Here’s a 3-step guide to practical Systems Thinking:
1 - The organization is a system. We must understand the entire system and the implications of making changes in that system to staff, other teams, and organizations. Instead of using traditional thinking and breaking the organization into parts (like marketing, finance, production), we consider the goals of the entire system first.
A system is a whole made up of separate parts. Each part can impact how the other parts work and all parts work together to meet the goals of the whole system.
If leaders only look at the parts, they will miss opportunities for improvement of the entire system and therefore, superior results. Leaders must get “up in the helicopter” and see the whole system to be strategic.
2 - Any change to the system influences all parts of the system. Because parts of the system have a relationship with other elements of the system, changes anywhere in the system have effects throughout the system.
Strategic leaders gather feedback from key stakeholders (both internal and external to the system) to understand these possible effects and plan to mitigate or leverage them. Leaders who do not pay attention to potential impacts create unintended consequences.
3 - Processes, structures and culture support or inhibit system improvement. Processes (how people are doing things), structures (what organizes people, information or things), and culture (how we do things around here) influence how people react and what they can accomplish.
Strategic leaders ensure that the processes, structures and culture allow employees to make the changes that are requested. Often we “hope” that the system changes will occur, instead of being deliberate in creating an environment where the processes, structures and culture make it easy for staff to make the changes we require.
Strategic thinking leaders remember to view the organization as a system of related components. They collect ideas from staff, clients and other teams to eliminate unintended consequences, and they update processes, structures and culture to support the direction.