See the Whole – Systems Thinking:
Systemic thinking is an old concept impeded by modern specialization. Within the bounds of their acute direct perception, indigenous people were systems thinkers, even though they sometimes explained the unknowable in ways that are cruel to us – like human sacrifices to angry gods.
Our Modern, Fragmented Thinking
We’ve lost that immediate connection to a complex nature. Modern systemic thinking has spawned branches from simulation to systems engineering, a splintering that underscores the challenge of systemic thinking in complex economies dependent on complex technologies. Yes, technology may help us integrate our thought; diagnostic trees are an example, but the systemic thinking that we need to help nature regenerate is by people.
So What’s Holistic, Systemic Thinking?
Holistic thinkers are curious. They probe why and not just what. They seek connections, relationships. Value stream mapping is a start, but keep going, asking questions deeper than flows of work or flows of energy. Exactly what value is being created for customers and other stakeholders? From what viewpoint? For how long? What does “value” mean? And suppose we add the environment to our list of “stakeholders?”
This kind of thinking is beyond guiding a company to make money (hard enough), and beyond most kaizen problem solving, which usually concentrates on efficiency. Instead, guide an organization toward becoming more effective for all its stakeholders. Perfection is impossible, but it’s a different perspective from business school convention. What is the breadth of perspective of your board? Would a more stakeholder inclusive form of company governance help?
Stretching Our Boundaries of Thought
Sometimes we say that we are systemic thinkers, but the boundary of the system contemplated is very small. And we often see from only one of many perspectives. For example, a chemist checking for toxic ingredients on children’s finger paintings may never see what a doting grandma interprets as evidence of toddlers’ budding artistry. That old strategic cliché about seeing from a 30,000 foot level means little if one only surveys a small area from a great distance. Keep the boundaries of a system open; look as far, wide, and deep as you can.
For a company or any other organization, systemic thinking implies doing much more to balance the needs of all stakeholders, including nature. It is a major stakeholder for all of us. Few organizations have a method to do that expeditiously when making decisions. If we are not attuned to it, we never think about it. But if we feel symbiotic with nature, we practice foreseeing consequences to nature from multiple views.
Systemic thinking also implies seeing your organization from an outside-in perspective, as others might see it – and seeing ourselves as others see us. No one ever masters systemic thinking in all its manifestations, but unless leaders contemplate a much bigger picture than P&L statements, comprehending the issues in transitioning from Compression to Regeneration is a non-starter.