The Power of Systems Thinking
There’s been a lot of buzz recently about systems thinking. Systems thinking allows you to make sense of complex, dynamic events, groups, or organizations. It allows you to understand how they work, how they don’t work, and how they are getting feedback (or not).
What is Systems Thinking?
Systems Thinking is a way of making sense of complexity by focusing on three things:
- Independent parts (or people)
- The connections (or relationships) between them
- Feedback loops (additional elements that impact the system)
By breaking complex, dynamic systems into these components, it’s easier to understand them and easier to influence them.
You may be familiar with mechanical systems, for example, the heating and cooling in your house. Systems like these are stable and execute in a predictable, repeatable fashion.
In contrast, systems thinking allows you to make sense of systems that are highly variable and ever-changing. Systems such as forests, communities, families and even companies or teams. All of these are ever-changing, dynamic systems.
Feedback loops are external factors that impact the system. They can be reinforcing, which means they encourage the system to maintain its current trajectory, or they can be balancing and create change in a system (good, bad, or indifferent). For example, customer purchasing behavior is a feedback loop for retail stores- customers either buy items or don’t. That’s a pretty clear feedback loop. A report card is a feedback loop for a student- the student is either succeeding or failing or somewhere in the middle. That’s feedback. Awards are feedback loops for athletes- you either win awards and you have skill, or you don’t win awards, and you learn you need to work harder or quit.
What’s a Dynamic System? Some Examples
Dynamic systems are systems in motion. They’re the systems that don’t stand still. The are systems in which everything is changing all the time.
Meetings are dynamic systems. They’re comprised of a number of individuals, all with varying connections to one another, to the company, or outside of the company. Every meeting varies; it involves a unique group of people in a unique frame of mind, with unique backgrounds, with unique skill sets- that change and evolve. Think of a great meeting you’ve been part of — one with a clear agenda and participants who are prepared, ready to collaborate, and get work done. Now replace one of those participants with someone with a bad attitude, who isn’t prepared but dominates the conversation. Those two meetings will be completely different in experience and outcome. The meeting (system) was impacted by the change in one part and, subsequently, the connection between the parts and then the overall meeting.
Companies are systems. How the individuals that work at your company, the groups they are part of, and how they are organized is a system. How the company relates to competitors, partners, or customers is another system.
A sports locker room is a system. You might hear someone say that a player with a bad attitude, toxic behaviors, or other issues is a “cancer” to the team. What that means is that introducing one (toxic) new individual into the team system is going to negatively impact the whole team (system).
Why Does Systems Thinking Matter?
Systems thinking matters because whether we like them or not, we all exist in systems. We’re independent parts, and we make connections. We also provide feedback loops. Thinking about these systems provides visibility and valuable insights. It can also empower and enable you to make changes in systems.
Making change can feel impossible, regardless of the size or scope of your organization or the change you hope to make. Using a systems thinking framework can make it easier. We use Donella Meadows’ list of the twelve places to intervene in a system* as a guide. This helps identify the best places to intervene (or make a change), compared against the size of an impact one can expect to see as a result. You can then determine what actions need to be taken to reach a desired outcome:
As you might imagine, it’s easier to affect lower-impact places, and it’s harder to make higher-impact changes.
In a previous post (How Work Gets Done), we wrote about how thinking in systems can also help you understand how a team works — or doesn’t.**
This is a valuable resource in understanding how you can apply systems thinking immediately.
Systems thinking can also help you consider your feedback sources. Are you only getting positive or reinforcing feedback? If so, you will only be encouraged to do the same thing, the same way as you have always done. If you’re also seeking negative or balancing feedback, you can expect to learn about improvements, opportunities, and potential changes as well
- Everything’s a system. We’re all independent parts, and we’re all connected.
- You can impact systems by understanding them and then determining the best places to intervene.
- Feedback loops are essential. Make sure you’re getting the right feedback.
- And remember, they say, if you find someone in a company doing something stupid, you can bet there’s something in the system that rewards them for doing so. Make positive changes in your systems.
Interested in learning more about Systems Thinking?
More from Northome Group:
*Environmentalist, educator, and author Donella Meadows was the author of the book, “Thinking in Systems,” which introduced the idea of using systems thinking to understand how things work, identify root problem causes, see new opportunities, make better decisions, and adapt to changing circumstances. She also authored the article “Places to Intervene in a System.”
**In this context, “system” and “ecosystem” are interchangeable.