Systems Thinking: Your GPS to Conquer Complex Issues

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How to apply systems thinking to your life decisions

In a previous post, Systems Decoded: Unravelling The Surprising Forces That Bind Us, I gave an overview of what systems are, and how different parts of systems are interconnected. I promised some practical examples of systems thinking so you can solve problems, make successful decisions and create a life you want.

Brace yourself—this is that post.

Too often people try to solve their problems in a linear, procedural manner, usually by whipping up a list or following typical A leads to B, leads to C thinking. 

Let’s examine some more useful options

Case study: Systems thinking in action

An electrical supply company I worked for had a steadily increasing number of customers. Although they weren’t frequent, power outages didn’t do the companies reputation any good. Senior management decided to impose rotating shifts for the electrical staff to make sure these outages were addressed quickly. As you can imagine, this went down about as well as a clown at a phobia convention, prompting threats of strike action. 

Traditionally, the electrical staff worked fixed hours from 7:30 AM to 4:00 PM. Concerned about the adverse effects of rotating shifts on health and safety—a critical factor in the industry—I advocated for a systems thinking approach to address the issue.

Linemen working on a power pole against cloudy sky.

Together with the crew, we pinpointed the real problem: customer dissatisfaction with the slow response times to power outages during the Twilight Zone hours. But rather than just focus on the problem and possible solutions, it’s important to focus on what you want to create.

Our ultimate goal—that everyone agreed upon—was happy customers.

There were numerous ways the outcome could be accomplished, of which working rotating shifts was just one.

After brainstorming and exploring multiple ways to achieve the outcome, we developed a flexible shift system. Some staff chose to work evenings: wanting the benefit of spending daytime with their families, while a few preferred and volunteered for overnight shifts. This setup also allowed for on-call heroes, ready to tackle outages at any ungodly hour.

This strategy not only met the need for improved service but also accommodated the diverse preferences and needs of the electrical staff, with most maintaining their regular hours. No-one was attacked with pitch forks and everyone was happy with the result—including the customers.

Using the metaphor of a mind map compared to a list is a great way to illustrate the concept of systems thinking and its emphasis on interconnectedness. 

Lists – Linear and isolated thinking:

  • A list represents linear thinking, where each item is separate and independent of the others.
  • Imagine a grocery list or a to-do list—each item minding its own business, blissfully unaware of its neighbours. If you remove one item, the others probably won’t even notice.  Lists are nifty for clear-cut tasks but in the grand tapestry of life? Not so much.
  • Lists are straightforward and effective for simple, straightforward tasks. However, they don’t show how items relate to each other or influence one another.
  • In real-world scenarios, like workplace dynamics or family relationships, thinking in lists can lead to a narrow understanding of problems, as it misses the complex interactions between different elements.

Mind Maps: Systems thinking and interconnectedness:

A mind map, on the other hand, is a visual representation of how different concepts or issues are connected. It  follows the brain’s natural structure.

This is what neurons look like in your brain

black background with brain neurons

Each one has a centre and branches that connect to branches on other neurons, as you’re thinking. This is how your brain naturally creates neural pathways as you learn. There are no straight lines, and no lists.

Notice the similarities to a mind map

Imagine a mind map about personal health. In the centre is ‘Personal Health,’ and radiating out are connected branches like diet, exercise, mental well-being, sleep, and social connections. Each of these branches is further connected to sub-branches, showing a complex web of relationships.

This approach mirrors systems thinking by showing how changing one element can affect the others. For instance, improving sleep can have positive effects on mental well-being and physical health.

Mind maps encourage looking at the bigger picture and understanding the dynamic relationships within any system. This leads to more holistic solutions to problems.

Here’s a mind map I created for myself at the end of last year. After considerable change in the previous 12 months, I wanted to make sure I didn’t let anything that was important to me fall through the cracks. 

A colourful mind map showing Steph's life as she thinks in systems.

I used my mind map software, printed it out and glued it into the front of my diary/planner.

You might not be able to see all the details but you can see that the main branches consist of Wellbeing, Finance and Admin, Learning, Connections, Training and Coaching, and Writing.

If you’re wondering why I have business, home and social stuff all together—it’s because everything is connected. (Come on, get with the programme! 😜) I do what I love, and love what I do; I’d never have ‘work’ and ‘everything else’ separate. I see the diverse aspects of my life as an integrated whole.

It’s easy to see the connecting lines I’ve drawn between the various nodes of the mind map. For example: on the wellbeing branch I’ve connected fitness to socialising and exercising, as well as to the connections branch, etc. (who says you have to exercise on your own?)

A tool for decision-making

For me, when I’m making an important decision, I can look at my mind map and determine (as far as possible) what the likely impacts will be in all aspects of my life. It’s like my life’s command centre. 

Here’s an expanded version of just the Wellbeing branch. Wellbeing means different things to different people, so this part of my mind map may only be pertinent to me. Feel free to create your own.

An aspect of the previous m ind map focusing on wellbeing only

Again, you can see everything that fits in the category of Wellbeing, what I want to keep track of, and how I connect them. 

This is systems thinking

Systems thinking isn’t just some fancy buzzword; it’s a practical approach to seeing the big picture and understanding the complex interplay of factors in our daily lives. 

Let’s explore how systems thinking can help resolve bewildering problems and turn decisions into moments of clarity and connection.

  • Define what you want. I know this sounds obvious, but many of us are so adept at problem solving, we jump straight into that approach without even thinking about what the ultimate goal might be.
  • Understand the big picture: Step back and look at the entire scenario, not just the obvious problem. Systems thinking is about seeing the forest, the trees and the mushrooms under the trees (careful they might be toadstools 😜).
  • Identify Interconnections: Everything is connected in some way. A change in one part of a system can affect other parts. For example, in a workplace, communication, morale, work processes and values are all interlinked.
  • Think in loops, not lines: Traditional thinking often follows a linear path: A leads to B leads to C. (e.g, people working rotating shifts give better cover, equals better customer service, equals happy customers.) Systems thinking, however, involves loops where actions feed back into themselves. For instance, rotating shifts affects health and wellbeing which affects employee satisfaction and motivation which influences productivity, which in turn can affect employee satisfaction and wellbeing.
  • Seek out multiple perspectives: Two heads (or ten) are better than one—so long as they’re not nodding in agreement all the time. A problem can look very different from another person’s perspective, which can lead to a more comprehensive understanding for everyone involved. 
  • Look for patterns, not just events: Instead of focusing on isolated events, systems thinking involves looking for trends and patterns over time. This helps in identifying underlying structures that cause these patterns:A manager noticed increased absenteeism and used systems thinking to identify patterns, discovering higher absences during school holidays and in high-stress departments. Data analysis revealed that stress, uneven workload distribution, and lack of flexible working conditions were contributing factors.Systemic changes were implemented, including flexible work options and a wellness programme to support employee well-being. These interventions led to reduced absenteeism and improved workplace culture, demonstrating the effectiveness of addressing patterns rather than isolated events.
  • Consider the short and long-term consequences: Because decisions can have both immediate and long-term effects, systems thinking involves considering both.
  • Be aware of unintended consequences: In a system, every solution has the potential to create new problems. It’s vital to be mindful of unintended side effects.
  • Look for leverage points: In every system, there are points where a small shift can lead to significant changes. Identifying these leverage points is crucial.
  • Remain open to learning: Develop an attitude of curiosity and learning, where assumptions are regularly questioned and knowledge is continuously updated.
  • Use a collaborative approach: Many systems are too complex for one person to understand fully. Encourage working collaboratively with others to gain different insights and knowledge.
  • Use a Coach familiar with Systems Thinking: Sometimes another perspective from someone outside your system can offer valuable insights that you can’t see. As a friend of my said, “You can see the label on the jar you’re in.” Try some SHIFT coaching.

Applying systems thinking to real-life problems:

When faced with a complex problem, thinking in lists might lead to isolated solutions that don’t consider the wider impact. For example, solving a work issue by simply hiring more staff (a list-based solution) might overlook underlying issues like team dynamics or workload distribution.

Using a mind map/systems approach, you’d look at how increasing staff intersects with other factors like training, absenteeism, existing team morale, workflow processes, and long-term company goals. This can lead to more effective, comprehensive solutions.

While lists are great for simple, uncomplicated tasks, the mind map captures the essence of systems thinking—an holistic, interconnected approach that is essential for tackling the multifaceted challenges we face in work, life, and society. 

In essence, if life’s a journey, systems thinking is your trusty GPS. Whether you’re steering through storms or cruising on autopilot, it helps you chart a course that’s wide-ranging, efficient and often, enlightening.

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Tags: Communication skills, Resilience, Systems, Thinking and mindset, work and career

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