Category Archives: Systems Thinking

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

Think about it – 8 ways to enhance your thinking

When you are faced with a critical decision in your business, you probably recognise that you will need to give it some thought but how often do you think about how you need to think about the issues involved?

That’s right! Do you think about how you need to think?

In his seminal work, Six Thinking Hats, Dr Edward de Bono highlighted the need for different modes of thinking at different points in the process and in particular the need for everyone involved to be thinking in the same way at the same time.

I’d like to build on that idea by suggesting eight key thinking styles that you should apply to any critical decision you need to make – I call this Pivotal Thinking. The key themes are outlined below and each will be explored in detail in subsequent postings.

The thinking styles are:

  1. Critical
  2. Strategic
  3. Creative
  4. Systemic
  5. Project
  6. Lateral
  7. Process
  8. Reflective

Critical Thinking

This style is particularly useful for examining information and testing assumptions. It is exemplified by the approach of Henry Fonda’s character [Juror #8] in “12 Angry Men”, probing, challenging and taking nothing for granted.

Strategic Thinking

This approach is crucial for looking at the big picture and long term. It means standing back from the detail and looking at aims, objectives, trends and capabilities. It also means looking at opportunities, threats and options from the perspective of all stakeholders.

Creative Thinking

To get ahead of your competition, avoid getting into a rut and find better answers to the challenges you face, you need to think creatively. Contrary to popular opinion, this can be helped by a structured approach which balances and sequences divergent and convergent thinking, selecting appropriate tools and techniques at each stage.

Systemic Thinking

You probably learned to think systematically at school / university but sometimes there is a need to think about the system as a whole, the interactions between the various parts and the causes and consequences of particular options. This style goes hand in glove with both strategic and creative thinking.

Project Thinking

Managing projects needs a different style of thinking to most management situations. Project thinking requires you to pay attention to the sequence of events, the flow of information and the interactions between events. It is highly relevant to the implementation of strategy and requires focus on objectives, roles and resources.

Lateral Thinking

Your closest competitors are likely to come up with similar strategies and solutions to those you arrive at through logical analysis, so it can be useful to use lateral thinking to arrive at better, non-intuitive solutions. This thinking style, invented by Dr Edward de Bono, encourages you to arrive at better solutions by attacking the issue from completely different perspectives and often through an intermediate unworkable solution.

Process Thinking

In many cases, it can be very useful to use these thinking styles in combination or in appropriate sequences. This is where process thinking comes in – a bit like the Blue Hat in Six Thinking Hats, it will help you select the right thinking style for the situation and decided on the order in which to apply them [and recycle if necessary]

Reflective Thinking

To help you learn and benefit from previous experience, it can be useful to adopt a reflective thinking style. This will allow you to look at what you have done in the past and the results you have got. If you combine it with a critical approach, you may get to the real causes of past failures and successes and develop much improved approaches.

So the next time you think you need to think about something – think first about how you need to think.

Think about it!

Me, myself and I – understanding stakeholder perspectives

If you have read any of my earlier posts, you will know that I do my best to avoid “management speak” and jargon. I make no apologies, however, for using the term “stakeholders”. It means anyone who has an interest in, can affect or be affected by the business. I find it particularly useful to consider stakeholders in planning and implementing change programmes. Effective consideration of stakeholders and their needs, desires and motivations can go a long way to helping you sell your ideas, gain support and minimise resistance – but you have to do it carefully and put some effort in.

Standard Stakeholder Map

Standard Stakeholder Map

The figure above shows a typical “first pass” mapping of potential stakeholders – this is a useful start but may not be adequate for your needs. In many cases, you will need to break these top-level groups down into smaller subgroups. For example:

Customers: Do they all have the same needs?

Managers: Are specific individuals or functions affected in different ways?

Employees: Are all groups affected equally, are some better organised than others etc?

You will need to break the stakeholders down into smaller sub-groups and possibly consider some people on an individual basis.

Multiple perspectives

It is also worth noting that in today’s more complex environment, some people will fall into several stakeholder groups and that will affect their overall perception. For example, an employee may also be:

  • A shareholder
  • A neighbour
  • An investor – through pension funds etc.
  • A customer

    An individual's perspective

    An individual's perspective

So, their view of any proposed change can be quite complex.

Also bear in mind that the various stakeholder groups are likely to interact with each other.

Mini Case Study

I was discussing this issue with a client who is a third-generation director in a successful family run business [SME]. He said that on any given topic, he can have several different views and that the balance between these might change through the day. So he can have different thoughts about the issue as:

  1. A functional director
  2. As an owner of the business
  3. As a member of the extended family
  4. As Husband / Father in his own family
  5. Himself!

    Case Study

    Case Study

For him to be happy with any decision or change, it has to be right [or at least bearable] from each perspective! No wonder it can be so difficult to get support for your ideas!

What does this mean for you?

Thinking any idea through from stakeholder perspectives will help you to:

  • Sell your ideas by giving you a better understanding of each group / individuals
    • Needs
    • Desires
    • Motivations and
    • Fears
  • You will be in a stronger position to gain support by fine tuning your proposal
  • You will be better able to anticipate and respond to any resistance and
  • You will be much better prepared to engage in a sensible dialogue with any of the interested parties and that could lead to an even better idea!

A spoonful of Sugar – the Engineer Strikes Back!

This isn’t the blog post I’d planned for today but Lord Sugar’s comments on the latest episode of the BBC Apprentice series can’t go unanswered. This Management Today blogpost provides the background and some commentary.

In the process of firing Glenn, Lord Sugar commented that he’d never met an Engineer who was a good manager. He must have been walking round with his eyes closed and / or not listened to anyone for long enough to find out about their background. In fact one of the panel, he uses to make the selection of the finalists, Bordan Tkachuk – CEO of Viglen, whilst not a fully qualified Engineer, has a technical background with a HND in Computer Science – I wonder what he thinks of his boss’s comments?

Lord Sugar’s comments don’t match my experience; some Engineers given the right exposure, training and experience can become excellent managers, business people and entrepreneurs. Sadly, two elements of the British psyche conspire against this:

We under value Engineering

We dilute the value of Engineering, Engineers and Engineering Qualifications by allowing anyone who does any task remotely connected with any type of machinery or process to call themselves an “Engineer”. It takes a degree and around 7 years postgraduate training and experience to become a Chartered Engineer – which is comparable with other professions.

Even businesses which ought to know better do it. British Gas which employs many professionally qualified  Chartered Engineers thinks it is acceptable to call the person who fixes your boiler an Engineer. These valuable workers would be better described as Fitters, Mechanics or Technicians.

This common use of the word “Engineer” would be illegal in Germany – I wonder why Germany has a much better reputation for Engineering than the UK?

We don’t train our managers

We don’t put enough effort into management training, preferring the “gifted amateur” approach referred to by the late Sir John Harvey Jones in his book “Making it happen”.

There appears to be a deeply rooted antipathy to training in the UK, both on the part of the managers and of those to be trained. It is possible that this stems from historical attitudes. We have always admired the effortless amateur who can ‘beat the professional at his own game’ and we have always been somewhat contemptuous of intellectuals and academics. ‘Real men’ in our folklore are men of action, and we admire physical courage more than moral integrity. But there is no doubt in my mind that training in Britain is a grossly undervalued source of competitive advantage.

Professor Michael Porter [with Christian  Ketels] of Harvard Business School made much the same point in his 2003 report – UK Competitiveness: moving to the next stage to the then DTI.

We reap what we sow!

It’s not where they come from …

Properly trained professional Engineers can become excellent managers and the combination of skills from both arenas is needed to re-build our reputation and capability. Not everyone, whatever their background, can become a great manager, nor would we want them to. Some accountants make great managers, many don’t; some marketing people make good managers, many don’t; it’s just the same for Engineers.

What Engineers can contribute

I’d contend however, that professional Engineers’ knowledge of systems, processes and control would be beneficial to most organisations. [I’ll return to this theme in future postings.]

A basic knowledge and understanding of Project Management would not go amiss with the candidates in The Apprentice who seem incapable of  working out the objectives of each task and structuring an appropriate plan of action.

What you can do about it

Encouraging Enterprise is an integrated development programme designed to provide professionals of all types with the commercial, communication and entrepreneurial skills they need to succeed in management and business development roles. Please contact me for more details.

For the record, I’m a Chartered Engineer and a Fellow of the Institution of Chemical Engineers. I’ve been in management and business for more years than I care to mention and took an MBA several years after I too had been thrown in at the deep end!