Feature Article: Learning the Lessons of Systems Thinking: Exploring the Gap between Thinking and Leadership

August 2009 / Feature Articles

peter jonesWeatherhead School of Management professor, Fred Collopy, penned a provocative piece in June 2009’s Fast Companyblog; an article that deserves a wider hearing and response. In today’s fragmentation of venues for committed discourse, I see a fascinating paradox of too many places (blogs) chasing too few great ideas (original thinking, not just the cut-and-paste of most blogs). Ideas as timely as Fred’s may not be developed, or even applicable, to scholarly journals, yet the blog genre seems a little insignificant for the impact of the piece. (Located at: http://www.fastcompany.com/blog/fred-collopy/manage-designing/lessons-learned-why-failure-systems-thinking-should-inform-future)

It is worth describing the postmodern chain of discourse that followed the blo’s publication. Consider that this piece started as my informal response on the Transforming Transformation email discussion list, in response to a blog post that was circulated as a link on that list. Several of the regulars on the list responded to Fred’s piece at the Fast Company blog. I was invited to formalize the post as a kind of scholarly letter. Twitter was involved at several points, as well. (Twitter posts have led to other articles). While we may be creating multiple channels of fragmented, emergent discourse, informed people are engaging in lively and timely communications. It may seem a bit like a Daily Show of scholarship, slightly off-handed, with serious ideas often “unseriously” presented, almost improvised. But, we are finding each other and sharing ideas and learning in ways unavailable or inconsiderable even two years ago.

Dr. Collopy’s article claims systems theory failed in its promise to enlarge the scope and practice of management, since it was not seriously taken up into management practice or what we might call the leadership imagination. He suggests this history poses learnable lessons for Design Thinking, a significant current trend in management theory and method, which appears to be taking up the coattails of systems thinking. A fundamental lesson from Collopy’s article might be to adopt methodological toolkits into practice and leave much of the theory for scholars. I agree that this might have a chance of success, but I suggest this for different reasons than does Fred.

I don’t believe that systems thinking to be a failure because it has not yet been wholly adopted. The history of what we call “management fads” is constructed of half-baked practices that often butchered the original “theoretical” intent of the fad. Consider, for example, Hammer and Champy’s original intent for business process re-engineering, for enterprise transformation, was both more rigorous and humane than the consulting implementations that followed and destroyed its value as a management tool. I believe systems theory also set inappropriate and overly high expectations for itself and its adopters. It would have been an honest failure had it been authentically used in action and found useless. But, systems thinking was rarely used in “lived leadership experience,” certainly less so than BPR, so I would not make this claim in earnest. I would even ask what theoretically-based systems of thought are really ever used in leadership?

What models do we purport or promote that an executive will be able to learn in one day and then retain in memory and experience for useful application? Few indeed; and we might count business re-engineering as one of those few, accounting for its initial widespread adoption. Systems theory, and even the spectra of published academic theories on strategy, organizational behavior, marketing, product innovation and communications are largely ignored in practice. Leaders may work with the salient principles of such systems theories, such as Ross Ashby’s principle of requisite variety as embodied in “understand the perspectives of all stakeholders.” When these principles are necessary in the course of decision-making, they will not only be adopted, but also continually re-invented and optimized.

As a design research consultant with years of experience in organizational integration, I’ve seen gradual adoption of core design concepts such as total customer experience, user-centricity, collaborative team design, and ethnographic field research to inform early innovation. I do not count on leadership to advocate design approaches independently, if for no other reason than it would violate the core principle of collaboration. But, I would expect them instead to recognize their applicability when presented with options.

Like many scholars, I am an unrepentant theory builder that likes to think my ideas and practices make a difference. But in practice, the more theoretically specified, the less difference or impact I find I make. As a working theoretician (someone who constructs working theories from an informed stance), this is disappointing, but very real. I have noticed that Professor Ackoff (or even I) can make a good theory work in practice, at least well enough to demonstrate its application. But can we expect management practitioners to follow our guidance, just from our writing management books and giving workshops?

A Belief System without the Beliefs

Dr. Collopy suggests we learn from history to prevent our current embrace of Design Thinking from suffering the same fate as systems thinking. He makes a case that classical systems thinking, as a management framework, failed in part due to problems with its significant cognitive overhead. As systems thinking has developed over the decades, it has accrued more concepts and enveloped more territory. It is not enough for any systems method to just present one good practice anymore.

This tendency to burden a good thing leads to problems with what I call belief system adoption. Systems theorists were formidable authors, and the “thinking” frameworks they engendered were meant to be taken wholly, not in a la carte bites. Methods were not to be separated from integrated principles, or results could not be guaranteed. Consider this from the leader’s perspective. Thinking frameworks, ranging from Beer’s Viable Systems Model, to Checkland’s Soft Systems Methodology, to Senge’s Fifth Discipline, failed to be taken up in management practice because discipleship, not just discipline, was asked of leaders. And leaders, not being good disciples, failed to take even the good ideas into practice because the frameworks required people to accept an integrated whole system, a set of tenets, that were untenable as frameworks back in the arenas of practice.

Why then were some practices much more successfully adopted than others? Russ Ackoff shares many stories of successful applications, but then his approaches (for example, Idealized Design) reformulate deep theory into simple working language and structures for action. He has participated in the front lines of organizational decision-making, unlike other systems theorists who step in and out of the arena of committed action. Ackoff’s approach is identified as a design for a reason. His school of systems thinking is explicitly framed as designing and I consider it the progenitor of today’s design thinking. Finally, Professor Ackoff also demonstrates the capability to think independently—to not be attached to the belief systems he himself may have constructed. I will add that systems or design ‘thinking’ must be dynamic processes, not just frameworks of ideas, to be considered thinking. We must free it up from the belief systems accrued from its theoretical development and (often limited) validation.

Many systems thinkers explicitly oriented their theories to designing, at least starting with Newell, Simon and Shaw’s (1958) The Processes of Creative Thinking. Ackoff’s basic principles—such as starting from an ideal envisioned outcome and generate scenarios for reaching that vision—fit many of the practices espoused by firms such as IDEO, Jump, and Redesign Research. We may have dressed up the methodologies and supported them with design research, but design thinking is indebted more to systems thinkers than to traditional (industrial) designers. (Which may explain why design thinking is, unfortunately, rarely presented with the “designerly” richness it deserves).

I would push the argument one step further. It appears Dr. Collopy advocates that we avoid the belief systems associated with systems thinking and adopt the toolkits of design that emerged from its sister meta-theory, design thinking. These methods include problem framing, divergent idea generation, visual thinking and expression, human-centered scenario creation, and so on. The argument follows that, if we forego attachment to the theoretical frameworks and build a rich arsenal of methods and tools, we might then test their applicability in practice to the many different problem areas we face. We can crowd-source their R&D, and inductively develop a more resilient working framework based on empirical observation of application.

Why, When, and How?

Simply put, very few theoretical systems have ever been usefully adopted by business leaders. The best ‘business’ theories sit on the shelf, as do systems theory or other theoretical constructions based on abstract reasoning. I believe the root cause of management fads is the propensity of working managers to convert a thoughtfully developed process to an instrumental method, in search of its most rapid (if not effective) deployment as a competitive weapon. Business process re-engineering, knowledge management, systems thinking …should we continue with design thinking? All of these systems have a strong theoretical basis and associated analytical processes. All of them were converted to tools, for effective and rapid adoption and deployment. The tools themselves led to fads. The hard work of systemic and analytical thinking was stripped away from the business-friendly toolkit, leaving behind a beguiling and even actionable simplification. No wonder the tools themselves failed to deliver on the original promise of the system of thinking.

What leaders will (really) attend a 5-day workshop in the first place? And then work from that knowledge? The kind of tacit knowledge that leads to innovation has to be earned in practice and decision-making, not from theoretical models, regardless of elegance. The models that are used must be simple and retainable.

It should be no surprise that theoretical understanding happens in a different realm than everyday leadership. According to naturalistic research on joint cognitive behavior (for example, Gary Klein’s research on decision making and Karl Weick’s sensemaking) leaders, people who regularly take decisive action in the face of emerging problems, engage situations as they unfold in real time. Observations from Schon’s (1983) Reflective Practitioner illustrate how managers “think on their feet” and the type of reflection we would consider thinking is tightly coupled with engagement in practice. The management practitioner does not typically refer to principles they learned in workshops, their engagement is direct and pertinent to the problem at hand. With no time for “thinking” or deep reflection, people lead from the basis of their personal experience, memories of similar situations, and personal repertoire of skills and tools.

For new sensemaking skills to adhere within the dynamic lived leadership experience, they must satisfy the conditions of behavioral and real-world decision practices of everyday leaders. The pace of reflective thought that enables heedful practice or simulation of new thinking skills takes place in privileged or isolated retreat settings. It may not happen in business meetings or standing in front of customers, where the creative stretch of systems thinking could make a difference. Learning design (and systems) thinking may be much better suited for planning, deliberation, and small group dialogues. It could happen in a flash, but the habits of thought must become engrained into an everyday way of communicating and entrained with decision making.

Can Design Thinking Make a Difference?

Design thinking is different from systems thinking, at least because the actions of designing that we draw the practice from are tangible ways of knowing and working. Designing is an action-first methodology (dialogue, prototyping) that people in business professions can witness and experience. Systems thinking is abstract in action and representation, and is a concept-first type of cognitive behavior. This is a bigger difference than we might believe. It is the difference between (abstract) belief and (embodied) knowing.

Systems thinking also may not map to an executive’s personal experience, even if it does map to an intellectual’s experience. I do not see the systems thinking schools as having failed. The problem I see is that these tools are not ready-to-hand tools of leadership. What executives do in decision action can be observed as making sense of situations by comparing the emergent properties of a situation to memory, to a personal repertoire of successful prior events. This may look and feel like “gut” or intuition, but it has a cognitive bias and its basis is heavily dependent on experience. Systems thinking, in a form of theoretical principles, may not integrate well with personal experience.

As schools of thought, perhaps the principles could be taught to high school students so they diffuse organically into tacit thinking later in life. As a skill set, these tools require a personal effort of leaders to understand, transform (to use the electrical metaphor of stepping-down voltage), and re-create the system as one’s own. This condition for effective use seems a formidable barrier to adoption, even if the promise of systems thinking is transformative and quite attractive.

What else can we learn from systems thinking to better enable design thinking?

The models and methods of systems thinking should be embraced and reformulated in locally designed tools for a networked world. Where possible, systems theory tools should be stepped down, transformed, produced as visually appealing presentations and local language forms. Design techniques, not design thinking, but graphic design and communications, should be employed to illustrate value and draw attention to systemic relationships.

For example, Fifth Discipline proponents could adopt visual reflection (sketching presentation) tools during ideation meetings to capture system relationships. Business ideas and innovation projects could be re-envisioned with visual sensemaking or small group scenario workshops.

System dynamics proponents might integrate the process into a series of exercises that elicit system elements and functions from direct engagement. One of my partnerships has developed a process for an engineering research lab, adapting therapeutic sandplay, system dynamics elicitation, and a software-based dialogue process, structured dialogic design. Each “exercise” provides a uniquely different opportunity for collaborative engagement, each produces a different visual output, and each is cumulative. And, we just call it organizational collaboration, not systems thinking.

Organizations can develop their own localized toolkits for design thinking or systems thinking to fit their uses. We should start by constructing collaborative processes that bake theory into tangible practices of making and reflection that allow people to make sense of their options and possible futures. The more these tools are employed in critical situations, the more they will be owned by the organization and not thought of as “thinking” practices at all. If we do our job well, the tools will become known by their local uses. They may become known as planning or collaboration practices. And we may again wonder whatever happened to “systems thinking.”

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Peter H. Jones founded Redesign Research in 2001, focusing on depth research and systems and concept design for human-centered innovation. He is a pioneer in designing market-leading Internet-based information resources for professional and intellectual information practices. He conducts collaborative research projects with universities and research labs. Peter leads a design thinking practice in Dialogic Design International, which facilitates strategic design and stakeholder planning through disciplined dialogue developed from systems thinking processes. He is a visiting scholar at The University of Toronto and is advisor/faculty for the Strategic Foresight and Innovation Master of Design program at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Toronto. Other articles are available at his blog site at: http://designdialogues.com Contact Peter at:peter@redesignresearch.com.