The Importance of Systems Thinking and Agile

Understanding the importance of systems thinking and Agile is critical in order to gain a deeper understanding of Agile. Wikipedia defines “Systems Thinking as follows:

“Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. In organizations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organization “healthy” or “unhealthy”.”

Why is “Systems Thinking” important? It allows you to see things in an entirely different perspective:

  • You see the “whole” rather than the “pieces” and understand their relationship. In an agile implementation you see the business as a large ecosystem and see the development process as only one component of that ecosystem and you begin to better understand how the two are interrelated to each other.
  • Within an Agile development process, you begin to better understand how all the components of that process work together to make the overall process more effective and instead of following the process rigidly and mechanically, you see it as a much more dynamic process where each component of the process may need to be adjusted to fit the situation.

“Binary Thinking” is the antithesis of Systems Thinking. Instead of seeing the real complexity that is inherent in many situations, people who engage in binary thinking are sometimes looking for a simple, cause-effect explanation for something that isn’t really very simple at all. They:

  • Tend to see the Agile values and principles in “black-and-white” terms as absolute statements rather than relative statements that need to be interpreted in the context of the situation as they were intended to be.
  • See the relationship of Agile and more traditional plan-driven approaches as “either-or”, mutually exclusive choices (Either you’re Agile or you’re not) and they may see these approaches as competitive with each other rather than seeing them as potentially complementary.

That sort of narrow thinking has led to many stereotypes, myths, and misconceptions about what Agile is and also about what traditional Project Management is. We need to rethink what Agile is as well as rethink what traditional Project Management is to see them in a new light as potentially complementary rather than competitive approaches and “systems thinking” is the key to that. It is also the key to becoming a “learning organization”. Wikipedia defines a “learning organization as follows:

“A learning organization is the term given to a company that facilitates the learning of its members and continuously transforms itself. Learning organizations develop as a result of the pressures facing modern organizations and enables them to remain competitive in the business environment. A learning organization has five main features; systems thinking, personal mastery, mental models, shared vision and team learning. The Learning organization concept was coined through the work and research of Peter Senge and his colleagues (Senge, 1994). It encourages organizations to shift to a more interconnected way of thinking.”

Adopting a “systems thinking” approach and becoming a learning organization are two of the most important aspects of enterprise-level agility.

3 thoughts on “The Importance of Systems Thinking and Agile”

  1. A nice summary – This view is an up hill slog for many orgs as management will tend to want to over simplify and gravitate to boil down everything to simplicity – black and white thinking.

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