2011 Year in Review – Financial Future

By Jeri T Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International

Mulit-millionaire Mike Dillard has been studying the economic situation for several years, learning how to safeguard his family’s financial future. This video reviews the past year (2011) and predicts what’s ahead for us in 2012.

If you want to position yourself well to preserve your net worth and profit during the challenging times ahead, I recommend you watch this video. Information and knowledge are the key to creating a better future for yourself and your families.

These tips may help you safeguard your financial future.

If you have money in an IRA, 401K, or the stock market, you need to watch this video TODAY. Have your spouse or significant others join you because they’ll want to see this too. There’s no sales pitch. It’s just pure content from successful entrepreneur Mike Dillard, who is trying to save the middle class… (According to him, you have about 3-9 months left before you’re too late).

Here is Part 1 of his 2011: The Year in ReviewTips to safeguard your financial future


Leadership and Systems Thinking – Tips, Tricks and Traps

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 2-20-2-13

Takeaways:  Leadership and systems thinking go hand in hand. Start by seeing the larger picture and creating a common vision and common goals before taking action. Be disciplined about keeping things simple rather than making them complicated. Help your stakeholders understand the outcomes for themselves as well as the business.

Leadership and Systems Thinking go hand in hand. This may not be the first place you have heard about this but think about it. Leaders are invariably charged with seeing the whole picture – which must naturally be a systemic exercise – and then executing or causing action on a tactical or analytic level. Seeing the whole picture, while not that simple, can be simplified into recognizing the various systems that are nested within the over-reaching system the leader is dealing with.

Tips, Tricks and Traps

Let’s explore some tips, tricks and traps around this business of Leadership and Systems Thinking.

  1. One combined tip and trap that comes to mind is to define the system for which you are solving an issue.  Say you want to launch an initiative around professional dress in your business. The first tip is to be sure to define the over-reaching system you are addressing. Does it encompass and affect everyone in the organization and/or does it extend outside the organization? In other words, be clear that the intended outcomes are defined both within and outside the organization. The first trapis to not dig deeply enough to answer such a question. Who is affected by the initiative – just your employees? Does this have desired outcomes with your customer AND with your suppliers? 
  2. The second tip is to ensure you are measuring the desired effects of the initiative on the business. Do you have some metrics you can put in place to measure SOFT results, such as how employees, customers and suppliers respond to the initiative? One trick is to make sure you measure both positive and negative reactions to the initiative even before it is launched, in an open and candid fashion. Yes, this takes more time and work, but the flip side is the trap. The trapis that if you don’t gauge reactions to this type of initiative, you may face the law of unintended consequences. This is where one or more groups of stakeholders literally and figuratively stop your initiative. Any investment in time and money you have made at that point may in fact have been wasted. 
  3. A third tip is to have the discipline to use no more than one sheet of paper to articulate what the initiative is all about. This will help make it easier for your stakeholders to read, understand, refer to and follow the initiative’s processes. Using bullets is a good tip to accomplish this. The trick lies in working hard at making it all fit onto one sheet of paper. The trap is to presume your stakeholders will simply follow an edict. Don’t forget the always present WIIFM factor (what’ s in it for me?). Your stakeholders will more eagerly embrace your initiative if you help them understand the outcomes for themselves and for the business.7 Habits of Highly Effective People

As usual, Systems Thinking as a discipline relies on structures and processes to be used effectively. Understanding this precept is key to using Systems Thinking in Leadership activities.  If you “begin with the end in mind,” as stated in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, your leadership effectiveness will be greatly enhanced.

If you would like to know more about building your leadership skills or Systems Thinking please contact me or visit our website.

Is Strategic Thinking Systems Thinking?

By Jeri T Denniston, Chief Marketing Strategist, Denner Group International   10-1-2010

Takeaways: Strategic thinking incorporates both a balance of creativity (mapping new paths, looking at outcomes) and analytical thought (identifying actions and processes to execute) , each utilized at different times when working on a problem or issue.

I started an interesting discussion in my LinkedIn Strategic and Systems Thinking  group in September 2010, with the question “Is strategic thinking systems thinking?  It’s generated quite a bit of discussion.

Don Boat-cultureOfficer of Canada said “If your need is to operate within a system, you should focus on the dynamics of systems and that one in particular. If you need to skirt, create or examine interrelationships among systems, you will have to adopt a more strategic approach. ”

Luke Van der Laan of Australia suggests that “Strategic thinking requires a balance of creativity (mapping new paths) and analytical (understanding the systems) thought processes. Most often the ‘intuitive’ strategic thinker relies mostly on their professional experience and the (mostly) analytical thought processes.”

Dick Baynham added, “I see systems thinking as our existing knowledge of the universe and the tiny part of it we are operating in. While I see strategic thinking as the imagination required to consider that universe and ponder ‘what if?’.”

You can participate in the discussion by joining the Strategic and Systems Thinking Group on LinkedIn.

Systems Thinking Defined

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International

Takeaways: Five interrelated concepts explain Systems Thinking, an advanced method of critical thinking. It is a holistic, purpose-driven approach to solving everyday challenges.

Systems Thinking is an advanced method of critical thinking, which focuses on interdependence, relationships, and connectedness in addressing work and life issues.  This holistic, integrated, and more purposeful outcome-oriented approach can be described in five interrelated concepts:

1. The Seven Levels of Living Systems that are in natural hierarchical relationships with each other (systems within systems). These are Cell, Organ, Organism/Individual, Group/Team, Organization, Society/Community, and overarching System/Earth.

2. Standard and Predictable System/Organizational Dynamics based on 12 characteristics of open/living systems which come from general systems theory. These are: holism (the whole is not just Russian Nested Dollsthe sum of its parts); open system vs. a closed system (the human body is an open system, for example, because it is impacted by the environment in which it operates), boundaries (these distinguish the system from its environment- the body is an open, permeable, systems affected by air, water, sun, food, etc.); input-throughput/transformation-output (a car is an example of this, where gas is the input which the engine uses to move the car – the throughput – and the exhaust is the output); feedback (the information your body provides when you eat something that doesn’t agree with it, for example; multiple outcomes (in organizations, rarely is there just one desired outcome to a project, for example); equifinality (which suggests that different outcomes might be achieved by using different initial inputs in different ways); entropy (which suggests that projects/products eventually run out of steam and die unless they are continually fed by new packaging, ideas, directions, etc.); hierarchy (the concept that a system is composed of many subsystems each leading to the higher level; subsystems or components (this suggests that every system has at least two sub-components which make up the whole); dynamic equilibrium (which states that with continual inflows of materials, energy, and information, a system can remain in this state indefinitely, rather than suffer entropy); and internal elaboration (where open systems are continually evolving, changing and moving in the direction of higher levels of organization).

3. A circular “input-throughput-output-feedback loop” within our dynamic and ever-changing environment – such as the Haines Centre’s copyrighted Five Phases (A-B-C-D-E) of the Systems Thinking Framework.

4. Natural and historical “cycles of change” (copyrighted by The Haines Centre as the Rollercoaster of Change®) to assist senior management in being proactive, innovative, and more successful with their strategic and systematic change processes.

5. And, the Law of Unintended Consequences, also known as the six-sided “Rubik’s Cube Effect”or “archetypes” by Peter Senge. The Haines Centre has identified 40 of these common analytic situations that occur time after time, especially when a holistic approach  is not considered when solving issues or challenges.

Tips for Leveraging Systems Thinking

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International
Takeaways: Systems Thinking is becoming more and more prevalent in organizations. There is no “fast track” to learning Systems Thinking. It is possible to test the organizational culture and reinforce the practice of Systems Thinking.

The discipline of Systems Thinking seems to be taking on an ever higher level of acceptance and understanding. More and more respected management experts openly discuss Systems Thinking as a very important and valuable discipline for successfully leading organizations to sustained success. Upon reflection, three words from the previous sentence should stand out: experts, discipline and sustained. Every organization that I have studied that has exhibited a culture of Systems Thinking can be characterized by those three words.  In every case, their success is no accident. In other words, success and, moreover, sustained high performance, has only been achieved with deliberate effort. Significantly, rigorously disciplined Systems Thinking over the long-term invariably is a key element. Below I offer tips for leveraging Systems Thinking in your organization.

Everything is connectedIn the spirit of offering these tips, it is paramount to say that there are no short cuts. There is no fast-track, no lean version and no Systems Thinking “Light” to offer the reader the comfort of an “easy or bite-size way” to create a culture of Systems Thinking.  That said, there are some simple ways to continually test the organizational culture and to reinforce the practice of Systems Thinking.

Tip #1 – Offer training to everyone.  If you read Jim Collins’ Good to Great, you’ll find him saying “get the right people on the bus first, then work hard getting each one in the right seat”.  What I think he means is that it’s more important to hire people with the great skills and solid values, after that you should be able to place them in the positions where they can be productive, create value for the organization and grow. I don’t believe you can force people to learn, but if they take the opportunity to learn and apply Systems Thinking in their work, everyone will benefit. If they don’t, you may have a clue regarding the value that employee has for the organization and you have a decision to make.

Tip #2 – Everything is connected to everything else.  Never let a discussion about solving a problem go down a path that does not look into the interconnectedness of all the elements that can be affected. Inside and outside the organization.  More importantly, ensure the impact on the customer is addressed first. Everything affects the customer.

Tip #3 – “From either/or to both/and”.  This phrase seems to confuse, confound and bore so many people.  The confusion stems from the basic human need to satisfy a desire that is invariably selfish. This natural way of being does not allow for multiple outcomes, meaning a win-win possibility. The confounding is similarly rooted in the belief that a win-win is impossible. If someone wins, someone else loses. If we look at the time-tested formula of barter trade, I would argue that a win-win is very possible. As in barter trade, the solution is rarely immediate and requires effort to be achieved but the result is positive for both parties.  Others find this phrase boring and choose to ignore it simply because it takes effort to first acknowledge and understand what it means, and second because to really work through it takes some time. Often though, much less than one thinks, and also often enough the results can be spectacularly wonderful.

Tip #4 – Focus on root causes.  It is so often easy to overlook the root causes of problems. Ask the five “why’s”. In other words, keep asking why until you are convinced the root cause has been uncovered and you’ll generally find amazingly simple solutions to a problem.  Keep digging, is the pass-phrase here.  And, don’t let up until everyone has agreed upon those root causes. As a group problem-solving exercise this invariably produces great clarity and joint buy-in and stay-in for the solution.

Tip #5 – Booster Shots.  One of my favorite tips from my mentor, Steve Haines.  This technique implies using a portion of any meeting to remind folks about just one element of Systems Thinking by discussing one or more examples among the group. This serves to keep Systems Thinking techniques and processes top of mind so your colleagues will more readily use it at appropriate times.

Tip #6 – Understand the distinction between Systems, or Strategic Thinking and Tactical, or Analytic Thinking. Neither type of thought is “the best” all the time. Each has its purpose. Consider this as a good description of the difference: Analytic Thinking breaks a whole down into its parts, finds one to solve for and focuses uniquely on that part to the exclusion of the whole. Systems Thinking starts with and focuses on the whole. Analytic Thinking fails to address the interconnectedness of the parts and furthermore may even totally ignore all the other systems connected to it.  Systems Thinking, by contrast, by simply focusing on the whole, naturally begins by looking at the various systems to which the whole is connected, and then solves the problem in the context of all that interconnectedness, thus ensuring a solution that is more likely to succeed for the long-term. However, Analytic Thinking is absolutely essential to solving problems affecting discreet components and is most effective for solutions that have immediate or short-term impact. The trick is to be able to make the distinction.

Tip #7 – There are no final answers.  We will invariably find that an answer, or solution, is simply the next question. This is not defeatist thinking by the way. This is simply acknowledging that all systems are living systems and therefore in constant flux.  Change is a constant in our world, it always has been. One big difference in the 21st Century is that the pace of change in our “information age” is so much quicker that we need to be acutely aware that change is in fact constant. Systems Thinking helps us to not lose focus on the systems that surround and affect our lives, work and businesses to be better prepared to react to our environment as it changes and make better decisions.

Millenials Play by Different Rules

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  6-26-2012

Takeaways: Millenials could be the “next greatest” generation like the Baby Boomers. Generational issues exist around trust, independence, competition, rebellion, individualism, collaboration, a sense of community and “optimistic, team minded players.

I have written before about Systems, or Strategic, Thinking as a management tool that has gained substantial ground over the past 20 years or so throughout all kinds of organizations. Led by companies like General Electric and Toyota, applied by non-profits, government organizations and the military, the discipline of Systems Thinking is helping to improve performance globally. I have also illustrated the impressive positive effects the skilled application of Systems Thinking has on the long-term performance of those organizations that incorporate it into their culture in order to align daily actions with strategic initiatives.

Among the processes that have proven to be valuable in sustaining that alignment between daily actions and strategic initiatives is that of continuously scanning our external environment. Many organizations perform that scanning activity within the framework of a SWOT analysis, delving into an organization’s Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This SWOT exercise is valuable because it provides important insight into key aspects of an organization that support the development of strategic objectives and actions.

I have found, however, that a SWOT analysis is lacking in one key respect:  it tends to keep us rooted in thinking about today and the trends that have recently affected our organization. Using a SWOT analysis means you are scanning past results that have been affected by trends of the past and, therefore, cannot influence any future outcomes. If we are to be thinking strategically and with a more systemic discipline, we need to root our thinking in the future, on issues whose outcomes we can influence because we can plan for them.

More specifically, it is important to focus on the horizon window we are working on for our strategic objectives and our overall strategic plan, such as the typical three or five-year plan. Through a mentor of mine, Stephen Haines, I have learned some valuable techniques to maintain a forward-thinking process to scan the environment using a “future-rooted” framework.

One element of that framework is to scan future trends in the context of sociodemographic issues. These issues can have a profound influence on how we manage employees in our organizations. How we hire and train them, how we guide their growth, and how we coach and guide our managers to read and adapt to developing sociodemographic trends that are cultural in nature. Scanning these trends that in the future will be affecting our organization should take into account the traditional issues of age groups in our workplace, education levels and career trends, skill levels, compensation trends, hiring costs, etc. But there are other issues, perhaps a bit more subtle, but nonetheless just as valuable.

Generational Issues Abound

I just mentioned cultural trends because I recently read a transcript of a commencement address delivered by noted demographer, Neil Howe, at the University of Mary Washington on May 12, 2012. In his address he makes a point of outlining with great clarity how each generation tends to impose a sense of “Because this worked for me in my generation, it will work for you in yours.”

He points out how various recent generations have both adopted and rejected some of their parents’ attitudes and preferences and gives his take on why, today in particular, it is important to recognize that there is a good chance that today’s college grads could very well be the next “greatest generation” like the one that begat we Baby Boomers. Mr. Howe talks clearly about generational issues of trust, independence, competition, rebellion, individualism, collaboration, a sense of community and “optimistic, team minded players”.

Think about this for a minute. Today’s managers in every organization are challenged by young employees whose sense of interaction and communication is driven by current technological and social trends.  More often than not the resulting behaviors between managers and employees are in conflict without any guidance for resolution to improve overall performance. This conflict is rooted in what Mr. Howe is talking about – older generations being more than a little unaccepting that younger generations have a brain, too. They are likely better educated than the older generation in the sense that they have been exposed to more and different things simply because of the internet and improved global communications.

We Baby Boomers and Gen-X’ers should feel compelled to make some changes in ourselves to leverage the talents of the younger generation, rather than continue this generational habit of attempting to impose our approaches and mindsets on theirs. You might consider how this applies to serving your clients, too!

I recommend everyone read Mr. Howe’s commencement address, From Millenials to Baby Boomers, and see what we can do to change ourselves to help create that next “greatest generation”. And help them learn Systems Thinking too, of course.

You can read Mr. Howe’s commencement address at this link, which in turn came to me from John Mauldin, a respected investment counselor, whose newsletter convinces me that he, too, is a skilled systems thinker. I also encourage you to share this address with every college age person you know.

Parallel Involvement in Our Tablet Initiative

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International  4-8-2012 
Warehouse Planning

Parallel involvement in the warehouse

Part C – PLAN
Now, as we begin to plan what we’re going to do about deploying our tablet initiative in our warehouse, let’s keep our parallel involvement process going to mitigate any other potential unintended consequences. This is a key Systems Thinking tool.  A good step at this point is what can be called plan to plan. This means lay out a road map that outlines what needs to be done to have a solid plan. For instance, listing and engaging the various stakeholders in the planning process to ensure their input is both present and relevant. We should also ensure we have the financial and human resources to carryout our project. Well-facilitated meetings with stakeholders that interrelate are a high priority. The stage must be set to exclude personal and political agendas. This is a content issue that can help immensely to avoid time lost due to unnecessary and distracting conflicts. Having absolute clarity on the desired outcomes, “how this impacts the customer” is a really good way to avoid distracting agendas. Everyone can more easily focus on those over-reaching goals.

During this planning phase it would be a good idea for us to conduct some internal and external assessments that will help us flesh out some key strategies and alternatives that will keep us on track to our desired outcomes.  We can preempt some of the pains we will encounter and will have identified some key enablers to a successful project.

Bring Stakeholders Together
Let us then plan on scheduling meetings to bring those stakeholders together. Must they be in person or is everyone comfortable with online meetings? Does it make sense to engage an external facilitator to avoid that person “having a dog in the hunt” and therefore a potentially counterproductive bias? Do we have good in-house facilitators for meetings we can also use? We are looking at making a potential large investment in time, money and changes in how we do things, so we must weigh the value of applying the best inquisitive inquiry techniques and processes as possible at this point.

Now let us explore our list of stakeholders without too much detail. We need the warehouse managers and floor-staff to help us flesh out specs like tablet size, battery life and content of the data to be managed by our tablets. Our IT department has to look at that content too but also platform compatibility such as operating system, possible custom app development and support and IT vendor relationships.

Our IT and tablet vendors should be consulted on the impact on wireless bandwidth requirements, support issues (like that pesky automatic update Waste Management experienced), intended tablet life-cycles (new, improved product releases for example), in-tablet or cloud-based apps and to evaluate their capacity to participate long term.

Our sales and purchasing departments, supply chain managers, HR department and attorneys should all have some input on the content. Sales, purchasing, supply chain and process specialists need to look at customer value issues. HR and our attorneys should address things like what do tablets have a native ability to do that maybe are inappropriate on the job, like using the cameras most tablets have. It’s possible that in a warehouse environment, this could be a real plus. Consider a warehouse worker, taking a picture or video of a pallet of product just unloaded showing potential damage and immediately emailing the images to the buyer in purchasing asking if it’s acceptable or should it be returned. That’s a great example of just-in-time response and empowering the people who have the information to resolve problems with high efficiency.

A counterpoint to that, also cited in Information Week, is that if the tablet users are in a position to abuse the cameras, on some tablets the cameras cannot be disabled! This type of instant sharing of information also needs the input from legal counsel to help establish rules and policies for ensuring security of the data. This includes confidentiality of the data and its misuse, intentional or otherwise of the various native features of the tablets.

Consider Product Life Cycles
Purchasing and asset management should chime in on product life cycles. For example, to determine if the tablets replace other equipment and the financial impact of these issues. The strategic management office can support the effort by coaching the leaders on best practices on planning, perhaps facilitating meetings and helping to integrate the project into the company’s overall strategic plan. The process specialists can contribute to the content and hardware selection by ensuring right-sized tablet s and accessories are selected and related company processes are all aligned.

The HR department should help determine any training required and changes in personnel to support the new tablets. Not just the end users are to be considered here but possibly hardware and software technicians for custom apps and to customize the units. Information Week cites that Avnet disabled a number of features on the iPads they deployed in their warehouses thereby increasing times between charging to up to three days, since the iPads were only using those features necessary for the job. The others, like iTunes, were disabled.  Last on the list but not least are the PR people, who may be able to leverage improvements in customer value as a result of the initiative. Involving all the key stakeholders in the organization and getting their input on this project are part of using a systems thinking approach for this initiative.

But wait, there’s more! What if this tablet initiative provides better real-time inventory data that the sales force can use? Now our warehouse tablet initiative can further improve customer value where we are actually are in contact with the client! So we are compelled to now consider deploying tablets to our sales force. But that’s another project.

Executing Our Tablet Initiative

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International   4-8-2012

Part D –  ACT

Executing our tablet initiative project is now probably a lot easier. We’ve done a lot of hard work up front, used some good practices, and using some proven structures and processes, we have laid out our plan or road map with metrics and milestones that should allow us to make only minor, instead of major, adjustments in deploying our tablets. We will also be much more certain that we are on track to deliver our desired outcome: “Greater value for our customer”.  Our strategies have been translated into budgets and key action items with a clear direction.

Clearly Defined Processes

Our strategies can now be supported by clearly identified people and processes, the technology Cascade of Planningrequired and we are clear how we will cascade the execution of our project throughout the organization. We have determined that either Apple’s iOS, or Windows or Android best fit our company’s needs. We have narrowed our prospective tablets down to size, form factor, ruggedness, battery life, application availability or developer resources.  We know we can develop custom apps and that we can manage auto-updates from our vendors. We are prepared to handle proper usage by the end user.

We have made the decision to provide company-owned units rather than BYOD (bring your own device) in spite of extra expense since we don’t have an work environment that encourages use of the devices for personal activities. However, we also know that the ”other” project of deploying tablets to salespeople may have to be handled differently. We have decided to manage our data through a hybrid process of native apps on the tablet that gets data from a cloud-based solution since we have solid control of our internal wireless network. Therefore, users essentially only need to access a browser; plus we will have the flexibility to more easily switch tablet platforms if necessary.

Training can take place on any computer, anywhere. The competencies required to use, train, support and plan for future needs regarding the tablet deployment project have been identified and all departments affected know how they will incorporate competency development into their plans. Enablers have been identified in the form of external facilitators for meetings and external and internal coaches to support deployment of this new technology paradigm involving the whole organization. This covers usability, security, financial and legal issues.

We know our wireless and internet bandwidths will be up to the task. We know we’ll be replacing the units every two or three years due to new hardware releases but the low uTnit cost to deploy promises a high ROI for the project. PR is working on a program to track the customer experience from the beginning to leverage it for our marketing department.

Improving customer Value

Finally, we are confident that ”our end in mind” of improving the value we deliver to our customer will be met. We have envisioned how our bottom line will be improved as well and as an added bonus, our employee morale is up because all the stakeholders were involved and a new technology is being deployed.

This holistic approach to leading, thinking, planning, and acting with respect to deployment of tablets in the organization is a systems thinking approach. We’ve taken the time up front to cover all the bases, consider the unintended consequences, and involve all key stakeholders in the decision making process. A successful deployment is virtually assured.

A Tablet Project Using Systems Thinking

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 4-8-2012

Table PCPart A – LEAD
Join me as we touch on all four stages of Lead, Think, Plan, Act in a tour of the now very hot  tablet market. What I’m talking about are those book or folder-sized computers that include the ubiquitous iPad and Kindle variations and a whole bunch of mostly Windows-based computers, and now Android-based ones, we all call tablets.

Their legitimacy in the business world is literally on the pace of a Southern California firestorm. Today we are going to explore some Systems Thinking techniques that can be applied to the deployment of tablets in the workplace. Mind you, many topics we’ll cover actually apply generically to mobile computing devices in general (e.g.: smartphones), so please keep your mind open, yes, like an open system, as you take this journey with me today. I will use the Lead, Think, Plan, Act  framework to illustrate how Systems Thinking can be applied to a project involving these tablets.

You might first think this is about early adopters and you are correct, but that’s not really the point. Discovering new ground is risky but the payoff can be great and exciting, and the risk can be mitigated enough to justify the effort. The point is THINKING systemically about how to lead your organization into the adoption of tablets in the workplace. Stephen R. Covey says “begin with the end in mind” and that applies here in spades as it does in any planning.

I propose we consider deploying a tablet solution in a warehouse setting. Let’s first ask the REALLY important question: “How is this going to impact our customer?” That is our “end in mind”, isn’t it?  If our actions do not support delivering a better product, faster and less expensively to our customer, then why are we doing it?

Because tablets are cool? That kind of thinking will eventually get you fired or your project will fail. Where does leadership fall into this process? Simply having the discipline to recognize that LEAD is the first step in considering our project is a great start!  Now our job is to gather the other leading stakeholders in the project and rally them around creating some structures and processes to follow. One suggested structure is this framework of Lead, Think, Plan, Act, essentially the motto of the Association for Strategic Planning.

Ensuring each stakeholder has a clear role in the process is a key element to support sustainable outcomes, so leading this project requires defining those roles for the stakeholders and gaining their buy-in for those roles. Some roles will be functional and others will be cross-functional. Having clarity on each of these elements will create the stay-in necessary to support the implementation of the project. The project leader should manage the interpersonal relationships involved and facilitate the creation of communication resources to support effective communications among the stakeholders.

Another part of our jobs as leaders is to facilitate gaining the consensus of the stakeholders to pursue a task. In this case the task is to explore the feasibility, costs, ROI, value to the customer and, yes, the unintended consequences of deploying tablets in our warehouse. I am not proposing a brain-storming session here folks. My research tells me those sessions rarely pay off compared to disciplined, well-facilitated processes. As leaders we may have to inform and engage stakeholders such as executives outside our direct reporting lines, vendors, customers and perhaps outside counsel, legal and PR, depending on the products we handle.

Using Systems Thinking to Shift Culture

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International    11-18-2011

Takeaways: Systems Thinking is an excellent tool to stay ahead of changes in the world around us. Understanding and applying it in organizations improves communication, reduces unintended consequences, and changes the internal culture.

What is Systems Thinking and why should it be important to ALL business people? The easy answer is that it’s the way the natural world works. The more difficult answer is that it means looking at organizations as living systems existing within a universe of nested systems. In the USA we have deliberately been educating ourselves and others to focus almost exclusively on analytic or tactical thinking. This has been to the detriment of using or building our abilities to think strategically, which is, in fact, thinking systemically.

The answer to WHY it should be important to any of us is that in our environment of increasingly rapid change, we absolutely must have long-term strategies that keep us focused on long-term outcomes and that also permit and support us in making the tactical adjustments to stay on track.  In essence, this means managing a business with strategic intent and operational flexibility. Sounds straightforward right? It really is, but it does take some skill, and more importantly some discipline, in applying strategic and tactical thinking correctly to address and solve problems.

This does not mean we have to change how we think about everything all the time. It means we need to learn and practice thinking strategically and systemically, and know how and when to do so.

Having formed or altered our culture to make it unimportant to think strategically, we have only begun to learn how to think this way to enhance our business management over the past 60 years or so. Management thought leaders agree that only during the last 20 years has Systems Thinking begun to be acknowledged as one of the most important skills that managers and leaders at all levels of an organization must master. Not as a panacea, nor to replace analytic thinking, but to know when to use each type of thinking and how to leverage them in the workplace.

This may sound like a high-level, academic topic that is overkill for small businesses or workgroup teams, but I’m going to illustrate how and why the opposite is true. The skill-set to practice Systems Thinking in the workplace is relatively simple, and the learning curve quite short. The key to making it pay off is the more difficult piece of clearly understanding that it implies a culture shift in your organization at the individual level to accommodate this type of thinking.

Natural Sciences Led Systems thinking Development

Let’s first take a look at where this discipline comes from. The natural sciences essentially led the development of applying Systems Thinking to solving their work problems. In human medicine, a few centuries ago, people began to recognize that all of our bodily systems are interconnected. When one system is affected, most or all the others are also somehow affected.

This is simply common sense to us today, but even this was largely misunderstood until the mid 1900’s. Recognition that organizations are also living systems made up of people who are living systems, and that they are also subject to the natural laws of life and therefore should be dealt with in that context, actually began in the mid-1900’s.

Today, associations around the world are devoted to the science of systems thinking. Educational institutions are embracing the skill sets from this discipline for the purpose of improving management techniques of all types of organizations. Of greater significance to business people, is that major corporations, non-profits and governmental entities have proven the worth of Systems Thinking in management. Moreover, they have enjoyed impressive success as a result of embracing Systems Thinking skill sets, generally outperforming their counterparts. Want some examples? General Electric is one. WD-40 is another much smaller company. Southwest Airlines is another. Sundt Construction of Arizona is another. The National City Police Department in California is another, notably a small city’s governmental department. I mention these to illustrate that Systems Thinking can be applied by any type or size organization.

So what? So this! Every business faces the common challenge of having not just good, but really great, communication among and between all levels of management. If you run a small auto shop, a 30-person professional services business, a medium size retail operation, lead a team of bankers, are a superintendent of a school district or lead a global manufacturing firm, you surely have to ensure your staff, teams and managers are constantly and clearly communicating with each other and with you to be confident your customers receive consistent high value. How will Systems Thinking skills help make this happen?

A Little Bit of Theory

With an understanding of just a little bit of the theory behind Systems Thinking and some brief instruction on skill-building, owners, managers and employees can gain a clearer understanding of how they can easily and much more effectively communicate problems and solutions within the organization. What you get is much faster decision-making that is also more likely to be better decision-making.  A key element of Systems Thinking skills is that everyone in your organization can more clearly see his or her contribution to keeping the customer happy and coming back for more business.

Let’s get back to the how. If your firm has managers meeting regularly with top executives, not only do stronger personal relationships occur, but their ability to more comfortably and clearly communicate problems and discuss solutions is improved. If you add to this a common understanding of the various systems in the organization and those surrounding the organization, the wealth of intellect driving decision making is enhanced exponentially.

This can be accomplished by either having external facilitators conduct periodic scans of the internal and external systems of the organization or having an internal facilitator do the same. There are pluses and minuses to external and internal facilitators but that’s a topic for another article. This is an application of Systems Thinking that can be simply and easily practiced in the workplace at a low cost. No theory, just do it, and do it regularly. You might be astonished at the results you get.

For a more in-depth understanding of applying Systems Thinking in the workplace you might like to take a stab at the MIT Beer Game Exercise (http://supplychain.mit.edu/games/beer-game). It is commented on by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline (pp 47-54), if you wish to understand its significance in how easy it is to overlook external factors affecting our businesses.

For simple tools to assist you in practicing the fundamentals of Systems Thinking in managing a business of any size, visit our website or contact me at your convenience. I can be reached at eric[at]dennergroup.com.