Anyone referring to the role played by systems thinking in helping organisations to develop a learning capability must show due deference to Peter Senge’s book, “The Fifth Discipline”, published in 1990. It is an inspiring and revelatory read.
There are many detailed and technical explanations of systems and how they can or should be analysed but I shall seek to keep things simple, if only for my own benefit. I liken a systems approach to organisational learning to standing back and trying the see the bigger picture.
Accidents, incidents, successes and failures occur on a daily basis and each may be worthy of analysis in its own right but a systems approach enables us to see if such events are evidence of deeper issues, as yet unknown. Whilst this holds true for any organisation, it is particularly important for those of a certain size and complexity where the consequences of actions are not immediately clear.
The larger the organisation, the more difficult it can be to understand the way its constituent parts actually inter-act and affect one another, as opposed to how we think they do. For example, a sole trader arguably has a clearer understanding of the relationships between his or her own efforts in business development, sales and marketing than the CEO of a multinational company where such functions are performed by vast divisions of personnel.
One way of thinking about organisations and the need to understand their cause and effect feedback loops is to imagine a ball made of rubbery jelly, used as an ‘executive stress’ toy. If you squeeze hard on the ball in your hand, it squashes easily and assumes a new shape. Pushing in on one side, through a gap between your thumb and forefinger, results in jelly squeezing out on the other side, and so on.
Approaching organisational learning without an understanding of the way systems work is akin to playing with such a toy. Identifying lessons and coming up with remedial actions that appear to address the initial problems is like pushing on the jelly. It has the desired effect where and when we expect and want it but, without a full understanding of the many consequences of our actions, we run the risk of merely shifting the problem elsewhere.
Moreover, as we have not yet spotted the feedback loop in play, the problem now appears to be a new one, cropping up somewhere else in the organisation. We apply time, effort and resources to resolving that issue and so the cycle continues.
Therefore, a systems-based approach requires us to examine problems laterally, looking as much at the ‘type’ of problem as the detailed content itself. By so doing, we can begin to uncover the deeper, underlying issues that have far greater impact than each and every apparently isolated problem and where far greater leverage exists for an improvement in overall performance.
Many of the problems encountered within and between organisations can be explained, at least superficially, by an apparent lack of sufficient resources (time, money, people, skill etc.) and, when problems of this type occur, the not unreasonable response is usually to increase the appropriate resources to the required level. However, a systems-based approach would seek to understand the factors that have inhibited performance given current resources and weaken or remove altogether such impediments.
At its heart, systems thinking means looking at problems from many angles, combining multiple perspectives from colleagues across your organisation. In other words, it requires good teamwork, to which we shall turn our attention next.