Work Traits

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is especially helpful in roles like engineering, product development, and business improvement.
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What is systems thinking?

Systems thinking means you’re never one to miss the forest for the trees. That’s because you pay close attention to how things are connected and impact the greater system. 

Of course, you’re also interested in people, tools, and other aspects of business. But as a systems thinker, you have an incredibly high motivation to find the interrelationships between various functions, roles, processes, and procedures.

You aren’t willing to jump into making a change or decision. You’d prefer to dedicate time to mapping and reviewing the entire system to get a grasp of the overall impact and consequences first. You know that even a seemingly inconsequential change can have a major ripple effect on the entire organization.

We call it: Systems

Your level of interest in interrelationships that are found within systems.

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

John Muir

Leaders who embrace systems thinking

Harper Lee

Harper Lee

Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird, a novel that has since become a staple in most middle school and high school English classes. Lee was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work.

While it’s not often that you’d think of someone in a creative profession as a systems thinker, Lee’s most famous novel is proof that she thought far beyond her individual work or project. She was intentional and recognized the difference she could make. 

In fact, she used To Kill a Mockingbird to address and impact much larger systems in the country—including the educational system and justice system.

Paul Allen

While Paul Allen isn’t quite as big of a household name as Bill Gates, he did co-found Microsoft, one of the most successful technology companies of all time. 

Software development is a career field where many systems thinkers thrive, and Paul Allen is no exception. He was incredibly logical, and invested the time to analyze information and understand how things fit together.

“My style is to absorb all the data I can to make the best-informed decision possible...sometimes to the point of over-analysis,” he said in his memoir, Idea Man.

Paul Allen
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Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt was a highly-influential political philosopher in the 1900s. But, her approach to philosophy was quite different from that of her peers—mostly because she witnessed a gap between philosophy and the real world.

It was then that she started to think more collectively, something that wasn’t commonplace at the time. 

“The person was a part of general structures, shaped fundamentally by the conditions of one’s birth, by one’s neighborhood, and by the group of which one was a part,” writes Shai Tubali in an article for Philosophy Now. “The problems of the human condition, Arendt concluded, lay in those general structures, or, in other words, in the political sphere.”

The benefits of systems thinking

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Problem solving

When you take the time to understand how things are connected, you’re better equipped to address problems at the root—rather than making surface-level repairs.

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Your holistic view of the business gives you a very clear vision for the future, as well as what steps you need to take to get there.

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Because you see how things are connected, you’re able to spot bottlenecks, optimize processes, and work more efficiently.

The blind spots of systems thinking

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Particularly in big organizations, systems thinking can be tough. There’s a lot to grasp, and getting a holistic view can be overwhelming.

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Systems thinkers tend to see things as black and white. This approach doesn’t leave a ton of room for creativity or gray areas, which are a natural part of business.

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You’re great at optimizing workflows and systems for efficiency, but your decision-making process itself can be slow. You need time to think through all impacts and consequences, which takes time.

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How to be a systems thinker

1) Draw things out.

When you want to understand how things—whether it’s people, tools, tasks, or something else—relate to one another, it’s helpful to get out of your own brain.

Grab some paper and physically draw out the steps in that workflow or the different members of that team. That will give you a visual you can refer to as you understand how things are connected and how they impact one another.

2) Take your time.

If you’re used to making speedy, snap decisions, you’re going to need to give yourself some time to evaluate broaders systems.

Resist the urge to jump right in with a direction or conclusion, and take a beat to evaluate potential impacts and consequences. That gives you some much-needed breathing room to get a more holistic view.

3) Learn from the past.

You don’t have to guess about how things are connected. Past experiences can teach you a lot about what certain actions and decisions can lead to. To get a broader understanding, make time for reflection. 

Have you made a similar decision previously? What happened? When something changed with one team, what other teams were impacted? You’ll start to uncover some trends and understand how seemingly separate elements relate to one another.

4) Connect with others.

We all know how easy it is to get siloed in an organization. Unfortunately, when you only see the work that you or your team is responsible for, you lose sight of the broader system.

Go outside of your immediate department to get exposure to other areas of the business. Learn about what they do, what goals they aim for, and what challenges they face. That will help you have insight into how everything (including your own work) fits together.

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