Three Challenges to Maintaining a Systems Perspective

Watching leaders and managers in action, I’ve observed that there are three major challenges to maintaining a systems perspective.

First, because we live in an era of accelerating change, it’s easy to become distracted by the daily influx of events and issues – “to spend 24 hours a day fighting fires,” as the vice president of a health care system told me. Almost by nature, people tend to focus on the things right in front of them: on the people who aren’t performing, budgets that aren’t met, or logistical issues that need attention. It’s easy to become bogged down in the details and forget to use systems thinking to create leveraged solutions.

Second, people don’t get training in systems thinking. Few companies offer it. Few human resource managers recognize its value. It simply isn’t a priority. As a result, there is no forum, no conversation, for leaders and managers to engage in systems thinking together. Lacking a dialogue around systems thinking, it’s easy to miss the opportunities and the benefits.

Third, aside from getting distracted by day-to-day details and the lack of training, it’s human nature to avoid confronting deeply-rooted problems. “There are some issues I’d just as soon leave alone,” one manager said. “We have to pick our battles.”

That may be human nature. But a leader’s attention has to be focused through a systems thinking lens. Failing to listen to data, to challenge assumptions, or to use systems thinking to address underlying issues ultimately imperils the organization. One need look no further than General Motors, Lehman Brothers, or Enron. In contrast, think about Porsche, which has single-mindedly focused on engineering high-quality cars for five decades. Porsche has consistently been one of the most profitable automobile companies in the world. And, not surprisingly, managers at Porsche put a premium on core values, on disciplined performance, and on analyzing their customers and their competitors from a systems perspective. It’s this kind of thinking that builds high performing organizations in a time of accelerating change.

Systems thinking helps people address hidden issues. When leaders use different frames to identify problems, when they understand traps like the assumption of causality, feedback delays, and the substitution fallacy, they can steer clear of problems and focus their attention where it can have the greatest impact.

Leaders who understand their own mental maps and the system of forces acting on their organization are better able to tackle problems at their core. By defining the underlying problem accurately, they minimize wasted effort, create leveraged solutions that result in continuous improvement, and build high-performing organizations.

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