Systems Thinking. What is it? And How Can It Help Your Business?

Systems Thinking is a process that describes complexity and builds learning organizations. The five disciplines of learning organizations are:

1) Personal mastery

2) Mental model

3) Building a shared vision

4) Team Learning

5) Systems Thinking (Senge, 2006).

This morning I explained Systems Thinking to a client who owns a small leadership development business using professional actors. This CEO was struggling to articulate the unique value of his company. And he needed to prepare for a big meeting with a prospective buyer tomorrow that could lead to 10x his previous revenue for 2016. I mentioned leverage, and the idea from Archimedes that “with a big enough lever one could change the world.” When he wanted examples, I described the applied systems thinking that Macdonald, Burk and Stewart (2006) implemented at entrenched mining companies in Australia. He remained confused. He needed to see a model. He wanted to find simple words to describe the cascading effects of organizational change, so I drew a model with concentric circles like a bulls-eye. The smallest ring was unlabeled, to represent the chaotic core of deep change, the next ring was individual, then team, then organizational, then societal. That model helped him to describe the levels of systems thinking at the prospect’s organization. He has the words and a model. He met the prospect and wrote an excellent proposal that solves their problems. Now I am looking forward to hearing if he closed the business.


This afternoon I met with a fellow board member of the Nashville, TN Association of Talent Development (ATD) chapter to plan 2016 activities. She leads Learning and Development at Bridgestone and I discussed Systems Thinking with her. She needs to replace an aging workforce, and has developed programs with the largest university in the state, MTSU, using values from their company and partnering with the US Naval Academy and the US Army at West Point. In short, they desire to teach essential leadership skills using their company values at a public university. Concurrently, Bridgestone needs to relocate 30-50% of their senior leaders from two other states to their new corporate headquarters in Nashville, without losing significant intellectual capital. She is excited and overwhelmed about the changes ahead for Bridgestone. We discussed ways to apply Senge’s (2996) model of a learning organization to those changes. She has the right words. And a mental model. But I do not know if she can develop a learning organization.


     Notice the pattern? We can have ready examples and academic references to share with others. But ideas are worthless without action.


     How about your organization?


     Does your business need to improve by applying systems thinking? If so call Doug Gray, PCC, today at 615.905.1892 or Contact Us Today!


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MacDonald, I., Burke, C., & Stewart, K. (2006). Systems Leadership: Creating Positive Organizations. Hampshire, England: Gower.

Senge, P. M. (2006). The Fifth Discipline: the Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. Random House/Currency.