Thinking typologies for solving organisational problems [II]

Lateral thinking
  • systems thinking for problem-solving

Prequel to the Sequel

In our most recent session, I began to delve into this powerful thinking typology, laying out the fundamentals and building on that to outline the first three of five systems thinking principles (Fig 1). In today’s post, I’ll go over the last two systems thinking principles. I will also make a transition into the role of the systems thinker in a complex changing world, and how it applies to operations and quality.

Figure 1 System Principles (courtesy, Gharajedaghi, 2011)

Any feedback?

Yes, I had a very good one. An avid reader of this page contacted me about how he attempted to apply the principles to the Ian Bradbury story. For example, he attempted to consider the story in relation to a principle such as purposefulness. He contended that the fishermen hadn’t given enough thought to, or cared about, why the ecosystem was the way it was before attempting to destabilise it (recall the Henry Ford quote from the introductory session two weeks ago: “Thinking is hard work, which is why so few people do it”). He also mentioned the third principle, Multidimensionality: the fishermen had not learned the wisdom of the grey areas along the continua that existed in the ecosystem – but had only lived at the extremes. A focus on Multidimensionality, for example, would have revealed that a win for sea otters could also be a win for the fishing industry, indicating that it was not a zero-sum game. So, the final section of the systems thinking write-up is dedicated to this avid reader and all those who visit this page. Let’s continue:

Principle 4: Emergent property

An emergent property is a characteristic acquired by an entity after it becomes a part of a larger system. In other words, an emergent property is one that a collection or complex system possesses but its individual members do not. In chemistry, the taste of saltiness, for example, is a property of salt, but this does not imply that it is also a property of sodium and chlorine, the two elements that make up salt. Failure to recognise that a property is emergent, or supervenient, leads to the fallacy of division which occurs when we assume that something that is true of the whole must also be true of each or some parts of the whole – the same reason why an all-star team is not always the best team in the league, and it may even lose to an average team in the same league.

What does this mean for problem-solving? To begin, we must recognise that the properties of the system as a whole are determined by the system components and their relationships. Emergent properties emerge as a result of the interactions between system components. As a result, they can only be evaluated and measured after the components have been integrated into a system. The failure rate of a component can be higher or lower depending on the system into which it is integrated. This has implications for system reliability, performance, safety, and security, and must be taken into account in product and process design, as well as system modelling.

Principle 5: Counter-intuitiveness

Gharajedaghi contends that social dynamics are rife with counter-intuitive behaviour at a level of complication that exceeds the analytical approach. Actions that are intended to produce a desired outcome may, in fact, produce the opposite result. He goes on to say that understanding the practical implications of the following assertions will help us appreciate the nature of counter-intuitiveness:

  • Cause and effect may be separated in time and space.
  • Cause and effect can replace one another, displaying circular relations.
  • An event may have multiple effects.
  • A set of variables that initially played a key role in producing an effect may be replaced by a different set of variables at a different time.

Lagged effect, the delayed response of a dependent variable to a change in an independent variable, is a classic example of counter-intuitive behaviour.

I mentioned a corollary to Murphy’s Law the last two weeks, which states that actions taken to solve problems can actually cause problems in other areas. This is supported by Gharajedaghi’s example of how counter-intuitiveness manifests in practice. I share that example in our blog here:

Failure to follow this principle can have serious consequences for the problem-solving process. We can, however, manage the potential negative consequences of our actions through consequential impact analysis and control. More complex problems and initiatives will necessitate more complex approaches, such as designed experimentation, scenario modelling, and solution piloting before large-scale implementation.

Spiral Dynamics and the emergence of the systems thinker

Spiral Dynamics (SD) is an evolutionary model of individuals, organisations, and societies. It describes how value systems and worldviews emerge from the interaction of ‘life circumstances’ and the capacities of the mind. Groups and cultures structure their societies, and individuals integrate within them using these value systems. Each distinct set of values is created in response to the previous system’s problems. Beck and Greaves (1975) defined two tiers of human development; each denoted by a different colour: Tier one [beige, purple, red, blue, orange and green] and Tier two [yellow, turquoise, and coral]. Tier two refers to a higher level of human development and cognitive understanding of our environment, as well as how we perceive and interact with it.

Tier two Yellow in the Beck and Greaves model is denoted as FlexFlow, Systemic. Authenticity, systemic thinking, the development of skills to become an instrument for the greater whole, and access to a free (holistic) consciousness are characteristics of this stage of human development. What makes you want to become a systems thinker? To begin with, systems thinkers are at a higher societal stratum. They:

  • See problems as systemic, not personal
  • See things in non-linearity terms- complexity theorists
  • Understand that local actions have global impact
  • Are conscious of backfiring mechanisms
  • Provide counter-intuitive solutions to counter-intuitive problems
  • View contexts holistically (holism) and not with reductionist lenses
  • Understand that the world is dynamic and not static
  • Have global concerns and not merely tribalistic concerns
  • Understand the dangers of self-interest
  • Continually study patterns and cycles
  • Seek to understand systems instead of manipulating systems

Practising systems thinking

Systems thinking, like critical thinking, is a skill that can be learned, practised, and systematised through the problem-solving process. Developing your own awareness and skills is the first step toward becoming a seasoned systems thinker. You can try the following exercises culled from Linda Booth Sweeney’s Guidelines for Daily Systems Thinking Practice [online at:]

  • Ask Different Questions.To practise thinking from a more systemic perspective, start by paying attention to the questions you ask. Try to ask questions that get at underlying structural relationships or patterns of behaviour exhibited over time; that focuses your attention on potential delays, balancing or reinforcing processes, and unintended consequences; and that helps you understand what time intervals you’re focusing on and how you and others are perceiving situations.
  • Learn to experience time differently.When faced with complex problems, we are often strongly influenced by society’s messages about what constitutes enough time. Typically, we focus on shorter time intervals than we should. To combat this, try making explicit the time horizon with which you are working. For example, are you interested in the behaviour of oil prices as they move over a two-month period or a two-year period? What might be an appropriate time horizon for understanding the impact of nuclear-waste disposal?
  • Notice the systems around you.Try looking for feedback loops in everyday situations. For example, has your company launched a new product whose sales really took off, only to plateau out eventually? This may indicate a reinforcing process that suddenly is affected by a balancing process.
  • Draw a loop-a-day (or one a week).Every morning, sit down with your cup of coffee, the newspaper, a pad of paper and a pen, and look for news stories that you can explore through causal loop diagrams. Search for stories that describe patterns of behaviour over time. Sketch the systemic structure that you think is producing those patterns. This is a great way to practise recognising systemic structures, and mastering causal loop diagramming. The Economist magazine is a particularly rich source of systems-oriented stories.

Conclusion- Systems thinking in quality and operational problem-solving

A system is complex. It is made up of interrelated components of people and processes with a clearly defined, shared destination or goal. Everyone must share a distinct understanding and commitment to the aim or purpose of the system. Appreciation of a system depends on quality leaders’ understanding of interconnectedness and interdependence of elements. The interconnectedness must be clearly defined and documented for successful flow or continuous improvement of the process. Optimisation of a system can occur when all interconnecting components are orchestrated to achieve the organisation’s goal.

In general, the application of systems thinking in the field of operations and production has primarily focused on two intertwining but sometimes distinct goals. These are gains in efficiency and quality. These goals are linked in that organisations strive for continuous improvement by eliminating waste, inventories, and inefficiencies in the service of greater customer satisfaction.


Leave a Reply