Systems Thinking and Senior Level Leadership
An Introductory Essay
George E. Reed U.S. Army War College
FOR EVERY COMPLEX problem there is a solution that is simple, neat— and wrong. This
maxim has been attributed at various times to Mark Twain, H.L. Mancken and Peter Drucker as
a wake-up call to managers who mistakenly think that making a change in just one part of a
complex problem will cure the ails of an entire system. Everyday management thinking too
often looks for straightforward cause and effect relationships in problem solving that ignores the 1effect on, and feedback from, the entire system.
he U.S. Army War College makes the processes becomes the objective instead of
case that senior leadership often takes focusing on organizational goals. T place in an environment that is The rational military decision making volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. process that serves so well at the tactical Problems in this arena are rarely simple and level is inadequate for dealing with political clear cut. If they were, they would likely issues that are part and parcel of senior level have already been solved by someone else. leadership. As Field Manual 22-100 notes, If not well considered (and sometimes even “Strategic leaders must concern themselves when they are), today‟s solutions become with the total environment in which the tomorrow‟s problems. Inherent in the Army functions; their decisions take into concept of strategic leadership is the notion account such things as congressional that this environment requires different ways hearings, Army budgetary constraints, new 2of thinking and problem solving. This systems… just to name a few.” We need
article introduces some concepts of systems senior leaders who can see both the parts thinking and suggests that it is a framework and the big picture; to this end some of the that should be understood and applied by concepts of systems thinking are useful. strategic leaders. The Department of Defense is a large and
It is insufficient and often counter-complex social system with many
productive for strategic leaders to merely be interrelated parts. As changes are made to good cogs in the machine. Strategic leaders one part of the system, many other parts are must also be able to discern when a affected in a cascading and often venerated system or process has outlived its unpredictable manner. Thus, organizational usefulness or when it is operating as decisions are fraught with second and third designed, but against the overall purpose for order effects that result in unintended which the organization was established. consequences. Fire and forget approaches Sociologist Robert K Merton coined the are rarely sufficient and are sometimes term “goal displacement” to describe this downright harmful. Better prediction is not phenomenon. Goal displacement occurs the answer nor is it possible. There are so when compliance with bureaucratic many interactions in complex systems that
no individual can be expected to forecast the
impact of even small changes that are are interdependent. The liver affects the amplified over time. brain, heart, kidneys, etc., and vice versa.
In her book titled Organization Theory: You can study the parts singly, but due to Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern the interactions it doesn‟t make much Perspectives, Mary Jo Hatch provides an practical sense to stop there. Understanding introduction to general systems theory that is of the system cannot depend on analysis useful in thinking about organizations. She alone. The key pathway to understanding is makes a point worthy of repeating: The use therefore that of synthesis. The systems of lower level models is problematic when approach is therefore to:
applied to higher level systems. Thus, the
language of simple machines creates blind 1. Identify a system. After all, not all things spots when used as a metaphor for human or are systems. Some systems are simple and social systems; human systems are infinitely predictable, while others are complex and more complex and dynamic. In other words, dynamic. Most human social systems are it can be counterproductive to treat a the latter.
complex dynamic social system like a
simple machine. 2. Explain the behavior or properties of the
Noted management scholar Russell Ackoff whole system. This focus on the whole is puts it another way. He asserts that we are the process of synthesis. Ackoff says that in the process of leaving the machine age analysis looks into things while synthesis that had roots in the Renaissance and came looks out of things.
into favor through the industrialization of 3society. In that era the machine metaphor 3. Explain the behavior or properties of the became the predominant way of looking at thing to be explained in terms of the role(s) 5organizations. The universe was envisioned or function(s) within the whole.
by thinkers, such as Isaac Newton, as having
the characteristics of a big clock. The The key difference here is that the focus workings of the clock could be understood remains on the system as a whole, and the through the process of analysis and the analysis in step three is always in terms of analytical method. the overall purpose of the system. This form
Analysis involves taking apart something of inquiry never loses sight of the ultimate of interest, trying to understand the behavior goal of the system. Borrowing Ackoff‟s of its parts, and then assembling the approach and using a military example understanding of the parts into an might help clarify what is admittedly understanding of the whole. “One simple abstract at first glance.
relationship-- cause and effect was sufficient A machine-age thinker confronted with the 4to explain all relationships. Much machine need to explain an army would begin by age thinking remains with us today, but disassembling it until he reached its there are alternatives. elements. For example: from army to corps,
Ackoff believes that we are entering the to divisions, to brigades, to battalions, to systems age as we seek answers to complex platoons, to companies, to squads, to teams problems not answered by the machine age and then to soldiers. Then he would approach. By the 1950s the narrative of examine and define each subcomponent of systems took hold. Systems, like the human the army—its soldiers, teams, etc. Finally, body, have parts, and the parts affect the he would aggregate these into a definition of performance of the whole. All of the parts
team, squad, and eventually conclude with a Even at the height of the war General definition of an army. Marshall typically rode a horse in the
A systems thinker confronted with the morning for exercise, came home for lunch same task would begin by identifying a where he visited with his wife, went to bed system containing the army; for example, early and regularly took retreats to the defense establishment. Then such a rejuvenate. To what extent are such pauses thinker would define the objectives and for reflection and renewal valued today? functions of the defense establishment, and Simple cause and effect thinking combined do so with respect to the still larger social with a culture of busy-ness can result in system that contains it. Finally, he or she decision-makers who rapid fire short term would explain or define the Army in terms solutions. Absent some discipline and of its roles and functions in the defense techniques to do otherwise, it is very hard to iestablishment. find time to reflect sufficiently on such
things. As an example of how a systems thinking
approach can be applied to a contemporary Peter Senge submits that systems thinking defense issue, consider the Institute for is just the type of discipline and tool set Defense Analyses report entitled needed to encourage the seeing of “Transforming DoD Management: the “interrelationships rather than things, for Systems Approach.” An extract of that seeing patterns of change rather than static 7report is included in the required readings „snapshots.” Senge argues that this shift of 6for this lesson. The authors of this study mind is necessary to deal with the suggest an alternative approach to service complexities of complex dynamic systems. based readiness reporting; one that considers
the entire Defense transportation system. As
a topic of discussion in seminar you might Most people expect learning just to happen consider this report and its recommendations. without taking the time for thought and In it you can clearly see the approach reflection, which true learning requires. In recommended by Ackoff. the past, with slower communication
Few would disagree, in principle, that systems, we often had a few weeks to senior leaders must see not only the parts, ponder and rethink a decision. Today we're but also the big picture. So why don‟t we do accustomed to e-mails, faxes, overnight more of it? One reason is because we are so letters, and cell phones, and have come to darned busy. believe that an immediate response is more 8 The problem of “busy-ness” can be important than a thoughtful one.
compounded by senior leaders who are ____________________________________ overscheduled and uneducated in systems
thinking. We might also ask whether speed Senge suggests that we think in terms of in decision making and decisiveness, so feedback loops as a substitute for simple valued at the tactical level, works to the cause and effect relationships. Imagine a detriment of good decisions at the strategic farmer who determines that an insect level. Consider the example of General infestation is eating his crop. The George C. Marshall during World War II. conventional approach is to apply a pesticide iidesigned to kill the insect. As additional i Ackoff uses the example of university in the same
way that I used Army. The example used in this iiparagraph is modified from the work contained in This example is adapted from Aronson, Daniel. An pages 17-18 of Ackoff’s Best. Introduction to Systems Thinking available at:
insects appear, the farmer applies more of Before your seminar session on systems the pesticide. The farmer‟s goal is to thinking browse some of the following web produce a crop, but his activity is sites that are also included in the increasingly consumed by recurring bibliography for lifelong learning in your applications of the chemical. He is surely course directive:
busy, but he may not necessarily be
productive. A systems thinker might step www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/ndu/strat-back from the problem, take a broader view, ldr-dm/pt1ch4.html National Defense
and consider what is happening over time. University reference on systems thinking
For example, she might think about and learning organizations.
whether there are any patterns that appear
over weeks or months, attempt to depict www.isss.org Website for the International what is actually happening, and identify root Society for the System Sciences. causes or leverage points suggested by these
observations. The systems thinker might www.sol-ne.org Website for the Society for notice that insect infestation does indeed Organizational Learning.
decrease after applying pesticide, but only
for a short time. Insects that were eating the www.thinking.net/Systems_Thinking/systecrop were actually controlling another ms_thinking.html Website containing
species of insect. Elimination of the first numerous links to systems thinking species resulted in a growth explosion in the resources.
second and caused even more damage than
the first. The solution caused an unintended As you read the assigned excerpt from the consequence that worsened the situation. Final Report of the Independent Panel to 9 An accomplished systems thinker would Review DoD Detention Operations,
model the above example using a series of hereafter commonly referred to as the feedback and reinforcing loops as discussed Schlesinger Report, see if you can apply in the Senge reading for this lesson. The systems thinking concepts to gain insights to specifics of the above modeling is less the causes of the abuse. How many important at this point than the observation systemic factors contributing to the abuse of that systems thinking tends to see things in detainees in U.S. custody can you identify? terms of loops and constant assessment of Consider the questions on the following what is happening rather than flow charts page and be prepared to discuss them in and reliance on what should be happening. seminar.
This continuous assessment process is
essential in a volatile environment that is
changing rapidly. It takes time and good
habits of critical reflection to engage in this
kind of learning. It is the fervent hope of the
faculty that you will begin to develop good
habits of reflection during your year at the
U.S. Army War College and carry them into
your subsequent assignments.
wSTarticle.pdf, 1996, accessed 4 February 2004.
1. How does systems thinking differ from other forms of problem solving you have used in the past?
2. What are the predictable consequences of applying a control oriented approach appropriate to a simple machine system to a complex dynamic social system?
3. In what ways does the Institute for Defense Analyses recommendations for Defense readiness reporting implement the framework of systems thinking?
4. Considering the Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations, what systemic factors can you identify that contributed to the incidents of abuse of detainees in U.S. custody and what would you recommend to prevent their recurrence?
1 Zemke, Ron. “Systems Thinking” Training. Vol. 38, no. 2, (February 2001) p. 40. 2 Department of the Army. FM 22-100 Army Leadership. 1999, pp. 10-12. 3 Ackoff, Russell. Ackoff’s Best: His Classic Writings on Management. New York: John Wiley
& Sons, 1999, p. 6. 4 Ibid, p. 10. 5 Ibid, p. 17. 6 Tillson, John C. F., et al. “Transforming DoD Management: The Systems Approach.”
Institute for Defense Analyses, Document D-2886, 2003. 7 Senge, Peter, M. “The Fifth Discipline: A Shift of Mind” in Classics of Organization Theory,
Jay M. Shafritz and J. Steven Ott, (Eds.), Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001, p. 451. 8 Robbins, Steven. "Organizational Learning Is No Accident," Harvard Business School Working
Knowledge, May 19, 2003 9 Final Report of the Independent Panel to Review DoD Detention Operations, 2004.