Your organization is a system

Frustrated by intractable problems at work? Maybe the art and science of systems thinking can reframe the challenge

thermostatThe fundamental complexity of dealing with different points of view in an organization has implications for the success of virtually every task and project.  Examples aren’t hard to find: the CMO has a different approach to user testing than the head of product development.  Members of the sales force think differently about how best to engage customers.  And so on.

Organizations are made up of arrangements and interactions between hundreds of people working together in groups of 2, 5, 7, etc., which form and reform, sometimes on a daily basis. In this complex web, the actions of individuals – which naturally arise from their different points of view – impact the work of others in equally complex, sometimes surprising ways.

If you are willing to acknowledge that organizations are systems, and that the important elements within them are people, their behavior, and their points of view, how can this help you?

“We believe that you can work better within organizations – and see better business performance – if you understand the basics of classical systems theory and then develop an appreciation for what is unique about human systems,” Kenning Partner Mark Ledden explains. “This leads to a more powerful way to think about change: humans are sense makers, and so to change a human system you need to focus on how people make sense within systems.”

Why systems thinking?

Systems thinking offers a way to understand how the world works. It reframes complex, intractable problems as dynamic webs of interrelated elements.  This reframing can lead to breakthrough insights and sustained critical, creative, and strategic thinking.

A method or a way of seeing, systems thinking principles have been used to solve all kinds of problems, from challenges of control and communication in cybernetics to shortages in supply chains, and even dysfunctional relationships within families.

In the 1950s, as social, political, and scientific problems became more complex and more difficult to manage, experts in fields like biology, physics, and mathematics turned to systems theory to illuminate the challenges and opportunities they faced. The increasing availability of computers allowed researchers to work more directly with nonlinear equations, where variables influence other variables, and researchers could look at whole-system problems productively.

Organizational implications

In the 1980s, Peter Senge, the Director of the Center for Organizational Learning at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, made important headway in applying systems thinking to the management of human systems. His experiments showed that in order to truly understand an organization, you can’t just study the individuals within it. Instead, you have to focus on the web of interconnections that link individuals together.

Kenning has built on these insights and developed a methodology for mapping the systems within organizations and then looking for the points of leverage to change and improve them.  To get the CMO’s team to work better with the head of product development’s team, for example, you need to understand the system they are part of and then find the right place to focus the right intervention.


To learn more, download Systems, Sense-making, & Organizational Change bookletContact Mark to explore the implications for your organization.