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Systems thinking provides clarity not magic

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

Systems thinking provides clarity not magic

Scott Miker

One of the misconceptions around systems thinking is that using it will suddenly make every decision easy and perfect.  By seeing the full system, we assume that we can see the magical solution that we missed when we were thinking linearly.

The reality is that systems thinking isn’t about magic or perfection.  It is really more about seeing things differently to get a better idea of the full picture. 

In Simple Complexity by William Donaldson, PhD, the author states, “We must split the difference between satisfying certain parts of the system and sacrificing certain parts.  In a system, there will always be ‘winners’ and ‘losers’.  As a manager, you must understand and embrace this duality.”

Anyone who has managed a business or business element likely knows this duality.  Adding more resources might help with the workload but will likely hurt the budget.  Creating a new policy will have some that applaud and some that criticize the move.  Doing a low sale price might boost sales for this quarter but might hurt sales next quarter when they return to their higher price. 

In our personal lives we see this as well.  Eating a delicious burger today will mean happiness now, but too much will mean an expanding waste line.  A new budget might help one’s finances but the pain will likely come when you go to buy something you really want and realize it isn’t in the budget. 

But systems thinking isn’t just about balance.  Balance is an important part but it is also about finding areas that have more leverage than others.  Making your lunch the day before work might help alleviate the discomfort around trying to avoid grabbing fast food for lunch and help you eat healthier without as much pain. 

In business we can provide better materials to our sales team to help improve sales numbers or find aspects of the project that are less important to pull resources from.  Systems thinking helps to better understand the best way to find this critical balance. 

But there will still be ‘winners and losers’ and we have to understand that many times this will mean some people for the change and some people against the change.  As a manager (or even in our personal lives) we have to be confident and have a clear vision of where we are headed in order to justify the change. 

Recently we went through an interesting situation at work.  Some employees were complaining that there are a few select employees that are slacking off.  They said they were always finding ways to skimp on work or milk the clock.  The hard-working employees felt this was unfair.

As we addressed this systematically with new policies and subsequent discipline, those that slacked off felt it was unfair.  They felt they had justification and it wasn’t slacking off but something else (being thorough, doing it better, having more problems at home to deal with than others etc.)

As we worked through this new standard we certainly saw both sides of it.  But at the end of the day we knew that to accomplish the goals the business has set, we had to improve in this area.  We were confident that it was the right direction to go and were willing to accept the negative aspects of this new structure to gain the positive aspects. 

This is one small system within many larger systems.  Some people who are caught up in thinking linearly would likely say that the solution was even easier, fire those that aren’t working hard enough. 

But this is much more complex than it seems.  Some of those that felt the negative impact of this new standard are the same ones that add value in other ways.  Or some actually do have personal issues and the business wants to support them through this difficult time.  Or they are the only person with a specific skillset that is needed. 

It is usually not as simple as it seems and systems thinking doesn’t provide some magical solution that fixes everything.  In fact, it usually just gives additional clarity around an issue and potential leverage points that can help improve the system. 

So if you are looking to improve, make sure you are comfortable with the fact that improvement in one area might mean another area suffers.  We might have to stop being so impulsive to reach long-term goals or we have to realize our new policy might impact people differently based on their situation. 

In management this usually means that we can’t get too focused on being liked – because there will always be people that like what we are doing and people who dislike what we are going. 

In our personal lives this might mean we have to learn to sacrifice certain things we like for a chance at something even better.  Knowing this adds enough clarity to help move forward and not be caught off guard when the ‘losers’ in the system change surface.