Three Approaches to System Thinking

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been able to zoom out, per se, to see the big picture or whole system and, at the same time, understand the smaller parts that make up the system. However, it wasn’t until my late 20’s that I realized that not everyone is wired this way and that this ability is referred to as being a “system thinker”. I’ve also learned that people’s level of systems thinking varies across a wide spectrum.

As a curious systems thinker, earning my BA in Organizational Communication deepened my understanding of and ability to be a systems thinker. The following are some of the system thinking approaches that I practiced when earning my degree and continue to use in areas of my life today.

See the big picture. I appreciate how Ron Heifetz and his colleagues describe the importance of “learning from the dance floor and the balcony” to see the big picture. Learning the balance of when to be on the dance floor or the balcony can take some practice, but it is well worth it. For myself, this discipline has helped me at work, with friends and family, and even when parenting.

Knowing how the environment is pulling your strings and playing you is critical to making responsive rather than reactive moves.
— Ronald A. Heifetz

When working with organizations, and when it came to earning my BA, seeing the big picture has involved understanding the various structures or departments that make up organizations, the people within those departments, and how they collectively make up the whole. Seeing the big picture also often involves understanding the relationships between the people in the system, the departments, the organization, and community/society. Keep in mind: A system’s history and structure can generate feedback loops with beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors.

Become a history buff. Learning about history can be interesting, surprising and, at times, even disturbing. Often there are different theories and perspectives on how things have come to be. For myself, learning about various theories or perspectives — for example, the history of societies, religions, the brain, the environment— has opened my mind and inspired me to learn more and more.

History makes up the narrative of how people, places, and things have gotten to where they are today. Knowing the history helps us understand patterns and trends, which is an important practice of being a systems thinker and is a trait you can transfer to different areas of your life. While earning my BA, I learned about various theories regarding the history and evolution of organizations, along with the stages and today’s types of organization. Today, I apply my knowledge of organizational communication and learning about the history of people, places, and things in my work with The HumanCurrent and as a consultant with various organizations.

Shift mental models. We all have them — mental models — whether we know of them or not.

Mental models are deeply held internal images of how the world works, images that limit us to familiar ways of thinking and acting. Very often, we are not consciously aware of our mental models or the effects they have on our behavior.
— Peter Senge

Mental models can get in the way of our success and being our best selves. The good news is, once we are aware of our mental models, we can begin to shift them. Mental models can also be closely linked to culture, including company culture. My co-host and I often talk about mental models and company culture on our podcast, The HumanCurrent. As Haley (my co-host) has shared on our podcast, in order to shift her mental models she often has to do some unlearning, which I think is true for all of us. The same is true for company culture; sometimes a company has to unlearn ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and even behaviours. Whether you are interested in shifting your mental models or your organization’s, there are a variety of resources available to help, including Senge’s Ladder of Inference, which is nicely expanded on in gothamCulture.

These three practices —Seeing the picture, becoming a history buff, and shifting mental models— have helped shape me as a systems thinker. As a result, I have deepened my ability to see situations from different perspectives and increase my understanding of a situation by changing my perspective. The three practices described also align with the Waters Foundation’s Habits of a Systems Thinker.

I’m looking forward writing more blogs to share how earning my MA in Leadership has influenced my work and understanding as a complexity thinker. I am also super-excited to discuss how I have been applying and transferring what I’ve learned from being a co-host on The HumanCurrent to my consulting work with a local non-profit. Stay tuned!


You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. Be sure to listen to our most recent episode where share our interview with author & embodiment coach, Philip Shepherd.

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