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Leveraging Insights from Systems Thinking

  • Leveraging Insights from Systems Thinking

A colleague expressed surprise when I lamented that managers often ignore the long-term consequences of their decisions. Her response was that most decisions are made in the face of immediate and pressing issues, and these are exactly what people should pay most attention to. Clearly, on one level she is right—ignoring immediacy is dangerous. However, focusing only on the pressing problem is an invitation to unintended and unforeseen consequences in the future. Ensuring an effective response to the immediate concern while weighing long-term consequences is not a trivial task. Today’s business environment is complex. No one can predict long-term consequences with accuracy, and few managerial positions come with a crystal ball.

Systems thinking is a methodology designed to move decision makers out of immediate problem-solving mode and into balancing short-term and long-term considerations. This approach is concerned with depicting the underlying structure driving the problem to give insights into the discrete events we experience. This methodology connects the outcomes and behaviors of a system to the interconnections, interactions, and feedbacks of its constituent parts, and illustrates how these outcomes and behaviors evolve through time.

Computer simulations can be an important tool for systems thinking. A great deal of mileage can also be gained from the pen-and-paper technique of diagramming feedback loops inherent in every situation. Feedback loops are created by chaining together linear cause-and-effect relationships that eventually loop back on themselves. Diagramming these loops demonstrates how a single action can address an issue positively in the short term, but can affect the same issue negatively in the long run. For example, in my workshop on organizational change, I present a systems diagram called the “Fixes that Fail” system archetype. As an archetype, it is applicable to many diverse areas. I use this example to illustrate the potential side effects of hiring outside people with skills specific to a change initiative who would not have been hired otherwise.

A modified version of the “Fixes that Fail” diagram appears in the inset. It  is a simple illustration of the both the positive and negative results of the decision to hire. The positive short-term benefits of hiring advocates of the change often produces resentment among existing employees, which has a long-term negative impact on implementing the change. For example, I once worked with a technology firm that was implementing a supply chain management initiative. They hired several experts in the supply chain software to customize it to the firm’s needs. These experts provided an important skill, but were resented by other employees for their lack of experience in the firm’s industry. Ultimately, this resentment spread to negative feelings about the supply chain management project itself, undermining support for the needed organizational change initiative.

Shapira blog Fixes that Fail

The power of the diagram is not just to show the long-term consequences—in fact, I’ve never heard a single workshop participant exclaim that they could not have foreseen this side effect without it. Instead, it opens up the conversation to potential areas of intervention. More important, the diagram offers a new vocabulary for talking about the issue. The simple diagram allows people to move away from a static dichotomous debate of whether or not to hire advocates. Instead, participants are led to ask more contextual questions, such as “Are there unique strengths in our environment that allow us to mitigate resentment from outside hires, and when do we need to be applying the mitigation?” or “Do we have existing employees interested in this work, and how long will it take to train them?” There are no pat answers—or even pat questions—but the systems thinking approach helps opens the conversation and avoids premature oversimplification.

About the Author

Dr. Andrea Shapiro

Andrea Shapiro, PhD, is founder and principal of Strategy Perspective. She brings a unique perspective to organizational change based on experience in software development, business modeling, management, and organizational learning and development. Andrea designed and developed the Tipping Point computer simulation, which forms the heart of the Change, Dialogue, and Action Workshop. She has delivered the Workshop to major corporations, non-profits, and government agencies in the United States, Canada, and Europe, and has accredited hundreds of change leaders and consultants to deliver the workshop worldwide in their own work in organizational change. Her book Creating Contagious Commitment  gives detailed real-life examples, theory, and background, all of which will appeal to any manager faced with implementing a significant organizational change.

After earning master’s degrees in mathematics and psychology and a doctorate in behavioral decision making, Andrea went on to further studies at the Coaches Institute and the MIT Sloan Business School executive education program in system dynamics. She has also served on the Graduate Faculty at UNC Chapel Hill and taught decision making at Pfeiffer University’s graduate program in organizational management. Andrea can be reached through or you can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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