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Systems thinking, wicked problems and other stories

A review of the CMCE Showcase 'Systems Thinking in Consulting - Why and How', given by Patrick Hoverstadt.

A bedframe stuck on a staircase

A couple of hours before the CMCE Showcase on 7th March I was confronted by what I might describe as a “wicked problem”: a bed frame that was delivered earlier that day had arrived part-assembled, leaving me with the challenge to get it up to the spare room where it was intended to be placed. I hadn’t solved this problem before the Showcase started and over the course of the event, I concluded that the insights and advanced problem-solving approaches contained within Patrick Hoverstadt’s overview of systems wouldn’t have helped much either.

This isn’t to detract from the power of systems thinking though, just a recognition that some problems are linear (my bed problem was, even though it was specifically negotiating a curve on my staircase that was the problem) and require a linear solution. Systems approaches come into their own when addressing the kinds of problems that management consultants get called in to solve making this overview particularly relevant for CMCE’s network.

A research fellow at Cranfield with over 28 years’ experience as a systems practitioner and a veteran of over 250 client projects, Patrick Hoverstadt was particularly well-qualified to shed light on this area. His latest book “The Grammar of Systems”, which formed the basis of his presentation, outlines the patterns of thought for a systems approach and summarises 33 systems laws and principles that encapsulate the work done to develop the approach over the years.

So why is this important? The sad fact is that traditional, linear approaches to change programmes (more than 70% failure rate) and strategy projects (approximately 90% failure rate) don’t work. On the other hand, systems approaches are sophisticated, flexible and “blisteringly fast” by comparison. Although this latter claim wasn’t backed up by statistics, it was possible to see that some of the insights from systems thinking could get you to a solution much more quickly than the traditional analysis-based approach.

Patrick illustrated this by showing how a conventional approach to strategy typically had an organisation moving from where they are now to where they want to be and provide the plan that defines how to get there. The problem is that when the plan is being executed, the behaviour of other actors in the system (customers, staff, competitors, regulators etc.) may change. The target moves and we end up with a different destination from the one that we originally planned. Systems thinking asks why this doesn’t work and encourages us to think in terms of these changing relationships and the different dynamics that are in play.

Patrick also commented on the systems approach to change which starts by recognising that organisations have a natural stability, with negative feedback mechanisms acting to dampen the impact of change. In order to implement change successfully you have to remove or decommission those damping mechanisms – you can’t just “poke” the system and expect it to change. However, this should be done with great care.

In an hour’s discussion it was a challenge to do much more than scratch the surface of systems thinking. Having read Patrick’s book, I would recommend it to anyone keen to find out more about the area, although I would suggest it’s best read piecemeal to be able to fully digest and consider the practical application of its laws and thinking approaches. There’s certainly plenty in it for anyone keen to stretch the possibilities of what management consultants can achieve.

My own wicked problem was solved after the Showcase when I enlisted the help of a neighbour: having an extra person at one end of the bed frame meant we could find the right angle to move it around the corner. If only most business problems were that simple…


Nick Bush, Director, CMCE

Tuesday 27th June 2023
Three masks