Years ago I read a book The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge — actually I listened to it, many times. It was about thinking in totality, seeing things from a distant view, or top-down view where an installed system that is successful can be self-sustaining. While the book does, in fact, expand on feedback loops being influenced by interconnected outside forces, my article focuses on two of the lessons I learned from the book I’ve applied to personal life.
I like to give back so today I want to explain systems thinking in regards to my life and my children’s lives so that you may apply it to your own.
The book The Fifth Discipline is not just about simple systems perspective, but that is what we will focus from here out.
The other night I was installing a new showerhead system in my shower. The boys and I are in the bathroom with all the parts. I admiringly appreciate my oldest son is keen to state we should be reading the directions to our youngest son. This may seem strange that one son is dictating this information to another but it is part of systems thinking being instilled from one family member to another.
Let’s back up. Since the time my eldest son received his first set of Lincoln Logs, I instilled in him that he should always use directions. To this day he always refers to directions when building or assembling things. Why mention this? Reading the directions in full and having them in advance of a project is, in fact, a form of systems thinking. You know the end before you begin.
You see when you step back and view things on a whole you are better prepared to work within that system even if you are only going to operate strictly within a small segment. Now I’ll return to my story of the plumbing.
The boys and I are working along and I stop to show my eldest son how the threads on the parts run standard in one direction. However, if you have ever wrapped a string or wire around anything you know to wrap counter to a thread’s direction. Both my sons learned early how screws or bolts on nuts operate, “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey”. We needed to put Teflon tape on the faucet part but you should wrap the tape in the direction of the part going on which tightens over the tape otherwise the part you are attaching will simply bunch up the tape, and that is counterproductive. Imagining what will happen in advance can avoid mistakes. Systems thinking is more than this, but for the sake of teaching children, I simplified the logic.
In systems thinking, you imagine in advance what will take place. Then you can troubleshoot before something goes wrong and avoid pitfalls.
When I read about systems thinking for the first time, I was committed to learning the nuances of it. It went well beyond linear cause and effect. I listened to that audiobook over and over again. The result was a lifetime of rewards.
A few years later I took a job as VP of Marketing for an Internet Service Provider (ISP). These were the early days of the Internet when everyone was fighting for dial-up customers. In my job interview I laid out a system of success for me would be boss. I got the job because I gave him a clear top-down view of the future. Better yet, I made it happen. The plan I offered, I executed. But it took time. In fact, there were times of doubt along the way I had to answer to. Knowing what would come next gave me confidence in my responses which in turn gave the people who hired me confidence things would work as planned. They did. They went from a small market competitor to the dominant market leader.
Systems thinking is not something that shows immediate results. You must have the patience to see the system come to fruition. In the case of my job at the ISP, three months into it they had spent $35,000.00 on my plans and had yet to see a dime of profit, but they did see enough of the system building that they held on. A year later that company had over a million dollars a year income. Their patience in my planning paid off. They had their own agenda and when the company reached a certain size they sold it; that left me to find employment somewhere else but I took pride in my achievement.
I learned a valuable lesson in that experience. Patience. I remember having to explain myself to my boss and it was a trying time when the system was building. But I know now that you can believe in systems thinking. Of course, it helps to have a solid plan.
But systems thinking is far beyond the world of business. Cause and effect is a big player in what systems thinking is all about. When you turn on the water in a shower there is a system in place which you must ‘familiarize’ yourself with. You learn at an early age the system of showering. When you first turn on the water, you want it to be warm — so you overcompensate with hot water to get the warm water flowing through the plumbing. Then you counteract that with backing off the hot water and adding cold water to regulate the temperature. But — there is a system in place. You know that when you first turn a knob you must “wait”. Waiting is important. If you don’t wait what happens? You could make another change before the system sends that hot water through the pipes and reach you; otherwise making another change of more hot water before the first bout of water reaches you will result in over-compensating hot water and you’ll be scalded. Who has not accidentally done this? In systems thinking you must turn the knob and wait, then again you turn the knob and wait. Keyword: wait. That is the system of regulating warm water in the shower.
This same logic applies to all parts of life even in relationships. From reading all the directions in a plan before beginning to building a business or taking a shower, systems thinking is something we can all benefit from. By teaching your children the logic of systems thinking at an early age you grant them the wisdom of patience and more. They learn to set expectations properly and the ability to understand things greater than what lay before them. It starts with you however, you must lead by example. I think my eldest son relies so much on directions now because he’s always seen me use them and seen the benefit of doing so. Just last week he was assembling a bed with his grandfather who had no use for the directions but near the end, my son stepped in with the directions and solved an otherwise difficult problem with ease. My son understands the importance of seeing things holistically. He practices systems thinking now and I see him doing well in life for it. For yourself and your loved ones, I suggest you learn more about systems thinking.
For your information, here are all five disciplines according to Peter Senge.
1st Discipline is Personal Mastery
2nd Discipline is Building Shared Vision
3rd Discipline is Mental Models
4th Discipline is Team Learning
5th Discipline is Systems Thinking