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  • Writer's pictureHelena Eketrapp

Systems thinking - The secret behind the learning organization.

Systems thinking is a timeless approach to organizational success and the foundation of the learning organization. Peter Senge's systems thinking is more relevant today than ever.


That organizations continuously need to both adapt and innovate in order to remain relevant in our rapidly changing world is probably nothing new. It is interesting, however, that already over 30 years ago, Peter Senge introduced the concept of learning organization and his ground-breaking book "The Fifth Discipline. The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization" to meet this need. Among the five disciplines that Senge identified as prerequisites for the learning organization, systems thinking has proven to be a timeless approach that is more relevant today than any other.



What is meant by systems thinking?


To understand the concept of systems thinking, we need to understand what a system is.

A system is a phenomenon within which there are more or less complex relationships and connections between the system's constituent parts. A watch is a system, a car is a system, a family is a system and an organization is a system. In Sweden there is a healthcare system and the education system and our society in general is also a system. A system can thus be more or less delimited from its surroundings.


Systems thinking is a holistic view that focuses on understanding the connections and patterns within a system instead of analyzing individual components in isolation. This perspective enables organizations to identify the root causes of problems, anticipate future challenges, and develop effective strategies to address them. It's about seeing the whole and understanding how everything is connected. If we invest in being able to learn from history, we get additional tools to be able to make complex decisions.


When we talk about organizational or social systems, the metaphor of an iceberg is often used because it can be difficult to see everything. Where laws, rules, guidelines, practices, resource flows and organizational structures lie above the surface of the water, power structures, collaborations and relationships lie below the surface, and at the bottom we find culture and values.



Why is systems thinking such a powerful tool?


In today's complex and rapidly changing world, the importance of systems thinking cannot be underestimated. Here are three important reasons:


1. Navigating complexity: Modern organizations operate in an increasingly complex environment characterized by rapid technological advances, interconnected global markets and changing societal expectations. Systems thinking equips organizations with the ability to understand this complexity and identify underlying patterns that drive change. In this way, the organization is better equipped to adapt and respond to new challenges.


2. Encourages collaboration: Systems thinking emphasizes the importance of collaboration and open communication within organizations. By realizing that no single individual or department has all the answers, organizations can much better tap into collective intelligence. This fosters a culture of continuous learning, innovation and shared responsibility, which is critical to long-term success.


3. Promotes sustainable and value-creating development and growth: In a world where short-term gains often come before long-term consequences, systems thinking provides a framework for sustainable and value-creating development and growth. By considering the long-term consequences of decisions and understanding the domino effects of actions, organizations can make choices that benefit not only their bottom line, but also the environment and society as a whole.


Organizations that have adopted systems thinking see benefits such as increased adaptability, improved decision-making and more effective collaboration. Systems thinking principles are also a key to navigating complexity and driving innovation.



Systems thinking is a prerequisite for the learning organization


Peter Senge highlights systems thinking as one of the basic foundations for the learning organization. To understand this, we need to agree on what it means to be a learning organization.

Within research that has a slightly larger perspective than just the issue of competence, a learning organization is roughly defined as A business that encourages and facilitates learning and constantly transforms itself to better face the future". A learning organization is a place where the people in it continuously discover how they create their reality and how they can change it to contribute to the organization's future.


You can read more about learning organizations in the article The learning organization is total success.


In order for people to really be able to learn at the level that is needed and for organizational learning to be created that contributes to the organization's continuous adaptation and renewal, a large measure of systems thinking across the entire organization is required.

An example from reality where you both miss seeing the whole system and learning from history is exemplified in the film The Big Short which describes the financial crash of 2008.



How to embed systems thinking in the business to create a learning organization


Implementing systems thinking in an organization encompasses the entire organization with people, culture, working methods and technology. It means both a structural, relational and transformative change and developing continuous organizational learning so that the organization can constantly transform and renew itself.


Here are eight practical steps to embed systems thinking in the organization and build a learning organization:


1. Clarifies purpose, target image and who is the recipient of value. Without a clear purpose, i.e. why the activity is needed, a common target image, i.e. what value is to be achieved and for whom, it becomes impossible to create a clear direction and a context. This foundation is so obvious, but at the same time something we all too often skip over. Without it, it is next to impossible to see the whole, and the risk is great that we instead create our own justification for existence and continue to live in isolated silos. In addition, a clear purpose and a shared target image are a prerequisite for creating meaning and curiosity, which is the basis for both commitment and learning.


2. Organize for complexity: Management and leaders need to embrace systems thinking as a core organizational value and lead based on its principles. This includes understanding the interconnected nature of the organization and its environment and leading by example in decision making and problem solving. The entire organization needs to be equipped with skills and tools to be able to apply systems thinking and gradually build understanding and ability to manage this principle.


3. Integrate systems thinking into work: Incorporate systems thinking principles into the organization's existing working methods and processes, in everything from strategic planning, project management and in analyzes and evaluation. This includes using tools and methods such as system maps, design thinking and scenario planning to analyze problems and design solutions. We need to continuously learn and evaluate along the way, and scale what works well and terminate what else. Integrating systems thinking into daily operations creates a more resilient, adaptable and innovative organization.


4. Using technology to drive change: Today, technology is everywhere. But it is easy for us to focus on technology as something isolated or only see it as a tool to automate and streamline. Just like all other parts of the system, technology needs to be included as a natural part and put into context. Only then can technology contribute to creating change and innovation at system level.


5. Design collaboration for diversity: Create an environment that encourages open communication and cross-functional collaboration past all silos. Establish teams and working groups that bring together diverse perspectives and expertise and promote shared ownership and collective problem-solving culture. Work together even if it is perceived to take more time, in the end it will save time and contribute to more sustainable and value-creating results at the system level.


6. Develop open, transparent and trust-based leadership: Develop open and transparent leaders who provide mandates and work to build the ability and confidence of people and teams to make decisions and solve complex problems. If this is not in place, people will neither want, be able nor dare to contribute to the whole.


7. Foster a learning approach: Train the organization to question existing assumptions and try new approaches while shifting focus to seeing opportunities, rather than problems. Encourage curious exploration of what is happening around around us, and create awareness that it takes effort and collaboration to build understanding of the whole.


8. Invest in strategic continuous learning: Invest in continuous development of skills and capabilities that are aligned with the organization's purpose and strategic goals at the system level. This is crucial for people in the organization to be able to contribute to "the whole system" and to sustainable and value-creating development.



Embedding systems thinking in the organization is not a one-time event but an ongoing journey of change, learning and development. By starting to work from a systems perspective, the organization will be able to navigate today's complex and constantly changing world and remain relevant.


Read more how you can incorporate systems thinking and the principles of the learning organization into the art wedge How can you future-proof your organization? Nine engines for the transformation into a learning organization.


 

Peter Senge's systems thinking is a timeless approach that has stood the test of time and remains a powerful tool for modern organizations. By using the holistic perspective of systems thinking, organizations can navigate the complexity of today's world, promote collaboration and create sustainable and value-creating development and growth.


Organizations will continue to face new challenges and opportunities at an ever faster pace, which means that systems thinking will undoubtedly play a decisive role in shaping the organizations of the future.

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