Systems Thinking 101: The What and the Why
Updated: Aug 31
For a long time now I have liked to think of Systems Thinking as actually a hard skill, as opposed to the traditional approach of making it a soft skill. Meaning, it can be taught and learned, we can measure its progress and approach it with the logical parts of our brain. Granted, some of it might come to us intuitively, I still think it is like learning how to ride a bicycle or how to draw: despite looking mysterious at first, one can use techniques to achieve mastery and use some personal components to shaping the understanding of Systems Thinking disciplines.
Disciplines, I say, because there are many ways of approaching Systems Thinking as well: it is not a black and white collection of 5 easy-peasy techniques. It resembles more a new world to discover, a new mindset to be developed, new lenses to look into life and a lifetime commitment to understanding the world around us. Yes, all that.
Because of that Systems Thinking can have an air of mystery and feel unattainable. To try and demystify that, I invite you to think of Systems thinking from at least two perspectives: language and tooling.
Systems Thinking as Language
In order to think differently it could make sense to speak differently, as language strongly influences our mental models.
There is a whole vocabulary when describing systemic behavior and this vocabulary sometimes defies conventional use of words. Saying that a system is either balancing or reinforcing is common understanding within this discipline and describes very specific behaviors within the system. It represents what to expect from inputs and outputs on the system, which in turn depends on the boundaries set for it. Another way of describing systems, instead of balancing vs reinforcing would be negative versus positive. And right there our bias would attack our minds, because we commonly learn to think of negative as bad and positive as good, but in systems thinking this sort of judgement is actually detrimental to understanding the situation at hand.
When studying systems we usually describe patterns and events and the understanding behind those words would also be a little different than the normal language would have them. We can specialize the talking on patterns when delving on system archetypes and that can be its own study. We would very much talk about loops, about feedback and many other words that might be new themselves or just used differently, but with a very clear and intentional meaning.
As we can see, yes, a whole new language for expressing how we perceive interactions.
Systems Thinking as Set of Tools
If we are thinking and speaking differently, it only makes sense that we will be using different tools to both stimulate and communicate this way of thinking and speaking. Most of these tools will be centered in visualizing systems and the relationships between its parts as well as depicting behaviors of the system in a structured way. Those structures oftentimes are cycles, or loops, a famous one being causal loop diagrams. But these systems diagrammatics are not always circular, even though they are, more often than not, dynamic depictions of the system.
However, one very important aspect that combines language and tooling is the ability to tell a story. Because systems are dynamics, thinking in pictures make less sense than thinking in animation. These seemingly static representations need to gain life through storytelling, giving life to scenarios. Worry not: It is a skill, it can be developed.
Tools can advance as far as computer simulation, fuzzy logic, queuing theories and mathematical models, but one does not need to go that far to reap the benefits of Systems Thinking applied. As with anything in Agile, we tame complexity by searching for simplicity: starting with and mastering the simplest representations and dialogues is paramount in making any advance towards complexity. That also means: try and understand small systems, small issues before trying to represent (and understand) gigantic systems with lots of cross references and conflicting powerful interactions. Tell simple stories and draw simple diagrams. Expand the knowledge together with technique.
Detail and complexity have their place. In a continuation of this series on Systems Thinking we will be tackling what makes systems, how to represent them and study them. But why should we, especially under the context of Agility for businesses and teams?
Systems are everywhere around us. We are systems ourselves and we are also inserted into systems. There is a lot of meta and recursion. The cells and organs in our bodies have an intrinsic organization and purpose that makes them a system. The society and economy are systems within which we live. But we probably heard most about systems in biology classes, with big words such as "ecosystems" or "thermodynamics" or "mechanics", for those that ventured into Physics world. And mostly, since the second half of the 20th century with computer systems: the computer themselves, the applications running on systems and now in our cellphones and video-games. That probably put Systems Thinking away from the common person and elevate its disciplines to higher ranks of scientific knowledge.
While that is true as they are common currency in the scientific field, I would wish and try to contribute for us to operate under the assumption that Systems Thinking should be used by anyone, anywhere. Whether we use this notion consciously or not, systems have been around us for a long time and in the past decades a growing body of committed individuals have worked hard to popularize its appeal, such as Peter Senge, William Braun, Daniel Kim, and Leyla Acaraglu. They remind us that systems are around ever since complexity has been around. And complexity has forever been around.
I will then repeat once more. The main reason why we should utilize more of a systemic view comes from the interpretation that complexity and systems are everywhere. If they are everywhere and if we have them in us and we operate within then, then we can try and work more effectively and proactively with them. This means, we could be able to try and anticipate, interfere with and shape results from systemic interactions. Because of my line of work and the objectives of this blog, I will definitely bring the discussion under the context of organizations, teams, change and better collaboration. What does that mean for us coaches, change agents and the likes?
Systems Thinking and organizations
How many of us can relate to immediateness in decision-making throughout organizations? How many "cost-fit" initiatives have we seen in place, aka initiatives in which a lot of budgeting is done and costs are cut without proper perspective of what innovation means and what it can do for the company, leading to lack of investments to foster actual innovation? How many "reorgs" have we been through, especially in the last ten years under the title of "digital transformation" or "agile transformation" and yet the products and services and ways of interacting with the company and customers and society remain the same? And if you look inside those companies you will probably find the structure that connects their teams and their departments as oftentimes heavy and just a different version of the preceding ineffective ones. They still talk about measuring progress (hours spent, money invested) instead of measuring success (have we hit the target?, are customers really delighted?). They still talk about resource allocation when mentioning people working in specific projects. What do you do with a resource? You move it; you swap it, stress it, you discard it. Yet another case: a knowledgeable and motivated employee that gets praised everywhere and therefore constantly overly committed to deliver, finds himself exhausted after giving so much of himself with no pause, no recharge, only to be considered an underachiever after a while. He then goes the route of either feeling demotivated and leaving the company or worse, he ends up getting fired even before noticing his own underachievement and without help to regain his initial motivation and energy level. Familiar much?
These are just a few examples in which we experience lack of systemic perspective from management in organizations. A wide-spread short-term view that stems from a dissociation phenomenon. Organizations, personified by their management hierarchy, do not see how they are inserted in the problems they face. They are contributors to the complex context in which they insert themselves, even if they fail to perceive it. But no, the cause is usually "out there", which limits opportunities for improvement and continue with the cycle of acting through blind spots. If we see ourselves as part of the problem that leverages our contribution as part of the solution as well.
Another blind spot to be explored is that our actions extend beyond the boundaries of our position and so do the opportunities. Crystallizing people and teams into functions and predefined ways of interacting without much freedom denies a great opportunity for organizational learning and evolving in ways beyond common imagination. Many managers are not ready to tap into the collective intelligence for restructuring departments and even defining new company targets, nor are they trained or sometimes even interested to see past cause-and-effect. They do not see that change and threats from markets and change in the world and society come from slow gradual processes that eventually hit us; they are not sudden. There is not much chance to get there if people get overspecialized and if management is not comfortable and knowledgeable in tapping into collectiveness.
Even worse: in such crystallization, employees might not see themselves as the change agents they actually are. Not just potentially are, but effectively are. Either by resisting or by giving in we are all contributing for the evolution of the organization, no matter the direction it is going. We are all participants and influencers even if we do not understand our level of influence.
Understanding the organization inserted in markets and societies and eras, understanding customers and employees, figuring out the interconnectedness of the last 10 years of managing practices culminating in today's results is but one way in which Systems Thinking can help. Organizations will not stop facing challenges that defy simple linear cause-and-effect analysis. Learning how to see the "sudden" approaching slowly and be able to treat it as not sudden anymore, being able to provoke changes instead of having to just deal with them are all examples of the unnerving tasks that traditional management can no longer pretend to solve.
Systems Thinking and teams
Being part of organizations, we can decline a little bit the understanding on how Systems Thinking can impact teams. One of the favorite aspects in which I connect teams and Systems Thinking is the ability to learn and improve, and how the team insert themselves within the context of the organization's success. Many times a team will not see the impact of their actions below their sphere of influence, or not get due recognition, but they are integral part of it. The constant coaching on continuous improvement that are massively widespread in this age of "Agile Transformation" translates into adopting processes and best practices that makes a team's life easier and that is good. The problem comes when such adoption hinders collaboration outside the team or burdens the organization financially or in other ways. Remembering to optimize for the whole, not just the team, is textbook Systems Thinking.
Systemic thinking will bring us about boundaries of autonomy of a team, another excellent opportunity for growth. When teams are capable of understand and live the notion that they do control and own some tasks and results, within their system, they are then on the path to keep up a positive and committed attitude; there is always something they can do to influence their environment instead of resorting to a little too many complaints and no action. Teams retrospectives and Sprint reviews can be re-evaluated under systemic optic. While the retrospectives keep the inspection in the interior of the system, trying to balance it out and provoke emergence of new behavior and knowledge, reviews actually allow for external input to enter the system, immediately injecting disruption that the team, has to react to.
I would also advocate that the complex distribution of work, responsibilities and how a team can operate in a collaborative state can benefit from systemic thinking. Lack of knowledge sharing, over-specialized team members such as analysts that cannot code and testers that do not automate, unbalanced seniority among team members, extreme diversity of personalities and even conflicts, are all excellent candidates to be modeled and studied systemically.
Any experiment conducted in a team, if performed with discipline and rigor, elevates the "inspect & adapt" mindset to a scientific approach of learning by experimentation and that is Systems Thinking at the very heart of Agile.
Thinking even beyond, a team well versed into seeing the forest for the trees will be specifically skilled in breaking down work in the most value-generation possible. You see, analysis brought us to the place in which specific parts are understood and therefore an analyst, a developer and a tester ended up disconnected in practices that today we try and piece together to have more flow in their pipeline of software delivery. Similar functional slicing happened in other teams such as marketing or finance or legal. That is what also makes team break down work on tasks, because that is what they see: their tiny specialized pieces. But this analytical view is not wrong or evil. It was actually a necessity for efficiency when work was more execution than creativity and innovation.
Now that the world and markets have changed so much, , an actual useful work breakdown for the company's competitive advantage comes from understanding the business, the market context, users wishes and even technological barriers. The whole. That is why techniques that might seem easy, such as User Stories, many times will fail for years when used by teams that have always operated in functional slicing of work. All the attempts made into user story usage should be supported by growing team knowledge about their company and their clients, beyond backlog refinement and story mapping sessions. Creating customer empathy and being innovative comes from being immersed in the problems the company has set itself to solve. A deep understanding of the context and the problem is what is most important, less the solution. Systems thinking help us to establish that Solution is actually the easy part and when it fails is very commonly because we had failures in our understanding of the context and the problem.
If all that non extensive list on why study and master Systems Thinking written above resonates with you, you are then already on the path of using systems thinking as a perspective for approaching the world and this should be your next hard skill to be mastering in order to become a better coach. And we had just scratched the surface of what is possible with this mindset in action. In the following months I will continue to explore Systems Thinking under several lights and usage and we should be touching practical applications to solidify the concepts: when and how to use it, creating diagrams and some storytelling with me reporting back from the field.
Disclaimer: At this point I should state I am no specialist. I am just a learner and I want to share as I learn. I believe in positive change. Under the systemic optic I can choose to BE the change!
This is just the beginning of a journey! Come and join!