Wouldn’t it be great to possess a superpower? Perhaps when you were a child you wished you could fly, have super strength, or be invisible. I’d like to show you how you can develop the superpower to see things that other people can’t so you can solve your most challenging problems. This superpower is called systems thinking.
Distinguishing the Forest from the Trees
Most people standing in a forest can see the trees that surround them, but often they don’t notice the decayed trees they are standing on that constitute the forest floor. Nor do they think much about the glacier that created the river and the aquifer that provide life to the forest.
I have hiked through forests and past lakes and rivers right up to the top of mountain peaks where I could see such glaciers. I remember the first time I noticed a small pool of water forming under a melting glacier as I stood perched above it on a rocky summit. My eyes followed the movement of the small stream that flowed from that glacier all the way down one side of the mountain. Once it reached the bottom, the stream banked around the base of the mountain and down a valley. Around the corner and partway down the valley, the small stream met another stream that was formed by a glacier I could see across the valley. It dawned on me that these two small streams flowing from the two glaciers formed the river that fed the large lake that channeled the water down the raging river I had hiked along for three hours that morning.
That was a beautiful “Aha!” moment for me. It thrilled and amazed me that within this epic, sprawling view laid out before my eyes, I was witnessing the birth of a river! The water melting from the glacier appeared to be flowing at a pace and volume not much greater than the water running from a bathtub faucet, but by the time it got to where I began my hike, the water had become a raging river strong enough to pulverize a log into toothpicks. When I began my hike that morning, I simply noticed the raging river I was hiking beside and hadn’t given a second thought about where it came from.
We tend to notice the relationship between things only when they are physically located close to each other and when the interaction between them happens within a short period of time. In other words, cause and effect are often obscured by distance and time.
The river I was walking beside all morning was physically located beyond my view of its source, the lake, and beyond the source of the lake, the glacier. This is the “distance” part of the equation. The water within that river had come from the glacier several days before I walked beside it. This is the “time” part of the equation. Only when I walked past each part of the river-making process in a single day and then elevated my vantage point so I could see several parts of the process in a single glance was I able to piece it all together in my mind.
This is the essence of systems thinking. To see how the individual components of our lives and the world around us interact with one another, we must elevate our thinking to see past the obstructions of distance and time. Until we do, many of the solutions to our problems will remain obscured.
Systems thinking is elevating your thinking to see the relationship between things that are separated by distance and time.
Systems Create Their Own Behavior
Sometimes we unknowingly create systems that produce behaviors in others that we don’t like.
For example, a simple but all too common system in the workplace is managers who unwittingly encourage their staff to bring all problems to them to solve instead of empowering employees to solve their own problems.
Virtually every manager on the planet wishes his or her people would solve their own problems more often, or at the very least offer some possible solutions to the problems they bring to their boss. But here’s the issue: most managers are good problem solvers, and they know it! That’s what got them promoted to manager in the first place. So, when employees bring problems to their managers, most managers simply can’t help themselves from blurting out a solution. It’s as though most managers think their job is to play whack-a-mole all day. See a problem over here? Whack it with a solution. See a problem over there? Whack it with a solution. Since managers keep solving employees’ problems for them, employees don’t learn how to solve their own problems or even how to come up with possible solutions.
Solving problems might be what gets someone promoted to manager, but most managers fail to notice that by solving their people’s problems, they are training people to bring their problems to the manager without first searching for a solution. What rational person would do all the extra legwork required to solve their problems when the fastest way to solve the problem, and the surest way to solve the problem exactly the way the boss wants it solved, is to ask the boss?
Systems create their own behavior. Now here’s a systems solution to that problem. Once someone becomes promoted to manager, his or her job should change from being a problem solver to being a teacher of problem-solving skills. Many managers must have missed that memo when they were promoted into management. Managers are responsible to build the capacity of those they lead. Rather than providing solutions when their staff bring them problems, managers who understand and accept this responsibility ask questions of their staff that empower them to think and solve problems for themselves.
Here are some questions that good leaders ask people who come to them to solve their problems:
- How do you think we should fix this? What are some possible options?
- What similar challenges have you faced in the past? How did you solve that problem?
- Where can you get the information you need to solve this problem?
- Who or what will your solution affect? Who should you talk to before you implement your solution?
- What is your plan B if the solution you implement doesn’t work?
Managers who become frustrated that their employees only come to them with problems should take a close look at the system they have created that may be reinforcing this undesirable behavior. On the other hand, managers who embrace their role as teachers of problem-solving skills create a virtuous cycle of learning and capacity building within those they lead.
As management consultant Edwards Deming discovered, “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.” In other words, if you are getting undesirable results, there is likely a system at work producing those results, and quite often, managers unwittingly created that system!
Most People Don’t Notice the Systems That Are Pulling Their Strings
A big part of my work is helping organizations establish an ongoing leadership development process to help them become less dependent on recruiting to fill management positions. In a very real sense, many organizations’ dependence on recruiting has turned into a full-fledged addiction. My job is to help organizations kick their addiction to recruiting.
Virtually every time these recruiting addicts have a vacancy, they are forced to look outside the organization to find top talent because they don’t have qualified employees who can step up. Why not? Because employees have witnessed time and again that the best positions go to outsiders, so they have learned that “If you want to advance your career, you need to go somewhere else.” So, many of the most ambitious employees do go elsewhere. Those who stay tend to check out mentally and resign themselves to the likelihood that they will never move up in the organization, so they don’t even try to develop themselves.
Subsequently, when such organizations need to fill a key position, they have so few internal candidates to choose from that they feel compelled to look outside the organization again, which perpetuates the vicious cycle.
On the contrary, organizations that invest in developing their employees are flush with talent. Not only do they create their own internal pipeline of leaders, they also get far more stellar external applicants because a) word gets out in the labor market that “if you want to fast-track your career, get a job with ______” and b) since most management positions are filled internally, the organization can focus its recruiting on entry-level positions, and it is far easier to recruit entry-level candidates than experienced candidates.
The first time that managers experience the lightning-fast fill time resulting from qualified internal promotions, they say, “I think we need to do more development,” which perpetuates this virtuous cycle.
Organizations that are addicted to recruiting can’t see any way out of their addition. They only see what’s right in front of their noses: the short-term problem (a vacancy) and a short-term solution (recruit a replacement). They can’t see the system they created that got them into this mess because the cause is separated by distance and time.
- Cause: Deciding not to invest seriously in employee development.
- Distance: The problem of not having enough qualified candidates to fill job openings didn’t originate in the recruiting department; it originated in the executive boardroom. Senior managers made employee development a low priority.
- Time: This decision was made a long time ago, but the vacancy needs to be filled now.
I’ll say it again: we have a tough time seeing the connection between cause and effect when cause and effect are separated by distance and time. This is the essential problem that systems thinking addresses. You must elevate your thinking beyond the here and now, so you can see the big picture to solve your most difficult problems.
Change the System, Influence Your Outcomes
Systems are all around us, but usually we are blissfully unaware of these systems, how we influence them, and how they influence us.
There are many types of systems. The examples provided above are “reinforcing systems,” which are commonly referred to as “vicious cycles” or “virtuous cycles,” depending on the outcome they produce. But really, a system is any type of structure through which results are produced. “Structures” can include habits, processes, or the physical layout of your environment.
You make decisions every day about how to structure your workspace, your living space, your routines, and your habits to get the results you want. If you believe drinking eight cups of water a day is good for you, you will likely put a water bottle on your desk to make it easier for you to accomplish that goal. If you believe that walking for thirty minutes a day will help you maintain a healthy body weight, then you might purchase a watch that can count your steps. These are examples of simple systems that we consciously design to help us get the desired results.
Have you considered the structures you live and work within that you haven’t consciously designed? Probably not. Whether you know it or not, whatever outcomes you receive, whether good or bad, there’s a good chance they are the result of a system. Here’s the good news: you can usually influence the systems that are producing your outcomes!
The gateway to solving your chronic problems is to ask this question: “Is it possible that other, less obvious, factors are causing my problems?” Asking this question will allow you to rise to a higher level of thinking, so you can begin to notice the true cause of your problems that are separated by distance and time. Once you enter the path of systems thinking and begin noticing the subtle factors that are causing your problems, the next question you must ask is “How can I influence these factors to produce better outcomes?”
As you develop this superpower of systems thinking, you will increase your capacity to solve your most vexing personal and organizational problems.
Check out the book How Leaders Can Inspire Accountability for a deeper dive!