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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Enhance your critical thinking with these AMA resources and tools.