Systems Thinking: A Method for Communication

Systems Thinking: A Method for Communication

Communication in the Workplace

We are a complex society with many interconnecting parts that contribute to global movements.  And yet, far too often when something goes right or wrong our instinct is to assign blame or praise to a single source.  This type of fragmented thinking, I would suggest, is both shortsighted and irrelevant to our present workplace paradigm. 

Anderson and Johnson stated that systems thinking is a language that provides a method for communication about dynamic complexities and interdependencies.  Our workplaces provide an ideal context for this definition.  Workplaces are comprised of various systems of people, departments, and technologies all swirling around in the larger system with partnering and competing workplaces.   With such complexity present, a systems thinking lens will allow us to see how the parts are functioning alone, and perhaps more importantly, better communicate about how they are working together. 

Systems thinking is characterized by the following principles:

  • Thinking of the ‘big picture” - Whatever problem is being faced is attached to a larger system.  To discover the source of the problem we have to widen our focus, and it is from that perspective we will likely find a systemic solution. 
  • Balancing short-term and long-term perspectives - The balance of short and long-term thinking will supply a sound foundation for thorough examination before any actions are taken.
  • Taking into account measurable and non-measurable factors - There are plenty of tangible data metrics in the workplace, but what do we do with all the intangible information, such as morale, levels of trust, and working relationships?  We account for it and allow it to influence our understanding alongside the tangibles.      
  • Recognizing the dynamic, complex, and interdependent nature of systems - A glimpse at any organizational structure will reveal systems within many other systems.  In order to make sense of such complexity we tend to oversimplify and make decisions based on those oversimplifications.  Systems thinking reminds us that once we do so, it is important to zoom back out and take into account the whole picture before making decisions. 

The appeal of systems thinking is at least twofold:  first, it provides a more holistic perspective for observation and analysis, and two; it gives greater insight into our interconnectedness and positions us to improve on how we relate to each other and other systems.  Additionally, it can help shift our thinking from an exclusive point of view (i.e. “you are responsible for this”) to a more inclusive frame of reference (i.e. “we are responsible for this”).  

Taking the first step towards systems thinking is simpler than you might imagine- invite others to participate. Your workplace is a dynamic, complex system comprised of various systems of people, departments and technologies, and these are your best resources for contemplating the bigger picture. By inviting employees and different departments to communicate and share information with each other, you can begin brainstorming and making strategic decisions on how to successfully grow your business, as a whole.

Read more about three small businesses that used this method of communication to turn a moment of financial uncertainty into a success story.

Joseph Alonzo recently graduated Saybrook University with a Master's degree in Organizational Development and is a guest blogger for Great Place to Work®.