Systems Thinking at Work
Updated: Mar 19
“Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.” - Russell Ackoff
I covered some Systems Thinking in my previous blog on change. This time, I’m looking to clarify on how to start incorporating systems thinking in your pertinent environments. If you’re still trying to figure out one root cause to problems that live in complex systems, you’re probably in the wrong place.
Here is a list of basic vocabulary needed to start understanding what Systems Thinking entails:
1. System - A system is a complex interconnected network consisting of various parts giving rise to the unique behaviour of the system in its entirety, over time. A car, human body, organisations, teams, population etc. are all illustrations of systems. A system is more than the sum of its parts. E.g. Getting the highest quality car parts from different manufacturers to build an entirely new car, and hoping for optimum performance isn’t possible.
2. Systems Thinking - A dynamic way of understanding systems through understanding the interconnectedness of the parts within the system that include patterns of behaviours which are often subtle by nature. For instance, apply systems thinking to fix your sales target by concentrating beyond the sales department. Additionally, one of the activities you might want to carry out instead is to analyse the rate of new hires in the product development team and synthesise with your other findings!
Building blocks to seeing Systems
3. Feedback loops
In our linear minds, we tend to gravitate towards the regular phenomena; x causes y and y causes z, and so on. However, reality isn't a cause and effect that is linear. I really wish it was that easy. It’s more circular than linear, hence loops occur. These are called feedback loops that are manifested due to the complexity of the chain of events.
Types of feedback loops:
Reinforcing loop (R) - A positive cycle that feeds itself
Balancing loop (B) - A negative cycle that looks to restore balance
Self explanatory term. Always insidious in nature and largely underestimated. We can use an excellent working example; when you’re eating. You keep on eating more to make you ‘feel’ full rather than waiting for that delayed reaction of your body to tell you that you are full. The next thing you know, it becomes a habit and you’re overeating.
5. System Archetypes
Consisting of both the reinforcing and balancing loops along with an unwelcome combinations with delays, certain patterns of structures in systems repeat again and again. Often troublesome, these patterns can be labelled as ‘system archetypes’.
Some systems archetypes that I’ll be exhibiting:
Fixes that fail
Balancing Process with delay
Limits to success
Success to the successful
Shifting the burden
Scenario - Team A is ridden by Technical Debt; in an organisation with a borderline toxic culture
Illustrations with System archetypes consisting of feedback loops and delays
1. Fixes that fail
Self explanatory. We’ve seen it unfold, sadly numerous times. One shouldn’t assume that fixing something quickly(as well as dangerously) in a production environment during recurring outages would be a fundamental solution to the problem, just a symptomatic one.
2. Balancing process with delay
This occurs when delayed feedback accounts for more reactive actions, to further exacerbate the situation.
As illustrated in the figure below, along with Eroding goals, it starts off with a need for improvement(initial goal). Then the actions taken to improve the codebase are in place; to hopefully in turn push for the improvement(intended goal in current reality) to have working software to be released on a monthly basis. However, we seem to lack a depth of understanding that naturally, there will be delays to witness most of the results in a complex environment to come to fruition. Additionally, the Eroding Goals archetype lurks around the corner.
3. Eroding goals
This occurs when decisions are made to lower the quality of the goals to accommodate for lower performance. Since there’s always an increased pressure to deliver, decisions will be made hastily by the management who are often reactive than creative; to the detriment of the ensuing gap in goals. Yet, we still tell ourselves that it is all fine and dandy.
“Well, think positively. A quarterly release is better than a biannual one.”
4. Limits to success
This occurs when a system continues to improve for a certain period of time due to a certain type of effort, and eventually slows down as a result of more of the same effort that worked previously. This is when the system fights back.
E.g. As the need for a quality codebase grows due to increased product sales, pushing more code with the absence of solid engineering practices to churn out more features to the market is often practiced. The more you push the system, the more the system pushes back. After a portion of time, efforts might be up or at least similar but the performance of the codebase is down, thereby having an undesired effect on the product sales.
5. Success to the successful
Two reinforcing loops that feed each other.
E.g. The budget allocated to Team A is less than Team B due to its performance in the last financial year. This was the same case the year before as well. One can only predict why Team A cannot perform as much as team B. This isn’t hard to understand.
6. Shifting the burden
This occurs when you let someone intervene to solve your problem. This means you prioritise solving your problem with a symptomatic solution, rather than a fundamental one. Over time, you rely more and more on the intervenor who will eventually be a part of the existing system, whether you like it or not.
Below, the scenario illustrates the use of an external entity(agency) to take control of your existing systems in order to abdicate responsibility. There are insidious delays that engender high or total reliance on some or key parts of the system over time.
This is a basic way to understand the aforementioned interconnectedness in Systems. Once the basic concepts are understood, it won't take long to dissect issues from a systems thinking lens. I’ll look to write up on my next blog on how we can use leverage in systems to combat these scenarios; or better yet, prevent these types of situations from occurring in the first place.
Materials to decipher:
Thinking in Systems - Donella Matthews
The Fifth Discipline - Peter Senge
Systems Thinking for Curious Managers - Russell Ackoff