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Systems Thinking

The only thing that changed was the title. The job, the responsibilities, even the pay were exactly the same, but when the title was changed to director, the relationships, levels of trust, gossip and impediments to getting things done were all out of whack for a couple of months. This is a situation that takes more than simple explanations to fix.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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The only thing that changed was the title. The job, the responsibilities, even the pay were exactly the same, but when the title was changed to director, the relationships, levels of trust, gossip and impediments to getting things done were all out of whack for a couple of months. This is a situation that takes more than simple explanations to fix. What can we learn from this example? Titles are really important. Relationships are more fragile than might have been expected, and there might be some underlying, unresolved emotional or personality issues. The systems are more important than might have been intuited from the organizational chart.

Background for systems thinking

When you institute a change, even a minor one, what happens? Do things move smoothly and is the change adopted easily, or are there ramifications that you hadn’t anticipated? Do problems emerge in other parts of the organization that seem to be unreasonable and not connected to the change you have made? These are some of the classic indicators of insufficient understanding of and attention to systems.

What are systems? Basically, systems are interrelationships, and by that I mean any group in which pushing on one part affects another part. Systems can be work units in which changing the demands, resources or status of one section will impact the others in the work group. Zoom out, and the work unit touches other work units and forms another system. Zoom out . . . You get the picture.

As a scientist, you are trained to see systems and work with them. Often, these are immensely complex biological, chemical or physical systems. So the concept of thinking from a systems point of view is nothing new. Applying some of the conceptual approaches to your organization may be different.

My problem with formal systems thinking (ST) programs is that they become far too formal, complex and structured far too soon. In my experience, good managers learn to think about systems on their own, and when they are exposed to formal ST programs, many have a hard time relating what they are hearing to their own experience. (The consultants assume the role of the Priest-Priestess holding the keys to the secrets of the temple and only letting the worshipers in after an offering or sacrifice.) So let’s keep it simple.

A typical financial analyst or consultant would look at one or more parts of the organization to see how to make it work better under the assumption that the total organization will become more productive or efficient. (That’s not always true.) But ST is about synthesis. Analysis will not help you understand why the organization works the way it does. Here are some simple steps that systems thinkers know and use:

  • In ST we put parts together…not take them apart.
  • We then try to understand the larger system.
  • Finally, we drill down into the parts once we’ve understood their role or function in the greater system (think organization) of which they are a part.
  • Types of systems
  • Formal work systems—the arrangement of labs, offices, organizational units (charts), etc.
  • Dependency systems—groups that are either dependent on the work of another group or contain another group whose success results from the production of the “container” group.
  • Personal systems—Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, the lunchroom, happy hour, golf partnerships, volleyball and other such groups.

You will have scientific and professional systems too— groups of people who interact and compare notes.

As you can see, the list starts to become huge and disorienting. For me, I try to pick two or three systems to concentrate on—product or process relationships, interpersonal relationships, financial relationships and internal/external relationships. Then the analysis can be fairly simple and easy to follow:

  • How will this change affect the throughput of the xyz process or test?
  • What will be the impact on existing long-term personal relationships in the lab?
  • What are the financial implications (changes in both expenses and profits)?
  • How will this impact our suppliers, our customers and our stakeholders?

Some more ST basics:

  • Whether the change is in a title, ecological systems or an organization, this system dynamics principle applies: a system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts.
  • Each part can affect the behavior of the whole.
  • The way each part affects the system depends on what at least one other part is doing.
  • No part has an independent effect.
  • The system as a whole has properties that no one part has on its own.
  • Take a part from the system and the system loses its essential properties.

Let’s take an automobile as an example. By looking at a tire, the engine or another part, could you tell what a car was? Apart from the car, their functions come into question. Yet together they provide transportation, comfort, speed, etc. Take away the tire or engine and these properties no longer exist. Similarly, if you take away production, there is no need for purchasing. This type of interrelationship is a clear sign you are dealing with a system.

Anything more detailed shouldn’t be required except in very major overhauls.

The five keys to ST are:

  1. Structure drives behavior. The way your organization is structured—flat, crossfunctional, hierarchical or “siloed”—will drive the way your staff behaves.
  2. Think operationally, not correlationally. Watch the way things actually work and the way the parts fit together, especially when they are perturbed, rather than how you think they work.
  3. Everything important has a cause and effect relationship, and the cause and effect may not be closely related in space and time. Don’t get tied up in the purity of this approach; smoking really does cause cancer. This is an extension of thinking operationally. Find an “effect” and look for the cause.
  4. Break away from linear thinking. Begin to have a “stone in the lake” view rather than a “leaf in a stream” view of the world.
  5. Challenge the current mental models. We have models in our minds about how things work; learn to question those models. Develop new and possible or trial models. Play with the implications. “Suppose” and “What if ?” are the key concepts for ST.

ST and change management

Back to the opening example, “A title change”—how might an ST approach have helped in this situation? Here’s a little more background. The organization has experienced reduced revenue for the past three years that is related to the recession. The size of the staff (including senior staff) has been reduced by 15 percent. These cuts have not been across the board; some departments have taken bigger hits. Salaries have been flat and in some cases reduced. The staff attitude has changed from highly collegial and supportive to one that is slightly hostile and challenging.

Thus, ST might have identified the important shift in the climate and have come up with the following approach:

  • Our mental model needed to be updated.
  • Before the title change was instituted, more time should have been spent in discussions about the current, slight improvement in the financial situation.
  • Make some minor changes in other titles, without an associated pay raise, and indicate that these changes would be helpful to the individuals temporarily in lieu of additional pay.
  • Involve the staff.
  • Make at least a partial reinstatement of prior salary cuts.
  • Forecast, through an open discussion of a financial analysis, when pay increases might be reinstituted.

How is this ST rather than good planning, implementation and decision making? The differences are subtle, but ST provides a more robust, unemotional foundation for looking at elusive and indirect, but important, changes in relationships that have resulted from modifications in the reward structure. In the absence of monetary rewards, other methods of recognition take on added importance. ST analyzes the way in which the proposed change will be seen by those who have been affected by the reduction in pay and the absence of raises. This approach does not look at the behavior of people and their anticipated actions as bad or evil; it simply says that, given what has happened, here are some likely reactions, so let’s take some specific actions to ameliorate the possible bad outcomes.

When a system is perturbed, it is difficult for those involved to pick up on the subtle clues about the changes in the climate that have ensued.

Five things you can do:

  1. Look for interdependencies; see the overall systems.
  2. Recognize that systems become more fragile when they are under stress.
  3. Think about how the change you have in mind will affect those not directly involved.
  4. Plan the implementation, keeping the systems impact in mind.
  5. Realize that you will have to modify your mental model following the change and the subsequent readjustment that goes with it.


“Overview of a Systems Thinking Approach,” by Daniel Aronson Mental Model Musings, Systems Thinking,

Ronald B. Pickett is an organizational effectiveness consultant based in Escondido, Calif. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 760-738-8638.