Mon 05/03/2012 / systems thinking

Interview: systems thinker Gerald Midgley

One of the international validators of the research study on the reform of the Belgian child and adolescent mental health system, conducted by shiftN for the Belgian Health Care Knowledge Centre, is systems scientist Gerald Midgley. We thought it was a good opportunity to ask him a few questions.

Gerald Midgley is Professor of Systems Thinking and Director of the Centre for Systems Studies in the Business School at the University of Hull. This Centre has always been a reference point for the systems community, with influential theorists and practitioners such as Michael Jackson and Robert Flood being previous Directors. This is the second time that Prof. Midgley has led the Centre for Systems Studies: he ran it for six years before moving to New Zealand to work in the Institute for Environmental Science and Research. He rejoined the University of Hull in 2010. Amongst eleven books, he is the author of Systemic Intervention (Kluwer/Plenum, 2000) and editor of a four volume set called Systems Thinking (Sage, 2003), which has reprinted classic and contemporary papers from 100 years of systems research.

Prof. Midgley, how do you position yourself as a systems thinker/practitioner?

I’m basically interested in intervention. The key question for me is: how can you intervene more systemically? Systems approaches make the assumption that things are interconnected. That’s the fundamental starting point. However, we don’t have the privilege of a God’s eye view of that interconnectedness, so there are inevitable limits to understanding, and it is those limits that we call boundaries. So systemic intervention, for me, at a fundamental level, is how to explore those boundaries, and how to take account of the inevitable lack of comprehensiveness and begin to deal with that. This has led to something that a number of us (Werner Ulrich and myself, for example) have called the theory of boundary critique. And by this I mean being critical of boundary judgements, rethinking them in dialogue with others. Boundary critique, for me, is also connected with the need for theoretical and methodological pluralism, drawing upon mixed methods, and evolving methodology on an ongoing basis.

So I’m interested in philosophy, methodology and practice, and relating those three together. For me there is no hierarchy here. It’s rather a process of ongoing learning: practice can show up flaws in our philosophy just as easily as philosophy can expose weaknesses in our practice.

When I started out, I believed that there were very distinct systems paradigms, and there was a need to choose and defend yours against other people’s paradigms. Today I prefer to see a systems perspective as something that you develop over a lifetime. It’s like building a house that evolves: you can redecorate it, even build an extension. The house develops. And when everyone is developing their systems perspective in an on-going way, people can learn from each other in the process. Since I have begun to think about it like that, I’ve had many more open conversations than when I believed it was necessary to think that I am right and others are wrong in the way they approach systems methodology. So, my position is essentially one that is open to learning. 

Your advocacy for methodological pluralism in systemic interventions is one of your key contributions to the field. Does this pluralism extend to design approaches such as employed by urban designers or so-called design thinkers?

Absolutely. Some of the most interesting methodologies, such as Interactive Planning, always had that sort of design angle, already since the 1970s. It has long been on the agenda of the systems community.

Also, the principle of methodological pluralism is not limited to systems approaches proper. I also like to draw upon traditional social sciences approaches, and design new approaches too if they are useful. Importantly, the systems thinking does not reside in a method with the label ‘system’ attached to it. Rather, it’s a whole way of thinking and engaging with a situation in which a variety of methods may be useful along the way.

From your point of view, does the project we have been working on - focused on a reform of the child and adolescent mental health system here in Belgium - lend itself well to a systems approach?

Absolutely, because you are dealing with a situation with multiple perspectives, and with many interconnections where nobody can see the whole. I like the notion of a ‘wicked problem’ because policy makers tend to connect to it quite easily. It’s in those situations where a systems approach is most useful. If you want to find out how an ambulance service can optimally cover a whole city, there are quantitative operational research approaches to do that. But a systems approach is useful for something more complex.

As I said, I like the notion of ‘wickedness’, but there are issues around that language too. If you go back to Rittel and Weber, who introduced the concept of wicked problems in the 1970s, one of the things they talked about is not only that there is no absolutely right or wrong solution, but that these kinds of problems can only be managed, not solved. I believe that assessment depends on the boundary judgements that are made, and the extent to which people are willing to accept far-reaching change. People often say that the problem can only be managed and not solved because they are not willing to accept the fundamental change that would be needed for a deeper resolution. So there is no such thing as an objective distinction between problems that are wicked (needing to be managed) and problems that can be solved: it depends on people’s perceptions of the desirability of attempting to address them in a root and branch manner. This is where we are at with sustainability these days. Of course, somebody who thinks in terms of wicked problems would simply say that different views on how to tackle the problem just make the problem even more wicked!

We at shiftN are invariably working within a project setting. To what extent is a rigid project management-driven approach compatible with a systems approach that is oriented towards learning?

Working systemically in a project straightjacket raises a lot of issues indeed. A project is associated with a defined end point. Inevitably there are compromises.

It’s partly a matter of time. I worked for 7 years in New Zealand, and there we had the opportunity to work on long-term projects. The shortest project was 18 months but it was not uncommon to get funding for 6 years. Morten Levin, an action researcher in Norway, will tell you that he has never done a project that is less than 8 years long. He basically works long-term.

Having said this, I have done some very short, sharp interventions that have been quite successful in terms of the expressed requirements of stakeholders. An example is working with 19 agencies over 6 days of participative workshops (spread across 3 months) to design a new counseling service that could be activated in the event of a disaster. Perhaps the learning about systemic methodology was not as well embedded as it might have been given a longer project, but there was substantial learning about people’s different perspectives and the issues being discussed, and it led to a service design that was funded and successfully implemented.

It seems to me that there are two conditions that are absolutely critical to learning in a project context. The first is the need to learn. There has to be a burning issue to address. It is quite common for students to undertake projects that don’t actually matter that much to stakeholders, so learning doesn’t take place. The second is obviously willingness to engage in systemic inquiry, including listening to others in participative processes. Learning can be quite substantial in a short space of time when these conditions are fulfilled.

What are the greatest challenges today facing the systems sciences community?

Well, the greatest challenge is to actually make a difference with some of the global wicked problems that are out there. That would do a lot more than anything else to promote the systems sciences. Nothing speaks louder than success!

There is perhaps also a challenge in relation to the fragmentation of the systems community. It’s a sprawling community, which is separated into sub-communities that hardly talk to each other. However, I’m not particularly pessimistic about that. If you look at any intellectual community it tends towards fragmentation over time as new ideas evolve in sub-groups, and what pulls it back together again is success. That happened when Senge wrote the Fifth Discipline, for example. And we saw it too with the emergence of complexity theory. You get a re-coalescence, a natural process of renewal.

Furthermore, there are opportunities for networking and knowledge exchange today that didn’t exist before. The Systems Thinking World group on LinkedIn has 12,500 members. That shows that a lot of people feel drawn to systems ideas.

Thank you for these interesting observations, Prof. Midgley.

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