Systems Thinking: Understanding the Complexity of Our World

Systems Thinking is based on the field of system dynamics, founded  by MIT professor Jay Forrester in 1956. The idea behind systems thinking is to be used when analyzing change, interventions and solutions to consider how the component being under study is interacting with other components in the system.

So for example, if we’re trying to introduce new roles in the organization or solve a social issue or introduce new projects and initiatives in the community or organization…we need to consider how those interact with other parts of the system. Many of the traditional methods take a sequential approach to analyzing issues, systems think
This leads us to actually ask, what is a system? Well in a nutshell, a system is a group related, interdependent, bound and related components that interact together. So the computer you’re using is a system, organization you work in is a system, the city you’re in is a system, the country you’re in is a system. In this context, systems can be a “component” of a bigger system. Thus our world is constantly interconnected and has multiple influences from the broader system on the smaller ones, and vice versa.ing on the other hand focuses on the big picture and how are it’s components interacting thus a more complex and iterative approach.

For example, the company’s “system” is made up of:

  • Policies & Procedures
  • Human Capital
  • Facilities & Equipment

So to introduce a change in one of those 3 elements, whether it’s team performance or overall cost reduction, there will be an impact on the other 2 elements and thus in many organizations instilling some change in one element will end up leading to un-expected changes in the other and thus the “original” problem would be resolved, but other problems would’ve popped up.

The key benefit of Systems Thinking is that it provides a better way for analysis and for solving most complex problems that are plaguing our world from governments to communities to business and so on.

Systems Thinking is being used in very wide spectrum of fields today and this proves that the people are becoming aware of it’s value. Some of the fields where it is being utilized are:

  • Engineering & Construction
  • Management & Consultancy
  • Environment
  • Health & Medical Services
  • Manufacturing & Industry
  • Business Analysis
  • Project Management
  • Policy Making & Governance
  • Community Development
  • Computing & Information Technology
  • Sustainable Development

In conclusion, with the increasing complexity of our world today it becoming a necessity to be able to see the “big picture” and understand the systems we are working with or else our proposed solutions and improvements will fail to reach the impact expected with long lasting sustainability.

Creating Organizational Structures that Work

The more I see companies, NGOs, associations and other organizations struggle to make sense of who’s doing what in the organization the more I become convinced that structuring is crucial.

When I say structuring, many people directly imagine hierarchy, bureaucracy and lack of flexibility… yet that does not have to be the case. Organizational structures, if done well, will build on the expertise of individuals involved, the organizational capacity, needs and goals. These elements are the corner stone to building a successful organization that can secure sustainability and growth.

Simple yet crucial questions I ask to the organizations I consult include:

  • Who sets the organizational structure?
  • Who decides when and how new positions/responsibilities are added to the structure?
  • Is the organizational structure Functional, Projectized or Matrix?
  • Does everyone know their roles and responsibilities?
  • Does everyone know how their tasks fit with others’ tasks?
  • Is there a promotion/growth plan for the organization?
  • Does everyone know what is needed to do to move up the ladder?
  • Does everyone see the big picture, the overall structure and the logic behind it?
  • Is there a chance to solicit feedback about the structure from grassroots up?
  • Did you research structures of organizations in your industry and learn from them?

Surprisingly, most people know the answer of 2 or 3 of the above 10…and that’s when they realize they’re facing a problem with the organizational structure. The structure often seems so foggy as if it is coming from some alien planet, rather than being something that grew organically with the organization in a way to better manage its work…and reach its goals.

Building on my humble experience and the research I’ve made…the few recommendations I can give to people who are working on establishing/improving an organizational structure are as follows:

  • Observe how the organization is functioning right now, see where the bottlenecks are, and the loop holes.
  • Assess the performance of the whole organization by taking input of everyone possible, from senior management to interns to all other stakeholders.
  • Ask yourself what other structures exist for your industry and how can you best learn from them.
  • Focus on roles, responsibilities and tasks…not on the titles and positions, as they should come last after having set the structure.
  • Make sure you have the right people in the right places, the Person-Role must match or they will already be sabotaging your organization.
  • Resistance to change is normal, deal with it with utmost positivity and be as considerate and understand of other’s worries as possible or else you’ll lose their productivity.
  • Give your structure a margin of change as it might need to evolve a bit from your original plan to accommodate to some personal and organizational needs.

I hope the above gave you a better insight on creating organizational structures that work… I’m ready for all questions, suggestions and comments.

Happy Structuring!  😀

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