Cairn Leadership

Enhance Team Problem Solving with Systems Thinking

Team problem solving requires a systems thinking approach

Around 2010 US Air Force nuclear missile units were falling apart. Members were found cheating on tests and using drugs. Morale was at an all time low. It was time to do some serious team problem solving.  

So, leadership did what has always worked. They set higher standards and paid more attention. They established performance goals and incentives. They put more strict punishments in place. The result, even lower performance. 

It turned out that leadership had done the right things for a smaller system, but failed to grasp the larger system. The airmen in that unit had no purpose. The nuclear capability of the US Air Force had not been needed for a long time. The cold war was over. Everyone knew that an assignment to that unit would end a career.

Lower performance drove more engaged leadership which drove lower morale which drove lower performance and so on. By making the unit a career boost, the Airforce was eventually able to reverse these feedback loops and get the unit back on track. 

teams are complex and team problem solving requires systems thinking
Viewing morale as a system can help illuminate the paradigm problem driving dangerous performance at the USAF nuclear missile sites.

We all intuitively know that the world around us is a system. 

In the West, we have also been deeply indoctrinated into reductionist thinking. When something is broken, break it into the smallest possible parts, find the issue and put the fixed parts back together. Now don’t get me wrong, I love reductionism. If an engineer is working on my helicopter, I sure hope she breaks it down and ensures all the bolts are right. 

Still, we are missing a powerful tool to understand the world and our place in it when we fail to think about systems as leaders. 

What is a system?  

Webster dictionary defines a system as “a regularly interacting or interdependent group of items forming a unified whole.” Sound like a team to you? Me too.

To break it down a bit more, in systems each component affects other components. That makes systems complex and unpredictable. When you alter one person’s job description, someone in a totally different department stops doing a good job. To make things more confusing, sometimes good, or bad, things just emerge from the chaos.  

Some fundamental systems thinking terms: 

Systems thinking – Focusing on the interrelation between parts instead of the parts themselves… A holistic approach to the world

Stocks – Reservoirs of a resource in a system like money, morale, or widgets

Flows – The movement of resources between stocks

Feedback loops – The impact of the level of a stock on the rate of a flow 

Reinforcing loops – The higher (lower) a stock the faster (slower) the flow (more money in a bank account drives higher returns through interest which leads to more money in the account)

Balancing loops – The movement of a stock level drives feedback loops to seek equilibrium (too many rabbits eat all the grass which leads to population dying from too little food and the return to right size population for a given ecosystem)

Systems Thinking and Patterns Pyramid
Team problems appear as events, but the patterns and structures that cause them need to be fixed to solve the issue.

Four ways to use Systems Thinking for team problem solving

1. Seek leverage to affect change in systems

The whole universe is a system, we just put artificial boundaries around a forest, an organization, or an idea. This means that leaders who want to think in systems have to include all the relevant components in their boundaries. Otherwise components outside the system will drive confusing outcomes. 

Example: You live to work, so when you think of a team system you draw a boundary around your team. Many people on your team have children who are part of their system. When you offer a significant bonus to people who stay at work late, most of your talented parents leave the company. Good idea, bad boundaries.  

How to fix it: Pay attention! Ask a lot of questions. “When I do this, who and what does the action impact?” Anything that directly impacts components of your system ought to be included in the system, otherwise you’ll be driving a proverbial car without wheels. 

2. Identify systems through flows and patterns

Flows – Humans tend to look at the world in snapshots. We look at a lake and we see a big body of water. We don’t tend to see flows. A systems thinker looks at a lake and sees running in running in and water raining in and water seeping and evaporating out. The better you can identify the flow of influence on your team or the accumulation / erosion of your team’s trust in you, the faster you can fix issues and leverage opportunities. If you can’t see the flows you are already behind. 

Patterns – Similarly, when you notice a trend or a pattern you almost certainly are looking at a system attempting to maintain equilibrium. Say your boss yells at you for poor work one day and comes back to apologize the next day. If this happens several times, you need to start looking for the structure and paradigms driving this behavior instead of ignoring the pattern. Maybe your boss doesn’t like you but his or her boss does. Maybe your boss really likes you but struggles with perfectionism. Whatever the case, when you shed light on the system causing the behavior, you can start changing it. 

3. Find leverage points for change

Systems are hard to change, because their goal is typically to persist. Referring back to the pyramid above, when events happen we tend to react. We fix the problem and move on. If we don’t notice the pattern of events we end up in reaction mode all of the time and the system might oscillate out of control. When we notice the pattern, we can adapt. We change some things and hope the intervention helps. It often does, but it is a band aid instead of a true fix. We can only truly fix systems level problems by reflecting and becoming creative. We have to find the governing rules and paradigms and then shift those. Deep persistent problems such as systemic racism require a systems thinking approach.  

Here are a couple ways that Donella Meadows offers in her excellent book Thinking In Systems to change a system.

Change the rules. Sometimes the rules are broken and by changing them you can make the system work more effectively. For example if your rule is that your annual budget is driven by spending in the current year, people will buy useless stuff to keep their budget high. If you change the rule to require budget forecasts and give departments more or less money according to the forecasts, your organization will waste less money at the end of the fiscal year. 

Change the goal. In the US we define happiness by GDP. So everything is driven by the goal of spending more money. Ironically, more sick people drive higher GDP by spending more on healthcare. If instead we defined happiness by health and quality time with family, maybe we would focus more on preventative medicine. As a leader the goals you set matter a lot. It’s worth the time to focus completely on your mission and vision (perhaps on a strategic offsite).  

Look for delays. Systems often move slowly. Leaders then think that they need to change more and end up with large sometimes destructive oscillations. A classic example is low sales leading to a marketing effort. Suddenly sales go up, so you order a lot more product. The product quality goes down in your race to make enough and people stop buying it. You get low sales with a ton of inventory. Building in some delay on your part can dampen out oscillations and prevent whiplash on your team. 

4. Know when to use systems thinking to address a team problem

It seems to me that leaders should always be considering the world as a system. That said, Michael Goodman says we should be particularly aware of system in four cases.  

1. Intractable problems – We have tried and failed to fix this thing before.

2. Cyclical problems – We have noticed a pattern here. 

3. Important problems – If it’s critical to your organization, it’s almost certainly a system. 

4. Long term problems – Systems always operate over time. If your problem persists, its a system. 

Becoming a systems thinker

With the advent of the scientific method, we have become extraordinarily adept at reductionism. Many, at least in the West, have dropped the ability to think in holistic systems. As the organizational world increases its pace and complexity, leaders need systems thinking to address interconnected problems. This primer is a beginning, but purposeful study and practice seeing the world differently will help you lead your team effectively. 

You can do a lot to build your skill on your own. Look for patterns at work, in your relationships, and when you read the news. Start thinking about what systems in paradigms are driving those patterns.

Consider the world views and paradigms that drive your behavior. Do you believe in capitalism? Do you believe in meritocracy? These kinds of beliefs will drive implicit behaviors, and understanding how they frame the purpose of the systems you operate in will help you see the whole.

Of course we can help you learn these principles faster on a tailored leadership training as well.