The Big Problem With Systems Thinking

There is lots of talk about systems thinking.  The talk sounds a little like this:

  • Organisations are a system of connected parts
  • It is the connections in the system that dictate performance
  • If we improve the system we can improve performance

It is a fascinating conversation — no really it is.

But there is a big problem with systems thinking, it is hard to see a system.

So instead of managing the system…

We manage the things we can see

Imagine a used car sales man who fails to make the sale.  We can see the salesman, and we can see his sales figures, so we:

  • Incentivise him, more money, more sales
  • Give him goals
  • Make them SMART, 4 cars sold per week every week till Christmas
  • Rank against his peers so he can see exactly how he is doing
  • Give him motivational pep talks
  • Put the fear of god into him and threaten him with the sack

We manage the salesman and we manage his sales figures.  We manage the things we can see…

But we ignore the things we can’t

If we went and looked we might just find out that:

  • He hasn’t been given any sales training
  • His promotional materials are poor
  • He hasn’t the budget to pay for a car cleaner
  • He can’t offer an after sales warranty
  • His sales lot is hidden behind the municipal tip
  • The local teenagers hang around outside (hoodies and all)

Are these just excuses?

Or are they the reasons why he never sells a car?  I don’t know.  I do know that the only way to really find out is to go and look.  It is hard to manage something if you don’t see it.

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root. – Thoreau

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The problem with Systems Thinking

Read another opinion

Image by konomike


  1. Joseph Paris says:


    The way the brains of most people are wired is to focus on the nearby, what their particular talents are, and how to apply them – narrow and deep (Subject Matter Experts – SME’s).

    The brains of Systems Thinkers are wired to consider an entirety, observe how things are and hypothesize on iterations – wide and shallow (Strategists).

    So it stands to reason that;
    – It’s a waste of time and effort to try to make someone something they are not.
    – A successful team will consist of a few “Systems Thinkers” to understand the grand and create a plan – and a greater number of SME’s to make it a reality.

    • James Lawther says:

      Some of what you Say Joseph I think is very sensible — create a mix of people in your team, some SME’s and some systems thinkers, a very good point

      But is it a waste of time and effort to make somebody something that they are not? There I am not so sure


      • Not a waste of time but difficult (interesting). How do you change a learned behaviour. Most people work-up through organisations and depending on their perspective and character, might be able to switch their brain from a focused and deep tactical task based role they were in, to a more strategic one. For example and design is focussed on the technical detail of parts they work on and know inside out, however may be promoted into an Exec role that needs both a systems engineering view and business operations view, very little to do actually Engineering anymore. The latter point is the confusing piece for people. How to prompt people to adapt a part of their life they potentially enjoyed and apply only part of their past experiences to the systems role. Do we fully define and support those people who are clearly narrow & deep who are promoted into a broad and shallow role.

        Doesn’t aways happen. Should all managers, particularly Execs be supported in this transition, absolutely, As reflective people they should recognise the difference, however do they know what what systems thinking actually means. Stating a vision, mission, objectives, measures and resourcing are only parts of the story and needs to be supported by an infrastructure that supports the ideas and practices. Lesser Execs and Managers are driven to think in a narrow and deep way (still) to fill in the gaps left by the strategy and therefore can find little time to learn or adapt to a broader and systems view of the world. The impact is for stagnation (individually and the organisation).

        • James Lawther says:

          Mike, thanks for your comment, I see deep technical skill in managers at senior levels all the time, and often they are missing any perspective of the wider issues at all.

          No doubt there is a training opportunity in there somewhere.


  2. Gregory Burnworth says:

    I would say most people who do not uderstand systems thinking is because a) they have never walked the system and processes through direct observation. b) they have never been taught the skills to understand the current system c) both a and b. One can never seek to improve a system in a conference room.

  3. Hello James,

    It occurs to me that you are correct in pointing out that it is hard to see a system.

    As for your advice, “go and take a look”, I have some questions. Let’s assume that you built a robot to do the looking. What would you program the robot to look for? Notice, that to look you already have to know (have a point of view) on what to look for.

    If you make your living from training you will look for ‘lack of skills in selling’ and no doubt you will find something that is deficient.

    If you come from the scientific school of management (and most managers do) then you will take a look at the performance measures and work on the ‘sticks and carrots’.

    If you are in the business of selling CRM systems you are likely to find that the organisation (and the sales guy) does not have access to the right CRM system.

    If you come from the humanistic school (Carl Rogers et al) you will take a look at the human context in which the sales person is working and ask if this context calls forth the best from the salesperson.

    If you come from a systems thinking background then you are likely to look for the interconnections that have some impact on sales performance: location, cars, marketing, after sales, reputation, economy, demographics, financing options, the sales person’s mental model….. And determine which of these variables have the most impact and thus act on the key leverage points.

    It occurs to me that we do not excel at systems thinking because we do not have cultural practices that call us to practice and excel at systems thinking. ON the contrary, we have cultural practices that call forth and embody analytic-reductive thinking-doing practices.

    All the best

    • James Lawther says:

      Interesting thought Maz, I guess the systems thinkers are as blind as every one else. I suppose that is where diversity comes into play. And listening…

  4. Hi James,
    In a previous life, I had the pleasure of working with a very smart man who a big user of systems thinking (he was also the son of Edward de Bono). The way he brought it to life was to draw the system such that it helped him and us better understand all of the relationships that exist (soft and hard) in the system that we were trying to develop.

    That helped us ‘see’ something so we could then manage it.


    • James Lawther says:

      How did he do that Adrian? If you have any pointers I’d love to see them.


      • Nothing written down other than memories of it being a useful way to look at things. It did involve lots of sketches, thinking about the flow, dependencies and feedback loops between elements in a business/process and a number of quite a lot variations and iterations.

        I hasten to add that we never ever resorted to Visio. It was all done as part of a discussion and done by hand on a piece of paper or a whiteboard.

        Had a lot in common with the theory of constraints approach. I am sure that you are familiar with that, yes?


        • James Lawther says:

          Ah visio, the killer of conversation.

          Thanks, I’ll have a look see what I can find.

        • Steven Van de Maele says:

          Yes, for people that are interested in how to put system thinking into practice, I encourage to do some research on the Theory of Constraints. Just read 1 or 2 books of Goldratt, and that might be enough to become passioned about this very practical philosophy.

          The article talks about difficulties of managing what you can’t see. TOC addresses this point through the thinking processes, where cause and effect relationships are verbalised and visualised to address exactly these system dependencie, in order to find out the few root causes that are underlying a wide range of problems (or effects).

  5. Sid Joynson says:

    This thread illustrates the truth of one of my favourite sayings;
    “Opinions are the cataracts of the mind, sometimes they distort, and other times they completely blind”.
    When I am observing a situation I park my opinions.


    Most people when they look at things see them through their own opinions. This is to observe life through a stained glass window, with all its colours and patterns.
    As everyone has different opinions (Stained glass window) they argue about how they see the world, not what is in front of them. If we put our opinions to one side and just observe through a window with no glass in it, you can see things as they really are, and there is nothing to argue about.

    We just need to help each other see things clearly.

    Ohno had a warning about data.
    In production plant operations data is highly regarded; but I consider facts to be more important. When a problem arises, if the search for the causes is not thorough, the actions taken can be out of focus.
    (Data is the effect created by the facts. The solution is in the corrective action to change the facts).

    The Roger commission on the shuttle disaster was very specific in this regard;

    “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature/reality cannot be fooled”.

    The reality was that the fitters had been reporting the ‘fact’ that the ‘O’ rings were nearly burnt through on the boosters each time they replaced them. But no one listened. Facts come before the data; but too often we measure the data rather then monitor the facts.

    Too often our politicians chose the data that supports what their opinions want the facts to be. But as Rogers’ said; nature/reality cannot be fooled. But the people can.

    I think this is a trap we can all fall into. Remembering the glassless window, and the balance between data and facts should protect you from it.

  6. James,

    Three different tools immediately came to mind as I was reading this: root cause analysis, customer journey maps, and process maps.

    Thanks for getting us thinking, er, systems thinking. :-)

    Annette :-)

  7. There’s a lot of good sense being raised here and two comments ring extremely true; “go and see” and “we just need to help each other see things clearly”. The latter one reminds me though, that often we are in danger of overcomplicating our approaches to improving things.

    Take James’s salesman example, with the salesman not making his target, surely the first question they should ask themselves is “why am I not hitting the target?” and hopefully before they have the conversation with their manager. Please note the use of the dangerous word “should”, as this implies what I think the most likely behaviour ought to be.

    If this doesn’t happen, then their manager needs to be asking this question and after two or three conversations with their manager asking this question every time, the salesman will soon learn and come to the next meeting having asked themselves the question beforehand and have an answer ready. The complication comes when the manager doesn’t ask this question and often this is a symptom of cultural issues, driven downwards where the manager’s manager is not asking these basic questions.

    • James Lawther says:


      Thanks for your comment. I particularly like your dangerous word “should”.


  8. As far as I understand CAS or Systems Thinking – we can’t see the connections in the system – what we see is what we want to see on the whole. Moreover optimising one part of the whole i.e. some interconnect will very often have totally unintended consequences. Think butterfly effect.

    Systems exhibit complex behaviours because off the back of a simple rule set. It’s the rule set we need to look at.

    Cheers – happy thinking

    • James Lawther says:

      Sadly Eben, you are so right, we see what we want to see. So we don’t learn too much.



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