Systems thinking is a popular buzzword today. We hear about it a lot and in different contexts: Healthcare, business, coaching, transformation initiatives etc.
In this article, we will try to understand the conceptual basics of system thinking and how it can be applied to the Agile transformation initiatives to get extraordinary results and the influence of system thinking on the agile practices. We will see the common problems that plague Agile transformation initiatives, and what could be an effective solution from systems thinking lens.
Systems thinking has already been established as a key management competency of the 21st century. Therefore, it is very rewarding to become ‘System-aware’ and ‘System-wise’.
Barry Richmond coined the term ’Systems Thinking’ in 1987. However, this became hugely popular through Peter Senge’s book: ‘The Fifth Discipline’.
This discipline helps us to see how to change systems more effectively. Systems Thinking is the art and science of making reliable inferences about behavior by developing an increasingly deep understanding of underlying structure.
System thinking examples includes ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants and animals work together to survive, whereas in organizations systems consists of people, structures and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.
Whether we want it or not, we are a part of many systems and interact with them on a continuous basis. A family, a team, an organization, an automobile, a tax system etc are examples of some system we are part of and interact with.
What is a system?
But what exactly is a system and how do we know when we see it? How can we use this to manage our organizations and initiatives better by using this knowledge?
A system can be defined as:
A group of interacting, interrelated or interdependent parts that forms a unified whole and has a specific purpose.
Let’s examine this definition closely and identify the characteristics of a system. These characteristics help in identifying the system:
Collection or system
Sometimes, we may tend to get confused between a system and a collection. When in doubt, always look for the interrelatedness, interdependence and purpose. If any of this is missing, you are more likely dealing with a collection, rather than a system. This may also change based on the assumptions we are making and the perspective of observation. The assumptions define the boundary of the system under consideration.
Let’s take an example: multiple types of fruits kept together in a basket is obviously a collection, as there is no interrelation or interdependence between the fruits, neither is there a goal of the fruit basket. However, let us change the perspective and look at the fruit basket at a microscopic level. In this case, it becomes a system, as certain fruits interact with each other at a molecular level. This intermolecular interaction either aggravates or slow down the decay of certain fruits kept together. This is an example of how a system is always subject to redefinition by changing the perspective.
To simplify our understanding of the system, the system can be classified based on two factors: Structure (capability to understand) and Behavior (Capability to predict). In terms of structure, a system can be either simple or complicated, and in terms of behavior, a system can be either ordered, complex or chaotic.
We generally refer to the system as a combination of two factors, like Simple-Ordered, Simple-Complex, Complicated-ordered etc.
An organization can typically be classified as a ‘Simple-Complex’ system. This means that while the structure of the organization can be easily understood (simple), yet its behavior is moderately difficult to predict, primarily because of the presence of human interaction (complex).
This picture summarizes what could go wrong if we are not system aware. When we focus on local optimization and ignore the global impact, we create more problems for the future.
It is said that ‘today’s problems are yesterday’s solutions’. This is mainly the result of quick fixes, we create without considering the overall system.
Reality can be seen through the following levels of perspectives: Events, patterns and systemic structures. This can be represented as an Iceberg to put the system in context.
We live in an event-oriented world and our language and actions are heavily rooted at the event level. Our decisions are majorly guided by events. In reality events are the results of deeper patterns and systemic structures. But these are not easily visible. Understanding where to act leads to a higher leverage action. A leverage point is a point where small change can yield large improvements in the system. As we go from events to patterns to systemic structures, the leverage increases.
Why is systems thinking important
Tools to constitute the interactions
System thinking uses some tools like feedback loops and behavior over time graphs to represent the interactions in the system. These can be thought of as the rules of grammar for the language.
Application of systems thinking in Agile transformation can help us map the organization as a system using the reinforcing and balancing loops and identify the right leverage points to act. The following points should be considered:
The following table gives a mapping between the level of perspective, and the action modes. The leverage decreases as we move from top to bottom in the table.
|Levels of perspective||Action mode|
Principles of system thinking:
A system is:
The harder you push, the harder the system pushes back.
Be sensitive towards the compensating feedback: When well-intentioned interventions result in responses from the system that offsets the benefits of the interventions.
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