In my work at Capella University, I teach a course to PhD students on systems thinking and leadership theory. Most of the students come to the class with little or no understanding of systems thinking. It’s really too bad that people at this level of study have never been exposed to systems thinking before! One of my goals is that when they finish the course they will know enough about the discipline to see how it can be a valuable tool in everything we do — personally and professionally.
My guess is that many of you are not familiar with systems thinking either. Systems thinking is a very dynamic and flexible discipline for seeing any aspect of your world. It is a way of thinking and discovery that encourages holism (see all parts of an issue from multiple perspectives) and eschews reductionism.
I plan to write more about the principles and practice of systems thinking in the future, but today I just want to share a simple systems thinking-oriented technique that I often teach to my clients.
It is not unusual to be sitting in a client’s office, listening to a description of some problem they are exploring. Usually, there is great clarity about the technical aspects of the problem — the financial impact, or the effect on operations, or who is best suited to tackle a responsibility. At the same time, there is often some sense of nagging doubt. There are questions about the intangibles — relationships, unintended organizational impacts, even personal reservations.
What I do in these cases is teach the following, deceptively simple approach to thinking about the problem. Nearly every question, issue, challenge, opportunity, and hope can and should be examined from three perspectives:
- Personal—how you think and feel about the given topic and how it affects you
- Relational—how you handle that topic when interacting with those closest to you (family, friends, and closest associates in the office)
- Organizational—how you handle that topic on a wider scale, perhaps across the entire organization (which affects the personal and relational perspectives, too!)
By the way, it is important to start with the personal perspective. This is not being selfish. It is building self-awareness. Self-awareness is required before you can be effective in relational and organizational leadership. (That’s a topic for another blog article!)
These three perspectives, personal, relational, and organizational, help build a more complete profile of your challenge. Most people tend to look at problems using only one or two of these perspectives — rarely all three! They miss valuable insights and ideas by not looking at the complete picture.
Test question: Does developing this complete profile of the issue ensure finding the best solution? Not necessarily. It does, though, help you build confidence that your approach is well informed. As a follower, I don’t always like my leader’s decisions, but if I know they effectively employed systems thinking in the decision, I am more likely to accept it.
Grab a Post-It note. Write three words on it: personal, relational, and organizational. Stick the note to the side of your monitor. The next time a tough question or idea comes up, examine the issue from all three perspectives. If you’re courageous, you’ll ask two or three other people to help you with the exercise.
I guarantee you will see the problem in new and more enlightening ways!