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In the extremely dramatic end to Game of Thrones, Jon Snow, AKA Aegon Targaryen (not that that really mattered, right), made an almost instantaneous decision to commit an act that had long-term consequences for the seven kingdoms. He chose duty over love and was still grappling with his choice as the end-credits rolled. When faced with a decision like that, we argue some savvy systems thinking could have come in handy!
In a nutshell, systems thinking is based on the premise that anything you see is the consequence of a set of interrelated actions leading to a result. Understanding that every action has a consequence enables you to view the world as a set of systems in which you always play a part – even if you’re a reluctant player like Jon.
It’s also an extremely useful tool if you find yourself a little on the indecisive side. If you’re often overwhelmed by options, take a step back and understand these are connected. Small things have big impacts and understanding the connections will enable you to grasp why specific incidents are happening in organisations, markets and the world at large. Seeing how systems are linked will also allow you to proactively spot problems and comprehend the impact of interventions. That means being empowered to anticipate challenges before they arise.
You need to observe systems and to have a clear understanding of the data you’re receiving. What connects to what? If you take away or add something, how does that impact the whole? By analysing the contribution of every actor in a system, you can comprehend the clockwork that leads to the time being right on the dial.
Start by peering behind the veil. Understand the active process that leads to the things around us. By examining the raw elements, it becomes clear all systems comprise people who are either cooperating or competing. To make a big-picture decision, you need to look at what lets people cooperate or compete – and which one you need more of to solve your problem or capitalise on an even greater opportunity.
Decide if the process you want to affect requires you to do more or to do less. More competition, less competition; more cooperation, less cooperation. If you apply this thinking to every step in the chain, you are bound to find significant opportunities. This may take the form of root-cause analysis or mapping out the process.
For example, when a company builds a low-cost alternative to a key component in a supply chain, it may be because that allows them to control that supply chain. A small tweak could make an organisation more open to change.
Does your idea need to be perfect before you can kick-off? When does your scenario planning suggest is the correct timing? Do you have alternatives in place?
Great ideas are never enough. You need to show up and put in the hours. Implementation is the key to big-picture thinkers changing the world. Moving towards the end state you want to achieve is always better than taking a detour.
Jon probably wishes he had a nifty AI on-hand to tell him yay or nay. Most of us would love someone else to take over when it comes to making defining decisions. However, the truth is there are two kinds of decisions – those that enable and those that limit. Computers are good at limiting your actions by suggesting an optimal path for something that already exists, based on historical information. They’re not good at creating new options from scratch – or at building relationships with humans. That’s where humans are invaluable and human to human interactions are key. Relationships define and create systems.
Once you decide on a solution, you need to influence people to achieve it. This goes beyond straightforward persuasion. Persuasion is to seek a temporary outcome of compliance, using the best motivator available. To influence, you need a clear vision, an outline for how to get there and aspects of personal and organisational motivation to move people forward. Your execution may not happen instantly but, if done for the right reasons with the right motivation, it will be a lasting change.