Critical Systems Thinking Blind Spots


Conflicting mental models often occur. The result is critical systems thinking blind spots. “I’ve got two vice presidents, both very good at what they do, who just can’t get along,” the executive director of a non-profit agency told us. “I spend an inordinate time mediating their conflicts. What can I do?” she asked.

When we interviewed people, it became clear that the executive “mediated” these interpersonal conflicts by attempting to appease them with more responsibilities, more praise, and more money. She was learning the hard way the wisdom of Winston Churchill’s statement: “An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last.”

When we probed more deeply, it seemed clear that the executive was close personal friends with both of them. The answer became more visible once we donned the systems thinking goggles: One of her mental models was that she was afraid of what might happen to her friendships if she exercised her authority. Her other mental model was that shared leadership would mean that people shared responsibilities. Her blind spot was that her two friends were competing for her friendship. She had confused her personal relationships and her professional relationships – and so had they.

Using systems thinking, she came to grips with this fact. She realized that her professional relationships needed to come first. She explained to both vice presidents that she was no longer going to be able to socialize with them outside of work. She told them she would rely on data to assess how well each was doing. She then asked us to facilitate a process to put a new performance scorecard in place.

Using systems thinking, you can assess your blind spots. Ask yourself: “If I am truly honest with myself, what should I be doing more of? Less of? What are my blind spots?” Ask yourself whether you are making the appropriate investment in each area of your relationships – colleagues, customers, prospects, vendors, partners, direct reports. Are you communicating enough with your customers? Are you balancing the quest for new business with the retention of existing business? Do meet regularly with stakeholders who are important to your company – vendors, regulators, major shareholders, elected officials, and media representatives?

We worked with one VP of sales who strongly believed it was more important for him to spend more time building new customer relationships than to spend time with existing customers. “I’ve got people who do that for me,” he said.

We asked people what they thought, and the strongest feedback was around this point. “John has got to spend more time with our current customers!” his head of marketing proclaimed. “We are losing major business opportunities because John doesn’t see how the market is shifting.”

Another client discovered the opposite truth. His pipeline was dry. He’d been so focused on existing relationships that his pending contracts had nearly dried up. Both are examples of blind spots at work.

LRI’s consulting is designed to achieve real, meaningful change for our clients.

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