Monthly Archives: January 2012

All Systems Go! – Systemic Thinking for Understanding and Insights

This is the next posting in the Thinking Styles series: See Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking for an introduction to the series.

If you have a scientific background (and probably even if you don’t) you are likely to pride yourself on being able to think systematically. But, can you think systemically?

Systems Thinking

Systematic thinking with its logical, sequential and linear approach is very important and contributes to most of the thinking styles covered in this series. Systemic or Systems Thinking is much less prevalent but potentially even more important.

The approach looks at systems [dynamic entities with interactive elements that act as purposeful units] and their relationship to their environment [everything outside the system]. The concepts build on the ideas of Russell Ackoff, Peter Checkland and latterly, Peter Senge amongst many others.

Systems thinking starts with some relatively straightforward concepts and can provide insights into the most complex of natural and man-made entities.

Systems thinking encourages you to:

  • understand the system as a whole
  • to examine the interactions between parts
  • to see how the system interacts with its environment.

Getting Started

A great starting point to understand the subject is Gene Bellinger’s Website

There are also some excellent learning resources on the Open University Systems Websites:

Systems Thinking and Practice  and

Systems Thinking and Practice: Diagramming

Diagrams and Facilitation

The diagramming ideas are incredibly useful for helping you getting to grips with complex situations and can be particularly helpful to encourage dialogue, build shared understanding and tease out different perspectives from groups facing seemingly intractable problems. They should be part of any facilitator’s toolkit. [The Fifth Discipline Field Book by Peter Senge et al is also a very useful resource for facilitation techniques and I’ll return to this in a future posting]

Influence diagrams are fairly easy to produce and very useful for facilitating discussion. Producing the diagram encourages effective dialogue and this can be as, if not more valuable, than the diagram itself.Simplified Influence Diagram

Simplified Influence diagram for Selling Services

Influence diagrams highlight the interconnections between the various issues. By adding information on the direction of influence these can be developed into multiple cause diagrams  which can help you to identify reinforcing and self-sustaining loops.

Reinforcing loops, also known as virtuous or vicious circles (depending on whether they are positive) are often buried in the depths of real life issues. Self-sustaining loops tend to bring systems back to equilibrium and can sometimes explain why it appears to be impossible to effect change.

Peter Senge suggested a set of frequently recurring structures resulting from various combinations of Reinforcing and Balancing structures. These are often called archtypes: no doubt you will recognise these elements in some of the situations you come across.

Simplified Example for Coaching

The very simplified graphic below shows how two reinforcing loops [empowering and depowering circles] limit individual performance with a self-sustaining element of the notion of self-worth. This is an example of the “limits to success” archtype.

Empowering and De-powering circles in equilibrium To shift the balance between the two circles, the individual needs to develop a different perception of their own self-worth. The situation is naturally much more complicated than this as the causal loops (circles) are much more complex and the notion of “Self-worth” is itself part of a complex set of interactions. Nevertheless, this simplification can be of great help in coaching situations and can shift the focus from performance to beliefs, which can then be worked on.

Next Steps

This brief introduction has not even scratched the surface of the subject and if you would like to be pointed towards some additional sources of information on Systems and Systems Thinking, please let me know at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Let us know if you’d like some help with systems thinking, facilitation or problem solving – call us today

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Creative Thinking – get ahead by thinking differently

This is a follow-up post to: Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

In some ways, creative thinking is the most critical of all of the thinking styles – if you don’t come up with something different from your competition, you’ll always be following in their footsteps. Creative thinking is about getting beyond the obvious,  seeing possibilities and generating options for success. As we have said elsewhere – however good the idea, it will only bear fruit if it is implemented so you do need to be able to switch into different thinking modes. [See Turning good ideas into effective action]

Creative thinking is a bit like that too, it is about selecting the right thinking mode at the right stage in the process as we will see later.

The term “creative” has been much misused and applied very narrowly: we are all creative, creative thinking can be applied to any industry and we all know [or once knew how to do it]. If you have ever seen children turning a few simple items into [imaginary] space ships, houses or fortresses  you will know what I mean. Somehow, it is educated out of us by the school and business systems [see Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk if you need any further evidence]

Creativity has a structure and you can apply processes and techniques to make it easier for you to generate new ideas. it needs effort and it needs to be taken seriously, it may be your only real competitive advantage. Most people jump to the obvious conclusion without really examining the issue they are trying to address [see the catalogue of stupid ideas and inane suggestions developed by candidates on the Apprentice for instance!]

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

I like to think of the problem solving process as a cycle which leads to better and better ideas and a better and better understanding of the issues the more times you go round the loop. It is usually better to have several “quick and dirty” cycles at the beginning rather than doing a lot of analysis. This also builds momentum and gets people involved.

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

Creative Problem Solving Cycle

Exploration

To stand any chance of solving any problem [if it is indeed solvable] you need to understand it thoroughly. That’s why you start with an exploration stage.

It would be a complete waste of time to come up with a fantastic solution to the wrong problem.

This means understanding the nature of the problem, its context and the standpoints of everyone who is involved. [Incidentally, some people feel that it is better to think of challenges rather than problems. If that works for them fine – I prefer to think that it is just a mindset issue and you might as well call it a “George”. The approach works just as well whatever you call your problem / issue / challenge …]

Generation

The next stage is to come up with some ideas – there are lots of techniques for this with brainstorming probably being the best known. The important issue here is to build on each other’s suggestions – “Yes and …” rather than “Yes but …”. You need to come up with as many and varied ideas as possible – quantity breeds quality. It is crucial that there is no judgement of the ideas at this stage as a seemingly unworkable approach could spark a better, more workable idea from one of the other participants.

Evaluation

Having generated lots of ideas, you will need to organise, cluster  and evaluate them to determine which are worthy of further development. Again, there are many techniques and approaches you can use. It can also be useful at this stage to return to the generation phase as the clustered, collated and reviewed ideas may well spark new thoughts.

Implementation

In early cycles, you are unlikely to actually put anything into action but it is a good idea to consider how you would put the ideas into practice. This will involve steps such as:

  • Stakeholder analysis – who supports, who is against, what are their views, what are they looking for.
  • Building a robust proposal – have you got the scope right, does it need extending or reducing, how will you market your ideas
  • Implementation planning – how will you move forward to take effective action, what are the steps …

Each of these steps has the potential of generating improved insights about the issues being addressed and may encourage further cycles through the process.

Current best solution

It is important to recognise that for most real life problems, there will never be an ideal solution, so what you leave the process with is the current best solution but at some point you need to take action.

There are two important implications of this:

  1. you may not be entirely satisfied with the outcome and
  2. someone may come up with an even better suggestion at a later date.

As we will discuss later in the Project Thinking stream, the desired outcome is the best solution by the required date – so don’t beat yourself up about it.

Divergent and Convergent Thinking Styles

An underlying theme here is that both divergent and convergent thinking styles are appropriate at different points in the cycle. Few people are equally adept at each style  and this should encourage you to get different people with different approaches, experiences and outlooks involved. Don’t worry if this leads to conflict and clashes, you need differences of opinion. The bigger risk is that everyone will think the same.

Convergent and Divergent Thinking

Appropriate thinking styles for each phase

Way forward

The creative thinking muscle needs exercise and the most important first step is to recognise when you are taking decisions without trying to find alternatives.

If you have only one option – you might as well be a robot: if you have two options, you have a dilemma: if you have more options, you have flexibility.

You need to find ways to get a more diverse group of people involved and it can be helpful to develop a toolkit of simple techniques to get you started – you can find more sophisticated approaches later if you need them.

Creative Problem Solving Toolkit

Creative Problem Solving Toolkit

If you would like a copy of my recommended basic toolkit and links to useful sources of information, please drop me an email at jim@fulcrum-management.co.uk

Stand well back – strategic thinking for success

This is a follow-up post to: Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

January is a great time to do some strategic thinking [but then so is any time!].

To think strategically, you need to stand back, look at the big picture, see the business as a whole and take the medium to longer-term perspective. You need the wide-angle rather than the telephoto lens.

Successful Strategies

Robert Grant suggests that successful strategies are based on four key elements:

Elements of successful strategies

Elements of Successful Strategies

  1. Simple, clear, agreed objectives. If everyone is clear about what you are trying to achieve they should be able to work out how to help make it happen,
  2. A profound understanding of the competitive environment. If you understand what is going on in the world and how it may affect your business, you know who you are competing with and on what basis then you can work out what you need to do to succeed.
  3. An objective assessment of your resources and capabilities. If you understand whether you are fit enough to compete then you can work out how to exploit your advantages and set up approaches to improve where you have disadvantages.
  4. Effective Implementation. Having good ideas is of no value if you can’t put them into action. This was discussed in a couple of earlier blog posts [Turning good ideas into effective actionOne small step – from good idea to effective action .

Are you well equipped to develop and implement effective strategies? If not, what are you going to do to move forward? [If you are not moving forward, you are going backwards!]

Focus on the real issues

Most businesses need to do several things to move forward, but may find it difficult to work out what to focus on. There are many things which warrant attention and effective action requires focus on the things which really matter – developments inside or outside the business which have a significant effect on the organisation as a whole. They are likely to impact the business’s ability to meet its objectives or to compete effectively. These issues are also likely to require the application of significant amounts of money, time and effort and are often bound up in decisions which are not easy to reverse.

I like to think that most businesses will have between 3 and 7 [5 ± 2] issues of this type at any time [this matches recent thinking on the number of different things individuals can consciously focus on at the same time].

Strategic Issues and Relevant Questions

Strategic Issues and Relevant Questions

The graphic above suggests some questions you might find useful depending on the number of strategic issues you have.

Structure your issues

Many businesses think that they have many more than 7 issues to contend with. In most cases, however, this is due to a lack of structured thinking. Often it is easier to focus on the symptoms rather than the underlying disease. In these cases, structuring these issues can make it easier to see what the real issues are. This requires standing further back and taking a broader perspective.

Structuring Strategic Issues

Structuring Strategic Issues

Start with Strategic Thinking

Strategic thinking will help you to understand the underlying issues and focus your attention on what really matters. Structuring strategic issues in this way can reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed and the associated levels of stress by making it easier to see where attention should be concentrated.

Strategic thinking is a key component of pivotal thinking and needs to be spread throughout the business if you are to be successful. It is arrogant to assume that only the top people in the business can have the best ideas on how to move the business forward. In many cases, your frontline staff will have a much better understanding of what is going on in the world and what your real strengths and weaknesses are – so involve them in the process.

It is very easy to be drawn into operational thinking and focus on the details of the business – this can easily become the default thinking process.

There are many approaches to strategy and plenty of theory to structure your thoughts but the most important first step is to use effective strategic thinking.

Work at it

Effective strategic thinking needs effort and regular attention, it does not come naturally to most people and must be worked at. The strategic thinking muscle responds well to regular exercise.