Most problems that we face today are actually patterns that go unnoticed. In business we may have the same culture issues that we keep wrestling with, each time feeling as though it is a unique problem with a unique staff member.
In our personal lives we may continue to mismanage our schedule only to complain to everyone we know how we are too busy all the time. We may never take the time to truly fix the real problem, only willing to address the symptoms of the problem.
But systems thinking is all about spotting these patterns and using them to improve. If we can get to the root of the problem and find a system fix, then we don’t have to keep wrestling with the same problems over and over again.
The next time a friend or family member tells you how they are too busy all the time, ask them what they are doing to fix that. After they give you a confused look, they will probably ramble on about how they just have to live with it.
They will say they have to take their daughter to dance and then take their son to karate lessons and baseball. In fact, they might even assume you are saying they should cancel doing those things in order to gain more free time.
Rarely will you ever hear any real system adjustments. They won’t tell you how they are managing their time or planning out their day or week ahead of time to make sure they prepare for the various moving pieces or that they are working on communicating more succinctly. The reason this gets skipped is because they feel they are too busy to do anything like this, only being able to try to keep their heads above water.
But there are certainly patterns here that can point to systematic areas that can be improved. We can start to dig deeper in order to find solutions that don’t just address the schedule for today, but make it so that our schedules get organized even when we get overloaded with things to do.
At work I find the same thing. When things get hectic, I used to tend to just put my head down and work through my to do list. I would work harder and harder until I got through the busy time. But I wouldn’t fix any of the system problems.
A pattern started to emerge. I would do this only to find myself here again soon. Then I would go through the same behaviors to get through the next busy time.
Eventually I started to realize that I could better manage the things that I had to do. I created an organizational system using Microsoft Outlook. This included several items. One technique that I use is a daily to do list “meeting” time. Basically I create a 30 minute meeting time in my Outlook calendar that has a to do list on it. It basically becomes a rolling to do list. I update it as necessary, reprioritize items on the fly and move it to the next day at the end of the day. This gives me a rolling to do list that I always know to check. It helps to make sure I don’t drop the ball even when I have a ton to do.
I tend to put low priority items there so as soon as my day lightens up I immediately check the list for items I need to knock out. This allows me to put work into items that aren’t “hot” now but if left ignored will become “hot” at some point. Getting a jump on them helps even out my day so the busy times are slightly less busy and the slow times are slightly less slow. This was all because I recognized a pattern and found a system fix to address the core problem – which was that work often came in spurts and would ebb and flow over time.
Most people never pay attention to the system fix. Coworkers make comments about how organized I am or how I don’t drop the ball on projects. But the reason isn’t that I have some innate ability to remember everything, it is simply that I am using better organizational systems, such as the one I described earlier.
The more we work towards systems fixes the more we will start to make progress. Instead of just getting through a bunch of work we will start to build a foundation that helps us grow and solve more complex and important problems in the future. Once a problem is solved systematically, other problems will come up. But using these strategies and finding system solutions, we can start to improve steadily over time.