Systems Thinking: A crucial skill in an uncertain world

Õnne Kivinurm, Partner and Senior System Analyst, December 20, 2021

The business sphere is one volatile and ever-changing construct. Yet, every so often, stakeholders are blindsided by fantasy clear-cut solutions that just do not exist. On November 1, Adrian Reed, a well-known author and speaker in the BA world, joined our Global Business Analysis Day celebration and gave an insightful presentation on systems thinking as a practical approach to problem-solving in the uncertain business world. The presentation majorly explored the hows and whys of system thinking with applicability to complementary stakeholders and practitioners.

Staying grounded in an uncertain world

A 2016 report published by the International Institute of Business Analysis (IIBA) and KPMG divulged that 72% of CEOs believe that the next couple of years will be more crucial, in terms of change, to their respective industries than the last 50 years. Already, this is in play. Before 2020, the business world had already witnessed various disruptions and innovations pointing to its ever-changing dynamics. But since the pandemic, change has become the sole constant.

With each passing day, new and more complex problems arise in the business world. And not only are they resulting in higher apprehension for stakeholders, but they are also reducing employees’ and teams’ productivity. What, then, is the solution? Adrian Reed suggests the systems thinking approach as an approach that can benefit complex contexts.

The ‘big picture’ perspective

At its core, systems thinking is a holistic analysis approach that focuses on how a perceived system’s constituents connect, relate, and function with each other. It differs from the traditional analysis approach which sets apart perceived systems into separate components and relates with them as individual elements. According to Adrian, it is all about understanding different perspectives and connections, and working with stakeholders to see the ’bigger picture.’

Before starting to implement the first idea or solution which comes to mind, regardless how good it seems, work with others to gain a shared understanding of the problematical situation and the context. In other words, try to get a fuller picture of the situation before rushing to solutions,” he says. “Otherwise, you and the whole team would work hard on delivering something that actually makes the situation worse for some groups of stakeholders,”  he continues.

Delimit the problem area

To solutionize is to come up with solutions for a problem yet to be (fully) defined or does not even exist. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, several product owners and business analysts end up going down this rabbit hole. Contrastingly, those who try to map the problem scope intricately also face the dilemma of how deep to dig into the problem domain and when to stop before finding solutions to the identified problems. After all, they don’t want to go beyond the project’s scope and waste money and time just drawing beautiful pictures of the processes and relations. And neither do they want to oversimplify the problem domain only to identify irrelevant problems.

Reed advocates experimentation. Once a potential intervention is found, test its impact with prototypes quickly at the lowest possible cost. And, of course, analyze the results and feedback to understand whether to continue with the solution or return to the drawing board.

Do you do projects or solve problems?

It is easy to dissect the various facets of a project and solve them as individual elements. Still, the major problem and its roots stay hidden in plain sight without a holistic perspective. Therefore, systems thinking is an appropriate approach to consider in complex and messy contexts.

During our Global Business Analysis Day event, Adrian Reed’s presentation was a great reminder that problem-solving skills remain critical for productivity and sustainability in the mercurial business world. As business analysts, we will always need to identify problems, define them, and solve them. But even though the issues we are trying to solve are primarily complex and, like everyone else, we like silver bullet solutions, practical big-picture solutions should be our go-to.

Õnne Kivinurm

Õnne Kivinurm

Partner, Senior System Analyst

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