I have leveraged systemic approaches for so long now that implementation is natural both for day-to-day tasks, large projects, and ongoing initiatives. Based on recent conversations (where people ask “how DO you think like that?”) Here are some tips to work toward systemic thinking.
- Acknowledge that there is an over abundance of what the project management field refers to as “external environment factors”. Essentially, a lot of elements can affect your initiatives. So while you’re not planning for disruption, realize that something is very likely to hit your initiative in a way that takes it off-course. This is important because A. you need to have a flexible mindset to work on complex issues (and not suffer a meltdown when a curveball comes your way) B. you can start identifying the most common issues that might disrupt your initiative and have basic solutions/responses ready that can be tailored to the specific situation
- Embrace what I refer to as “critical-positive” (something I borrowed from Gen Z where a word seen as incredibly detrimental or negative is then reframed with the addition of “positive” or “negative” to indicate the true meaning). A lot of individuals and organizations misunderstand the point of critical thinking and how it appears in practice. The opposite of “positive thinking ” or the buzzy phrase “growth-mindset” is NOT inheritantly critical… In fact, the opposite of positive is negative. (More on this another time.) Being critical is a vulnerability to recognize that there’s always a better mousetrap— even if you built the first. It’s a willingness to always HAVE a growth mindset by imagining and reimagining better processes and implementations (and therefore better systems.)
- Work on your emotional regulation and understand that those with whom you discuss systemic issues or change might not realize that they, too, need to have self check-ins as engage with the systemic, critical-thinking approach. Recently I was discussing a deeply-rooted, cultural business problem my friend is facing. At one point, he said that these issues often feel “hopeless.” Having a systems mindset involves recognizing all the progress we have made and yet also that there is much progress to go. Never, ever, in my time of analyzing systems have I felt “hopeless”, but that is because I am aware that –however overwhelming a challenge is — there are solutions on the rise. And staying emotionally regulated as problem after problem (all the external environmental factors) fly at you is key to thoughtfully analyzing a system without becoming overwhelmed. (This is especially important in relationship to DEI efforts.)
- Recognize the soft-side of systems or the “social side.” Systems don’t exist apart from people; humans act upon and within systems. Ignoring human reality is ignoring the strengths and weaknesses of the system. Socio-cultural elements act upon and evolve systems as much, if not more, than any other external factors.
- Develop an evaluation mindset. It’s hard to “fail”, but evaluation is our friend. Systems approach is not like taking a test. It’s an ongoing authentic assessment — a complex system– and everything we learn gets fed back into the system for ongoing self-improvement
- Understand the importance of DEI and the bravery that it takes to truly think systemically. Because systemic critique and analysis is about understanding systems, we must recognize that most systems were built from a position of privilege. In the United States especially, this means a white, patriarchal epistemology (set of experiences that in turn frame decisions.) Therefore, to change systems, we have to be vulnerable in confronting the fact that most systems can be traced back to a time of deep and “open” discrimination aka the periods of slavery, sharecropping, segregation (let alone the racisms and oppressions people of color face today.) And, since systems act on systems, even newly developed systems will inherit structural injustices and racism.
Our world has always been more interconnected than is obvious, but with technology and globalization growths, we find ourself even more interconnected. It is, therefore, truly important that we adopt and execute with a systems mindset.