Systems thinking means having the ability to view things in different time scales simultaneously and thus resolving the paradoxes between them. Here are some systems thinking examples.
We were asked to facilitate the transformation of a blighted urban neighborhood. We invited a number of “experts” to offer their views to a panel of residents. A city planner looking at the neighborhood told them that crime could be reduced by building new housing units. A group of residents argued strenuously that the key to saving the neighborhood was reducing drug dealing in the park. A cop testified that reducing crime would require a year-long undercover surveillance effort.
When we introduced them to systems thinking, everyone agreed that the ability to transform the neighborhood depended on attracting new residents. They also agreed that the best way to do that was for the neighborhood to develop a deeper sense of its own identity and ownership.
From these insights, a new neighborhood association was born, with 80 percent of residents taking part in regular meetings. A revitalized neighborhood watch group sprung up. Within a year, developers started constructing new housing units. Crime went down. People began returning to the neighborhood, buying properties. Neighbors celebrated their success with a huge street fair. The mayor hailed it as a model of downtown renewal. It made headlines in the daily newspaper.
These are the kinds of results that emerge from systems thinking.
When Darwin Smith first took over at Kimberly-Clark, he found a company thoroughly convinced that its future lay in the paper manufacturing business. Its culture framed its thinking in terms of production quotas and downtimes. He credits the tough conversations he had with his executive team, and the insights they reached together, for leading them to a different framing of their future – to exit the manufacturing business and excel in the products business. Kleenex and Huggies were the outcome of that vision.
HSBC Bank’s global operations are guided by systems thinkers like Iain Stewart, who can integrate the immediate priority, such as resolving back office processing problems, with the long-term vision to become “the world’s local bank.” Says one of his senior managers, “Iain’s blessed with a toughness and an ability to analyze problems that few leaders I’ve worked with possess. He doesn’t stop at the first or second level of analysis. He pushes to the third level – where everything is integrated.”
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