Systems thinking can help your team be more forward-thinking and holistic in its approach to problems–and change its entire perspective.
Most ways of solving problems that you find in team building or productivity models are sequential or linear. That is, you have a problem and you seek to find a solution to that specific problem. In the past few blog posts we have tried to propose alternative ways of thinking, such as lateral thinking and design thinking that aren’t necessarily so linear and involve some coloring outside of the lines.
However, even these models of thinking are concerned with finding a solution to a specific problem, even if it means looking for that solution in other places. But what if the way to solve a problem was not by focusing on it alone, but rather by zooming out and looking at the bigger picture? What if problems don’t exist in a vacuum, and understanding how problems are influenced by larger systems and other interlocking issues were the key to finding sustainable solutions?
Introducing systems thinking
This is the basic premise of systems thinking, which suggests that the way to solve problems is by looking at the larger systems or structures that are affecting those problems in order to find points that are fixable.
A key takeaway is that context, perspective, and the larger picture are important in assessing an issue. This is also known as holistic thinking, which we discussed briefly before, but basically means looking at problems from a wider lens in order to grasp the full situation.
The other key takeaway is that problems are interconnected, and don’t exist in isolation from each other. On your team, your interpersonal problems may be affecting your work output. Or your management issues may be affecting your team’s efficiency. Does your team feel creatively blocked? It might have to do with something seemingly unrelated, like time management issues.
I think many of us have gained this viewpoint from our experiences in the past couple of years. Covid-19 was primarily a public health issue, but it exposed the connection between public health and other issues like work inequality, access to medical supplies and supply chains in general, the need for strong governmental institutions, misinformation, etc.
Zooming out and looking at interrelated problems can be hard and possibly quite frustrating at first. But it is also extremely necessary and beneficial for teams in the long run in order to stay strong and resilient. Looking at complex issues and “wicked problems” from a systems thinking perspective can actually end up making your team more comfortable dealing with complexity itself, which in this day and age is a useful skill to cultivate.
So in the following blog post we’ll introduce what systems thinking is and how your team can use it.
How does systems thinking work?
1. Understanding systems means understanding context
Let’s start by explaining what a “system” actually is. Systems thinking began in the 1950s, borrows a lot from computer engineering and the rise of high-tech computer systems that occured during that time. So when you think about a system, it can be useful to think about a computer system, in which there are different interlocking components and functions that are all part of a larger whole that operates together.
In the world of work and teams, start with yourself. You have a certain task and role that you do with other people. Zoom further out and your team combines with other teams to form a company. Zoom out again and your company is not alone, but rather interacting with other companies in the industry, as well as clients, consumers, investors, other producers,that together form the way your industry or sector functions. Zoom out yet again and you’ll see that your industry is interacting with other industries to form the economic system, which functions with law, government, and culture as part of the even larger societal system.
2. Zooming out
Systems thinking works by encouraging this “zooming out” and looking at the larger picture. Looking at only one function or node of a system won’t allow you to see how it works in tandem with other functions, or where the true problem lies, which could be in another area entirely.
Zooming out thus challenges teams to think from a slightly different perspective. But this change in perspective can help teams think in terms of how they are affecting other points and actors of the system, and how to become more resilient in the face of a system that is, by nature, not fully in their control.
It’s not only the bigger picture that comes into view, but also the longer-term. Zooming out leads to thinking about time, too. So that teams that practice systems thinking will think about the long-term effects and possible consequences of their actions, rather than just the immediate short-term gains.
3. Looking for leverage points
Zooming out has another benefit, which is that your team is more capable of locating problems and seeing where fixes can be made. These areas are called “leverage points”. Of course, since systems are large and involve a lot of different actors and moving parts, not all leverage points will be fixable, or within your power to fix.
For example, let’s say that your company is facing supply chain issues right now. Zoom out, and you’ll see that the whole world economy is facing supply chain issues, and that many teams will not be able to fix this issue on their own.
However, by understanding your limitations when it comes to leverage points, you can make better decisions about what to do and where to look for solutions in other parts of the system.
3. Expanding your frame
If you find an alternative supply route or supplier, a different production method, or shift your company’s main focus so that it avoids that supply chain issue, then congratulations–you have successfully “expanded the fram#.
Expanding the frame means that you have shifted your perspective and were able to incorporate a new area of the system that you had previously ignored or overlooked into your team’s framework.
This way of thinking about finding solutions is really interesting. What it’s saying is that creativity doesn’t need to be thought of as being completely novel or original. All you have to do is shift your focus a little and pay attention to the wider world, especially to areas that you never really thought were that important.
Expanding your frame can also be looked at as diversifying your ways of thinking. When you attempt to expand the frame, you need to bring in diverse opinions and ideas into you frame of reference, or else you get stuck repeating the same ideas and the same processes over and over.
4. The importance of feedback
This is where feedback comes in, and why it is so central to systems thinking. Paying attention to feedback loops can tell you if a new process or idea actually works, or if all you’ve really done is tried the same thing but called it something different.
Paying attention to feedback loops can take many forms Obviously in the context of systems, you can model feedback loops or illustrate them graphically. On teams and with people though, you can also listen to feedback. Paying attention to what team members are saying and feeling can help your team analyze the effects of its actions and pay attention to the rise of issues that need attention. Which means that keeping communication channels open is highly important for systems thinking.
5. Reinforcing and balancing
Another major aspect of systems thinking is the importance of reinforcing and balancing. When you make a change to a component of your team or system based on your expanded frame, you are reinforcing a component–making it better. However, in systems thinking, reinforcing a component requires a balancing process–in other words, a way of adapting to the change and bringing it in line with the rest of your system.
What this means is that to achieve any lasting changes, your team needs to have a solid foundation. You need to have a basis on which to make changes so that your system doesn’t get overloaded. Making changes too rapidly or too much such that you can’t adequately incorporate it into your team’s framework is counterproductive.
On teams, balancing processes could include things like having a solid foundation of trust and communication, so that when you make changes to the way your team does things, you can easily communicate those changes and ensure that everyone is on the same page. Strong values and goals are also good balancing mechanisms, since they keep your team grounded, and focused on adopting reinforcement components that are in line with the essence of the team.
Conclusion: Systems thinking and resilient team building
As we have seen, systems thinking provides teams with a very useful framework for dealing with problems in holistic and forward-thinking ways. This type of thinking encourages teams to:
- Zoom out and take a big-picture, long-term perspective of their team and the wider context that it is operating in.
- Understand the limitations of teams in order to locate what problems can actually be solved and the best way to solve them.
- Incorporate new and different perspectives that your team might have missed, and get creative by changing perspective and expanding your frame of reference.
- Pay attention to feedback and be open and aware of the consequences of taking certain measures.
- Establish the means to incorporate changes into your team’s structure and endure that these changes are in line with who your team is.
These lessons are the building blocks to creating teams that respond well to challenges and can adapt to situations. In other words, this is a useful pathway to building resilient teams.
For more practice with some of the lessons of systems thinking, we suggest regular team building sessions, like the ones that are found at Invite Japan. Our team building programs help your team engage with different perspectives and thinking about the deeper values of your team, so that you will be able to meet whatever challenges lie ahead and come up with exciting and creative new ideas that you can implement more easily on your team.