Sometimes you have to seek a little harder to understand the big picture.

Sometimes you have to seek a little harder to understand the big picture.

We should be guided by theory, not by numbers. – W.E. Deming

Many process improvement programs falter when, despite our best efforts, they don’t improve the overall performance of IT. The impact of fixing individual processes can easily get lost in the weeds; the impact overtaken by the inertia of the overall systems. Systems thinking is a way to view the world, including organizations, from a broad perspective that includes structures, patterns, and events.  Systems thinking is all about the big picture. Grasping the big picture is important when approaching any change program.  It becomes even more critical when the environment you are changing is complex and previous attempts at change have been less than successful. The world that professional developers operate within is complex, even though the goal of satisfying the projects stakeholders, on the surface, seems so simple. Every element of our work is part of a larger system that visibly and invisibly shapes our individual and organizational opportunities and risks.  The combination of complexity and the nagging issues that have dogged software-centric product development and maintenance suggest that real innovation will only come through systems thinking.

The Waters Foundation, a group dedicated to applying systems thinking to education, suggests a set of “Habits of a Systems Thinker.” The habits are:

  • Seeking to understand the big picture
  • Observing how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends
  • Recognizing that a system’s structure generates its behavior
  • Identifying the circular nature of complex cause and effect relationships
  • Changing perspectives to increase understanding
  • Surfacing and tests assumptions
  • Considering an issue fully and resists the urge to come to a quick conclusion
  • Considering how mental models affect current reality and the future
  • Using understanding of system structure to identify possible leverage action
  • Considering both short and long-term consequences of actions
  • Finding where unintended consequences emerge
  • Recognizing the impact of time delays when exploring cause and effect relationships
  • Checking results and changes actions if needed: “successive approximation”

These habits illustrate that to really create change you need to take the overall process into account and test all of our assumptions before you can know that your change is effective.

An example presented at MIT’s System Design and Management (SDM) program on Oct. 22 and 23 exposed the need to address complexity through holistic solutions. A hospital scenario was described in which alarm fatigue has occurred, leading to negative patient outcomes. Alarm fatigue occurs when health professionals are overwhelmed by monitoring medical devices that provide data and alerts.  The devices don’t interoperate, therefore all of the data and alerts just create noise, which can hide real problems.  Any IT manager that has reviewed multiple monthly project status reports and updates can appreciate how a specific problem signal could be missed and what the consequences might be.  Systems thinking applied through the filter of the “Habits of a Systems Thinker” is tailor-made to help us conceptualize, understand and then address complex problems; to find solutions for problems that seem elusive or that reoccur in an organization.

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