System Building Skills for Those Who Lead

I wanted to write about system building skills for those who lead as a result of the podcast interview I had with Dr. Terry Yosie, Executive Director of the World Environment Center (listen to and download Episode 8 of the podcast here: http://scienceofsuccess.libsyn.com/podcast; also available on iTunes and Stitcher Radio as “Science of Success: Social Secrets” podcast). In the podcast, Dr. Yosie talks about the need to supplement the problem-solving skills prevalent in the college curriculum of most STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) degrees with system-building skills. Dr. Yosie believes that system-building skills are critical in order for organizations to be able to survive and thrive given today’s mega-challenges. Those who lead are those inspired to be part of the solution to mega-challenges regardless of their level or position in an organization and regardless of their education. If this sounds like you, then read on.

Those who lead are those inspired to be part of the solution to mega-challenges regardless of their level or position in an organization and regardless of their education.

Valerie Patrick

I believe that systems building consists of three capabilities not commonly practiced today. The first capability is inspiring others to take a systems approach to solutions. The second capability is approaching solutions from a system’s perspective. The third and final capability is engaging people who represent the key nodes in the system that are most important to finding the best solution.

Let’s explore the first capability of inspiring others to take a systems approach to solutions. This capability made we wonder why we don’t naturally or commonly think of solutions from a systems perspective. I think there are two primary reasons we don’t commonly approach solutions from a systems perspective. One reason is because there has not been a compelling reason to approach solutions from a systems perspective. In her lecture about systems to University of Michigan students, Dr. Donella H. Meadows, a Pew Scholar in Conservation and Environment and a MacArthur Fellow, gives an example of a very simple systems model for a fishery (see Meadows Lecture on You Tube). Using this example, Dr. Meadows shows that even when the parameters for a systems collapse are met, there is a period of time that the system will perform with no perceived problems and, in fact, the systems collapse happens with very little warning (unless you happen to be monitoring the fish population). Today, many of the systems in our day-to-day lives are performing with no perceived problems. However, this does not mean that the conditions for system collapse exist below the surface. The second reason is that thinking of solutions from a systems perspective is hard and takes work. Thus, there is an inherent cost-benefit analysis at work here – the need to justify the cost of the work with the anticipated benefit of the approach. Most would agree that there is no point in adding complexity for the sake of complexity. However, because there is increasing awareness of undesired consequences from “business as usual,” more people are considering the system impacts of solutions. Just ask the fishermen who used to fish George’s Bank off of New England which used to be the world’s most prolific fishery and which is now closed. According to Dr. Meadows, these fishermen have created a new set of rules for fishing based on a systems view. If you want a solution to work for the long-term, then you need to examine it from a system perspective.

So how do you inspire others to take a systems approach to a solution? I like the power of the Golden Circle inside-out approach discovered by Simon Sinek, a trained ethnographer and author of Start with Why (see https://www.ted.com/simon_sinek). Simon explains that to inspire others, you need to first explain why you want to take a systems approach to finding a solution for a given problem or challenge. Next you explain how you propose to take a systems approach to finding a solution for a given problem or challenge. Finally, you can talk about the next steps of what you need to do to take a systems approach to finding a solution for the given problem or challenge. Because a systems approach is hard and takes work, then a good reason is needed to convince others to take on the work with you. The good reason is the “why” at the center of the Golden Circle.

Now let’s explore the second capability of approaching solutions from a systems perspective. As it turns out, we naturally think in systems. Dr. Peter Senge, a senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and founding chair of the Society for Organizational Learning North America, illustrates this with an example of the family as a system (see Peter Senge You Tube Video on Systems Thinking). Dr. Senge points out that even though you can identify the key players in your family, the complexity of the interactions among these key players is such that the family produces outcomes that nobody wants. The idea of key players and complex interactions is at the heart of systems thinking.

Tom Wujec, a Fellow at Autodesk, also points out our natural capacity for system thinking with the example of making toast (see https://www.ted.com/tom_wujec). Wujec has asked people all over the world to explain how to make toast by drawing it without any words. Most drawings have tangible elements such as bread and a toaster which are called nodes in systems thinking. Most drawings also have the connections between the tangible elements which are called links in systems thinking. Wujec also noticed that the drawings were revealing the internal mental models that people had about making toast. For example, some drawings focused on the internal workings of the toaster while some did not even have a toaster (e.g., toast is typically made in a frying pan in Europe). Wujec improves on this drawing method to describe a system by using sticky notes or index cards. In this case, each sticky note or index card represents a node or interaction in the system and the sticky notes or index cards can be moved around, added to, and subtracted to refine the system. Words can also be used in this method as long as the concepts of “nodes” and “links” are preserved in representing the system. Therefore, one way to approach a solution from a systems perspective is to first identify the system that the solution applies to, second articulate the question about the system that the solution will address, and third map out the system to get useful insights on solutions. The sticky note method can be used to map out the system. In approaching a challenge from a systems perspective, solutions will likely occur to you that would not have occurred to you without mapping the system.

An alternative to Wujec’s sticky note process for describing a system is the approach described by Eric Berlow, an ecologist and complexity scientist, to study the impact of different species on each other in a given ecosystem (see http://www.ted.com/eric_berlow). Berlow uses network visualization software to generate a three-dimensional diagram of the different nodes or tangible species and objects in the ecosystem. The different nodes are represented by spheres that can be coded in different ways (e.g., color, size) as needed for clarity and the links or interactions are represented by lines and arrows between the nodes. Berlow has found that network visualization helps to untangle the complexity of the ecosystem and helps him to ask questions he would not have otherwise thought to ask as a way to increase understanding of the system. Berlow has also discovered in his work with natural ecosystems that the best solutions lie in considering the first couple of degrees of interactions impacting the species of interest. That is, the nodes connected directly to and one or two steps removed from the species of interest are the key nodes to consider in developing solutions to the challenge that needs to be addressed.

Now let’s explore the third and final capability of engaging key people who represent the key nodes in the system. Berlow discovered the power of focusing on the first couple of degrees of interaction for a node of interest in an ecosystem for finding the best solutions. In addition, Wujec learned that system drawings from different people revealed the different internal mental models that people have for the system. The best of both would suggest that bringing people together with different perspectives that represent the first couple of degrees of interaction for the node of interest in the system would be very powerful to finding the most effective solutions. A way to engage people in a systems approach to problem solving is described next.

Wujec developed a group process to apply systems thinking to a challenge or towards improving a system (see http://www.drawtoast.com). There are four simple steps to the group process as follows: start with a question, collect the nodes from the group on sticky notes, ask the group to refine, categorize, and arrange the nodes to build the system, and guide the group to continually refine the system until patterns and linkages emerge to the point that the group gets enough clarity to start answering the question. The power of this process for systems thinking is that it brings the different internal mental models of participants to the surface so participants can benefit from each other’s unique perspectives and knowledge. If the system is too complex to answer the question, then network visualization could be used as an analysis technique off-line. Once completed off-line, the group can re-convene to discuss and further refine the network visualization analysis to gain powerful insights on the starting question or problem. If the network visualization analysis is not shared and discussed with the group, then the analysis is limited by the mental models of the person who did the analysis. Again, the real power of systems thinking is combining your mental model of the system with that of others. If this all sounds overwhelming, then consider working with a professional facilitator. It might also be helpful to keep in mind Dr. Meadow’s hierarchy for systems (see video above and her book: Thinking in systems: A Primer). To have the greatest leverage in changing a system, start at the top of the system hierarchy. The system hierarchy is first the mindsets and paradigms of the people participating in or impacting the system, second the purpose for or objective of the system, third the interconnections or links between elements or node, fourth the elements or nodes, fifth the behaviors, and last the events. An example of system leverage using this hierarchy is you have much more leverage to change a system if you change the purpose of the system than if you change elements or nodes in the system.

The power of this process for systems thinking is that it brings the different internal mental models to the surface so participants can benefit from each other’s unique perspectives and knowledge.

Valerie Patrick

If you are inspired to be part of the solution to mega-challenges regardless of your level or position in an organization and regardless of your education, then develop and exercise system-building capabilities. The three key system building capabilities are inspiring others to take a systems approach to solutions, approaching solutions from a system’s perspective, and engaging people with different perspectives on the system to develop solutions. This post gives you some ideas for how to get started. Using system building capabilities could help you and your organization move mountains for your toughest challenges.

Clip of Moving a Mountain

Contact Fulcrum Connection LLC if you need support on a systems approach to problem solving (valerie.patrick@fulcrumconnection.com or 412-742-9675; ask about our first-time client offer.) Fulcrum Connection LLC provides training, coaching, and professional facilitation services using structured and proven processes and tools to help technical business professionals take novel approaches to problem solving.

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