How to Use Systems Thinking to Solve Business Problems

Perhaps you’ve heard the term and wondered if it was a buzzword. Systems Thinking. It’s certainly had a half-century long history of being tossed around in the pop-business publications. Is it a trendy but ultimately vapid bit of impractical inspiration, or is it an operable tool that is able to build value and streamline complex projects?

At its core, systems thinking is a way to streamline problem solving in a complex system. It focuses on building understanding for the relationships between a system’s components, not the components themselves.

The idea stemmed from a framework in the 1960s that gave 5 basic considerations when thinking about systems:

  • the objectives and performance of the whole system
  • the system’s environment and fixed constraints
  • the resources of the system
  • the components of the system, their activities, goals and measures of performance
  • the management of the system1

It wasn’t until the 90s that MIT professor Peter Senge publishes “The Fifth Discipline” which applied systems thinking to management and the organizational landscape.

Since then, the process has been modified to stress the need to dynamically respond to a changing system.2

  • Understand how the behavior of a system arises from the interaction of its agents over time (i.e., dynamic complexity);
  • Discover and represent feedback processes (both positive and negative) hypothesized to underlie observed patterns of system behavior;
  • Identify stock and flow relationships;
  • Recognize delays and understand their impact;
  • Identify nonlinearities;
  • Recognize and challenge the boundaries of mental (and formal) models.

Reframing the questions into ”what are all of our options” instead of  the narrow “how do we solve x” helps identify the relevant underlying problem. Who is else is affected by the problem you’re trying to solve? Who will benefit if the problem is solved? What departments or agencies have authority over solving the problem? This creates opportunities for collaboration across departments and facilitates interpretation of complex system problems

Implementing a Systems Thinking Culture

Let’s look at an some practical steps of implementing the systems thinking (ST) methodology:

1.Analyze the current state of the company
a) Do you have a sufficient understanding of current company climate and problem solving tools?
b) What would be some points of resistance that would prevent ST adoption in the company?
c) What are aspects of the existing company culture that would welcome a switch to ST?
d) Are there any deeper structures in play that would result in the organization sliding back into old behaviors

2. Facilitate conditions for change
a) How can you create a safe environment where change is welcomed?
b) Can employees make adjustments in mental models without the stigma of failure?

3. Workshop to build knowledge
a) Consider creating a smaller group of “early adopters” that will seek to implement ST to the larger organization space. Who could sponsor this group and how can you equip them to facilitate largescale change?
b) Have all of the changes been communicated clearly?

While this is just one example of an implementation solution, these example questions can be tailored to most organizations in order to encourage innovation, enhance leadership and management skills, and minimize the unanticipated consequences of major decisions.

Systems thinking is a valuable tool in all product development. In order to successfully stratify a problem into solvable components, we must focus on the broader ecosystem, using increasingly exact tools to optimize the mechanisms of modern company structure.

Article by Veronica Shlyaptseva