Observing the interconnectedness of a system allows for greater awareness of future possibilities.
Change is nonlinear. It’s paradoxical and hard to understand. What worked yesterday is not guaranteed to work tomorrow. Change is tangled and messy. New challenges and opportunities are likely to emerge throughout the change process. While change is nonlinear, it is not chaotic; everything is connected in a complex, continually adapting system. Continuously adapting systems generate emergent phenomena. What we observe today is not guaranteed to happen tomorrow.
Thinking in systems allows us to premeditate or at least try to anticipate the unexpected. When we take a macro view of the system, we can begin to formulate better questions and design experiments to answer them. What are the inputs and outputs? What are the feedback loops that we may not account for? How can we refine and optimize the system’s production? When we begin to trace the system’s origins, we learn to anticipate its needs. Organizations are no different, and when we take a human-centered look at how our people thrive, what fuels them, and what they need to be productive and successful, we initiate true change.
Relying on a singular sense, or even a combination, allows for misunderstanding and can lead to complacency. Using our senses enables us to understand parts of the system, but that means that we only understand what we see, hear or feel. We look at what’s happening and attempt to create meaningful change without fully questioning and exploring what actually feeds the system, this may be aspects that are out of our scope as an individual. Everything is connected, and understanding what feeds the system allows you to anticipate what needs and changes your system or organization truly needs.
So, what exactly is systems thinking?
Systems thinking takes into consideration the cyclical nature of the natural world. It is understanding that natural consequences, cause, and effect, guide the operations of our daily lives, our organizations, the tools we use, and even our air conditioners. It’s a way of comprehending environments by recognizing them as a combination of critical elements and their relationships. With that perspective, we’re able to ask better questions, identify aspects that aren’t serving the system appropriately, consider solutions less naively, and find ways to tweak the system that leans into change with the ultimate goal of operating at a higher standard.
Systems thinking is the practice of zooming out and understanding the nature of an ecosystem. It exists to help us think differently and make informed decisions about long-term problems and create effective, sustainable solutions.
Let’s dive into how a systems mindset and emergent thinking can make organizational change easier.
The combination of these things allows for things we haven’t anticipated to come up. What are we not anticipating? What are things we can not know that cause unexpected issues? Unless you can understand people’s motives and motivations, their actions may appear unpredictable or inexplicable. We all have different temperatures and different ideologies. When these differences are combined, often unexpected circumstances may arise.
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Emergence is the behavior of complex systems, which differs from how individual people or factors behave on their own. It’s the properties that exist because of the whole. For example, consider communities as a complex system. Within the neighborhood, there are individuals and families. These individuals or small groups will often decide to gather together in a particular area without any leader directing them to do so. New behaviors develop from interactions between these sub-groups. People take on different roles within a community to contribute to the community, join particular social groups, etc., out of natural drive and instinct. When viewing the community, the emergent phenomenon describes how decisions are made, where issues within the groups arise, and which interaction leads to positive or negative outcomes. These emergences are not always planned for or known. Discovering and understanding the points in the system where positive and negative outcomes could arise can offer solutions to problems or begin to notice where incremental changes can be made.
Emergent thinking requires recognizing factors involved in any model, then studying how each piece of the system operates as a whole. Certain factors affect parts of the system and not others. By studying the organizational system as a whole, leaders can understand and enhance the system for sustainable productivity and prevent problems.
We can study the emergent phenomenon and bring about emergent thinking by doing the following:
- Observe emergent patterns within the system.
- Identify strong links between factors. It’s easy to jump to cause-and-effect assumptions, so focus on the observation.
- Define your understanding of these interactions.
- Implement changes to single elements and observe differences.
- Apply to the larger concept. Where can small changes be implemented to improve the way the system operates? We’re going to take these hypotheses and work with an open mindset. Changes may need to be made down the road even when we invest time observing interactions.
How can we rethink cause and effect?
When we consider systems thinking, we often want to connect an effect to a cause. However, in assigning a cause before understanding the full system, assumptions made could make the problem worse. Systems can get quite complex. There are elements in each system that need to be examined, maintained, and understood. There are also buffers to prevent catastrophic events. These buffers are developed out of understanding what our system needs to succeed.
When we look at the world in systems, it is important to step back for a macro view and ask what the inputs and outputs are. What are the feedback loops that we might not be accounting for?
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An approachable example of a system would be a home cooling system, including an air conditioner and thermostat. It’s hot outside, and we’re trying to keep the house cold. The heat entering from outside is causing the temperature to rise, the air conditioner pushes cold air into the house, and the thermostat regulates the flow of cool air. A high-efficiency A/C unit is going to perform better, but even the best system can stop working properly: the coolant might run low, dust could build up on the coils, or the thermostat may stop registering the temperature correctly. Any of these factors will affect the function and efficiency of the whole system; it begins to behave in new and unexpected ways. This is a simple example of an emergent phenomenon. In any system, issues can arise at any moment.
If we are monitoring the system, we are presented with the opportunity to understand the small changes that might prevent a massive overhaul from being needed.
With maintenance, slight alterations, and understanding, we shrink the change, manage possible outcomes, and create a reliable and productive system.
What elements do we need to reconsider as effects?
When it gets really hot out, and the system struggles to maintain the indoor temperature, the naive reaction is cranking the thermostat down. But if the air conditioner is operating at its maximum efficiency, changing the thermostat won’t make it work any better, just harder. This could initiate the unit freezing over, causing the whole system to fail and the house to get even hotter. Taking a macro view of the system might mean improving insulation or closing curtains on sunny windows instead. We may need to adjust our own expectations: when it’s 110 degrees out, the house will take longer to cool. Those are aspects of the feedback loops in place.
Let’s embrace emergent phenomena and think in systems, allowing us to premeditate unintended consequences.
The concept of stock is very similar. Let’s take a look at a simple bathtub. The stock is how much water you have in the bathtub. We have a drain and a faucet. The speed at which liquid flows through each one impacts stock. You can manipulate flows much faster than you can manipulate the stock. If the stock gets too low, plug the drain. If it gets too high, stop the faucet. It creates calm to have control over what’s happening, whether it is a bathtub being filled or a marketer’s stock of blogs ready to post. Systems can make things difficult or easier depending on how they are managed.
Don’t treat visions like blueprints
Collecting data to constantly assess where we’re at and how we might want to course correct for a better work environment is as critical as assessing an air conditioner unit or not overflowing a bathtub. When we’re thinking in systems, anticipating where each component may have a blocker, we are developing ideas on how to keep everything running in peak condition and stabilizing stock to keep a comfortable buffer. It helps us build better models while maintaining a healthy skepticism that each cog has the potential to run more efficiently. In organizational systems, leaders who encourage everyone on the team to challenge the current system naturally create a more informed organization that leans into where change may be necessary. If everyone has the chance to share where they as individuals have blockers or how they thrive, leaders begin to understand the delicate inner workings of their own organizations’ systems.
Dialing into trust embraces the human-centered mindset, and when leaders truly understand each human in their organization, true and meaningful change can happen.
How should we navigate change within a system?
Navigating change involves implementing new habits and eliminating old ones. Throughout this process, it’s important to remember that some things about your process have likely contributed positively, and those deserve credit and consideration.
Highlight systems and processes in place, then ask yourself and your team what they value and what they feel has worked about the process you’re addressing. Each person has a different experience, and hearing what works for them will contribute to more informed decisions.
Keep in mind that within failure lies small successes and learnings. By having an understanding of organizational goals and values, you have a sense of self as a team. That serves as a guide during times of failure or confusion.
As you sit with these concepts, ask yourself how each is applicable to your work environment. What are the problems that you want to address with your team, and how can these concepts bring to light solutions in a different way?
We can help you conceptualize and sustain change through systems thinking and emergent thinking. We build tools and offer resources to help navigate systems’ growth and change.
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