Several times a month I am asked by a client, “How do we know we are becoming better systems thinkers?” Often they have in mind a specific task they want to approach differently than before, this time seeing interconnections vs. isolated events. Other questions may be, “What are the first things my organization should do to assure we are not just pursuing a new strategic plan the ‘old’ way?” “How do we make sure we are not thinking and acting in silos?”
While there are many tools that build systems thinking capabilities, knowing where to begin in practice together can be confusing. As I reflected on it, there is one place I always recommend any team or organization begin. That is in a formal process of group reflection and evaluation of what has been accomplished so far and what there is to learn. But what does that process look like?
One of the most elemental principles of thinking systemically is to recognize no one sees the whole system, only their particular position in that system. For example, if I am responsible for marketing new products and services, my view will be through the lens of where I need to focus and how my success will be measured – usually in terms of customer acceptance. Others who have technical responsibility to make a product or service actually work will have a different view of what is important or challenging – usually performance reliability. Still others have to figure out how something is made and provided when needed. To evaluate the system of new product/solution creation and delivery requires all viewpoints to converge on a shared view of what actually happened, what went well, what didn’t go well, and what learning themes inform next steps. These conclusions can be counterintuitive without having the right group dialogue. At Conversant, we label this the ‘Adjust’ conversation and we find it is the one practice that most organizations skip entirely or address inadequately. Yet it is the secret to becoming an adaptive organization, one that moves beyond transactional processes and siloed plans.
Rules for designing powerful Adjust conversations:
There are many books and methods for expanding your system thinking skills available. And continuing to build individual and collective capacity in this area is critical through reading, workshops, and conferences. But if you are ready to get into acting differently, you will find a good practice to begin is in building the group reflection muscle through Adjust conversations.
As Humberto Maturana once said, “Knowledge occurs as a manner of interpersonal relation, not as something that one has.” Without building a collective path forward to becoming an adaptive organization, projects, teams, and initiatives will likely not see the systemic interconnections revealing valuable steps to higher performance and impact.