Systems Thinking – what are the challenges?

At yesterday’s inaugural meeting of the APM’s Systems Thinking SIG, born out of the Joint Working Group with INCOSE UK, one of the critical questions asked was “What stands in the way of systems thinking that we have to overcome?”

Today I have at least some of that answer.  In a report on failed projects from a major organization that should be obsessed with getting things right, I saw that the underlying problem seemed to be habitual behaviours i.e. an absence of thinking, even when these behaviours led to unacceptable outcomes repeatedly.

Systems thinking has an under-pinning tenet that people are allowed to think and want to think, yet in many organisations (particularly those with Theory X management styles), thinking and initiative are actively suppressed by forcing people to conform mindlessly to standards, processes and procedures. Many years ago, people used to say “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM”, hence its popularity long after it began to drag behind the state of the art.

|t is vitally important that lessons are learned and disseminated, and standards, processes and procedures can be powerful tools for ensuring conformity, but the active suppression of innovation, initiative and simply thinking are akin to mental slavery, where human beings become slaves to these standards set up and often not maintained dynamically, robbing the organisation of much of its human capital.

If people aren’t encouraged to think about what they are doing, how they can do it better and why it should be done differently, the bloom for business agility is burnt to the ground and the scorched earth is not fertile ground for reaping the benefits of systems thinking.

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