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What’s systems thinking? The secret to a future-minded organization

August 30, 2022 - 18 min read
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    I’ve been working on widening my aperture. What does that mean? In photography, zooming out. Seeing the forest for the trees.

    As a writer, I find that I often get bogged down in the details. Sometimes, I look too closely at a topic or an idea without considering the complexities, relationships, and implications. 

    It’s easy to see things when we’re close to them. But it takes a concerted effort to step back and look at the bigger picture. It requires a different type of mindset, strategic thinking, and perspective on problem-solving.  

    We probably can all think of people who approach the world as system thinkers. You probably can name a few off the top of your head: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steve Jobs, Stacey Abrams, Bill Gates, Malala Yousafzai, Barack Obama, and many more.

    They’re big-picture thinkers, dreamers, and strategists. They all share curiosity, courage, and the willingness to challenge the status quo. They see the problem at hand in a network of complex systems, and they aren’t afraid to prod at the larger ecosystem.

    Systems thinking might sound like a clunky, corporate jargon phrase. And in some ways, by definition, it is complex. But at its heart, systems thinking is about seeing things through a wide lens, recognizing how interconnected we are, and acting with empathy and innovation.

    Actions have consequences, not always the ones intended. While it can be about solving wicked problems, systems thinking can also be about getting stuff done in ways that are beneficial to the whole organization, not just your little piece of it. A system can be a company, a school, a community, a region, or even a family.

    In the context of today’s world of work, systems thinking can help you to be more strategic and better prepared for what the future has in store. Applying systems thinking to our current climate can help us look ahead with a more strategic lens. 

    Especially when things are constantly changing — and uncertainty looms overhead — systems thinking helps organizations be better prepared to solve complex problems. Let’s break down what systems thinking is. We’ll also talk about what it takes to become a systems thinker — and how applying systems thinking can help your organization thrive. 

    What is systems thinking?

    Before we go any further, let’s pause to understand what we mean by systems thinking

    For example, at BetterUp we talk about how optimizing for the company typically means sub-optimizing for individual teams. But it holds true for any large organization.

    Without systems thinking, a team might set its goals very narrowly and pursue them. Sometimes, those pursuits result in strategies that are detrimental to another team or the bigger company objectives.

    Companies that want to be more than the sum of their parts need managers who can think systemically and with enough transparency that people can understand the system.

    Systems thinking is a holistic approach to problem-solving. It’s a way of looking at how systems work, what that system’s perspective is, and how to better improve system behaviors. 

    The systems thinking methodology isn’t necessarily formulaic. It takes some understanding of key concepts to be able to take a systems approach to today’s most challenging problems. 

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    Systems thinking in leadership 

    As we mentioned, many of today’s most notable strategic leaders lean on their systems thinking skills to drive change. It requires a deep understanding of mental models with the goal of improving them to optimize organizational performance. And while you might not know it, many leaders have applied system thinking tools to help come to new conclusions. 

    Systems thinking in leadership, however, isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Every problem is different with its own set of system dynamics. Let’s break down what some of this could look like in leadership. 

    • A future-mindedness. At BetterUp, we’ve studied future-minded leaders. It’s the idea that a leader looks ahead with a sense of pragmatism and optimism. Leaders who use the future-minded lens say they spend 147% more time planning in their lives and 159% more time planning in their work than those with low future-minded leadership skills.

      The result of all this planning? Future-minded leaders have higher-performing teams. increased agility, team engagement, innovation, risk-taking, performance, and resilience.  


    • Strategy and planning. As you could’ve guessed, strategic thinking and strategic planning are big components of adopting a systems perspective. Leaders are able to zoom out to see the whole system, then zoom in to see how the system works. 
    • A growth mindset. If we really strip down systems thinking, it’s about problem-solving. This means leaders don’t know everything. They need to learn — and be willing to learn — new things. Leaders who adopt a growth mindset are better equipped to see how the system works because of this perspective. 
    • The willingness to be wrong. We’ve probably all had managers who are unwilling to be wrong. Even if the data and science back it up, there’s some excuse as to why their theory, strategy, or process will still work. It’s a fixed mindset that won’t let go.

      But with system thinkers in leadership, they’re willing to be wrong. They can see when a systems theory isn’t working. And they embrace that vulnerability of admitting they need to re-think what they originally thought. 

    “We learn more from people who challenge our thought process than those who affirm our conclusions. Strong leaders engage their critics and make themselves stronger. Weak leaders silence their critics and make themselves weaker. This reaction isn’t limited to people in power. Although we might be on board with the principle, in practice we often miss out on the value of a challenge network.”

     Adam Grant, BetterUp Science Board Member, organizational psychologist, author, Think Again

    What are examples of systems thinking?

    To better understand systems thinking, let’s look at these three examples. Each example demonstrates the innovation that arises when you see the potential for a whole new board game rather than just swapping out one piece of the puzzle.

    • Smartphones. I grew up in a house where phones were plugged into the wall and computers took over phone lines. When I wanted to call a friend, I dragged the landline — cord still plugged in — into my bedroom. If I wanted to look something up on the internet, I had to make sure no one in my household was using the phone. Why? Well, because the internet required dialed-in access to the phone line.

      Fast forward a couple of decades and now, we have tiny, little computers that fit into our pockets. Smartphones allow you to access the internet virtually everywhere you go, so long as there’s a signal or a WiFi log-in.

      Smartphones didn’t come about just to change where and how we could make a phone call. They evolved because system thinkers like Steve Jobs anticipated how connectivity could change the bigger system of how we consume and interact. Systems thinkers see what could be instead of what is.
    • Cryptocurrency. When is the last time you had cash in your wallet? If you’re like me, you rarely carry any cash anymore. Though just twenty years ago, I made sure I had at least $10 in cash with me at all times.

      But soon, the world evolved with plastic cards that somehow, became much more valuable than any number of bills you could carry in your wallet. Debit and credit cards replaced weekly bank withdrawals.

      But system thinkers took currency one step further: crypto. Money now moves in networks that securely transfer different types of digital property over the Internet. This technology reimagines how the world does business, but it also has implications for larger monetary, regulatory, and political systems.
    • Renewable energy. With climate change, we’re living on the brink of irreversible damage. With global temperatures rising faster than before, system thinkers had to find a way to power the world that doesn’t harm the planet. 

      Enter: renewable energy. Renewable energy sources (like solar and wind power) have reimagined how we run businesses, travel, and even produce goods. This system-of-systems approach is helping to shape a low-carbon economy. According to Deloitte, slowing the accelerating pace at which the climate crisis is progressing requires overhauling how systems work. 

    Push a little further on these examples and you might also see that each also shows the failure to fully imagine the impact on the broader systems they touch.

    Smartphones and crypto-currency each have environmental effects, increasing demand for energy and rare materials. Shifts in demand can create new supply chains and new companies as well as shortages and power imbalances. Systems thinking is recognizing that there are no simple answers.

    Complex adaptive systems are just that: adaptive. They’re dynamic systems that hinge on feedback loops, innovation, and collaboration. And it’s with systems thinking that we’re able to evolve and innovate to find better solutions to today’s modern challenges. 


    6 important concepts of systems thinking

    For your organization, adopting concepts of systems thinking can help your business stay a step ahead. Especially in a fast-changing world, it’s critical that organizations stay agile and strategic to stay relevant. Here are six important concepts of systems thinking to help your organization stay resilient, agile, and relevant for the future. 

    1. Systems mapping 

    To understand how to solve a problem, you need to understand the ecosystems in which the problem lives. This is called systems mapping: getting to know the systems where a problem lives to better take it apart. 

    Once you’ve mapped out the systems to help solve your problem, you can do some systems modeling to help understand how they’re connected. Which leads us to … 

    2. Interconnectedness 

    Interconnectedness. If we know anything about the world, it’s much smaller than we think. And after you’ve mapped out the systems for the problem you’re trying to solve, it’s time to figure out how the systems are connected. 

    Sometimes, it may seem nonlinear or non-consequential. But if you dig deep enough, you’ll likely find some fibers connected between specific systems. 

    For example, let’s use the pandemic. COVID-19 illuminated that our systems are more connected than we think. The impacts of COVID-19 disproportionately impacted communities of color and those of lower socioeconomic status. On its face, it might not have been readily apparent that a public health crisis would bleed into a different system, our economy. 

    3. Synthesis 

    This concept is synthesizing. Essentially, it’s making sense of things in the context of the problem you’re trying to solve. Opposite to analysis, synthesis usually is when you combine ideas or things to create something new. 

    4. Emergence 

    Let’s look at the solar system. We know that the solar system is a large, abstract, and complex system. It’s made up of planets, stars, galaxies, and many other things that we likely have yet to discover. 

    But that’s the point of emergence: larger things emerge from smaller things. And when it comes to figuring out how synthesizing (or how you’re putting together different parts), emergence is critical. 

    5. Feedback loops 

    Feedback is critical to understanding if something is working. More importantly, feedback helps us understand when things aren’t working. 

    If you’re adopting systems thinking in your organization, consider how you’re implementing feedback loops into the process. 

    For example, let’s say you’re rolling out a new performance management software. Your HR teams are working with managers across the business to adequately train folks on how to use the platform. However, you realize that some managers are missing key milestones, like annual performance reviews

    You set up some focus groups and office hours with your managers. In these sessions, you learn that your managers are missing out on performance review milestones in the system because they don’t know how to navigate the software. After gathering feedback, you realize that your organization requires more support. 

    6. Causality 

    Causality is the idea that there’s a cause and effect. It’s pretty simple: your actions impact the outcome. And so when you’re looking at a part of the system to solve, it’s important to test the cause and effect pieces of your systems. 

    Let’s go back to our example from above. Because you’ve implemented regular feedback checkpoints within manager office hours, your HR team can better adjust their communication strategy. With help from the internal communication team, your HR team put together some guides on how to best use the software. This helped improve the number of “missed” performance reviews by 30%. 

    How to apply systems thinking to the workplace

    If you’re ready to apply systems thinking to the workplace, here are four things to keep in mind. 

    Practice future-minded thinking 

    Future-mindedness can keep organizations prepared for the future. Of course, we know the future is unknown. Especially now, there’s plenty of uncertainty and change looming. 

    But with future-mindedness, your organization can be better equipped for what the future holds. Training your leaders to build their future-minded skills can help to keep your organization agile, resilient, and relevant for whatever the future holds.

    With future-mindedness, the impact speaks for itself: 

    • Individual performance and well-being increases 
    • Team performance increases with more agility, resilience, and risk-taking 
    • Teams are more innovative, creative, and collaborative 
    • Employee retention increases by 33% 

    Promote a growth mindset 

    Organizations, now more than ever, need to adopt a growth mindset. Learning is a lifelong journey for any person. Why wouldn’t organizations adopt the same sort of mindset? 

    Think about how you can cultivate a growth mindset within your workplace. For example, how are you encouraging professional development? Are you promoting from within and encouraging career mobility? In what ways are you creating career advancement opportunities? Do your employees invest in upskilling or reskilling? 


    Create space for feedback 

    The success of any organization hinges on the ability to provide — and receive — feedback. At BetterUp, we see feedback as a gift. It’s a way to identify what’s working. But more importantly, it’s how we evolve and grow. 

    Are you creating spaces for feedback? How are you keeping a pulse on your employees’ engagement? Are you encouraging upward feedback or 360-degree feedback

    Use coaching 

    We all need guidance. Especially when we’re tasked with solving some of the toughest problems, it helps to have an outside perspective. 

    That’s where coaching comes in. With BetterUp, you can pair your employees with personalized support to help crack tough problems. A coach can help your employees tap into parts of themselves that they didn’t know existed. In turn, it will help improve your organizational effectiveness

    Try BetterUp. Together, we can build a future better equipped to solve tomorrow’s problems.

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    Published August 30, 2022

    Madeline Miles

    Madeline is a writer, communicator, and storyteller who is passionate about using words to help drive positive change. She holds a bachelor's in English Creative Writing and Communication Studies and lives in Denver, Colorado. In her spare time, she's usually somewhere outside (preferably in the mountains) — and enjoys poetry and fiction.

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