What is Systems Thinking and Why is it Important?

Understanding “what is systems thinking” is important to developing a deeper understanding of Agile. I’m an engineer at heart. I’ve been trained to analyze problems objectively and come up with well-thought-out solutions. That approach comes naturally to me; however, it is something that needs to be learned and reinforced.

What is Systems Thinking?
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An Example

Here’s a dialog I had with my wife that illustrates this:

Wife: I will never buy another *Brand X* washing machine again!

Me: Why is that?

Wife: The clothes don’t smell fresh!

What’s wrong with that picture? People often rush to judgment like that without fully analyzing a situation. Sometimes they make a hasty assessment based on some kind of personal bias that’s not very objective. Think about it – in this situation,

  • There are many things that might cause the clothes to not smell fresh
  • So, it’s probably premature to blame the washing machine and all models of washing machines built by *Brand X* so quickly
  • But people do that all the time.

What Is Systems Thinking?

“Systems Thinking” is a framework for:

  • Looking at something as a “system” and understanding how all the components of that system contribute to achieving whatever result it is supposed to accomplish.
  • For example, the process of washing clothes in a washing machine depends on:
    • The type of detergent,
    • The type of fabric softener,
    • The need to operate the washing machine properly, and
    • The need to clean the washing machine drum periodically, etc. to achieve the desired result of having fresh-smelling clothes.

“Systems Thinking” is a powerful tool I learned a long time ago when I first read Peter Senge’s book: “The Fifth Discipline – The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization” in the 1990’s. That has been a very powerful tool for me that I’ve used over-and-over again in many situations.

The practice of systems thinking can be complex – you can use the phrase to refer to a set of tools – such as causal loop diagrams, stock and flow diagrams and simulation models – that help us map and explore dynamic complexity. “For example, systems thinkers often describe the world in terms of reinforcing and balancing processes, limits, delays, patterns of behavior over time, and so forth.” – Barry Richmond, isee systems, inc.

However, without adding a lot of complexity, a lot can be gained from simply developing a unique perspective on reality. It is a perspective that sharpens our awareness of the whole and of how the parts within those wholes interrelate. The biggest obstacle to systems thinking; however, is our tendency to over-simplify something that is complex. We often do that to force-fit it into binary, black-and-white terms rather than trying to understand the complexity of it at a deeper level.

  • My wife’s emotional reaction to the washing machine is an example of that.
  • Her instant reaction was that it must be that *@!# washing machine and I’ll never buy another washing machine like that again!

Why Is Systems Thinking Important?

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.

What Is “Binary Thinking”?

“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”.

What is 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.

Another Example

Here’s an example from a LinkedIn discussion I recently participated in that is more directly relevant to the subject of Agile Project Management:

Ultimately Project Management is a type X/violent approach to delivery. Where Lean/Agile is a type Y/non-violent approach to delivery.”

What’s wrong with that statement?

  • It makes a very broad-based assessment of what “project management is based on some very biased opinions and attempts to characterize the whole practice of project management that way.
  • It’s equivalent to my wife’s statement that “I will never buy another *Brand X* washing machine again!”.

Anyone who thinks that way will have a very difficult time adopting a true systems thinking approach just as my wife had to adjust her thinking to think about the problem with the washing machine in a broader and more objective perspective. There’s a saying that I think is very relevant to this that says:

“It’s easier to accept a simple myth and move on than it is to take the time to understand complex reality”

As long as people cling on to some of the simple myths and stereotypes that exist about what “project management” is, it will be difficult for them to see “Project Management” and, more specifically, “Agile Project Management” in a fresh new perspective. Another statement made by the same person in the LinkedIn discussion was:

“The term Agile PM is as disconcerting as a Scrum Project Manager”

People like to see things in binary, black-and-white terms and have difficulty seeing the possibility that all project managers might not fit into that stereotype.

Additional Resources

You will find much more detail on this in my Online Agile Project Management Training.

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