Systems Thinking and How It Can Be Applied to Frameworks and Methods

Systems thinking is considering a system to be an interrelated and interdependent set of parts which is defined by its boundaries and is more than the sum of its parts (subsystems). Changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. Positive growth and adaptation of a system depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment, and systems often exist to accomplish a common purpose (a work function) that also aids in the maintenance of the system or the operations may result in system failure. The goal of systems thinking is systematically discovering a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions and elucidating principles (purpose, measure, methods, tools, etc.) that can be discerned and applied to systems at every level of nesting, and in every field for achieving an optimized end state through various means.

Systems thinking is a foundation of FLEX. When using FLEX, one must consider how people being affected will react. Approaches for change are not separate from the system, they become part of the system. How the organization reacts to these changes must be considered by any approach you take. It means that if an organization reacts to a change in a poor way, you cannot say, “they just didn’t use my approach properly.” Their reaction is part of the system. As Jerry Weinberg states in his seminal book, Secrets of Consulting,  “No matter how it looks at first, it’s always a people problem.”

The natural laws of software development are now pretty well known. The challenge is not what are the correct practices as much as how to get people to adopt them. Unfortunately, most adoption methods now involve following an approach instead of understanding our challenges, the intentions they are blocking and considering different solutions to eliminate the challenges. Many of these challenges are in fact how people react to change. We cannot just say “follow this” without attending to how people react to that mandate.  With apologies to Nike, you can’t just say “just do it.”

If the approach you are undertaking doesn’t incorporate this systems-thinking perspective, expect troubles. If your approach requires that people need to be a certain way (e.g., commitment, focus, openness, respect and courage), you must ask yourself “what will happen if they don’t have these qualities?” You should not be surprised if you don’t get the results the approach purports. In this situation you should also ask “how can I change the system so as to encourage these values?”

Because FLEX is based on systems thinking, how people learn and change is incorporated into its guidance. When applying FLEX, it is important to see how people react to it.  Some of this is in the ability of the coach to interact with people (see What to say when someone just doesn’t get it). This is one of the reasons that FLEX is designed to be used in a step-wise manner attending to the culture of the organization.