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Playbook

Systems Thinking: Uncover How Your Organization Really Works

May 14, 2014

how to use systems thinking to figure out how a change might affect your organization

Systems thinking involves seeing the individual event or the individual worker in the larger network of relations that influence what happens.  It is asking the questions: who and what is influencing the employee’s behavior; who will be impacted and how by any change in policy or procedure; and what are the possible unintended consequences.

HR business partners can move beyond just a focus on individuals to understand how the larger system, including groups, the organization as a whole, and the external environment impact work performance, the readiness for change, and the path to success.

What is labeled underperformance of an individual or a group may be the outcome of:

  • An unsatisfactory supervisory or coworker relationship
  • Unclear or conflicting expectations
  • Resource allocation issues
  • The reporting and work flow design of a department
  • Policies or procedures that restrict initiative and innovation
  • An organizational culture that favors the contributions of certain groups of people over others
  • Changes in the external business environment.

Jesse Sostrin on the “Hidden” Side of Work

Systems thinking means:

  • Seeing the big picture and not just the part
  • Understanding how certain problems recur and are often made worse by quick solutions
  • Projecting how one decision can impact many people and set in motion a situation that can create many unexpected outcomes for the organization.
  • Examining one’s own assumptions and mental models about what is happening.  See Chris Argyris for more about mental models and double loop learning

Systems thinking is a way to take into account the multiple perspectives, the learned and persistent behaviors, the many formal and informal work relationships, the various organizational structures, and the pervasive organizational culture that influence a situation. It is a way to find a relationship/leverage point—individual, dyad, group, department, the organization (policies, practices, culture, design)–where change can be fostered that ripples through the interactions that compose the organization. Everything is interconnected.

The Waters Foundation provides a helpful chart for remembering the major elements of systems thinking.

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About The Author

John D. Vogelsang, PhD, is the Editor in Chief of the OD Practitioner, the quarterly journal of the OD Network www.odnetwork.org. He has been working for over 34 years in the areas of leadership capacity building, board development, strategic planning, organizational and leadership transitions, conflict transformation, and strategic restructuring. He serves as a coach for executive directors, senior management teams, and boards, and he has facilitated numerous board and staff retreats and executive director peer learning groups. His clients have included foundations, human service agencies, mental health agencies, community health centers, universities, professional associations, arts organizations, and advocacy groups. He is the Dialogue Project Director for the Queens College/CUNY Center for Ethnic, Racial, and Religious Understanding. He is also an Adjunct Associate Professor in the American University MS program in Organization Development. For two years, he was a visiting professor of nonprofit and NGO management and organizational conflict at the School for International Training Graduate Institute.

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