From System to Systems Thinking Mark Porter 2 April 2024

From System to Systems Thinking

Organizations consist of systems, structures, and processes. People play an integral role in determining the viability of an organization’s systems, structures, and processes. The role of people includes development, implementation, operation, assessment, adjustment, and sustainment.


an interconnected set of variables that influence one another


the way parts of the system are arranged


repetitive sequence of behaviors that constitutes a system and has a goal producing function

Key Understandings
  1. No system is as smart as some of the people it serves
  2. Systems may either increase or decrease the variety of behaviours available to us
  3. Structures can put excessive pressure on individuals resulting in similar results
Leading within a system

Organizational leadership is ultimately responsible for organizational performance; therefore, leadership is responsible for the systems, structures, and processes of an organization. Leaders must be engaged in the system and understand the structures while looking for patterns of success/failure. Effective leaders take ownership of system failures and fix the system rather than blaming others. Blaming others gives away the ability to improve the situation.

Management’s Function:
  1. Enable and motivate subordinates to perform optimally
  2. Develop subordinates to perform better in future than current capability
  3. Manage interactions not actions (internal and external)
    • Remove barriers (Bureaucracy) to optimize people performance

Bureaucracy: reduces variety of behaviours, inhibits ingenuity, stifles performance

    • Keeps people busy doing nothing of organizational value
    • Obstruct people who have work to do
    • Substantiates doing nothing, rather than getting things done
    • Reduces development
    • Eliminates choices; conformity to 1 set of rules
    • No exceptions to rules; regulations reinforce regulator’s position
    • Impersonal response/interactions
    • Blind to inefficiencies, ineffectiveness, mistakes, and inhumanity
    • Encourages corruption
    • Preserves status quo over innovation or change
    • Survives by subsidies; independent of performance, no responsibility for effectiveness of purpose or service, no accountability

Effective leaders realize that bureaucracy is a product of the system they have created. They do not blame the system or others, rather they eliminate bureaucracy to fix the system. Removing bureaucracy gives the employee the freedom to perform their job at optimal levels. Effective leaders understand that employees perform their jobs better than their bosses if given the freedom to do so. Effective leaders manage interactions within the system and not actions of people within the system. Effective leaders realise that “structure causes behavior”.

Psychology focuses on the behaviour of people. Understanding individual’s psychology fails to determine how a group of people will function together, resolve problems as a group, or operate within human systems. Human systems are complex.

Neuroscience details that there is currently substantial unfulfilled potential of the human mind. The complexity of organizational systems is better understood, and able to be adapted by expanding the human capacity to assess things systematically; Systems Thinking. Systems Thinking expands the limits of human capacity to grasp complexity, remove bureaucracy, and improve organizational performance.

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