Different strokes

In my last column, I discussed 12 key characteristics of systems thinking. I described how systems thinking (i.e. holistic thinking) is different than analytic thinking (i.e., parts-based thinking). I made the case that there is great power in looking for interdependencies and connections – between tasks, employees, work areas, stakeholders, etc.

In this column, I’ll talk about what you can do to unleash systems thinking in your organization.

Encouraging a broader frame of reference is the place to get started in unleashing systems thinking. Employees need to be encouraged to rise above the transaction level and look across the work process in which they are engaged. How do the transactions ultimately create fluid processes that offer products or services to end users? Applying a simple, but powerful, “A-B-C-D” model can be helpful in this regard, as follows:


A: Where are we going? (i.e., desired situation)

In answering this question, it is helpful to think in terms of possibilities. We do not have to be captives of the way things are. By thinking in terms of an ideal or desired future state, we can begin to move away from the status quo and towards peak performance.


B: How will we know we’ve arrived? (i.e., evaluative criteria/standards of merit)

This is an important consideration, consistent with the adage, “What gets measured, gets done.” It’s all well and fine to aim high, but without a focus on tangible results or outcomes, even the most compelling ideas can lose traction. Accordingly, it is important to define the desired outcome relative to the organization’s key performance indicators (i.e., KPIs) at the individual, team or work area, and organization-wide levels.


C: Where are we now? (i.e., current situation)

If we know where we want to go and how we will measure our progress along the way, in order to get started, we have to start at the beginning. While this might not seem like a particularly profound observation, it is worth noting that unless we are clear on the problem we are trying to solve, we can often wind up working at cross-purposes with one another. Taking time to concretely define the current status, the “brutal reality,” as Jim Collins, author of the book “Good to Great” says, is very important to ensure clear expectations.


D: How will we get there? (i.e., Strategy)

In order to close the gap from C to A in a complete, holistic way, it is necessary to identify the pieces of the performance puzzle that we are trying to solve. What is the goal? What are the steps along the way that will lead to attainment of the goal? Who will occupy which roles? What resources are necessary? And so on.

By adopting a systems perspective, perspectives are broadened and connections are made. By looking both inward (i.e., What am I doing) and outward (i.e., What are they doing?), employees can begin to see their colleagues as resources and assets rather than as constraints or problems.

By adopting a systems perspective, links can be forged between individual-level goals, work area goals, and collaborative goals across work areas. Multiple goals that highlight interdependence can be established. Multiple sources of feedback and reinforcement can be identified. Potential contradictions or conflicts between the parts that comprise the system can be targeted and mitigated.

By adopting a system perspective, more timely fine-tuning adjustments, enhancements and improvements can be pursued. A sense that, “We’re all in this together” can emerge.

Employees can be empowered to take action as value-added “owners,” rather than as passive “doers” who only are concerned with their small piece of the overall performance puzzle.

Ultimately, by adopting a systems perspective, a clearer understanding of the complexity underlying effective performance can emerge. As Dr. Dale Brethower, one of my mentors during graduate school and a world renowned expert in the area of high performance learning systems has observed (about using systems thinking), “It is easier to see that different parts of an organization have different appearing but functionally similar problems. It is easier to wear someone else’s shoes, to see that if I were in that box rather than this box, I would behave that way rather than this way. That way is adaptive in that box, this way is adaptive in this box. It is easier to accept the notion that different strokes are needed if you use systems thinking to show the different strokes from a common prospective.”

To sum up, stop using analytic (i.e., part-based) approaches so solve systems (i.e., interdependent) problems! Instead, use systems thinking to solve systems problems, as follows:

  1. What is the desired outcome (i.e., outputs)?
  2. What criteria/measurable standards will you use to receive the feedback you will need to ensure your outcome is being realized?
  3. What are the inputs (i.e., resources)?
  4. What are the throughputs (i.e., processes)?
  5. What is changing in the environment (i.e., an ongoing question)?

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Dr. Daniel A. Schroeder is President/CEO of Organization Development Consultants, Inc. (ODC). ODC serves regional and national clients from its offices in suburban Milwaukee. Additionally, he teaches in the Organizational Behavior and Leadership (bachelor’s) and Organization Development (master’s) programs at Edgewood College (Madison, WI), programs that he founded and for which he served as Program Director.

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