Management and Systems Thinking

image of a man thinking about systems

“Until managers take into account the systemic nature of their organizations, most of their efforts to improve their performance are doomed to failure.”

Dr. Russell Ackoff (thanks to Susanne Kaiser for the reference)

I came across this Twitter thread from Rein Henrichs, and I thought it had many good points about systems thinking and management.

It caused me to reflect a bit on my approach to systems thinking in the context of technical leadership.

One of the things that helped me the most as an engineering leader was developing a better understanding of systems thinking. When I (or others) use the analogy of “planting a garden” when setting up teams for success, this is what we mean. We are creating the system to enable groups and individuals to do their best work and then allow good behaviors (and results) to emerge. Of course, creating a system takes longer than pushing things down into the organization. Still, it produces more creativity and autonomy in the organization and makes it more resilient to change or challenges.

Managers who do not work with this understanding of systems think that management is purely about doing stuff: defining rules, policies, and procedures, assigning tasks, creating external incentives, and fixing problems. This “doing stuff” approach can produce good results in small teams or for a constrained about of time.

As Rein Henrichs also correctly points out, the act of building a system can be incomprehensible for others in the organization who are not directly involved (especially in other disciplines that are more transactional). This lack of understanding has often been my biggest challenge as a company’s senior engineering leader.

Building a system takes time. If you can get things to a good place where the system is starting to be self-perpetuating, the rest of the organization will see the improvements and become supporters.

Suppose the leadership team is impatient and doesn’t understand what you are trying to do. In that case, they will lean into the quick fixes listed above, namely re-organization or replacing individuals or trying to “drive accountability” through reductive top-down control mechanisms.

If that happens, you are stuck trying to mitigate the damage and build a longer-term plan to return to your original goals, but it is often a losing battle. The primary culture of the organization has re-asserted itself, and your chance to evolve it has mostly gone.

How do you avoid that fate?

Communicate! Make your plans clear in the hiring process, your initial days in the organization, and all along the process. Set realistic timelines for improvement and celebrate the successes along the way. When your peers are impatient, refocus them on the plan and the long-term gains you are working towards. Point to the achievements thus far and try to keep their “eyes on the prize.”

Will this always work?

No. It depends on the company’s situation and how much pressure there is on the leadership team. If the company is under stress, it might be better to refocus on shorter-term solutions that don’t actively detract from what you are trying to build.

My biggest successes in companies were getting the entire organization on board with the system I was working to build. Gaining support for a new systemic working is a culture change, and getting backing is contingent on the company wanting to change. If the company is on a “burning platform,” a situation where change is required for the company to grow or survive, you will find less resistance. A burning platform also provides the inspiration to persevere if the change is difficult.

My biggest failures trying to build systems were when I did not communicate my intentions clearly or did not get buy-in from the rest of the leadership team, or when I was not effective at communicating the improvements along the way.

Another challenge can be a change (losing a customer or a tough quarter) that puts pressure on the leadership team. In this case, you need to adapt quickly. Hopefully, the system you are putting in place encourages being nimble. You may need to pause the change to the system to focus on shorter-term tactical solutions. To minimize the disruption in the organization, be transparent about the need for the change, and set an expectation on how you will get reoriented towards your original vision afterward.

While there are many good books on systems thinking, the one I consistently recommend for engineering leaders is Management 3.0 by Jurgen Appelo. It isn’t just about systems thinking but weaves it into a broader book about management.

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