A guide to One System Thinking

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect”

Chief Seattle

Reading time: 5 minutes

So much of the world of work focuses on individual performance and results. Goals are usually set by and for individuals. Performance reviews and performance management systems are typically individually focused. Most reward and recognition systems are aimed at individuals.

These crucial rhythms and rituals – goal setting, performance reviewing and reward and recognition are just 3 examples of a world that emphasises the individual. So it’s possibly not surprising that a lot of thinking, and as a result a lot of behaviour, shows up in the form of narrow focus, often individual, sometimes by team or single business unit function. Clearly that has its place, but left unchecked and unbalanced it leads to beliefs and behaviours that show up as “if I or we just focus on the thing we need to get done, then life will be just fine.”

Well no, it won’t. As Chief Seattle points out, in pretty much every aspect of our lives, we are part of a wider web. We do not make the web, the web is bigger than us. Our families, our communities, in nature and in work, we are connected to other things and as a result, thought or action in one part of the web (yes, that’s you) will inevitably have an impact somewhere else. Pretty much everything in our lives is reliant on something else. Humans need food and water. Plants need sunlight. Cars need some form of fuel or energy. The reality of our world is dynamic and connected.

The effects can be significant in terms of performance and results. Where thought and action fail to consider this connection, then things that matter elsewhere in the business or organisation suffer. Other people and teams are hindered in delivering what they need to for overall success. Decisions and actions have to be unpicked or revisited. Unhelpful noise, frustration and interference are created and in a world where competitors and other factors outside our control put obstacles and challenges in our way. It makes little sense to create obstacles and challenges of our own. Interfering with your own performance is not a good look. In short, a lack of One System Thinking is a self-imposed tax on your hard work.

On the other hand, where thought and action happen in ways that take into account the reality and of a wider system, then you start to reap dividends in performance and results. Efficiency improves. Effectiveness improves. Impact is deeper, stronger and more sustainable. You get better results more quickly.

“I wish we had more silos”
No leader, ever.

Simply recognising this phenomenon is not enough. We need to bring it to our consciousness and it needs to show up in our thinking and action as part of deciding the choices we make.

So what does this mean practically? Well, Leyla Acaroglu has done some great work in this area and we’re going to draw on her work to help us here, particularly some of the concepts she’s identified as being fundamental for system thinking.

“A system is a set of related components that work together in a particular environment to perform whatever functions are required to achieve the system’s objective.”

Donella Meadows, author of Thinking in Systems

Innovation, change and growth

Typically, proactive innovation, change and growth require two or more things to come together. Dr. Acaroglu tell us this requires synthesis thinking, not analytical thinking. This represents a challenge in the world of work, where analysis – breaking whole things down into their constituent parts – is highly valued. How often do we see job descriptions that require “analytical skills”? Bringing multiple things together to deliver something new, requires synthesis skills – the ability to see connections. So growing your ability in this area is really going to help.

Feedback and squirrels

We know how important feedback is in terms of performance. For One System Thinking, the approach you take to gathering feedback really matters. If you only gather feedback relating to individual or team performance, then there’s a danger that you get what Dr. Acaroglu calls “a reinforcing feedback loop”. Feedback in a silo can be a great example of this – where an individual or a team gathers feedback on what looks like great performance or results and it reinforces the factors that led to the success. In nature, the successful population growth of grey squirrels is a reinforcing feedback loop. The grey squirrels are having the time of their lives. The red squirrels, slightly less so.

One System Thinking requires what Dr. Acaroglu calls “a balancing feedback loop”. Again, nature helps us here. Where the predator and prey are in the right balance, then both parts of the system can thrive and are sustainable. Get the balance or relationship wrong, or create conditions where only one can thrive and we’re back to squirrels.

Cause and effect

For One System Thinking, feedback needs to help shine a light on cause and effect. One System Thinking organisations are great at knowing how one part of the system impacts other parts. They don’t simply recognise the phenomenon, they understand it and continually use that understanding to get better at One System Thinking. Feedback sessions held with multiple parts of the business are essential here.