WHAT IS SYSTEMS THINKING?
Systems thinking is the ability to look at the interconnections between parts of a whole rather than concentrating just on the pieces. It is reasoning logically: the relationship between cause and effect. Take the world that we live in; no one will dispute that everything in the world is interconnected. There is also the theoretical example of a butterfly fluttering in Brazil affecting a tornado’s path in Texas. As symbolic as it may sound, the fact remains that we are all a part of, and surrounded by, related links. Everything is reliant upon something else. For anything to survive, it needs something else to stay as well, often a complex array of other things.
Systems thinking essentially means looking at everything as interconnected and moving in a circular trajectory. Now apply this to the business of organizations, and you will realize the thrust of this article. Using systems thinking for your company or within specific projects at your workplace will require exploring examples of critical thinking.
What Does Systems Thinking Involve?
The term “systems thinking” can mean different things to different people. It may mean something entirely different to an automobile engineer compared to a nuclear physicist or a molecular biologist. Conceptually, it will mean the same to all three of them: to appreciate the bigger picture as a composite whole of many interconnected parts.
Systems thinking involves identifying behavior patterns and studying the underlying structures that drive those events and practices. By understanding these interconnected structures, we can make changes in specific processes to modify the results achieved by an entire organization.
Systems Thinking in the Workplace
Arun is the Operations Head of an extremely successful steel plant. With over twelve thousand workers and numerous interrelated processes and departments, Arun must have a complete fix on his plant as a whole, as much as on each function, at any given point in time. He knows that a distant war in a foreign country can affect the demand for his steel, forcing reductions in output, which in turn will render workers jobless, and in turn affect the education of several kids at the neighborhood school, involving the employability of teachers in that school, and so on. Arun is your typical whiz at systems thinking. It is the ability to look back and look ahead at the chain of events that every event can trigger.
Systems thinking helps us extend the range of choices available for solving a problem by broadening our thinking and articulating issues in new and different ways. Simultaneously, the principles of systems thinking make us aware that there are no isolated solutions. Every choice will have an impact on other parts of the system. By anticipating each trade-off’s influence, we can minimize the severity of its impact, or at times convert threats into opportunities. Systems thinking, therefore, allows us to make informed choices.
If faced with that war in a distant land, Arun’s steel plant can prepare by always exploring newer markets and newer variants to their product range, thereby protecting the jobs of those workers and the neighborhood school.
The Individual and The Organization
Sound systems thinkers recognize the importance of aligning employees’ personal goals with team goals, linked to the overall organizational goals. Systems thinking managers will emphasize individual accomplishments and keep employees well informed on how their contributions help achieve organizational goals.
Leaders who gain systems thinking perspectives will ensure that each division or team has its goals, tasks, budgets, and KPIs connected to overarching organizational objectives. As a result, while remaining focused on assigned tasks, teams will also understand how the organization works and help improve processes to meet overall corporate goals.
While the logic of systems thinking may seem simple enough to understand and appreciate, taking a systems perspective is not easy to achieve in managerial terms. Senior management cannot, in isolation, put systems thinking to work. Every element in the mix of an organization needs to be tightly aligned for it to succeed. In practice, this is no mean feat. It is essential to train and educate each individual to develop the approach of seeing the system as a whole and work for the entire organization’s benefit.