System Thinking…Not Just a tool

Everything around us is a set of interrelated elements that contribute to the formation of a larger system to achieve a defined goal. System Thinking is when we look at the whole process from a broader perspective rather than the individual component.

Systems thinking refers to the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole structure. It’s just like the ecosystem, where every element (air, water, plants, and animals) work towards one common goal of survival. Similarly, in our work, the components would include people, processes, structure, relationships, emotions affecting or balancing each to create a healthy and happy working space. Remember, to improve the overall performance, there has to be a continuous attempt towards learning the system elements and their inter-relationships.

Many think that systemic thinking is a set of tools that can be used as various diagrams etc. but it is more than just a tool. It is a holistic approach to understand the complex system as a whole and helps interrelate how systems work overtime and within the context of larger systems or components. It’s not a straight line, rather a zig-zag way of learning by experiments. All we have to do is to be mindful of identifying the various parts and how they affect the whole system in perfect harmony.

System Thinking Helps Avoids Future Problems

Adapting to system thinking changes people’s mindset and helps improve our curious and innovative thinking process.

Any sort of problem-solving requires systems thinking. Remember everything is interconnected; we just need to understand how, where and why. That’s why it is important to understand, identify and find the right explanations to find the right solution. Understand how each element at work or project impacts and influences each other. Start with learning the tools for the future, keep an open mindset, take challenges, overcome your fears, seek questions, talk, share your thoughts and pique your curiosity. As someone rightly quoted “Today’s problems are often a result of yesterday’s solutions”. 

It is pretty common to increase the number of resources to finish a project on time; however, the end goal or customer problem may or may not be met. System Thinking helps understand the reasons or situations that lead towards not getting that goal and also offers solutions to improve results.

Using System Thinking in Agile Processes Helps Identify The Right Points To Act-On

Using the human body as an example, when you are ill, you feel pain at certain points in your body. You visit the doctor, they ask you some questions, and they probably prescribe some medicine for your ailment. Depending on the ailment, the doctor will prescribe medication that will target that part that is not well. Modern drugs/medicines claim to be effective in solving that part of your body but there is a set of people who think that healing your body is closely associated with your mind. It is quite proven that positive thinking can have long term benefits over your body and mind which is a systematic way of self-healing.

Similarly in agile, software delivery is one of the areas of improvement for many organizations. Many may think, it is just simply delivering more products faster, however, there are smaller organizations that are spending a lot of time understanding the basic need of customers first. They are running many small experiments that fail after many months of analysis but that they are de-risking themselves in introducing the wrong product to the market..If the right leverage points are spotted, it will be easy for the issues to be addressed, ensuring better results are achieved in a shorter time.

How to Apply System Thinking in What We Do?

  1. Identify the right problem – We need to understand and stay close to the problem statement as much as possible. We should know how the story is being told and how do the actors play their roles. 
  2. Current condition – We need to clearly articulate the current situation at hand. Derive any behaviors in play and plot a diagram of each variable over time
  3.  Target Condition: We are able to define how does success look like for the problem at hand
  4.   Match it with the System archetype – We need to be able to put a finger on the common   8 system archetype’s that matches and get some insights. Based on the complexity it might be a mix of multiple archetypes
  5.  What obstacles are in play – What are the current obstacles and how do they affect or contribute to the problem
  6.  What are our next steps: What are the next steps that can be taken to understand the various variables and their relationship
  7.  Show and Learn – How soon can we showcase and learn from the step that we tookRepeat the steps again!!

When Should We Use Systems Thinking?

  • The issue is repetitive and not a one-time disruption/problem
  • You want to explore more options
  • You want to get to the systematic cause of the issue
  • Promote inquiry and challenge preconceived ideas

Where Should Agile Coaches start With System Thinking?

  1. Avoid blaming the team for the issue. This will help build trust for the next steps
  2. Involve the team to describe the problem from all angles: Events, patterns, and structure (‘See the Iceberg, not just the tip’)
  3. Trigger a curious mindset to understand the problem. Instead of jumping to solutions talk about different scenarios and then seek the best option to resolve it.
  4. Involve people from different teams to get their thoughts. Fresh perspectives are great!
  5. Ask powerful questions! How does our participation in the system and our way of describing it affect what we are observing? What are the key emergent properties of the system that could not have been predicted by simply looking at the individual parts of the system? What is the wider context that the system in question operates in?

How Can System Thinking Help Agile Coaches

Agile coaches can greatly benefit from System Thinking because at any point in time there are no right or wrong combinations. It is just hitting the nail in the matter of the right conditions… While some questions will narrow our assumptions, some may confirm our assumptions. It is a very experimental way of thinking where elements will evolve and their relationships too. Like some say that extreme programming is a set of technical practices, however, many types of research have proven that practices like continuous integration help build the culture of the team/organization, listening to the feedback and adapting to them. I leave you with this thought to run experiments and learn from them…

A4 Sample Template for System Thinking

Learning Canvas (Sample)

Ref: SystemThinker Website

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