. And I will conclude this article by saying, I agree with Jackson’s view that “Critical Systems Thinking can occupy a position as the leading edge research discipline and practice in the management sciences….although its actual employment in this way remains in its infancy”. He explains, “All applied disciplines in this area have to cope with “systems” that exhibit massively increasing complexity and for which only multiparadigm thinking and multimethodological practice is fit for purpose.” He adds, it “can provide a critique of any intervention strategy and the results that it produces”.

Critical Systems Thinking and practice recognise, it is “impossible for any one systems approach to make sense of the complexity of problem situations in the modern world”. And, having recognised it is impossible to understand the “whole system”, “it seeks instead to take advantage of the critical awareness gained about the strengths and limitations of different methodologies”, and “to use them in informed combinations to bring about improvement over time”.

The discipline makes it possible to employ a variety of perspectives, reflecting different paradigms, to address the multidimensional nature of complex problem situations, and make best use of the different systems approaches available. It provides the means to tackle, in a holistic, creative, and balanced manner, the “messes” and “wicked problems” which managers confront. Critical Systems Thinking and Practice can assist them in responding to the demands of 21st century complexity. It can also provide us with responsible leadership for a complex world, argues Jackson.

Systems Thinking and Prosperity

Having read Jackson’s book, almost 700 pages in length, I am in no doubt about its importance and the part the discipline will play in helping us achieve sustainable widely shared prosperity, measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing. These are the goals of Valueism and of the Enlightened Enterprise Academy, so we will make Critical Systems Thinking and Practice core of the approaches we advocate.

Critical Systems Thinking & Practice Executive Courses

The leaders of any form of enterprise in any economic sector — public, private, government or not-for-profit — would do well to start improving their understanding of systems and adopt Critical Systems Thinking and Practice approaches if they wish to manage complexity. For this reason, I am delighted to announce the Enlightened Enterprise Academy is planning to offer an Executive Education Program developed in partnership with Dr Jackson.

Critical Systems Forum

The Executive Education Program will also be supported by the launch of the Critical Systems Forum, a think tank that the Enlightened Enterprise Academy will host. It will focus on both Critical Systems Thinking and Critical Systems Practice. For further details:



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Paul Barnett

Paul Barnett

Advocating the purpose of all enterprise should be contributions to sustainable widely shared prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing.