☎ 403-236-3928 ✉ email@example.com
You are here: Home > Blog | Valerie MacLeod
I’ve had multiple comments lately that people want to understand Systems Thinking better. Thinking systemically can make your team, organization and life more efficient. And it reduces the dreaded “unintended consequences!”
Before we talk about the principles of The Systems Thinking Approach® review the model here https://valeriemacleod.com/systems-thinking
Here are the Principles of The Systems Thinking Approach®:
1. Define your system's boundaries
Prior to doing any planning, establish what’s inside and outside the boundary of your system. If you aren’t clear on the boundaries then planning and communicating becomes difficult. You might think that the database architect that works with your team is inside the system. That person and their supervisor might not agree with you!
Build relationships with people that are outside your system. You’ll need these relationships in order to collaborate and achieve your goals.
Even though you define your boundaries remember that your boundaries are permeable. You receive information and are influenced by outside forces.
2. Multiple outcomes
There are many members inside and outside your system that could have desired outcomes of your system that are different than yours. One of your team might want to improve their communication skills, another might want to develop leadership abilities and a third might want exposure to senior leadership.
The organization and department might have different outcomes from the project goals. Being aware of the many possible outcomes help you balance the sometimes-competing outcomes.
I think of the different expectations of patients, doctors and government regarding the same health system. A patient might want treatment and multiple tests today, while their doctor can’t schedule them until next week (or next month) and the government wants to limit costs by having as few tests as possible and no overtime.
It’s important to remember that when a system has shared overall purposes then it is most effective.
3. Nested systems
Just like “no one is an island” – no system stands alone. Your system is a sub-system of a larger system. Whether that is the department, organization or community. There are always systems above your system. And internal to your system.
Because you are part of a larger entity, your system should fit under the goals of the larger system. Or else conflict and chaos will ensue!
The elements and sub-systems of your system are related. Understanding these relationships will help you clarify where to make changes and tweaks to your system.
Remember that whenever you make a change to your system it impacts other parts of the system.
Just like there are relationships inside your system. There are relationships between your system and external systems. This means you’ve got to understand your impact on those other systems when you make any changes to your system.
We recommend you get feedback from those other systems before your plan is completed.
We usually think that cause and effect relationships are close together in time. But they aren’t. I’ve heard it said that cause and effect are not necessarily neighbours on a timeline. Think about a seed, the time frame between when a seed is planted (cause) and becomes a full-grown tree could be years.
So, when you are looking for the basis of an issue don’t just look at recent possibilities because there could be considerable time between the cause and its eventual consequence.
7. Different perspectives
One of the most wonderful things about people is their diversity. Their differing backgrounds and opinions can help you create a better system. You must be aware that these different perspectives are as valuable as yours – there’s no right or wrong.
For example, in the health care system we mentioned previously the patient might see things as disjoint with no one talking to each other, doctors might think internal processes are working well but believe there are too few staff and outdated equipment to meet the goals of the health care system, and government believes they are meeting the health needs of their constituents.
8. Open systems
Every living system will be impacted by external forces because they are open systems. Whether that is an increase in lending rates, a transportation strike in another country or a pandemic – you can’t pretend you are on your own.
You must consider the external environment when thinking and planning.
9. Inputs and outputs
Systems have both inputs and outputs. Your system takes input from outside the system – this could be geological information, unpainted cars or tourists. Then your system transforms these inputs in some way and exports outputs – a new drilling location, painted vehicles or satisfied & tired vacationers.
As a strategic thinker, define all the inputs and exports to your system. This helps everyone understand the system and who else to work within the interdependent relationships we spoke about earlier.
This is not a term I understood before I studied The Systems Thinking Approach®. The easiest way to think of it is “there’s more than one way to skin a cat.” Because I like cats, let’s instead think of the concept of there are many ways to achieve the same outcomes.
At the Haines Centre we talk about operational flexibility – giving the decision making on “how” to get there to the operational unit that’s completing the tasks. Depending upon their geography, shifts, skill mix, etc. they might have to be creative on reaching the outcomes you want. As long as they are still consistent with the strategic goals, values and operating procedures of the organization, then it’s often best to let them decide the details of the steps to achieve their outcomes.
All systems lose energy. They move towards failure and disorganization unless you add extra energy into the system.
Plan for injecting vitality back into the system through meetings, positive reinforcement, ongoing communication, and leadership reviews.
12. Both/and thinking
We are often taught at school that there is one right answer. And often that’s true in the classroom. But in the real world either/or thinking is limited and even detrimental.
It’s often a false choice between A or B. Why can’t we have both A and B? Or maybe we should strive for a third solution that has parts of A and B, or even a superior solution.
Think of being dedicated to your job and also having balance between work and your life outside of the job. It’s possible!
All systems have a natural feedback loop. This feedback on outputs and internal processes allows the system to maintain a steady state or improve. Metrics like percentage of downtime, number of products produced and profit margin can help you decide what changes and adjustments you should make to the system.
Define the key measures for your system – not just things that are easy to measure, but the metrics that will give you good information on how the system is really doing.
Unfortunately, all systems naturally move towards internal complexity. Without thinking, we often add new steps into the internal processes or we expand upon the terms of reference for a task team. Systems organically grow and get more complicated over time.
We must fight this natural principle from taking over and making this chaotic by occasionally stopping to review the whole system as keeping things as simple as possible.
You can become a better systems thinker when you are aware of the principles that govern systems and ensure that you manage them when designing a system, creating a strategic plan AND implementing the actions and projects associated with that plan.
Read more about becoming a systems thinker:
Unleash your Systems Thinking Superpowers
Systems Thinking Rides to the Rescue
Cats, the plague and unintended consequences
Everything you wanted to know about Systems Thinking but were afraid to ask
Copyright © 2023. All Rights Reserved.