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Systems Thinking: Panacea to Organizational Change

11 Jun 2014 at 12:34hrs | Views
Temba Munsaka

I argue that for local NGOs and other corporate bodies to manage and survive the complex and often dynamic environment, there is only one plausible choice: systems thinking. This opinion paper postulates how systems thinking can aid managers and leaders to transform their organizations into the 21st century and beyond.

Its folly not to recognize the complex world we live in and offer lasting solutions to organizations whether they are healthy and or not healthy.  Research has shown that familiar patterns of response to the unexpected are proving less and less effective for sustainability.

Albert Einstein once said,

"Without changing our pattern of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems we created with our current pattern of thought".

From this assertive and insightful statement it is obvious that convectional formulations and solutions premised on the logic of the day are inadequate to deal with emerging complex problems.  Tinkering at the margins and proffering cosmetic imperatives have only precipitated the problems. The often misunderstood phrase, "continuous improvement" has only made things worse.

Jill Jusko (2003) has identified four main reasons why organizations fail, chief amongst them is the strategic or organizational mind-set failures. Most organizations lack the paradigm that enables perception and learning. This author proposes process thinking not a misplaced emphasis on doing it right as opposed to doing the right thing.

Organizations can transform themselves into new entities and still retain their ability to learn and transform all the time. The classical example is that of Nokia Corporation, the 153 year old entity started off in the forestry industry, expanded into rubber works, cable, and electrical power. It latter moved into making cellular phones and a mobile internet vendor. It relied on continuous learning, ceaseless innovation, trans-disciplinary vision and pursuance of excellence and higher goals and promotion of teamwork and self-reliance.

Vijay Sathe (2000) proposes that;
a.    Employees must believe that change is necessary, feasible. Reward and punishment are both at the centre of change
b.    The organization must be re-charted and reconceptualised
c.    New blood that supports the new mind set is a must
d.    Modelling must go on within the organization
e.    Leadership must take time to look in the mirror

How do you recognize that the environment has taken a discontinuous change and demand a response of similar scope? Look out for the following; the organization is continuing to do things that initially brought its glory, familiar patterns of response are proving counterproductive, you are not alone in the soup, change is in the air and when you adopt the "push harder" response. When an entity finds itself in such a position, then it's time to change the game plan! A paradigm shift is required and that paradigm is systems thinking.

System thinking thus moves in various directions in comparison to linear thinking, it pays much more attention to movement and dynamics and flow; it particularly focuses on the process, patterns and relationships. It places less faith in planned, controlled and engineered solutions. Organizational change's key elements include; depth of change required, pervasiveness of change, organizational size, complexity involved, stage of development, culture and the power to change the environment. I propose that transformation must be an iterative and participatory process starts by formulation of new mission and vision, identifying the functions of the system, developing processes for doing the work and organizing the structure to do the work. Desired properties should look at the outputs, processes, inputs, and management and organizational structure.

A system cannot learn and adapt unless its management can (Ackoff-1999)! Leadership that embraces change is not command and control but rather one that promotes a participative approach and tenders a systematic approach to problems. Systematic approaches espouse the understanding that the performance of the entity is not the sum of its parts but the product of the interfaces of those parts. Systems thinking provide for a formal awareness of the interactions of a system's parts and by nature it employs design compared to research as a tool to handle interacting problems. Design is holistic and deliberate.

 It is worthwhile to note that the design (process) as a form of enquiry must be in line with human ergonomics and cognitive tendencies. Leadership must create an enabling environment that promotes innovativeness, team work and participative approach if change is to work.

Multidimensionality of depth and pervasiveness both ensure that the whole entity is being transformed. At a minimum the following sub systems should be transformed; core processes (management, decision making processes, rewards etc), culture (beliefs, values, norms, and management style), mission and strategy, paradigm (underlying assumptions that shape perceptions, procedures, and behaviour). It is my hope that organizations in Zimbabwe will adopt a systems thinking approach to transformational change to continue being relevant and maintain the competitive advantage.

Temba Munsaka is a consulting Grants Management Specialist and a PHD candidate. He writes in his own capacity and can be contacted on

Source - Temba Munsaka
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