When One Fails, We All Fail – Using Systems Thinking as a Leader

Let’s for a moment imagine all of the major organs of the body as Directors of a company, You Corp. Each one manages a key department – Circulation, Respiratory, Digestive, Skeletal…you get the picture. You as the CEO of You Corp. have a vested interest in making sure all of these Directors work beyond their silos because, if one fails, they all start to fail and once they all fail, well, we all can picture what happens to You Inc.

Morbid, I know. But if we can easily understand this happening to us as people, why is it so hard to put into practice as business leaders? In helping leaders find a way of focusing on the forest rather than one individual tree, Systems Thinking has been a technique to help guide those responsible to look at how things in an organization (its people, structures, processes) or ‘Systems’, work together in a healthy or unhealthy way, especially when problems start to arise.

Simply put, Systems Thinking is not just about treating a problem, when it arises, at the surface but really digging down to what is at the core of the issue in order to profoundly change the way the organization operates for the better. Leaders tend to focus on their function and role in the organization without connecting the dots to others around them resulting in the same problems popping up time and time again. Leaders also try to find quick-win solutions that address the short term rather than standing back for a moment to look at the bigger picture and long term solutions. Going back to our scenario of You Inc., can you imagine your doctor looking at the Circulatory Department without deep diving into if Respiratory or Digestive have had any contributions to the problem? You’d definitely be heading for another opinion!

Systems Thinking helps us:

  • Focus on looking at the bigger picture and reduces linear cause and effect thinking
  • Address the root of the problem (a business model/structure issue) rather than the surface problem (like just an event or trend of occurrences that happened)
  • Improve the quality of our decisions and performance and helps reduce mistakes and inefficiencies

Building your Systems Thinking Mindset

Next time you are faced with the problem, rather than reacting with an immediate solution, consider the following:

Look Beyond the Surface

  • Is this really the problem or is there a bigger issue to solve for?
  • Does this problem impact other areas?
  • How does this problem fit or connected within the overall organization?
  • What are other influences (perhaps external) driving this problem?
  • What are the assumptions you are making? And why you are making these assumptions?

Identify Patterns Connected to the Problem

  • Has this happened before or is this a similar issue we’ve had?
  • What are the trends you are noticing and where are they leading to?

Look Beyond your Boundaries

  • Does your problem impact other areas in the organization?
  • Are there other stakeholders to consider with regards to this problem?
  • If our solution is x, who/what else does it impact?
  • Are you addressing the solution from a short term perspective or a long term perspective?

It is understandable why Systems Thinking does not come naturally to most leaders. When we start our careers, we have a very narrow lane of responsibilities – many of which are execution tasks. As we move up in an organization, it’s tough to widen that lane and shift your thinking away from the siloed role we’ve been used to. It takes practice and shifting your mindset but the results will enhance how you lead and the perspective you provide for your organization.