Boundaries, like fences are one potential difficulty.

Boundaries, like fences, are one potential difficulty.

Systems thinking is a powerful concept that can generate significant for value for organizations by generating more options. Dan and Chip Heath indicate that options are a precursor to better decisions in their book Decisive. Given the power of the concept and the value it can deliver, one would expect the concept to be used more. The problem is that systems thinking is not always straightforward.  The difficulties with using systems thinking fall into three categories.

  • Boundaries
  • Complexity
  • Day-to-Day Pressures

Organizational boundaries and their impact of the flow of both work and information have been a source of discussion and academic study for years.  Boundaries are a key tool for defining teams and providing a send of belonging; however, some boundaries not very porous. As noted in our articles on cognitive biases, groups tend to develop numerous psychological tools to identify and protect their members.  Systems, in most cases, cut across those organizational boundaries. In order to effectively develop an understanding of a system and then to affect a change to that system, members of each organizational unit that touches the system need to be involved (involvement can range from simple awareness to active process changes). When changes are limited due to span of control or a failure to see the big picture, they can be focused on parts of a process that, even if perfectly optimized, will not translate to the delivery of increased business value.  In a recent interview for SPaMcast, author Michael West provided examples of a large telecommunication company that implemented a drive to six sigma quality in its handsets, only to find out that pursuing the goal made the handset too expensive to succeed in the market. In this case the silos between IT, manufacturing and marketing allowed a change initiative to succeed (sort of) while harming the overall organization.

The second category is complexity.  Even simple systems are complex. Complexity can be caused by the breadth of a system.  For example, consider the relatively simple product of a lawn service.  How many processes and steps are required to attract and sign-up customers, then secure the equipment and employees to perform the job, schedule the service, actually deliver the service and then to collect payment? The simple system becomes more complex as we broaden the scope of our understanding.  Add in the impact of a variable like weather or an employee calling in sick, and things get interesting.  Really complicated systems, such as the manufacturing and sale of an automobile, can be quite mind-numbing in their complexity.  The natural strategy when faced with this level of complexity is to focus on parts of the overall system. This can lead to optimizations that do not translate to the bottom line. A second natural strategy for dealing with complexity is to develop models. All models are abstractions, and while abstractions are needed, you need to strike a balance so that the ideas generated from studying the model or results of experiments or pilots run against the model are representative of results in the real world.  For example, let’s say you build a 1/8 scale replica of a server farm.  The replica is a model that could be used to study how the servers would be placed or used to plan how they would be accessed for service. This would be a valid use of a model.  But if the model was placed in the actual server room and the observation used to jump to the conclusion that since the model fit, the server farm would fit, a mistake could quite possibly be made. Because of the complexity, we tend to focus on a part of system or to make abstractions. However, both can make it hard to think about the big picture needed to apply systems thinking.

The final difficulty with the use of systems thinking is the pressure of the day-to-day.  As I noted when I re-read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, the urgent and important issues of the day can easily overwhelm the important but not urgent. The use of systems thinking and the systemic changes identified through the use of the tool will generally fall into the important but not urgent category.  A person who is having a heart attack due to cholesterol-clogged arteries needs to deal with urgency of the attack before identifying and addressing their diet and other root causes. Leveraging systems thinking as a tool to address large-scale systemic issues is not a magic wand, rather a concept that will require time and effort to use.  If the organization is being overcome by day-to-day events, systems thinking will be difficult to use.  One technique that I have seen to deal with this scenario is to create a cross-functional, highly focused (tiger team) with a specific time box to start the process. This will require removing the team’s day-to-day responsibilities until the team meets its goal. This is a very difficult tactic to use as the people you would want on the team are generally the best at their job. This can potentially have a negatively impact organizational performance for a short period of time. You must consider the ROI.

The use of systems thinking is not for the faint of heart.  There are difficulties in applying the concept.  Boundaries, complexity and day-to-day pressures are the most significant, however there are others such as ensuring the team has system thinking training. Systems thinking can deliver a broad overall perspective and great value, but as a leader you must balance the difficulties with the benefits.