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Systems Thinking: A Consultant’s Guide to Working through Complexity

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To meet complex and multifaceted demands in today’s business environment, consultants need to be adept at systems thinking. The purpose of this article is to discuss one particular aspect of systems thinking – dealing with complexity – and explore how you as a consultant can develop this skill.

Systems Thinking: A Consultant’s Guide to Working through Complexity

Dealing with Complexity

Organizational conditions influence the ability and discretion of consultants and leaders (particularly executives and C-suite leaders) to make decisions and drive change. These can be described in two general categories:

• External conditions. These include the degree of competition, regulations, and consumer behavior. Decreased demand, tighter competition, or changing regulations can constrain leadership decisions on key areas such as direction and pricing, and other areas of change (Yukl, 2006).

• Internal conditions. External constraints are not alone on limiting discretion. In fact, when Hoag, Ritschard, and Cooper (2002) reviewed 503 responses from HR professionals (across levels and industries) who were asked to identify the largest obstacles to effective change, they found that external conditions only accounted for 11% of their responses while internal conditions accounted for 89%. At the top of the list of internal conditions was organizational culture (e.g., uncertainty, coping, and internal politics).

Therefore, if competition increases as more organizations are established and internal conditions like office politics also present obstacles, one particularly important demand for consultants will be the ability to think systematically. For example, leaders in many growing organizations are finding it increasingly difficult to identify the outcomes from decisions they’ve made or changes they’ve implemented because of the multiple internal and external factors that can support or hinder their actions. By bringing in this type of skill, you can add tremendous value to your clients.

Systems Thinking

Dealing with complex and possibly conflicting internal and external conditions is not easy… but it’s not impossible either. Arguably the most important competency for dealing with complexity is Systems Thinking (Senge, 2006). Systems thinking is defined as the ability to (a) see how organizational systems (e.g., internal/external conditions, processes, people) interact and influence each other, and (b) how these systems create and contribute to specific issues (e.g., high voluntary turnover) and strengths (e.g., strong customer focus). Instead of simply moving from one problem to the next, systems thinkers step back and examine not only the broader configuration of events but also how internal processes, organizational structure, external conditions, and even their own role have each contributed to the creation of those problems (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). According to Peter Senge (2006), the three characteristics of systems thinking are:

  1. A consistent and strong commitment to learning
  2. A willingness to challenge your own mental model – accepting your own role in problems and being open to different ways of seeing and doing
  3. Triangulation – always including multiple perspectives (customers, line-staff, experts, etc.) when looking at a phenomenon

How Do You Develop those Competencies?

By starting early and building skills and experience that will help you account for internal and external conditions, competing forces, and complex systems, you will be able to help your clients catch whatever the future throws… and even throw it back! Specific skills and abilities that contribute to systems thinking include:

  1. Ability to see relationships between organizational systems and the external environment, and between organizational systems and themselves
  2. Ability to see the “big picture” – look at systems holistically, examine aggregates rather than individual activities
  3. Appreciating the complexity of cause-and-effect relationships – they are rarely linear and are influenced by multiple interacting factors
  4. Being able to bring multiple people/perspectives together – accepting that no single view has the answer
  5. Ability to promote a learning orientation in others and oneself
  6. Taking a long-term approach (5+ years)

As a quick reflection, take a few minutes and rate yourself on each of the skills and abilities above on a five-point scale (“1” = little/no experience or expertise; “5” = significant experience or expertise). With your highest scored items, write down 2-3 ways that you can leverage that strength in a project you are currently working on. With your lowest scored items, write down 2-3 ways that you could develop that skill in a current or future project, keeping in mind that systems thinking skills are best developed through experiential, on-the-job (OTJ) learning.

Happy Consulting!

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