#SH302: Breakdown the Complexities of any Organization Using LIST — A Leader’s Guide to Systems Thinking

Systems Check

There she was–angry, frustrated, scared, and thankful all at the same time. The emotions ran together as she stared at her blown out tire on the side of the highway. Now that she was safe, and the car was on the side of the road, she was more angry than anything–angry at herself for not taking care of the issue when she first noticed it. For weeks now, she felt how the car was pulling to the right more-and-more, and she sensed that her wheel alignment needed correction ever since she hit that massive pothole after the snow melted away. But, it was easily ignored with a little adjustment to how she held the steering wheel, and her work got in the way of what she knew was the need for a systems check and tune up. Even though she knew that she was compensating for the alignment being off, she never realized the wear-and-tear it was causing on the tires or the potential harm she was putting herself in by ignoring the issue. Stuck on the side of a major interstate, she could kick herself for thinking she was too busy to address what she knew was an issue, and now her situation is much much worse.

Aligning Systems

Alignment is critical to overall efficiency, and it impacts the performance of the car. More importantly, it is part of a network of critical components of a car that allow it to function. Businesses, schools, or any organization are really no different. They are made up of many parts that all serve specific and necessary functions, and if one part is misaligned, the entire organization will suffer. The challenge is to identify the parts that aren’t functioning properly, understand the context of the misalignment, and pursue a solution that will be sustainable.

Kirsch, Bildner, and Walker tell HBR readers that for solutions to organizational issues to work, “systems entrepreneurs must have a deep understanding of the system or systems they are trying to change and all the factors that shape it” (2016). In other words, leaders need a deep understanding of their systems to implement new solutions to problems that may, in fact, be caused by the system itself. 

The problem is that leaders often make four critical mistakes: 1. Implementing solutions before we truly understand the problem. A lack of discipline for learning within the system is an issue; 2. Treating the multitude of symptoms rather than taking a holistic approach to the problem; 3. Mandating wholesale general solutions for unique situations before gaining an understanding of the context; and 4. Making rash decisions that ultimately won’t make sense to the people who matter most.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is defined in a number of ways, but the essence of the notion is that systems thinkers bring together the complex parts of a whole so that sense is made regarding how each part is interrelated. The idea is mostly applied to problem-solving in terms of understanding the larger context before applying a new theory of action. Systems thinking is used in teams so that leaders build a unified perspective before moving to problem solving whereby everyone might otherwise have a unique perspective of the problem. Not using systems thinking as a leader compounds issues because the dynamics and complexities are misunderstood or the team doesn’t have a common vocabulary or there is a lack of discipline with learning (both individually and together). As a result, the solutions proposed will likely be misaligned to the actual problems at hand. And, the larger the system, the more important it is to have a thinking strategy for problem-solving. We propose a simple model for applying systems thinking in your organization.

LIST: A Model for Systems Thinking

Our #SH302 model for systems thinking is simple. We use LIST because at the core of systems thinking is simply listing all of the parts of the systems that are intertwined to makeup the system itself. These cogs are called the interdependent parts of the system. But, that’s not enough, organizations that excel at systems thinking need to be learning oriented, improving on themselves through new developments; they need to understand the context of the system through sensemaking; and they need to have the temperament to build the relationships necessary for sustainable change. That makes up LIST and it demonstrates that the technical aspects of interdependency and sensemaking are book-ended by the soft skills of learning and temperament.

Learning — The discipline of self-improvement and organizational development. The more a leader learns, the more they develop their capacity, the greater they equip themselves with the skills to handle complex situations. As Nelson and Stolterman (2003) describe in The Design Way, “In our struggle to understand an ever more complex reality, we believe the current traditions of inquiry and action prevalent in our society do not give us the support we need—as leaders and designers—to meet the emergent challenges that now confront us.” Leaders must continually develop and grow, to evolve and adapt in order to manage the very systems that are continually fluid and ever changing. One key skill every leader must develop is the the ability to, “use both a telescope and a microscope” as Jon Gordon, leadership guru, told TheSchoolHouse302 in our #onethingseries leadership podcast. Systems thinkers often refer to this as zooming-in and zooming-out to gain the appropriate perspective at any given time. This type of learning enables the leader to develop this critical skill of zooming to view issues, from a balcony or from below, to understand the wholeness and complexity of the issue. It takes a disciplined approach, but it ultimately allows for sustainable changes to occur through growth and development.

Interdependent Parts — There are always moving parts that make up the whole. One requirement of systems thinking is that all of the moving parts are identified. Understanding the parts in and of themselves is not enough. It’s critical to know what they are, the purpose they serve, and how they function within the whole system. Each part plays a specific role and has a relationship with other parts. In other words, each part functions individually and as a fraction of the whole. Recognizing this is especially important when organizations are large, moving parts are interdependent, and this connectedness means that leaders can’t make decisions in one area without initiating a domino effect in other areas. And, weak areas or areas with multiple deficits, are always putting a strain on the system as a whole–much like the tire that blows because the wheels aren’t aligned. A very small misalignment in one moving part can have a major impact on the system as it moves in unison.

Sensemaking — Know the context, understand the system, bring clarity to an issue. Every organization is multifaceted and complex. From large to small organizations, there are hundreds of moving parts that each have their own context. Karl Weick, organizational psychologist, coined the term “sensemaking” as the leadership skill in understanding the context of situations to draw out issues needing a solution. “Executives who are strong in this capability know how to quickly capture the complexities of their environment and explain them to others in simple terms” (Ancona,  Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2007). For systems thinking to be at its best, teams have to engage in sensemaking as a precursor to problem solving. Understanding the true nature or an issue is the only way for a solution to be complete.

Temperament — Stay calm, show care, & build relationships between people and departments. As a leader, your temperament is important in every scenario, but it’s even more critical in times of assessment, change, and implementation of new ideas. That’s why we’re including it as a key aspect of systems thinking. Complex issues are dynamic and traditional problem solving methods fall short. Instead, leaders must bring calm to a scenario, show care for the team of people interested in identifying the moving parts and making sense of them for a solution, and build the relationships necessary between people and departments for change to be sustainable. Baldoni, executive coach and author, says that “temperament is a strong attribute of leadership; those with a temperament that is more focused on others will be those who can lead the most effectively.” Systems thinkers have to be focused on the calm that’s needed to bring people together to solve problems that will otherwise impact everyone at the table.

That’s our model for systems thinking. We have used LIST in large and small organizations, and we encourage you to employ this with your team to ensure that you’re applying the important principles of systems thinking in your organization. If you want help or more information on the model, contact us. 

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple and maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Let us know what you think of this #SH302 post with a like, follow, or comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

Joe & T.J.

Ancona, D., Malone, T., Orlikowski, W., & Senge, P. (2007). In praise of the incomplete leader. Harvard Business Review.

Baldoni, J. (2016). Temperment: What it takes to lead. SmartBrief.

Kirsch, V., Bildner, J., & Walker, J. (2016). Why social ventures need systems thinking. Harvard Business Review.

Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2003). The design way: intentional change in an unpredictable world. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. Random House.

The Learning Counsel http://thelearningcounsel.com/article/what-systems-thinking-education

Useem, M. (1999). The leadership moment: Nine true stories of triumph and disaster and their lessons for us all. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Waters Foundation: Tools to help you THINK http://watersfoundation.org/systems-thinking/definitions/

Wile, K. (2014, August). Peter Senge introduction to systems thinking [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXdzKBWDraM (00:02:20).

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