Published On: September 1, 2022

In this article John Beckford articulates a set of themes on applying systemic thinking to the notion of national preparedness. These themes will be explored in a set of subsequent papers commissioned by National Preparedness Commission and to be published as a series of related articles on the NPC website.

John Beckford has been an independent consultant since 1990 working in the field of organisational effectiveness. He holds a PhD in Cybernetics, is a Visiting Professor at both University College London and Loughborough University and is the author of Intelligent Nation (2021) and Intelligent Organisation (2020).


Our challenges in preparedness can be considered to at least partly arise from failure to invest in spare or redundant capacity (material, financial, social, psychological, political). This failure leaves us unable to deal with even short-term perturbations to the equilibrium of our national systems. Without the benefit of redundant capacity (or unutilised resources) and a systemic understanding of governance, our stability is illusory at best. We are unable to apprehend, let alone prepare effectively for, any longer-term challenges whether temporary or sustained. Instead, the fighting of fires grabs the attention of political and administrative leaders in both the public and private sectors, (e.g., Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit, inflation, our struggling healthcare system). In pursuit or avoidance of headlines, leaders feel they must ‘do something’.

To misquote Stafford Beer in “Designing Freedom” (1974), when the mean time between perturbations is shorter than the mean time required to dampen them, the system oscillates uncontrollably, with each short-term intervention interacting with and potentially aggravating or amplifying the effects of its predecessors. Meanwhile the focus of governance on the amelioration of short-term ‘problems’ detracts from the ability to consider or address long-term risks and opportunities, including those additional risks that are introduced through inappropriate interventions.

Understanding the foundations of economic success

Weak understanding of effective governance and management, arising unintentionally from the prevailing structures and behaviours in both the public and private sectors, underlies the absence of redundant capacity. In organisations that are centralised almost to the point of dysfunction, structures and behaviours impose operational demands on those senior leaders who must be seen to intervene. They are driven to fulfil the roles of those who report to them rather than attend to their proper roles in the development of policy, strategy and maintaining the shared identity of the population they lead. Focussing on the ground in front of them, leaders can no longer look ahead and understand what is needed to succeed, let alone how success should be measured. Nature abhors a vacuum; the policy space fills with ever more demands for partial and partisan fixes.

If this is what a systemic reflection reveals about our organisational and governance norms, how did we get here? We have been driven by the pursuit of economic growth and efficiency above all, especially in the use of financial capital, both nationally and internationally, for 40 years or more. We have never really pursued the more complex ideal of effectiveness: defined as the achievement of desired outcomes or the realisation of the purposes of the organisation or nation, not least its own survival. To do so would require us to invest in people, systems, and supply networks and accept reduced short-term economy and efficiency, whilst building longer-term resilience. Economic growth and efficiency are fragile foundations if not underpinned by resilient capabilities. Perhaps it is our apparent cognitive bias towards preferring success in the short term that is preventing us from understanding the longer-term effects of our current priorities; effects that are potentially devastating. In volatile times, relentless pursuit of efficiency and economic growth stand as barriers to the development of resilient capability. A redress of the balance is urgently needed.

Structurally, some of the challenge arises from the stripping out of ‘middle management’ in the pursuit of organisational efficiency; while some arises from a less-than-perfect understanding of how organisations actually work – particularly the need for appropriate autonomy and core skills such as decision-making and interpretation of complex information. Supply networks, for example, relying on ‘just in time’ methods and dependent on both geopolitical stability and the predictability of weather and climate, are lean and lack flexibility and resilience. These effects are compounded through inappropriate and often ineffective substitution of the nuanced capabilities of human beings for digital solutions. In the face of supply network failure or disruption, we need intelligent decisions and choices to be made and this is often the capability that is missing. “Computer says no” is not a joke.

Considering all this challenge from a national perspective, we have to embrace the notion of ‘national capability’. This comprises the skills, capabilities, resources, relationships, industries, and infrastructure that any nation needs to maintain itself in a state of effective inter-dependence with its neighbours and peers. Constrained or inhibited national capability may mean depending on the goodwill and support of other nations and being in a state of effective suzerainty or servitude.

A systemic view

Thinking systemically is a means of attempting to understand the complex, often intricately inter-connected nature of things. A ‘system’ is an observer-defined set of elements which, through their interactions, collectively display emergent properties, i.e., properties that cannot be found in the individual elements. Applying this definition to society; there may be no such elemental ‘thing’ as society, but it emerges from the interactions of people, values, behaviours, businesses, and organisations. Systems thinking is a meta-discipline that helpfully allows the observer or thinker to decide the boundary of the system. Whatever lies within that boundary is considered part of the system and everything else is in the environment. Decisions on boundary positions can appear arbitrary (i.e., not neatly-delineated and they are porous – at least to information), but they form a logical basis for inquiry, discussion and debate. They do not need to comply with any established boundary conventions e.g., legal, geographical, and physical. Put simply, systems thinking allows us to observe and understand how things work, and where there might be systemic risks or vulnerabilities, from a viewpoint that ignores imposed structures and norms.

Systemic thinking relies on expansive, divergent, inclusive mental explorations of the observed world in order to define or delineate the system (in this case the nation). Such thinking must first seek to embrace a realm of artefacts, ideas, possibilities, and potentials, and acknowledge the observer-defined boundaries to that thinking and then apply these to ‘the system’. Systemic thinkers must develop an agreement on the purpose of the system. Understanding purpose is the basis for defining and measuring effectiveness – the result of which can often be surprising. With purpose in mind, the systemic observer can study the interactions within the system and, critically, the interactions between the system and its environment (e.g., taking our nation as the system, this can mean other nations, or other actors within those nations) and consider what ‘national preparedness’ means in that systemic context.

Pursuing national preparedness from a systemic perspective suggests that the things we need to prepare for exist in (at least) three classes:

  1. Things that appear likely and that we can anticipate.
  2. Things that are plausible, but the detail of which we cannot anticipate.
  3. Things which emerge from the interactions of 1 and 2 above.

Hindsight, foresight and insight

These emergent properties or effects are the very stuff of systemic understanding. Described as ‘Black Swans’ by Taleb (2010), they can often only be acknowledged in hindsight although the conditions which create them can be recognised through foresight. Our expansive, divergent thinking includes such questions as “if we do these things what possible or plausible futures can emerge?”.

To borrow from Donald Rumsfeld, things we know we know about and things we know we don’t know about can be hedged, mitigated, managed, or risk-reduced. However, “unknown unknowns” – those things we don’t know we don’t know – are more difficult. They require that we sustain a ‘just in case’ problem-solving capacity in our systems which clashes with our notional pursuit of economic growth and efficiency.

The things we know we know and, to some extent, the things we know we don’t know can be solved through pragmatism and practical experiment:

  • We can address the things we know we know and engage in directed research on the things we know we don’t know.
  • We can use our knowledge to create a systemic understanding of the territory and explore it systematically with either pragmatism or experimentation.
  • We can be economical and efficient in our pragmatism, but we can also learn to be effective in our experimentation – particularly by recognising that every experimental result is valuable, not just for itself but for its value in directing the next experiment.
  • Learning “what isn’t”, appropriately applied, is as valuable as learning “what is”.

The notion of systemic preparedness (in our case ‘national preparedness’) comes to the fore when we enter the realm of things we don’t know we don’t know (including things we have forgotten we know):

  • The possible existence of such things requires the ability to adapt, in an appropriate timescale, to challenges that were not foreseeable.
  • Here we shift our thinking from systematic exploration of a landscape we have mapped to systemic consideration of potential landscapes as yet unmapped.
  • We move our level of thinking from ‘what is’ to ‘what if’; a profound change from responding and reacting to predicting and preparing.
  • Foresight emerges from thought experiments, conceptual or philosophical meanderings of mind, the mental explorations, not of what will happen but of what could

Addressed systemically, with a divergent frame of thought and insight into the state of the system, its interactions, interdependencies, internal dynamics, and relationships with its environment, we can ask: ‘what things could happen given what is being observed?’. The answer to that question leads us to an understanding of the capability we need in order to develop solutions to currently unknown challenges.

Exploring the realm of possibilities

Reflecting on what has been said so far in this provocation to systemic thought, a number of themes emerge, each worthy of exploration in its own right:

  • First of all, how can we come to know, understand and respond to what matters? In an increasingly, digitally-enabled world, how can we capitalise on and exploit data to support preparedness without becoming overwhelmed by the scale of ‘big data’? What is the role of data in preparedness, and what mechanisms can we use to convert data to information, insight, knowledge, and wisdom?
  • Second, we need to explore systems failure, to understand why and where systems (of all sorts) fail, recognising that failure may be absolute or simply an inability to fulfil objectives. We need to understand the value of knowing what others value in a crisis in order to address their concerns and issues. This is particularly important when viewed through the lenses of organisational and legal boundaries and regulation which condition, enable and limit the actions of others.
  • Third we need to develop our ability to discriminate between those things which are urgent, important, both or neither. Developing methods and approaches which assist us in doing so will avoid the risk of ‘doing the wrong thing better’.
  • Fourth we need to explore our understanding of approaches to organisational resilience, whether public, private, corporate, or national. While many organisations have developed “business continuity” or “business resilience” plans it seems that many rely on outsourcing business financial risk through contracts and insurance rather than mitigating the risk itself. Ideas of organisational learning have been around for many years, it is perhaps time to focus on organisational adaptation, embedding structures for learning and change as a core capability.
  • Finally, for now at least, we need to reconsider notions of trust, mutual support, personal responsibility, and mutual reliance as a basis for preparedness. Society does exist in itself – it emerges from the interactions of the population, their utilisation of commerce, education, healthcare, civil administration and defence and is exhibited through shared identity, culture, civic-ness. These in turn rely on the underpinning infrastructure of energy, water, transport, ICT and waste. Preparedness can emerge from the resilience of individuals who, in turn, can enhance the resilience of friends, families, neighbours and their wider community. The whole is founded on a comprehensive understanding of national capability which is the responsibility of government, but which relies on others to deliver.

A series of papers will be developed for NPC to explore each of these themes in more depth.

Share this story

Related posts