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Switch from linear to systems thinking for improved outcomes

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.  

Switch from linear to systems thinking for improved outcomes

Scott Miker

Dr. Wayne Dyer once said, “Change the way you look at things and the things you look at change.” 

I love that quote.  Not just because it is insightful but also because I have gone through several transformations of the way I think and each time I experienced this very intimately. 

But how can that be?  If things are static how can it be that if you change the way you look at something, that something actually changes?

Studying systems thinking brings about this change in thinking.  We start to realize the shortsighted way we currently think and that there is much more to the world.  We regularly minimize complex aspects of life to better manage what we have to do but in doing so we miss key factors.

We call this shortsighted way of thinking linear thinking.  We think about things in simple ways.  We think about start and finish, beginning and end, cause and effect, etc.  We see a straight line with the variables all lined up.

But in reality there are always complex systems at work.  Even in a laboratory environment where everything is very controlled, we often get results that can’t be duplicated.  In other words, even with the greatest control we can have, we are often still wrong because we don’t see other factors that play a role in the outcome. 

In Systems Thinking, A Guide to Managing In a Changing Environment by Robert Wright, he states, “To think about systems theory, one needs to develop a certain frame of mind.  Most of us have learned to think about ideas, things, and people as static elements compared to and contrasted with each other.  Most events that draw the attention of managers, however, are ideas, things and people in movement together.  A person who intends to manage in a dynamic setting needs a new way of thinking about the world.  Systems thinking provides the analytical framework for comprehending dynamic, integrated operating situations.”

One of the clearest examples of this for me is to watch as a manager starts to shift from linear thinking to systems thinking.  It often begins with the manager blaming employees when things go wrong or finding one factor for each problem.  

They may look for a root cause but in doing so are really just searching for the one factor to point the finger at.  But in my experience, problems have many variables.  Yes there might be a mistake of a staff member, but there also might be poor processes in place, insufficient resources, lack of control, or a host of other factors that all contributed to the problem area. 

Many times this causes the decisions to be made without an awareness of these other factors.  Because of this, when these factors surface again, a similar problem emerges.  We may start to see patterns of problems and wonder why we keep having the same issue over and over again.

But as we start to use systems thinking to manage, we start to see all of these factors.  We see many factors influencing the outcome instead of one.  We start to embrace the full system to try and solve a problem.  We see patterns as clues to help us see where we have structural deficiencies or mental models that need to change in order to effectively change the outcome.

Let’s take a look at a real life example.  In a medium sized corporation, leadership determines that the marketing and sales of their company is no longer as effective as it once was.  After several discussions the decision is made to bring in a new VP of marketing to provide a fresh new perspective.

They hire Julie, an experienced marketing executive.  Julie settles in with the directive to radically change the marketing of the firm.  But as she does, she hits resistance everywhere. 

In sytems thinking what she bumps up against are balancing feedback loops.  The more she tries to think differently about marketing, all of the product managers push to market the way they have in the past, as they don’t want to risk what they have currently built.  Leadership has a hard time spending more money on marketing so they refuse to approve her new budget requests.  In addition, every quarter, leadership expects her to maintain a sponsorship campaign with one of their partners and refuses to deviate from this large expenditure, despite the fact that it isn’t effective. 

So after some time, Julie is let go and leadership decides to bring in someone new.  But they do this several more times and can’t understand why whoever they hire seems to just keep doing the same things and isn’t bringing any new ideas to the firm’s marketing. 

Many people involved in this decision would quickly point to Julie as the problem.  Then they would point to Julie’s replacement as the problem.  Over and over again they think the individual is the problem.  They never realize that the person isn’t the problem and as long as the structure’s balancing feedback loops are not addressed, the system will stay balanced.  It won’t change.  Everything will push harder and harder to keep the system going the direction it is currently going. 

Leadership has system problems here.  To get past a balancing feedback loop the reinforcing action can’t just be changed out or boosted.  The feedback loop will increase more and more to account for any changes in reinforcing loop. 

In other words if we want to get around a brick wall, we can’t just push harder.  We can keep trying and push harder and harder but it likely won’t budge.  Instead we have to attack the force that is pushing back to keep the system in balance (the brick wall structure). 

Systems thinking would say we have to remove the wall or find a way around it.  Pushing harder will not result in an improvement.  But taking down the wall means that we can actually use less force to move forward. 

But changing out marketing executives in this structure would mean that we are essentially trying different people to see who can push through the impenetrable wall.  When one fails we ask someone new to push through it. 

Unless we remove the wall, the result will be the same.  Unless we remove the balancing feedback loops the result will be the same.  If we use systems thinking we start to attack those balancing feedback loops directly. 

Leadership can use systems thinking to see that the reason their marketing is the way it is, is because of the way product managers push for marketing so they don’t risk losing market share, leadership won’t spend any more money and leadership forces an ineffective sponsorship campaign for reasons other than its marketing effectiveness, eating up the budget.

Without changing any of these, the results will continue to be the same.  Different people, similar outcomes. 

Leadership has the ability to tackle these system constraints but so does the marketing executive.  But in order to change the balancing feedback loop of leadership’s inflexible thinking, pushing harder with more new, fresh ideas won’t work. 

Instead Julie should focus as much as possible on attacking the forces inside those feedback loops.  Instead of forcing new ideas on product managers she can try to work with them to develop marketing plans that slightly deviate from their current plan.  Then over time she can gain more and more trust to push further and further towards her ideal marketing plan for each product.

Julie can confront leadership and work to assure them that the additional funds are necessary if they indeed want change.  It won’t likely be easy and may take a lot of time and building trust with leadership but over time the more she is able to increase the budget the more room she has to work with. 

Julie can also work within these constraints and account for them in her strategy.  If she knows she has to do the sponsorship program, how can she modify it so that she gets maximum value from it?  What value does she get out of it?  There has to be some value, so is there a way to leverage that to make this sponsorship more beneficial? 

By changing from linear thinking to systems thinking, we can start to identify new ways to proceed and deal with all of the systems elements, such as reinforcing feedback loops, balancing feedback loops, delays, complexity, etc. 

This is an example of how we can change the way we look at something to get that something to change.  Leadership forcing the sponsorship program on the marketing executive changes from just a move to try and cause Julie to fail, to become a balancing feedback loop that needs to be addressed with a systems response, otherwise nothing will change. 

These systems structures are all around us and always are impacting us.  We can choose to ignore them and be controlled by them or we can start to understand systems architecture so we better address problems and obstacles and learn to improve in many environments and many different scenarios.