What does it mean to be a “systems” thinker?

“List everything you see in the room.”

So began our study of systems thinking.

We listed things, lots of things we saw in the university classroom with only a few references to relationships and people. Each of us shared our observations. A couple of astute classmates identified minute details that many of us had difficulty finding. We did not or could not see what they had seen.

Then, we were asked to categorize the disparate observations and look for relationships. We began to view what we saw from new perspectives. The systems within the confines of that room and those that allowed us to be in the room took shape.

We discovered systems that existed independent of us but still interrelated to us. Until we took a deeper look, made connections, and asked questions, we were blind to the myriad of systems of a single room.

The exercise dramatically brought into focus the fact that we are conditioned to look first at “things.” This simple activity highlighted why we have difficulty “seeing” the world as a system.

If our view of the world is only linear and isolated, how much more difficult it becomes to see beyond the narrow focus of our lives. What I learned that day is that we tend to look for immediate responses. Instead, we need to look for not just symptoms or things but at the system in place.

What does the term systems thinking mean to you?

The term “systems thinking” and the concept of “systems” is nothing new. We toss the word around and flaunt our intentions to improve the system, but do we really know how to “see what’s in the room?”

I suspect, based on the actions of many leaders, that these terms have only superficial meaning. Saying the words does not always imply skill attainment or that our actions reflect an understanding of how to lead from a systems perspective.

This may be an unfair observation, but day after day, I see the problems created and exacerbated when leaders, or any of us, simply do not recognize or know how to respond to events as “systems thinkers.” Although some people appear more adept at seeing the whole and the interrelationship of parts, we can all learn how to become system thinkers.

Do you want to see more than the things in the room?

The Waters Foundation has a great visual that explains the Habits of a Systems Thinker. But to get you started, here are just three actions to transform how you approach your work, your organization, and your life from a systems perspective.

Systems Thinkers ask questions. Lots of questions. For example: How did we get to this issue? What happened prior? Has this occurred elsewhere? Do we know the underlying cause?

Systems thinkers identify feedback loops. What are the key processes associated with this issue? What are the handoffs, how are processes connecting, or not connecting across the organization?

Systems thinkers recognize mental models. They understand how perceptions affect decision-making and individual and group perspectives. What are the key assumptions individuals are bringing to the situation?

Are you seeking to understand, or criticizing and blaming? There is so much more to creating a culture of excellence through systems thinking, but everyone needs a place to start.

Start with just these three, and you may be surprised at what you begin to “see in the room.”

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And always—

Be kind. Be brave. Be you.