What is systems thinking? (Part II)

October 28, 2012

Part II (Thinking Bigger)

I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots he used to compose this masterpiece.  It is not the sum of all its dots; it is the poetic relationships between them all that bring the scene to life.

In Part I of this article, I referred to worldviews: the beliefs and assumptions that shape us and our world.  We can consider a worldview, or paradigm, to be a kind of intellectual bubble within which we live.  When I said that systems thinking as a worldview is entirely different from analytical thinking, I did that for a reason.  Any new paradigm, or worldview, will include and transcend some elements of the old.  Some of the what was inside the old bubble will also sit within the new one, but there is still an essential “un-same-ness” between the old bubble and the new bubble.  If we are systems thinkers, we don’t lose the ability (or valuing of) analytical thinking; we are, however, extending ourselves in our abilities to apply both when applicable.  There may be something of a butterfly’s “essential being” that existed when it was a caterpillar, but I think we’d all agree that “caterpillar” and “butterfly” are two entirely different things.  “Butterfly” is not merely “Caterpillar 2.0″; it is “butterfly”, incorporating some elements of, and transcending “caterpillar”, if you like.

With enough pressure of new knowledge, research, evidence and lived experience, our old paradigms reach the limits of usefulness and we are pushed to transcend our ways of thinking and being.  So while analytical thinking and systems thinking are entirely different worldviews, there are, of course, elements of analytical thinking that we can see in the systems thinking bubble.  In an effort to emphasise the point that systems thinking is not just a jazzier version of analytical thinking, I may have been a little simplistic in saying they are entirely different animals, but that’s the curious thing about mindsets.  To my mind, it’s not about choosing which one we prefer, it’s about evolution.  We are here to continually extend ourselves and once we “get” how everything in the cosmos is inextricably linked, we cannot unknow that.  When we really feel that in every cell of our beings, our worlds irretrievably change.  It’s like Neo in “The Matrix”; he realised he was “The One” once he saw what those green squiggles running down the computer screen meant, he couldn’t go on pretending that it was just a bunch of nonsensical squiggles.  They were still squiggles; that hadn’t changed…..but their meaning had changed.  After his set of beliefs had changed, he had transformed.

So systems thinking, for those who haven’t had their “Neo moment” yet, may look and sound like analytical thinking 2.0 (but it’s not, I tell you!).  For those who have had their “Neo moment”, it’s a way of seeing the world that includes and transcends analytical thinking to take us to a more sophisticated kind of thinking, because linear, analytical thinking is not sophisticated enough to help us to deal with the challenges that face us in the 21st century.  It’s time to stop looking at the world and our workplaces from an old mindset.

So why does this matter?

My own view is that growing our ability to be systems thinkers is an imperative: for individuals, for businesses and organisations, for humanity.  It is a question of whether we will survive and thrive or atrophy and die away.  It might be tempting, while we languish in our prison of “analytic thinking”, to remodel the prison in an effort to make it more comfortable, but it will still be a prison.  Our world is in crisis and our workplaces are in crisis and we urgently need to think bigger about how we address these crises because our old ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.

Simply put, looking at something from an analytical viewpoint, we take it apart in order to understand it (the parts are primary, the whole is secondary).  However, when we take an interconnected system apart, it loses its fundamental properties.  I like a description Russell Ackoff has used: a car’s essential property is to get us from A to B.  We won’t be able to understand how it does that by taking it apart.  A car is not the sum of its parts; it is the product of the interactions of the parts.  Systems thinking, as Peter Senge writes, “is a discipline for seeing wholes….a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots'”.  For me, systems thinking is fundamentally about thinking and behaving as if everything in the cosmos is connected to everything else.  Applying this to businesses, we can best understand them and surmount our stucknesses if we look at how all the elements interact, not by looking at the individual bits and pieces in isolation.  Out of this central belief flow a number of other beliefs and assumptions which make up my worldview about work:

  • There are no one-offs; there are patterns of things.  If I don’t see a pattern, it just means I haven’t found it yet.
  • Because everything is connected to everything else, our workplaces are complex systems, not linear machines.  This means that cause-and-effect (linear, analytical thinking) is more useful as a backward-looking descriptor of what happened, than as a forward-looking predictor of what might happen.
  • The system is more influential on performance/success/outcomes than individuals.
  • Networks, relationships and devolved power are more effective at achieving a business’s purpose than mechanistic command-and-control hierarchies.
  • Working on “symptoms” or problems is unlikely to address underlying, systemic origins of the problems.

All of these guide how I approach my work.  Rather than take out my microscope and zoom in on a “part of a business”, I look at the whole thing and examine it holistically.  In a lot of conversations I have with business leaders, I hear about business “problems”.  You know the old saying, “We cannot solve problems with the same thinking that we used when we created them.”  Well, it’s not just a cool-sounding thing that Einstein is supposed to have said; it’s a fundamental shift in how we look at business issues and how to find solutions for the challenges businesses face.  In quite a lot of what I read on the internet, I see old (analytical) thinking being dressed up as something new and improved, but all the new-and-improved-ness won’t make any difference if the old mental model remains the same.  For example, I see people offering up the latest tips and tricks on how to “hire better” and failing to see “hiring” as part of a wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement.  It all sounds just lovely, but it’s just a re-wording of what’s already been said and it reduces “hiring” as if it can be isolated from the rest of what is going on in the business.  Yet, managers still behave like this.  Mao’s fiasco with the sparrows is still being replicated in businesses all over the place.  It matters because applying an analytical mindset to concerns which are essentially systemic is like dealing with the liver failure of an obese alcoholic by simply transplanting a new liver into his body and not addressing the wider lifestyle concerns that caused the liver to fail in the first place.

How does systems thinking work?

It’s about working with things as integral wholes.  It’s about thinking bigger.  Water is inherently wet.  We cannot understand water’s wetness by breaking it down into its component parts; oxygen and hydrogen.  Neither of those elements has an inherent quality of “wetness”.  Similarly, with businesses, we cannot get a truly comprehensive understanding of them simply by breaking them down into their component parts.  Everything is connected to everything else and we are limited in our abilities to manage them effectively if we isolate “problem parts”.  Making a holistic assessment of the system will give us a bigger picture view that highlights strengths, inter-relationships, tensions, the forces at work (both from within and without the system) and areas of hope (where intervention can be applied).

In my experience of applying systems thinking and making interventions in a whole, integrated system, we make work work from an entirely different viewpoint, not by “fixing” individual issues but by exploring symptoms and phenomena of a whole living entity.  The issue of engagement, for example, cannot be properly addressed, in my view, by breaking it down into “hiring and recruitment”, “retention”, “remuneration”, “performance management” and looking at these parts individually.  Gamification, for instance, is not an antidote to falling engagement to my  mind; it’s like putting a band-aid on a lesion in the hope that the cancer will be cured.

Engagement is part of a system which is a synthesis of how a business hires, how it views human motivation, how it shares knowledge, how it encourages cooperation, how it facilitates learning and development…..everything connected to everything else.  When taking a systems thinking approach, the interventions are often surprising, seemingly counter-intuitive and not linear or cause-and-effect.

Systems thinking requires us to be more comfortable with interconnectedness, uncertainty, emergence and dynamism.  We need to set ourselves free of the expectations of predictability, cause-and-effect and certainty.  I read a slightly tongue-in-cheek definition of systems thinking on Twitter which pretty much sums it up: “resources by which it is possible to become less completely clueless about stuff rather than deludedly certain”.  Paradoxically, it will allow us to know more about what is going on, but we may be less certain about it.

Acting as if the business is a whole means we will radically revise how the business does business.

The idea that we can tackle business problems by breaking them down permeates all aspects of the workplace.  A more humane, integrated and organic worldview is at our disposal.  In the arena of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement, for instance, we can see how it influences what we do.  We isolate bits and try to fix them.  Here is just one example:

How do we hire people? Hire for competencies?  Hire because they look nice?  Hire because they interviewed well?  Hire because they come out great on all those psychofiddle-faddle tests?  For a kick off, examining your hiring practices might be a red herring anyway, because it’s only part of a wider system of “people, capability, talent”.  Why focus on “hiring” when Deming’s 95% rule says that the system is where we should place our attention.  Think bigger about peoplecapabilitytalentengagement: do you need to see CVs?…do you interview (and how do you do this?)….do you carry out an orientation (or is it more like an initiation?)….how do people grow and learn?…..what is your “exit interview” process like?…why do people stay?   There might be things that go on when people are hired to make sure they fit into the culture, but if the culture is sick, in some senses it doesn’t matter who you hire.  They’ll eventually get shoe-horned into your sick culture whether they are good or bad (and if they don’t fit in, it says more about your system than the “bad” hire!).  The system will affect their ability to work well.  What I’m saying is that if there is a pattern of people not performing well, why put hiring practices under the microscope?  Think bigger and look at the whole.

If you notice that retention is low, this is just a pattern that points to something bigger and more hidden.  To my mind, psychometric quizzes are just another “band-aid on cancer”.  If we leap to the conclusion that we are making hiring mistakes, we may not have asked the right questions about performance…or learning….or meaningful work….or…..  Hire anyone.  Hire people you think are wrong.  You might even take Bob Marshall‘s advice, which I quite like, and try hiring without relying on a traditional CV as your safety blanket (the #noCV alternative).  I tend to go along with Bob when he says that “job interviews suck”.  How you hire doesn’t really matter until and unless you discover that the bigger questions you are asking about the whole of the business are the right ones.  In a nutshell, is “How do we hire people?” the right question?

We need to get ourselves unstuck from disabling thought patterns that stifle creativity and re-learn more expansive patterns of thinking.  Systems thinking is a fundamental change to business orthodoxy.  The assumptions we hold about the business of business mostly orient us to measure things that don’t matter and attack problems that are only really indicators of a systemic pattern.  We try to find answers for questions that are often irrelevant.  Time to think bigger.

…more to come in Part III.

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9 Responses to “What is systems thinking? (Part II)”


  1. [...] Part II (Thinking Bigger) I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots …  [...]

  2. gregorylent Says:

    yogis would agree

  3. fnickols Says:

    Nice piece of writing and some good points. I’ll have to go read Part I and stay tuned for Part III


  4. Great article! I really liked how this piece diagnosed the myopia that understandably (but cripplingly) afflicts people in organizations. and offered—if not a solution, a better way of approaching the complexity with systems thinking. The hardest part for consultants and the like might be encouraging clients preferring more linear/analytic thought to go through the ‘Neo’ moment, showing them how their arena—whether it’s communication, recruitment, process development, etc.—simultaneously affects and is affected by the other components of the org. And then, beyond that, and how the org is similarly affecting/affected by everything else going on in the world.

    I agree with you that the ability to zoom in and out of these views, and to describe that process to others, even abstractly, will be more and more valuable in the future as our “ways of looking at things have reached their useful limits.” Even if it does mean we’re on the far less-glamorous-sounding journey to “becoming less completely clueless about stuff.”

    But, I think it’s a journey we can take people on. To some degree, I think most understand that organizations are big and complex, and that the components function in a system — it’s just that people might not LIKE embracing the implications of what that worldview-shift means.

    Many derive value from the ‘how’ of doing their work, and are comfortable with the lanes they’re used to doing that work in. And when you apply systems thinking to an org, as you’ve said, the implication for a function like hiring is that it would be less ‘discrete’, instead existing in the “wider system of peoplecapabilitytalentengagement.” Those who have spent time and effort becoming “expert” in that arena and are comfortable with the discreteness of that function may perceive its blurring as a loss of status.

    The onus is on those helping orgs through a “systems evolution” (whatever that means for each org) to: help people get comfortable with the changes; show them how their skills remain valuable in a more fluid environment (or how to adapt them); and constantly, straightforwardly explain ‘why.’ For example, pointing out to the hiring expert how embracing “peoplecapabilitytalentengagement” holistically will eradicate bureaucratic appendages that have long frustrated him, as well as explaining how his existing skills fit in the new model, might go a long way in getting him used to life after the red pill.

    • John Wenger Says:

      Shawna, thanks so much for your considered responses and for building on what I’ve set out. Lots of vigorous nodding of my head going on here. I completely with you on your point that the challenge for systems thinking consultants is to assist people to have their “Neo moment”. It is do-able and it’s important to be good auxiliaries for people as they discover the interconnectedness of everything in their business. The overwhelm can be, well, overwhelming, when faced with this living, breathing thing that they are stewarding. True, people may not like what they see, but mostly out of fear and overwhelm, I suspect. The hope and opportunity that opens up is worth embracing. When people realise that they can make interventions in their wider system with much more effectiveness, it behoves us as auxiliaries to be alongside them as they play in this new sandpit. We can assist people to understand that they may be less clueless about stuff, but they can make a bigger impact. It then requires people to get comfortable with greater ambiguity and more dynamic emergence. Herein lies some clues about the so-called “most important capabilities to develop at work”. I believe they are more related to confidence with this uncertainty, ambiguity, dynamism, divergence. Also, very learn-able.

      With regards the “experts” in their respective discrete arenas, I am also with you, that it may feel like a threat to their status if systems thinking shines a light on how the work can be done with greater respect for the interconnectedness and less on a narrow skill set. I believe their expertise can be part of the new way of doing things, but if the focus is less on their status (and power and control etc), but more on effective service to their clients, their current skills will not lose value as long as they extend themselves. In this day and age, this is a potentially good thing as people want to know that the consultants they hire are just as interested in learning as in teaching and guiding.


  5. I usually ask my colleagues “why are we hiring?” when the hiring process is about to start. I tend to see the need for hiring as a reaction to failure demand: we cannot deliver as much as our customers want us to do, so we scale our organization.

    No matter how many people we hire, because of the existence of the failure demand, we’ll never be as effective as we could be. Of course, growing is a good and necessary thing, when that mentioned demand is low.

    What do you think? Is there anything wrong with this reasoning?

    • John Wenger Says:

      Zsolt, good question. To my mind, you are on the right track if you see hiring as a knee-jerk reaction to failure demand. If failure demand is a driving force, it might pay to look at the bigger picture and examine the deeper causes of failure and then to address those.


  6. [...] Part II of this article, I suggested that if we remain wedded to a mis-placed set of thoughts and beliefs about business, [...]


  7. […] Part II (Thinking Bigger) I reckon that we cannot truly appreciate Georges Seurat’s painting “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte” by examining the individual dots …  […]


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