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Many articles are talking about how leaders need to use Systems Thinking in order to be strategic. Sometimes people don’t know exactly what Systems Thinking is, but they hide their lack of knowledge because it seems that everyone else knows what it is.
Don’t be afraid! I’ll give you an overview on Systems Thinking.
Many of you know that I’ve recently taking up photography as a hobby, so let’s start with a camera metaphor.
Systems Thinking principles are like a wide-angle lens on a camera. They give you a better view of your world and thus a more effective way of thinking, communicating, problem solving, and acting.
Just like a wide-angle lens will allow you to see more of the scene in front of you, Systems Thinking allows you to take a “big picture” look at your organization or department. Systems Thinking is a way to get out of the day-to-day detail and see the entire system from a higher vantage point. It gives you the tools for thinking strategically.
One of the main principles of Systems Thinking is that you see the entity (or system) first. This could be your organization or a department. You start by focusing on the entire entity before you look at the details. After understanding the entire system and its relationships, you would investigate the parts.
Many people believe it is easier to start planning or problem solving by breaking things into smaller units. (This is the type of thinking that I learned at university.) There is nothing wrong with breaking things update – however, you have to do it at the right time. Once you are knowledgeable about the whole system and its relationships, then you can look at the individual pieces – as long as you keep the needs of the entire system as a decision-making guide.
Breaking things into separate pieces for analysis before understanding what the system needs and its interaction with other departments, causes unintended consequences – problems that are difficult to fix once they have started!
You can apply Systems Thinking to any system that includes people - society, organizations, business units, teams, or families. This is because it is based upon research of living systems.
When you start using Systems Thinking you realize it is a simple, clear & quick way to understand, analyze & take effective action. It forces a pro-active focus on your activities. Systems Thinking helps you prioritize your day as well as do long-term planning.
Systems Thinking is a way of thinking that can be used when you want to see the broad perspective.
For example, Systems Thinking can be used when working on any project. It is useful when starting a project to define shared direction, identify key stakeholders and determine any possible unintended consequences. In the midst of a project use Systems Thinking to ensure you are on the right track, to make sure you aren’t lost in the details, and to ensure continued buy-in from team members. When the project is completed use Systems Thinking to conduct a look back: what went right, what would you not repeat, and how to ensure the changes “stick” and people don’t revert back to old ways of doing things.
Systems Thinking does not replace your detailed thinking, analytical thinking is still used when you are working on particular aspects of the project. Systems Thinking is used to see the big picture and the relationship between the parts of the project and its impact on customers and other departments.
You will use Systems Thinking to scope in and out to look at all the entire project and then the parts of the project and their interactions, then down to the detail where you’ll use analytical thinking. Then you use Systems Thinking again at the strategic level to ensure everything fits together and is moving towards the agreed upon mandate.
Strategic Thinking can be used at any level in your organization: executive, middle management or staff. The ability to use Systems Thinking can be taught to anyone – take my word for it, I’m a mathematician and learned it, and I’ve taught it to hundreds of people!
If you are interested in learning more about Systems Thinking, I deliver workshops in Systems Thinking and coach leaders & teams to think more systemically. Contact me at Valerie.MacLeod@HainesCentre.com
Others blog posts that you might find interesting:
3 Characteristics of Systems Leadership
Do rules and procedures inspire or inhibit strategic thinking?
Ballet vs. Hockey – Are you being strategic?
Background of Systems Thinking
I hope you like the photo. It's one I took in Botswana. I thought it was appropriate since I started with a photography example and Systems Thinking is based upon living systems.
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