Tips for Leveraging Systems Thinking

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International
Takeaways: Systems Thinking is becoming more and more prevalent in organizations. There is no “fast track” to learning Systems Thinking. It is possible to test the organizational culture and reinforce the practice of Systems Thinking.

The discipline of Systems Thinking seems to be taking on an ever higher level of acceptance and understanding. More and more respected management experts openly discuss Systems Thinking as a very important and valuable discipline for successfully leading organizations to sustained success. Upon reflection, three words from the previous sentence should stand out: experts, discipline and sustained. Every organization that I have studied that has exhibited a culture of Systems Thinking can be characterized by those three words.  In every case, their success is no accident. In other words, success and, moreover, sustained high performance, has only been achieved with deliberate effort. Significantly, rigorously disciplined Systems Thinking over the long-term invariably is a key element. Below I offer tips for leveraging Systems Thinking in your organization.

Everything is connectedIn the spirit of offering these tips, it is paramount to say that there are no short cuts. There is no fast-track, no lean version and no Systems Thinking “Light” to offer the reader the comfort of an “easy or bite-size way” to create a culture of Systems Thinking.  That said, there are some simple ways to continually test the organizational culture and to reinforce the practice of Systems Thinking.

Tip #1 – Offer training to everyone.  If you read Jim Collins’ Good to Great, you’ll find him saying “get the right people on the bus first, then work hard getting each one in the right seat”.  What I think he means is that it’s more important to hire people with the great skills and solid values, after that you should be able to place them in the positions where they can be productive, create value for the organization and grow. I don’t believe you can force people to learn, but if they take the opportunity to learn and apply Systems Thinking in their work, everyone will benefit. If they don’t, you may have a clue regarding the value that employee has for the organization and you have a decision to make.

Tip #2 – Everything is connected to everything else.  Never let a discussion about solving a problem go down a path that does not look into the interconnectedness of all the elements that can be affected. Inside and outside the organization.  More importantly, ensure the impact on the customer is addressed first. Everything affects the customer.

Tip #3 – “From either/or to both/and”.  This phrase seems to confuse, confound and bore so many people.  The confusion stems from the basic human need to satisfy a desire that is invariably selfish. This natural way of being does not allow for multiple outcomes, meaning a win-win possibility. The confounding is similarly rooted in the belief that a win-win is impossible. If someone wins, someone else loses. If we look at the time-tested formula of barter trade, I would argue that a win-win is very possible. As in barter trade, the solution is rarely immediate and requires effort to be achieved but the result is positive for both parties.  Others find this phrase boring and choose to ignore it simply because it takes effort to first acknowledge and understand what it means, and second because to really work through it takes some time. Often though, much less than one thinks, and also often enough the results can be spectacularly wonderful.

Tip #4 – Focus on root causes.  It is so often easy to overlook the root causes of problems. Ask the five “why’s”. In other words, keep asking why until you are convinced the root cause has been uncovered and you’ll generally find amazingly simple solutions to a problem.  Keep digging, is the pass-phrase here.  And, don’t let up until everyone has agreed upon those root causes. As a group problem-solving exercise this invariably produces great clarity and joint buy-in and stay-in for the solution.

Tip #5 – Booster Shots.  One of my favorite tips from my mentor, Steve Haines.  This technique implies using a portion of any meeting to remind folks about just one element of Systems Thinking by discussing one or more examples among the group. This serves to keep Systems Thinking techniques and processes top of mind so your colleagues will more readily use it at appropriate times.

Tip #6 – Understand the distinction between Systems, or Strategic Thinking and Tactical, or Analytic Thinking. Neither type of thought is “the best” all the time. Each has its purpose. Consider this as a good description of the difference: Analytic Thinking breaks a whole down into its parts, finds one to solve for and focuses uniquely on that part to the exclusion of the whole. Systems Thinking starts with and focuses on the whole. Analytic Thinking fails to address the interconnectedness of the parts and furthermore may even totally ignore all the other systems connected to it.  Systems Thinking, by contrast, by simply focusing on the whole, naturally begins by looking at the various systems to which the whole is connected, and then solves the problem in the context of all that interconnectedness, thus ensuring a solution that is more likely to succeed for the long-term. However, Analytic Thinking is absolutely essential to solving problems affecting discreet components and is most effective for solutions that have immediate or short-term impact. The trick is to be able to make the distinction.

Tip #7 – There are no final answers.  We will invariably find that an answer, or solution, is simply the next question. This is not defeatist thinking by the way. This is simply acknowledging that all systems are living systems and therefore in constant flux.  Change is a constant in our world, it always has been. One big difference in the 21st Century is that the pace of change in our “information age” is so much quicker that we need to be acutely aware that change is in fact constant. Systems Thinking helps us to not lose focus on the systems that surround and affect our lives, work and businesses to be better prepared to react to our environment as it changes and make better decisions.

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