Systems Thinking: Can You See the Big Picture?
Last week, I kicked off a six part series on how the five learning disciplines help us become better leaders. Today, we’ll look at the cornerstone of the learning disciplines.
Systems thinking deals with seeing wholes, or what some would say the big picture. It’s a discipline that enables us to see interrelationships and patterns of change, as opposed to snapshots of situations. It helps us to determine cause and effect, an important point because it’s never influenced in just one direction.
An important element of systems thinking is that of feedback and the role it plays in cause and effect. There are two types of feedback processes: reinforcing and balancing. An example of reinforcing feedback is a manager who does not fully appreciate the impact her expectations have on an employee’s performance. If she believes that the employee has potential, she’ll give him extra attention. In contrast, if she believes that an employee will be a poor performer, he’ll receive less attention.
This type of behaviour by a manager produces a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the first example, the employee will grow and develop, while in the second he’ll languish. In the latter example, a downward spiral can actually begin, one in which the interaction between the manager and the employee deteriorates, the consequence of mutual diminishing expectations.
The second type of feedback is balancing. These processes abound in organizations and are difficult to address. For example, we’re all familiar with the heroes who work long hours. They often complain about having to work on weekends. And it’s often these people who advance in the organization because working long hours is considered a virtue and an informal requirement to advancement.
Some organizations have attempted to eliminate this practice using formal communication. However, what they have found is that despite the official line from the CEO and other senior managers, the informal rule is that working long hours is still valued. Staff see management doing it, so it must be right.
When managers attempt to implement a change, they often find themselves caught in a balancing process. They’re surprised to discover resistance by staff. Managers must therefore model what it is they’re advocating. In the case of discouraging staff from working long hours, managers must practice what they’re preaching. As Senge states: “Whenever there is resistance to change, you can count on