Tag 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

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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!

Improving Projects – Make sure everyone is doing the same project!

One of the most difficult situations for a project manager to deal with is that point in the implementation stage where one of the future users of the facility realises that what is being delivered is not what they were expecting. Usually, this means that there has been a communication error at some point in the scoping of the project or a lack of involvement of a key stakeholder.

Because problems of this type only come to light during the delivery phase, they can be particularly complex to deal with causing rework with cost and time penalties. So it is desirable to avoid them!

Causes

The causes frequently go right back to the project development stages and the processes used to move from each participant’s vague notions of what is required to a structured definition of the project scope.

Key issues include:

1.       Range of participants

2.       Process and Procedure

3.       Thinking processes

4.       Language Issues

5.       Cultural Issues

Participants

Most projects involve a wide range of actors with different skills, objectives and levels of involvement with the project and the assets to be delivered. Some are involved with its ultimate use, some with the construction or development and some with its on-going maintenance. Others may only be involved indirectly.

The end users of a project to develop a manufacturing facility:

  • Production
  • Maintenance
  • Marketing
  • QA
  • Logistics

The project team may involve:

  • Design
  • Construction
  • Project Management
  • Architect

This may be the tip of the iceberg: with corporate management and external contractors also having an input. For other types of project, the titles may be different but the complexity remains. Each group is likely to have only a partial understanding of each other’s perspective and ability to contribute.

Process Issues

Many project development frameworks envisage the development of a brief [protocol, mandate, charter etc.] which is intended to encapsulate the requirements of the sponsors and ultimate owners. This document is then used to guide the project team through the development and delivery phases.

This one hit method can cause serious problems as it may take only a slight difference in understanding to send the project team on a different trajectory to that anticipated by the sponsors.

Similarly, if there is not a mechanism to probe the objectives effectively, there is a significant danger that the project will deliver the stated needs but not the real needs. Satisfying the project objectives but not the corporate or strategic ones may result in the creation of a white elephant. This is discussed further in a paper “Integrating strategic and project management” [http://www.fulcrum-management.co.uk/html/resources.html]  and the book “Project Benefits Management” http://tinyurl.com/3cmekm .

Thinking Processes

Each group comes to the project with a different level of understanding based on their knowledge, experience, functional expertise etc. This influences both their perspective on the project and their perceived needs and wants.

This is the essence of what Peter Senge calls Mental Models [See for example http://www.infed.org/thinkers/senge.htm ]. Each of us has our own mental model which allows us to interact with and interpret the world – they are all different so failure to recognise this is a recipe for misunderstanding, futile argument and stress.

Gareth Morgan in his excellent book “Imaginization” provides a superb metaphor for how this works – he presents a drawing of a pig surrounded by a number of different observers ranging from a butcher to a small girl to a Muslim. [See slide 15 of http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/aSGuest8691-130499-2-gareth-morgan-product-training-manuals-ppt-powerpoint/ ] they all see the same animal but it conjures up different responses for each.

One side effect of these different perspectives is that the different functional groupings each develop their own shorthand and there is a danger that they may well use the same terminology to mean quite different things.

Understanding these different perspectives is crucial to the effective development of a shared understanding of the project scope.

Language Issues

Appropriate use of language is crucial to shared understanding; unfortunately, our meaning is often distorted by what we say and how we say it. The quotation “I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant”; sums it up neatly.

One of the key ideas in the field of knowledge of Neurolinguistic Programming is the concept of the metamodel. This describes how the ways in which we use language can lead to lack of precision in communication. A particular issue is the notion of “nominalisation” where we give a name to an abstract concept and talk about it as if it were real. David Kerr, discussed this recently in his blog http://www.watt-works.com/blog/nlp/useful-until-its-not-using-nlp-to-understand-what-works/

Different groups [and individuals] will use the same word for different purposes with the danger that they will superficially agree with each other whilst disagreeing at a deeper level.  An architect and a laboratory manager may have very different understandings of what is meant by “a state of the art laboratory”.

This may be compounded by national language issues for multinational teams, especially where people are working in their second [or third languages]

Cultural Issues

The way the organisation goes about its work and the behaviours it encourages or discourages may have a significant impact on the ability of the team to define the scope of the project. If the organisation encourages deference to experts and / or discourages questioning of management decisions then there is a significant risk that the proposed scope and implementation method will not be examined critically.

The more diverse the team in areas of expertise, geography and experience, the greater will be the danger of culturally led misunderstandings.

Solutions

The first step in “solving” these problems is to understand that they are likely to occur; forewarned is forearmed. Specifically, however the following actions seem to be relevant:

1.       Encourage participants to understand the background, needs and contribution of each group.

2.       Use a facilitative approach to encourage effective dialogue. This requires an air of independence, a broader set of skills and techniques such as those outlined in “The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook” and “The Dance of Change” [both P Senge et al]. The methods database of the IAF is also useful.

3.       Use approaches to encourage focused and well directed thinking such as those suggested by Edward de Bono.

4.       Be wary of agreement which seems to have been reached too easily – remember the Alfred Sloan statement to his board ‘Gentlemen, I take it that we are all in complete agreement on the decision here. Then, I propose that we postpone further discussion to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.’

5.       Put effort into ensuring that all participants are able to understand what is being proposed, don’t exclude them by using a medium they don’t understand – we will return to this in a later post.

6.       Remember the Second Law of Thermodynamics – the universe tends to chaos, effort is needed to create order. So work at it!