For over 400 years, western civilization has increased its use of analytical thinking and the scientific method to explain almost everything in the natural world. By using analysis (separating a whole into its component parts), our society has greatly expanded the knowledge of how things work. With this knowledge, humans have invented new technologies that have freed many people from lives focused only on survival.
Yet, elevating analysis over other thought processes has led to a loss of appreciation of how human beings and everything else are interdependent elements of an interconnected, complex web of life. You might notice this overuse of analysis in your workplace. For example, I would bet that most (if not all) of the “thinking” done by you and your team is analyzing problems by looking for causes and effects.
Systems Thinking as a Complement to Analysis
I’m not advocating that you quit using analysis. It has its place. But analysis comes up short when working in a complex environment of issues and stakeholders. You know this if you have had the experience of “solving a problem” only to have it repeatedly pop up elsewhere in your organization or system. What I am suggesting is that you and your team use systems thinking, or synthesis, as a counterbalance to analysis. Systems thinking provides an understanding of why the whole system of parts is the way it does and to focus your efforts; your team can then use analysis for determining how parts are working.
In contrast to analysis, systems thinking begins by focusing on the broader system. First, define that system and its function (stakeholders). Next, look at the interaction of the its “parts” (team members) of the system (of stakeholders). As Russ Ackoff said, “A system is not the sum of its parts but a product of their interactions.” Using systems thinking (or synthesis) with analysis will enhance your team’s ability to more thoughtfully address issues and strategize for the future.
Benefits of Systems Thinking
Here are three benefits of using more systems thinking with your team:
Your work will be more meaningful.
When you approach your work, including processes and people dynamics, with the whole system in mind, your team will work more holistically to make the system work better more effectively. This is because systems thinking emphasizes the relationships and interactions between the people and processes involved in any situation. You’ll go from feeling like “cogs” in a machine to seeing yourselves as intelligent, adaptive participants in an interdependent ecosystem. You’ll gain a broader perspective and see the interconnectivity of people and processes across many different areas. This adds to more meaning to your work.
You are more likely to make progress on complex issues over the long-term.
Using systems thinking takes you from using only a cause/effect, linear approach to resolving issues within the system. This means, you’ll move from assuming a problem lies where the symptom occurs. Instead, you’ll realize that multiple actions/reactions in other parts of the system can occur to discombobulate the system.
Your team will become a learning machine that adds greater value.
“Problems” become learning opportunities for your team. Instead of assuming a “problem” needs to be simply eliminated, your team will learn to dive into understanding unwanted situations. You’ll stop going for quick fixes or avoiding the issues altogether. System thinking provides new perspectives on why the system is not functioning well. The can then adapt to better serve the system.
Unlike analysis, systems thinking is not second nature to most of us at this point. Over the centuries, analysis helped humans to gain new knowledge about phenomena in our world. Unfortunately, it over-emphasized the parts over the whole. Using more systems thinking can re-balance your approach to chronic, long-term issues. As your team uses more systems thinking, you will generate choice, create interconnectivity, and become more aware of possible solutions that improve the whole system.
WANT TO USE THIS IN YOUR NEWSLETTER, BLOG OR WEBSITE? You can, as long as you include this information with it: Beth Strathman works with executives and senior leaders to create team environments that optimize ownership, accountability, learning, and results. Learn more at bethstrathman.com.