“Systems thinking focuses on the facts of functioning in human relationship systems. It focusses on what happened, and on how and when and where it happened. It carefully avoids our automatic preoccupation with why it happened.” Dr. Murray Bowen

In last weeks blog, we introduced three shifts in focus that can provide a leader with a sharper edge. This week we take a deeper dive into systems thinking vs. linear thinking.

Linear thinking is characterized by cause and effect. This type of thinking lends itself to quick solutions and easy answers. Smoking causes lung cancer. If this were true why is it that many heavy smokers live into their nineties without developing lung cancer? A systems thinker would see cigarette smoking as a contributing factor to lung cancer. What other factors might contribute to the development of cancer?

Problem employees in the workplace are often referred to as a cancer. The leader thinking in a linear fashion may be quick to “cut out the cancer” without a broad understanding of the emotional process at play within the organization. The leader unknowingly contributing to the cultural problems moves forward and unsurprisingly another “cancer” re-appears in a different area of the organization.

Linear Thinking : Anxiety leads to solving the problem quickly

  • cause and effect
  • tip of the iceberg
  • I consider only what I see

Systems Thinking : Curiosity leads to a deeper understanding of the problem and possible solutions

  • contributing factors
  • exploring below the surface
  • I consider what is behind what I see and how the organization responds to what I see

How might a high degree of perceived loneliness in an individual smoker contribute to the risk of cancer? Do stronger social connections reduce the risk of cancer?

How might a strong connection between the CFO and the CEO reduce the risk of organizational cancer?

Is there a correlation between the under performing worker and the anorexic daughter of an overfunctioning leader? Is it the leaders fault? Next week we explore another focus shift – blame to responsibility.