Why I was wrong to call John Seddon ‘you old bastard’, even though he probably deserved it

TL: DR even being ‘clever’ and calling out bullies on their own terms creates a negative atmosphere for public debate. It can feel fun, but it lowers us all. Hmm, I wonder if there are any lessons on a world level here?

John Seddon has intentionally used aggressive, ad hominem attacks, mischaracterisations and omissions to provoke anger, controversy, and thereby to promote his consultancy. He is really the Donald Trump of continual improvement, although there’s evidence that John is actually intelligent enough to know what he’s doing. I also believe that he’s at least partly motivated by a belief that such an approach is both justified and appropriate.

He has characterised what he does as ‘systems thinking’ and thereby, I believe (at the very least by his tone), does a grave disservice to anyone who aspires to, practices, or is interested in systems thinking. He’s also very smart, very successful with his tactic, and inspires many.

So when I was alerted that there were a few links to systems thinkers, include Stafford Beer, on the Vanguard website, I was both excited and wryly amused. I rushed to compose a tweet to celebrate and mark the occasion, which read

‘Stop press! Vanguard acknowledge the existence of systems thinking! Good on you John, you old bastard.’ https://twitter.com/antlerboy/status/838906304672452608

I posted this in all the systems thinking groups I am in, hoping to provoke some others to amusement and reflection. (I did mean ‘old bastard’ in the Australian sense; as a term of slightly annoyed endearment; I wasn’t seeking to insult him by reference to age).

However, in the SCiO discussion group (systems and cybernetics in organisations — an organisation of which I am a non-executive director), I was picked up by a respected colleague:

‘A rule was established in Autumn 2011 that members should not be abusive to one another. The line here is that it is alright to comment on what someone has done, but not on them. So it is alright to say ”I don’t agree with what you said / did there” but not “I think you are an idiot”.

‘So, calling John Seddon an ‘old bastard’ on our linkedin group (whether meant affectionately or not) isn’t really appropriate in my opinion. It’s exactly the kind of thing we were trying to stamp out ……isn’t it? Maybe some of our members actually like John Seddon and might take offence.’

Initially, I agreed that yes, there was a risk, but I argued that there was some real justification.

John has made his intentional aggressive tone part of the public debate (see for example http://michelbaudin.com/2013/12/26/whats-eating-john-seddon/, http://michelbaudin.com/2013/05/08/this-respect-for-people-stuff/, www.coregroup.no/2011/10/when-systemsthinkers-collide/, and see also his posts where he compares himself to Deming and Ohno accepts the tag of ‘rude’ with honour). And I have responded to that in a far more formal way, with many more references, in the past (a long article in Action Learning journal — see https://model.report/s/switsc/action_learning_and_practice_-_the_john_seddon_method_for_public_sector_transformation_-_self-enligh).

Moreover, a element of his personal communications style (behind criticism of ‘stupid’ managers and politicians) is to mischaracterise what he does, mischaracterise systems thinking; to knowingly misinform. He is a rude man, knows it, and carries on doing it…

It felt fun and edgy to make a grudgingly respectful/affectionate, but ultimately, a rude comment about him. He gives it out, and he’s big enough and ugly enough to take it, so there was no sneaking feeling of abusing privilege.

BUT then again, my post might have been without malice, but it was (deliberately) playing out exactly the same kind of rudeness I criticise John for. That’s quite clever-clever, in my mind at least, but what impression is it going to make on others? There is a far wider issue here about how systems thinking is seen from the outside, the environment we create, who and how we choose to engage, and the precedent we set. Creating or encouraging a sense of partisan conflict when we actually believe in everyone working and learning together is inevitably counterproductive.

And the fact that Seddon deserves what I said and more, won’t be hurt by it, that his supporters have attacked me and some really good folk making a difference in the world? It’s true, but it doesn’t lessen the impact of two grumpy men being noisily rude to each other in public. I’m not well-placed to understand the whole of that effect — but I had the opportunity to retract my post, and so I have done. It was wrong to use such a term in public, and I apologise.

I do, in fact, have a more than grudging affection and respect for Seddon. He’s like the grumpy uncle on the fringes of every family get-together.

I think his approach — both the way he scores self-publicity points, and the methodology — are, on the whole, dangerous. At university, I was a member of a ‘Chinese buddhist yoga and kempo’ association. We did martial arts, yoga, meditation, chanted sutras and (perhaps oddly) some did hand-reading and handwriting interpretation. I had a good time of it, got some much-needed exercise and flexibility, and it was only a few years later that I learned that it was an abusive personality cult, and that Shifu Nagaboshi Tomio was in fact an entirely invented personality of Terry Dukes, a bricklayer from East London. It’s not just that Seddon and Dukes have a certain resemblance of face and tone — that experience taught me to look beyond the guru to see the man, to look behind the organisation and see the power dynamics.

But his methods, and even his self-publicising, do have immense value too. If Vanguard has cultish aspects which their leader doesn’t seem to discourage, they aren’t anything like a real cult in any meaningful terms. And if I hadn’t been completely won over by a Vanguard peon at an impressionable age, chances are I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in, doing the work I love, trying to add value, and exploring all forms of systems thinking and beyond as a ‘hobby’.

So, thanks, John, you rogue. Now, if you could just complete your conversion back to the good side? The Vanguard page in question has one of Seddon’s classic ‘talking head’ videos. It starts off with a claim that is palpably disingenuous: ‘one thing systems thinkers all agree on, is that every system has a purpose’. Oh well…

Benjamin Taylor is ‘just another consultant with a product to sell’, according to a certain person who definitely knows what that looks like :-)

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