The Forest for the Trees

Often we are so busy coping with day-to-day issues that we don’t step back and see the big picture. Unfortunately this may mean we’re constantly reacting to symptoms rather than identifying and addressing causes. The problems we face in organizations are often complex, so we need to be able to see the forest and the trees—recurring patterns as well as individual instances.

Image credit: (c) Bob Greene

Image credit: (c) Bob Greene

It’s crucial, therefore,  to be able to explore organizational systems. Peter Senge, a leading thinker regarding systems in organizations and in society, says in his classic book, The Fifth Discipline, that

[s]ystems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots.” . . . . And systems thinking is a sensibility — for the subtle interconnectedness that gives living systems their unique character. (68-69)

Simply put, systems thinking involves looking at the interconnections between different elements—seeing the complex whole rather than focusing only on individual parts. So, for example, in organizations, what one department—say marketing—communicates to the outside world has important impacts for the day-to-day work of other units throughout the organization—which in turn affects marketing.

Last year a colleague, Heather Berthoud, and I had the opportunity to update an article that we had previously published exploring diversity and inclusion in the field of Organization Development. We shared a case study, which also illustrates the importance of taking a systems view. While gathering data for strategic planning, a colleague of ours learned that there was considerable discontent among many staff people who saw racial discrimination in hiring, firing, and promotions in an agency. Rather than treat these concerns as “off-topic,” our colleague saw that the planning process would rest on a shaky foundation if these concerns were not addressed. This is a good example of seeing the interconnections between elements in a system. As it turned out, working relationships were still being impacted by a heated exchange at a retreat that had occurred a few years before (another aspect of systems thinking is being able to connect the dots between moments in time). We worked with leadership and staff to open new channels of communication and review relevant policies and procedures. And in turn this work helped enhance the strategic planning process.

It could easily have been tempting for leadership to have said, “we will address these staff concerns later” (or to have tried to ignore them). Yet the ability of the organization to successfully carry out their strategic plan would have been compromised by concerns deep in the system that many in leadership were not fully aware of. Instead, the efforts that were made allowed new voices and perspectives to be heard and make a greater contribution to the agency’s work. Leadership took the courageous route and chose to explore the organizational system, including considering how they contributed to the dynamics. In my next post, I’ll say some more about the challenge of looking at one’s own role in an organizational system.

For more illustrations of systems thinking in organizations, please join me on June 1 at 1:00pm EDT for a free webinar, “Seeing Systems to Better Address Complex Organizational Problems.” [Update: The webinar recording is now available.]