The New Year has not been kind so far to the international markets. Markets in China have been hit by news of poor economic performance and growth stagnation, while markets in Europe have been impacted by the steep decline in the price of oil. U.S. stocks have not escaped the global downturn, as the Dow Jones has tumbled over 1,000 points since December 31st.
Amidst this market instability, government leadership has sought to reassure Americans that everything is just fine. President Obama in his recent State of the Union address sought to allay fears of a coming slowdown by highlighting job growth and consumer spending. However, while government officials paint an optimistic portrait of the American economy, growth has been modest, and memories of the 2008 recession are still fresh. The truth is, the American economy, just like other economies in the world, is shaped and impacted by what happens across the world. While internal measures might be positive, poor external measures neutralize the positives and reveal a more complex economic outlook.
In leadership, internal and external dynamics are just the same as they are in the international markets. Your company can have successful internal systems and structures, but all it takes is some unforeseen crisis to impinge upon your company’s success. An SAT prep center can have an amazing staff and a wonderful program, but if the local high school decides to offer its own free SAT prep classes, the business will inevitably take a hit. Every organization and every industry is susceptible to mitigating external forces. The leadership challenges is determining how to balance internal vigilance with external foresight.
Systems Theory offers one of the best frameworks for adapting to the challenges of external forces. Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline is the most succinct and prescient work on systems theory as it relates to organizational leadership. In this book, Senge defines systems thinking as seeing interconnections rather than just the constitutive parts, patterns rather than random events, complexity rather than simple cause and effect, and underlying structures rather than just outward effects.
But learning to think this way is difficult. It requires a significant shift in thought, and also requires focused attention, one of the most undervalued currencies in the contemporary world.
Think of it as learning not to get so caught up amidst the trees that you miss the forest around you. Systems thinking is applicable in every field, because it focuses on widening the scope of problem solving. If you are in ministry, systems thinking can help you better understand why you’re not reaching people. In healthcare, it can help you plan for disaster scenarios as well as treat individual patients by learning to see interrelationships.
For instance, one of the best applications of Systems Theory has been with regard to the threat of global medical pandemics. In “Systems Thinking to Improve the Public’s Health”, a 2008 article in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, a panel of doctors and specialists review how systems thinking can help healthcare professionals better understand pandemics. The article discusses the myriad social, political, economic, as well as medical ramifications of pandemics, bringing into focus the ability to see interrelationships between different fields.
So how can we become better at incorporating systems thinking in our organizations? First, gather information from a broad array of disciplines and fields by reading outside your normal area of interest. Second, develop a way to process, explore, and interpret the information you gather. This is best done both individually and in small group settings. Third, make organizational adjustments so that you can more quickly respond to changing external dynamics in your industry. Delegate and empower others to observe and be responsible as “watchmen”.
But systems theory isn’t just beneficial on an organization level, it can change the way you view your faith as well. At its core, systems thinking is learning how to be more observant, and one of the principle causes of spiritual stagnation is our propensity to go on spiritual auto-pilot without taking the time and attention to notice and explore what God is doing in and around us. Just as systems thinking trains us to see interrelationships in our organizations, it can help us learn to stop and reflect upon all that is God is doing, bringing our hearts to a place of deeper gratitude and further dependence upon him.