Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How Can you Raise People’s Awareness about Systems Thinking by Questioning

The big WHY and WHAT sort of questions should help people get curious about the wholeness of an organization - the concept of System Thinking.

Systems Thinking helps people to see the interconnected relationship between the parts and the whole, or simply “to see the forest for the tree.” What kind of questions could you ask people in order to raise their awareness about the practicality of Systems Thinking, or to clarify what people understand by the meaning of Systems Thinking? Is Systems Thinking just about asking big questions recognizing the disconnectedness of things belonging to a system, or is it also about taking a systematic approach to answering these questions, creating a framework within which the journey between the defined problem (question) and the proposed solution (answer) is clearly articulated (logical steps, assumptions, facts vs. opinions, symptoms vs root cause etc) ultimately arriving at a valid defensible conclusion. Is Systems Thinking therefore just about asking big questions or is it developing the art or science of Systems Thinking?

The big WHY and WHAT sort of questions should help people get curious about the wholeness of an organization: Asking questions is a powerful, if not the most powerful mean by which people can create their vision of the preferred future that will (retro-) influence them in the present, and pull them into that direction; in Appreciative Inquiry, this is called the heliotropic principle: people move in the direction of the most positive future for them. There are four broad principles of Appreciative Inquiry: 1) Words create worlds; 2) Positive images lead to positive action; 3) Quality relationships; 4) Previously hidden possibilities emerge.

Systems Thinking analysis of the organization is based on the vision that people desire. To create something that you really want also means that this very thing has to be adapted to your own variety. And the best way for that is to create it yourself. For example,  imposing a corporate vision upon employees just doesn't work. You have to build or co-build a vision yourself. Now, either people have a vision, or they don't. If they have one, fine, but you'll need to check if their vision aligns with that of the organization. If they don't, you want them to have one that they'd really desire, which means you can't provide it for them. But if management tries to strictly impose their vision onto their people, the chances are that they'll fail: people want to contribute in their way. They're more efficient in doing so, so it's a win win win (win for people, win for company stakeholders including top management, and win for customers). Then, by asking them what needs to be done to get this vision, you get some Action Plans that people are more willing to do than usual. Therefore, traditional command and control management styles are losing the steam because it de-motivates their people, with ignorance of delicate connectivity of “part” and the whole.  The root cause solution would be to invest in their people, despite the time needed to achieve that. But it's better in the long term. The organization needs to change and they felt that by training their people they would achieve that change. But investing in people for investment sake is not worth it unless management is very clear what their desired future vision is, hence they are committed to making it a reality.

Framing the questions to see the relationships between systems: Framing the right set of questions helps teams become aware of the other "systems" that they interact with and the relationships between these systems: “What is the bigger picture here?", "How is your current problem/goal related to your team/ departmental/ organizational/industry context?", "How does this relate to your personal/family life." And then explore the relationships and interactions between different elements in the various systems - do they have a positive or negative feedback effect on the whole and on the individual? What leverage points are there to maximize change (strengthening relationships with a person in another department could have a positive influence on the whole). When a certain event happens, you can also frame the questions by leveraging Systems Thinking to dig through the root causes. The first type of questions are: How is this happening, and why? How is this possible, when is this happening? ...and the goal is to ask questions in order to have the whole story of the event, and to see the causality of the important elements of the story ideas….

So, Systems Thinking hasn’t been applied more often due to lack of talent and lack of methodology. Systems thinking is a combination of talents and skills. It's rare. Also, Systems Thinking is not just an individual’s ability, but a collective business capability to break down the silo, to harness the cross-functional communication and collaboration. The good starting point is to frame the right set of questions in order to raise their awareness about the usefulness of Systems Thinking.  


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