Systems thinking for today’s workers and organizations

Systems thinking for today’s workers and organizations

Flightscape 142As I wrote last time, it was great fun to go to Harvard and speak to a class on systems thinking, about my views on how we might connect this concept to leadership and personal storytelling. This week and next, I will put some of my thoughts down here.

Since I have no formal training in the field, and since for the first hour of class I watched the students present models to explain a complex problem in terms of causal loops, balancing precesses, or leverage points in a system, I decided to look up a few formal definitions of exactly what “systems thinking” entails.

Here is one that made some sense to me, particularly after sitting in on the class last week. It is from a group called ieee systems, inc.: “We can use the phrase to refer to a set of tools – such as causal loop diagrams, stock and flow diagrams and simulation models – that help us map and explore dynamic complexity. We can also use it to mean a unique perspective on reality – a perspective that sharpens our awareness of whole and of how the parts within those wholes interrelate. Finally, systems thinking can refer to a special vocabulary with which we express our understanding of dynamic complexity. For example, systems thinkers often describe the world in terms of reinforcing and balancing processes, limits, delays, patterns of behavior over time, and so forth.”

A second definition I found interesting, a simpler and less technical one, comes from The Waters Foundation: “What do we mean when we say ‘systems thinking?’ Systems thinking is a perspective of seeing and understanding systems as wholes rather than as collections of parts. A whole is a web of interconnections that creates emerging patterns.”

Both of these definitions lend insight and guidance about systems thinking. For our purposes today, I find the second definition particularly interesting, because it explains the concept in terms of a mindset that can be useful to everyone, in a variety of contexts. In fact, the more I read about systems thinking, the more it seems like something we should apply to virtually everything we do.

For many years now, I have been talking to clients about the importance of learning to recognize and understand broader patterns of meaning. Long before I had heard the term “systems thinking”, I had observed that it is a skill that the most successful people in organizations seemed to have.

And, when I say that systems approaches are one of the things leaders are good at, I mean leaders at any level of an organization. Leaders are people who influence others and influence systems, from wherever they may sit on an organization chart. I like to say that each of us has a seat at the table, a voice in the conversation, and that we probably have more influence than we think. Seeing the broader patterns of meaning, and understanding how the parts fit together to make up a whole, are critical attributes when one seeks to influence a group.

By coincidence, systems thinking has long been a part of my personal story. As a business school student at Stanford in 1982, I worked as a summer intern for Atari, Inc. My job, which I ended up retaining through 1983 before moving on from California, involved running a weekly meeting about “sales demand forecasting”. Each week, we reviewed refined the company’s sales forecast, taking into account marketing budgets for each product, production capacities, and a host of other factors.

The reason I always say that I came to understand conceptual thinking by coincidence is because getting this job at Atari was a true stroke of luck. Not only was it a first business experience at one of the hottest companies in Silicon Valley, and not only did I interact daily with seasoned executives, running the weekly forecast meetings became the perfect place for learning about conceptual thinking.

In the next post, I will describe my Atari role and what it taught me about systems thinking. Also, I will write further about why I see the systems mindset as increasingly valuable in the modern organization.

Image: flickr-user my Daily Sublime


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