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How To Drive More Meaningful Change With Systems Thinking

Your 10X gain won't come from brute forcing through the work.

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Powerful, Yet Underrated

Systems thinking — it’s one of the most powerful, yet underrated ideas.

It’s one of the best ways I’ve come across to find high-leverage opportunities and interventions that lead to more meaningful and lasting change. It’s under-documented and somehow gets less attention than much less impactful ideas such as delegation, especially for those first entering the leadership arena.

The domain originated as far back as 1956, but even some of the most foundational ideas haven’t made their way to the forefront of organizational management and are far from being a staple in the leadership playbook, much less navigating day-to-day life.

I’m not going to cover the fundamentals of Systems Thinking in this article, so in case you need a ‘primer’ on Systems Thinking, I recommend reading “Thinking in Systems — A Primer” By Donella Meadows. Pun intended.

Alternatively, go through a few whitepapers on this treasure trove to get the gist of it.

Ok, with that preamble out of the way, let’s put Systems Thinking in the spotlight today to give it the attention it deserves and improve the signal-to-noise ratio out there.

A More Objective View Of Reality

As I was heads-down building a course module on finding opportunities worth pursuing in Q4 of 2023, I realized how powerful Systems Thinking not only helps with thinking bigger, but also putting things in the right perspective.

Most have heard of…

“Can’t see the forest for the trees.”

If this is borderline trite wisdom, then it begs the question, why do we keep falling into this trap?

Well, it’s because it’s difficult to think on a systems level when you are constantly trapped working inside a system at nearly 100% capacity. That’s why nothing good ever happened on those 80-hour work weeks where you are grinding to pump out code.

Moreover, we lack a reliable trigger to get us out of first-person mode and into third-person mode where we can see the bigger picture. That’s where Systems Thinking comes in.

Applying Systems Thinking at a basic level doesn’t require an advanced degree in the topic. It can be as simple as zooming out from the task level to monitor:

  • Where inputs come in
  • What outputs are derived
  • How feedback loops impact the next iteration (i.e. state changes)

Scary how simple it can be — no PhD needed here. Just need to remember to consistently apply it.

It’s no surprise that one of the best pieces of management advice I was given early in my career is:

“Gradually shift your attention from working IN the system to working ON the system.”

Edwards Deming, an absolute OG in this domain, figured it out long ago.

“95% of variation in the performance of a system is caused by the system itself; only 5% is caused by the people.”

W. Edwards Deming,

Meaningful Interventions For Lasting Change

Remember when I was hating on delegation earlier? Let's bring it full circle.

I’m going to take 3 examples from the higher-impact interventions (i.e. leverage points) from the System Thinking playbook to illustrate why delegation is considered tinkering on the margins that won’t lead to breakthrough results.

  • Setting meaningful goals. The level of output or who ends up doing the work doesn’t matter; if the system is designed to chase goals, which don’t matter.

    • You can have the best widget factory, but what’s the point if there’s no demand for widgets?
    • "Build it and they will come!” — nightmares anyone?

  • Incentives, leading to self-organization. If everyone has enough skin in the game and acts as principals rather than agents, you don’t need layers of bureaucracy, red tape and governance — *barf*.

    • Check out the links I embedded for some GOAT level stuff from Nasim Taleb and Naval Ravikant.

  • Rules of the game. It boils down to win conditions and constraints everyone operates within. We tend to care a lot about them when playing board games or video games, but pay less attention in the IRL game — that’s kinda messed up.

    • Win conditions define what “success” looks like, causing each person in the system to chase that or reverse engineer that outcome if you’re smart (more on rule beating aka gaming the system another day)
    • Constraints take away options you have at your disposal to achieve the win condition. That’s why some techies who haven’t future-proofed their skills lose their shit when their favourite tool disappears from the tech stack. If this feels like you, please DM me to fix it ASAP.
    • Unsurprisingly, whoever has influence over the rules or even how the rules are enforced, has tremendous power. Damn those bad refs that ruined the game due to a bad call. 😠

Cutting up the task through delegation should feel like small potatoes at this point.

However, we can all recall at least one manager who ONLY delegates and thinks they are a “leader” when in reality.

Be better.

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