7 reasons you shouldn’t touch systems thinking

It’s not all cream cakes and beer in systems thinking. 

Here’s seven things you’ll have to put up with if you start getting curious and learning.

  1. You’ll still work in command-and-control land. Everything around you won’t have changed but you will have. This causes a huge disconnect. You’ve just joined another organisation-the real one.
  2. No-one else will understand what you are on about. At all. Give up talking about work, other people will be using a different mental model to you, you will have different frames of reference, different vocabulary, different assumptions and different conclusions.
  3. Performance reviews will be impossible. You’ve learned that about 95% of performance is down to the system you are in and not you. Try and talk usefully in a performance review now, go on. If you know what to say and what not, please tell me in the comments below as I don’t have a clue. Performance reviews will still go on, and you will still be in them.
  4. KPIs, unit costs, benchmarking, targets, robust project plans, key priorities, strategic priorities, key strategic priorities.  All of this will still be around you and you will have to pretend they exist, like unicorns or Santa Claus. Good luck!
  5. Are you a leader? If so, keep at it! Leadership is exactly about this. Shaping purpose, principles and facilitating method. If not, then you’re pushing a snowball uphill with your nose.
  6. “oh, we tried that last year”
  7. Genuine unhappiness.  You might be dis-satisfiedwith the way things are, you may know that ISO/Lean/6 sigma/whatever is a pile of crap. But knowing WHY it is a pile of crap and how it could be made better, and not being able to effect that change…that is the thing that will make you properly unhappy. Genuinely and for the foreseeable.

But you don’t have any choice. Curiosity is it’s own master.

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27 Responses to 7 reasons you shouldn’t touch systems thinking

  1. Tim Joy says:

    Ain’t it the dastardly truth?! But it is part of the beauty of the work we’ve taken on . . . bringing other people in. It will take time, but we have to do it.


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  3. bakkegaard says:

    Once you swallow the red pill there is no going back.

    I wholeheartedly share your understanding as well as your despair.

    However, I could not, would not “go back” to my former limited consciousness.


  4. he98nw says:

    Hi there,
    I am you first time reader of your blog. You have a nice list of observations about an organization.
    To me, system thinking helps everyone within an organization to do better at what they are supposed to do, not what they feel about what others are doing.

    BTW, “effectiveness trumps efficiency” really? The two, effectiveness and efficiency, are measurements and running parallel, aren’t they?
    Here is my analogy to show the difference between the two terms.
    Let us suppose that one’s goal is from A to B. There are three alternatives.
    option1. One can go straight since it is the shortest.
    option 2. One can zigzag to get there. It’s not as efficient as option 1.
    option 3. One can also get there by circling around (spiral), with a few times getting B closer and closer. It was the worst among the three if you are measuring its efficiency.
    All three ways to get from A to B are effective. That is, an approach may not efficient can be effective. The reason that two are linked because if one can carry out a goal efficiently, one is capable to achieve goals, that is, to be effective. If one did not get to B, one is not effective. One’s efficiency is no longer relevant.
    If one wants to analyze the reasons of not being able to go straight but zigzag, or spiraling, that is a context sensitive discussion. It could be environmental or aptitude problems.
    Please feel free to criticize my use of the analogy.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Thanks for long and thoughtful comment.
      In a nutshell, what i mean by effectiveness is purpose, and pursing purpose, comes above pursuing efficiency. I must have read it in a thousand different ways before i understood what it properly meant. Variations like “better to do the right thing wrong, than the wrong thing righter and righter” or, Deming’s concentrate on quality and costs fall, but concentrate on costs and costs rise.


      • Adam Yuret says:

        I think a better distinction could be “Productivity” vs. “Effectiveness” who cares how much you’re getting done if it’s the wrong stuff?

        Great post, though I find it describes my unenviable position to a tee 😉


  5. Charles Beauregard says:

    “Try and talk usefully in a performance review now, go on. If you know what to say and what not, please tell me in the comments below as I don’t have a clue.”

    Here are some tips from a contemporary of yours: http://systemsthinkingforgirls.com/2012/01/08/for-systems-thinkers-how-to-cope-with-your-appraisal-in-a-command-and-control-organisation/


  6. tichford says:

    Spot on but I fortunately am spending all my time systems thinking and whilst sharing the frustrations we are about to make normal systems thinking in a significant part of my council so there is hope.


    • ThinkPurpose says:

      Ah, of course. I was writing from the perspective of me, and forgot not everyone in the world is me right now, and the magic words “It depends”. It is different when it’s working with other people around you. I should have emphasised that this is written from the perspective of the “onion patch”.

      Your comment has prompted me to do a new post next week, 7 reasons why you should love systems thinking.


  7. LOL, I hear you.

    I hope you will bring this voice to our small unconference in June? We really need to talk practically about these conundrums: KPIs, performance reviews, and in general the cognitive dissonance we suffer once we leave the mechanistic mental model behind.

    Our invitation to you is at htp://stoosXchange.org – please do consider spending the weekend in the country with a bunch of people who have also left the old models behind. Will be very cool!



  8. John Wenger says:

    Love this article. I sometimes have to remember that it took a long time for it to be commonly accepted that the sun was the centre of the solar system and for those who believed, it may have been enough just to believe and to know that the old model was just silly.


  9. ThinkPurpose says:

    “Eppur si muove” said Galileo, the man who popularised the idea that the sun was the centre of the solar system. He was forced by the inquisition to recant that the earth went round the sun, and uttered under his breath, “and yet it moves” as a way of standing firm. Even though only he (and presumably a waiting and documenting historian) could hear him say it, it was enough, and eventually he was proved right.


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  11. Love this! Reminds me of something my friend Seb Paquet said recently: If everyone loves your idea, you’re probably coming in a little late. That sentiment – and your blog post – are some consolation.


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  20. Roberto says:

    #5 rings for me since I’ve been a scout over the horizon in the near future who brings back a set of likely solutions to the tribe. Those who would continue business as usual generally shoot the scout because of the fear of change. It is a common tactic for inertia bound organizations and greed constrained demographic behaviors. The politics of personality and exclusion rage rampant in environmental, academic, business and political structures. In the short term, nudges from scouts have led to resistance, envy and competitive behavior from the organization. I’m quite sure others have experienced this phenom, as well. Nevertheless, we persist. Why?


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