Any significant decision, activity or process will exist in relation to a whole series of other relationships and interdependencies. Unless the possible ramifications on these links are taken into account, there is a larger than necessary risk of failure or duplication of effort.
Much of the content of our Welcome page reflects our strong preference for taking a systemic approach because, in our experience, that is what delivers the most successful and robust results in business.
It is difficult to gauge the huge cost of failed projects, or of everyday re-working on global business. The figure would be enormous. Much of it would have been avoided if only someone had taken a more systemic view of the situation.
Based on our work with senior leaders and managers over many years, the ability to think systemically is not only a key attribute of today’s most effective leaders – but is commonly ignored when key appointments are being made! The focus on short-termism, so apparent in business, also inhibits consideration of the whole system.
When it is present, systemic thinking enables us to feel more confident in evaluating, negotiating and maintaining sustainable outcomes in all situations. This is achieved through understanding the larger ‘system’ – the ramifications and consequences that may emerge from the bigger context and wider set of relationships within which the specific situation exists.
The more we can identify and comprehend how the presenting situation, dispute or negotiation fits into a wider context, the more likely we are to find a solution that will be sustainable over time.
Systems thinking enables us to…
- Become one of the small group of leaders who have the ability to facilitate sustainable change
- Understand the underlying connections, values and cultures that are involved in a commercial relationship, project, negotiation or dispute … and their consequences
- Identify where the opportunities and blockages are in any change initiative
By identifying and working with the whole system, we can:
- Identify and strengthen the positive loops in the system
- Identify where to address the negative loops in the system
- Understand the effect of these changes on the whole system
- Ensure that any intervention we make is sustainable over time
How to think systemically
Thinking more systemically involves understanding not only the specific details of the opportunity or current problematic situation itself, but also …
- Defining the total scope of the system, i.e. all the elements that link together in some way to deliver the current set of results and the relationships between those elements
- Defining whether the relationships create positive or negative feedback loops between the component parts of the system
- Other ‘ripples’ and consequences that may be triggered by the situation, both inside and outside of the immediate relationship or context. These could include the knock-on results arising from individual or organisational values systems and the possible clash between them.
When we first discover the concept, it can seem somewhat vague or esoteric. One trick for increasing understanding is to consider it in a more specific context. For example, from a commercial perspective, systems can operate at a range of levels: global, country, an industry, an individual company, a specific relationship or a single issue. In commercial negotiations, thinking more systemically would include …
- Considering the implications of any previous history and track record in dealings between the parties, both positive and negative.
- The influences on all parties at the emotional level, as well as the more tangible practical considerations.
- The influence of other undisclosed stakeholders who, although usually well out of sight, will be having a major impact on the known personalities.
Useful questions to help understand the bigger system:
- Who and what else may be affected by this relationship or decision?
- How do our existing strategy and tactics combine to deliver our current results?
- What would happen if we did not do it in this way?
- What do we know about other stakeholders who may be covertly influencing the obvious principals?
- If we consider the more unusual aspects of someone’s attitude or behaviour, what else could they mean?
- How can we identify other hidden or subtle consequences of this deal?
- In disputes, what would the other party get out of not negotiating a settlement?
What stops us thinking systemically?
It is difficult to assess a system from inside the system itself, so the ability to mentally ‘step outside’ the system is a critical factor. That’s one of the reasons we strongly advocate coaching and facilitation – where the coach/facilitator is external to the system but has the skills to introduce systemic thinking into it.
The values (the real ones, not the espoused ones) of an individual or an organisation are a major determinant of whether systemic thinking flourishes. This type of thinking only becomes a default state at Graves’ level 7 (yellow). The preceding levels will view systems thinking with varying degrees of skepticism:
- Level 2 (purple) will have no real sense of any systems outside of its own immediate circumstances. Having said that, the depth of local understanding may be extraordinarily detailed and systemic – those communities living in remote parts of Amazonia and the peoples of the Kalahari and Caprivi regions of southern Africa, all have and incredible knowledge of the flora and fauna of their region and their interconnectedness with the inhabitants and the seasons.
- Level 3 (red) does not easily recognize the possible consequences of its actions, especially complex ones, so will pay little or no attention as it would be thought of as irrelevant to today’s immediate opportunity.
- Level 4 (blue) will not respond well as it will consider the whole idea to be unnecessarily complicated and identifying a whole bunch of undesirable risks. We would suggest that the most effective way of discussing the wider system at level 4 will be to identify specific, evidence-based consequences and perhaps indicate the potential for a feeling of guilt if they are ignored.
- Level 5 (orange) has its’ focus on success, achievement and, in the unhealthy case, the share price and may not want to take time to consider what it would regard as unlikely repercussions. At its worst, the unhealthy Orange will have supreme confidence in its own approach and will suppress or ignore any suggestions against it. Level 5 is usually very bright and the healthy mode should enable a useful dialogue about wider systems.
- Level 6 (green) will often have some emergent sense of the larger systems around the presenting issue but will often shy away from dealing with the confrontations that may be necessary to resolve the risks the approach might identify. Despite this potential problem, healthy Level 6 has shown particular courage, and some success, in raising environmental and ecological concerns with companies involved in activities such as mining, oil and gas exploration, palm oil cultivation and fishing.
The content and approach of this book has little core relevance to those at 2, 3, and 4, so most of its readers will be operating out of levels 5, 6, or 7. (Despite this generalisation, there is evidence that communities such as the Bushmen in Botswana and a number of tribes in the Amazon basin living predominantly at Graves’ level 2 may have a form of significant systems awareness at the level of their connection to the physical environment.)
Much of the book (including its title) reflects a systems view of the world, so it will appeal most naturally to level 7 values. But many at levels 5 and 6 will appreciate some advantage in applying systems thinking in the context of their own values, and will want to know more.
We have found that one of the best ways of starting any conversation about the benefits of systems and systems thinking in an organisational environment is to offer the following proposition for discussion:
- any system or relationship, including this one, is exquisitely designed to deliver precisely the result that it does.