Systems Thinking—The Obvious That Is Often Ignored

Pag’s 165-168 Lead With Love By: Gerry Czarnecki

The principles of systems thinking entered the popular world of leadership reading through a groundbreaking work, The Fifth Discipline, written by Peter Senge. In his book, he walks the reader through the core principles of this rather elegant description of decision-making processes and structure. The essence of systems thinking is not simply that logical thinking is important, but that in trying to evaluate issues, solve problems, or create alternative futures, we must see the world through the lens of interrelatedness and interdependence. The process of systems thinking demands that we always look at the whole process, all the relevant variables, and how they interrelate to each other in causing the current state. Every action we take has a consequence, and every consequence causes another action. These observations define a world that is not linear, but rather is a series of action loops that either dampen or reinforce the original action.

Here is one of the simplest examples of how systems in the real world behave in ways we may not predict with linear world thinking: adjusting the water temperature in a shower. When we first turn on the shower, the water is relatively cold because most of the water that comes out first was sitting in the pipes, unheated. If we turn on the hot and cold water at the same time, the first flow will be cool to lukewarm. If we turn the hot water up to full capacity to increase the temperature, eventually the hot water will dramatically increase the temperature of the water flow and the water will be too hot. Hence, we will turn up the cold water to cool down the flow again. However, there is always a delay in the adjustment’s impact on the flow, and we must compensate for that delay in order to gauge our next move. Unless we stop and think about what is happening, we could spend a rather long time reacting with water flow changes that never get a chance to fully adjust before we are making another adjustment.

 Usually we break the “system code.” Once we realize what is happening, we can then wait for the time of the delay and determine the net impact of our last adjustment. When we do that, the time it takes us to end up with a comfortable water temperature is dramatically reduced. Our adjustment of behavior is the result of systems thinking. We realize that the system has a delay and that we must look at the entire system to get the desired result.

 Such thinking is essential for the leader to consider. When we are dealing with human behavior as leaders, we are dealing with complex systems, and we must know and understand that taking one action will not always have a simple, linear result. One action can precipitate a reaction from our associates, which then creates a whole new workplace situation. We then are forced to take other actions, or behave in a way that reacts to the new situation. In a theoretically linear world, A may cause B, and then B may cause C. But in real life, often there is a next step where C then impacts or “causes” A. This looping is now reinforcing the original action, so that once you have put the sequence in place, the results will reinforce the first action and intensify the result, maybe even to the point of “unacceptable results.”

 An example of this might be (A) a serious counseling session with your associate indicating she is being too critical of her peers, which then causes your associate to respond immediately by (B) dramatically reducing her communications with her fellow workers. This action (B) then causes her fellow workers to continue the mistakes the so-called “critical” worker was catching because now the initiative to give associate feedback has been dramatically reduced. With the reduced communications, the fellow workers sense a withdrawal by the “critical” associate and they dramatically curtail communication, an event we’ll label (C). With this series of events, the less feedback the “critical” associate gives, the higher the likelihood she will stop offering feedback to her fellow workers altogether. Overall, the mistakes will actually increase because now the corrective feedback from the “critical” associate is missing.

 Over the long run, stopping the feedback would doom the company if there is nobody to pick up the issue. Here is an opposite but similar situation: An employee offers critical feedback. The second associate takes some action to fix the problem. If the first associate continues the high level of negative feedback, then the second associate may continue attempting to resolve the issue but may eventually respond negatively to the ongoing critical feedback. In addition to changes in the process that may temporarily fix the problem, the overreaction could cause increased tension that eventually causes the team to fall apart. The negative feedback strains associate job satisfaction, eventually causing the entire group to become estranged from the process and perhaps even from each other.

 the lesson to remember with systems thinking is that there are virtually no linear, unlinked events in the workplace. Almost all actions, or analyses, will lead you to the connection of a series of actions that eventually loop back to the beginning. Not only does “every action cause an equal and opposite reaction,” every action also probably starts five other actions, some of which will come back to the initiator of the initial reaction. Eventually virtually all straight-line processes loop back to the beginning of the process and impact the beginning point.

 The less i that nothing we do creates one, and only one, reaction. Our behaviors have a multitude of impacts, and we must be sensitive to the possibility that what we do “to or for” our associates will eventually have an impact on us and, in turn, how we act during the next stage of the process. Some might call this a ripple effect, but it is one that has a boomerang effect, often returning to its source.

 Another example of this could be the use of love in the workplace. In the event that a  leader decides that being a “loving boss” is the right way to lead, then action will be taken to behave in a different (loving) way. That action, although designed to encourage the associate to respond positively to the caring boss, might just cause behavior on her part that ultimately creates a sense of comfort and confidence that she cannot, or will not, be disciplined. This conviction can then lead to an associate becoming irresponsible since she perceives that the boss has concluded not to be “tough.” The end result could be that the associate abuses the value of a “loving act” and her performance deteriorates.

 Obviously, the newfound love by the boss has been implemented in a way, and at a time, that confuses the associates. Unfortunately, this reaction by the associate could cause the boss to conclude that her efforts were wrong, and she might even attempt to counteract this problem with being so tough as to now convince the associate that she is unpredictable and mercurial. Clearly, this is a feedback loop with undesirable and unintended consequences.


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