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How to Think in Complex Systems

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Why system thinking should be the go-to approach for modern organizations.

The world is rapidly evolving. It is quickly changing with new technology and advances in science, and medicine. Even time is moving faster than we would want it to, making it harder to accomplish minor tasks in our daily life. You would think that the same would be true with how modern organizations are managed. But unfortunately, most are still being run under the antiquated notion of a one-size-fits-all business model that isn’t reasonable or effective today.

Below, we will discuss why our physical composition makes us more tuned to a different organizational structure called systems thinking. We will also explain how systems thinking works, what its potential benefits are for organizations of all sizes, and why it should be viewed as a “no-brainer” for a modern organization. Pun intended.

The Complex Machine that Is Our Brain

The human brain has been studied for thousands of years. In 335, the Greek philosopher Aristotle thought the brain was a radiator whose sole purpose was to keep the human heart from overheating. But, it wasn’t until around 170 BC that physicians began digging more deeply, literally and figuratively. Roman physician, Galen, suggested that the brain’s four ventricles were not only the seat of complex thought but also determined our personalities and bodily functions. This initiated the theory that our brain is where memory, personality, and thinking reside. From there, the study of the understanding of the human brain and its complexity skyrocketed.

Although the brain has been extensively studied, the field of emotion research and its impact on decision-making is much newer to the field. Organizations can no longer be seen as machines that run with employees like cogs in a piece of machinery. The absence of the human aspect ultimately dooms them to being unsuccessful. Of course, spreadsheets, facts, and figures will always have a crucial role in organizations, but now more than ever, it’s being understood that modern organizations are human organizations.

Modern Organizations as Complex Systems

Modern organizations are multidimensional, especially as there has been a significant shift to remote work. Multiple people coming together in person and virtually to accomplish goals means that different personalities and problem-solving methods are merging. This can create robust, well-thought-out, and inclusive solutions in the best of circumstances. But at the same time, it can sometimes cause confusion, conflict, and discontent in less than ideal cases. When seen as complex systems full of uniquely human behavior, there is a more holistic picture of today’s organizations.

The premise of complexity theory in organizations is that there is an unseen order to the evolution and behavior of these systems. In business, this can be an organization in any industry. The focus is on how today’s modern organizations resemble an ecosystem. The parts and functions of the organization and the systems that compose it result from laws of nature by which humans are innately drawn. When these ecosystems run naturally, the more successful the organization will be.

Management Science Is Stuck in a Rut

Businesses a century ago were primarily production-based, like assembly lines. They were linear systems that did not require a complex system for organizational thinking as the factors involved were primarily driven by figures and numbers. However, today’s businesses are far from linear. No matter their size, they are run by individuals, committees, and groups making a substantial number of decisions based on multiple inputs, thoughts, and data. Most of them still follow the same best practices that haven’t changed in the last half a century. But why? Doesn’t it seem unfit and outdated? We believe they are, and here’s why.

The primary and general answer to why few organizations adopt systems thinking is that the old school systems have been around so long that they have simply been accepted as the status quo. More managers and executives are learning about systems thinking, but it is still considered an exception and not the rule. Even managers and executives who are aware of this new strategy may feel that they don’t have enough understanding about it. They may also think they don’t have the needed support to make this shift, which is even worse. As a result, it can be hard to make radical changes in how a business structure is run.

Systems Thinking as the New Way Of Organizational Thinking

Today’s organizations operate in a way starkly different from those in the 20th century. That means they need to think non-linear, and instead, think complex. That is where systems thinking introduces itself. It is a holistic approach to investigating factors and interactions that can contribute to an outcome. This approach is considered to be more of a mindset than a prescribed practice.

Systems thinking provides a deeper understanding of how individuals work together in different teams. Organizations can create the best processes to accomplish any goal using that understanding. There are four essential tools used in this approach of organizational thinking. These include being responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed. Using these tools and adopting systems thinking can benefit an organization significantly. Some of these benefits are:

  • Creating compelling visions of the organization’s future
  • Understanding and fixing recurring problems that prior seemed to have no solution
  • Re-designing organization systems that are broken
  • Exploring new business opportunities
  • Understanding complex human factor challenges that are associated with change
  • Designing new systems

The key is to actually implement the systems thinking approach. Many organizations may articulate that approach but utilize a more analytical thinking method.

Our brain is where all this begins. It is a complex organ that is the epicenter of our central nervous system, which controls our every function. It is also the reason why trying to box an organization and everything it encompasses into one particular vision and style of management seems to be downright impossible.

If each person, group, and division of an organization is a part of a larger living organism, the future of organization management must be viewed holistically. The more modern organizations adopt systems thinking, the more likely they are to see a thriving and growing workforce, profit margin, and company as a whole. No one wants to be the dinosaur left in the dust. So pick your call and make the right decision!

If you want to dive into the world of complex systems and systems thinking, check out these articles!

How to Apply Systems Thinking in Running and Managing a Business

The Unintended Consequences of Competitive Intelligence

3 Rules from Nature’s Complex Systems for Better Business Performance

References l

Why Few Organizations Adopt Systems Thinking

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