Organizational Leader: Do You Really “Think Systems”?

Picture of a beautiful pond with koi fish swimming in it
Image purchased from iStock

We recently heard one organizational leader say, “Yes, I’m a systems thinker. I understand that when I take an action, it then impacts someone else, and then that person impacts another person. So it’s a system.”

But that is too simple. Or, at least, this is not the level of “Systems Thinking” needed in today’s organizational VUCA environment (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity).

What this leader called “systems thinking” was the billiards model. I hit the cue ball, it then hits another ball, which may glance off the 8 ball. Each ball impacts other balls, “so I see things as a system.”

Picture of someone on a pool table, about to hit the cue ball.
Photo by Christian Wiediger on Unsplash

We recently described in detail the different levels of capacity that leaders can bring to the complex problems they face. Please read that important article for more details. This leader’s version of “systems thinking” unfortunately reflects the level of more than 50% of all leaders (as described in our article, at the Expert level or lower) but not the kind of Systems Thinking that’s required during these VUCA times. It reflects mechanistic thinking, seeing, leadership problems as Simple or Complicated rather than Complex, using the language of Complexity Theory. It’s not enough.

We will describe a metaphor we created to describe one aspect of the kind of Systems Thinking that’s needed to adequately address today’s challenges. Thousands of leaders have found this illuminating and practical in dealing with issues within their organizations.

In our Leadership Development Programs we show leaders this picture of a pond:

Picture of a beautiful pond with koi fish swimming in it
Image Purchased from iStock

We then ask, “If some of those fish starting swimming erratically, or turning upside down (as in dying), would you blame the fish?” The leaders generally laugh, say “of course not” and describe the many conditions that might be responsible (nutrients, toxic runoff, etc.).

We then say, “OK, so if you removed those fish, went to a fish store and bought the best fish and put them in the same pond, what would happen?”

“The same thing, of course. They’d start getting sick and start dying off.” Why would you do that?

Then comes the punch line. We say, “But you generally don’t lead your organizations that way. When someone isn’t succeeding in a role, your first question isn’t, ‘What is it in that person’s context (or Pond) that might be responsible for their challenges?’ Instead you point your finger at the person and blame them. You call them ‘performance problems’ or ‘low performers’ or people who need to be written up and eventually ‘managed’ out of their positions. And then you put out an ad and go through a long HR process to recruit someone new to put into that same toxic Pond.”

Our assumption is that the vast majority of people want to do good work. At the end of the day they want to look back and feel they’ve made a difference, contributed in some meaningful way. When people are not being successful in their roles, there are many, many factors that are more likely causing the issues than being a defective employee. Yet we act as if this is the most likely cause of these issues.

This metaphor invariably captures their attention and leads to bursts of insight. In our workshops we then have discussions of the kind of contextual factors that can impact the ability of an employee to meet the expectations of their roles. These are factors that are neither within the person (e.g. personality) nor outside the organizational context (e.g. issues at home). We’re sure you can make a long list of your own:

  • Poor role clarity.
  • Inadequate goal clarity, or explanation of why these goals are important.
  • Lack of sufficient resources.
  • Unreasonable expectations.
  • Role conflicts between this person’s role and important other roles, both within and outside this person’s team. We have named this “role friction.”
  • Inadequate onboarding.
  • Bias and/or discrimination.
  • Lack of managerial support or appropriate coaching.
  • Organizational misalignment (e.g. this person depends on others within the organization to be successful, but the managers of those other people place a low priority on this cooperation and make other priorities much higher).
  • Excessive competition because their team is run purely as a collection of individuals rather than also a collective with common goals.
  • Being managed by someone of lower leadership capacity, at an early-stage level of development (see this important article about the difference between leadership capacity and leadership competencies) who over-controls, under-collaborates, and delegates poorly.

And even if there was role and goal clarity for teams and individuals, were they involved in what we have called the Making It Real™ process, where strengths and challenges to desired outcomes are collaboratively identified, and plans co-created that build on the strengths and address the challenges as much as possible? This leads to optimization of team effectiveness, as well as the kind of real engagement that comes from knowing your opinions were honored and valued and you were able to help make a difference.

We define Pond Thinking™ as the cognitive habit of first looking for root cause of organizational behavior within the organizational context (not within the person, nor outside the organization).

Image of the pond with koi fish, and the words “Pond Thinking” written on it.
Image created from purchased iStock photo

We define the alternative as the Bad Fish™ approach.

A person holding up their hand, rejecting one green fish while other orange fish are allowed through.
Image purchased from iStock

In our workshops we then say that when we take the Bad Fish™, rather than identifying root causes in the Pond and optimizing performance, we end up labeling people as De-Fish-ient. We enjoy the groans.

Pond Thinking™ has become a short-hand for thousands of leaders. It’s a very new cognitive habit, when there are performance issues, to have our first questions be, “What in the Pond (organizational context) might be contributing to these issues?” Or, if annoyed with the actions of someone else, “What in the Pond might have led that person to act in that way?”

Leaders who have taken our trainings use this metaphor to support each other. “It sounds like you’re Bad Fishing that person. Have you stepped back and asked questions about the Pond?”

Leaders who integrate Pond Thinking™ are vastly more effective than their counterparts. This is an example of higher-level Systems Thinking, light years beyond the billiards model.

Of course it sometimes is about the individual. All three factors are relevant: those within the person (personality, for example), those outside the organization (family stressors on that individual, for example), and those outside the individual but within the organizational context. But until the Pond Thinking™ questions have been asked, we’re often dealing with symptoms rather than root causes. It’s always Pond First.

It takes time and sustained cycles of action and reflection to build new cognitive habits. With conscious attention, leaders we train or coach gradually develop the habit of Pond Thinking™. They assume that people want to be successful in their roles, and they explore what in the Pond may be contributing to performance difficulties. They explore this both within their own minds (perspective taking) and with others including the employee or employees who are having challenges (perspective seeking). Whenever there are issues, they first ask, “What might this result have to do with me?” And “What might this result have to do with us (organizational/team context)?”

We have recently written about this as the Vital Attitude of Co-Responsibility. This is moving from the “report card” performance management (I as manager am rating how you as direct report are performing) to ongoing performance collaboration dialogues about how WE are doing, where “we” includes my active contribution to your performance, as well as the active contribution of the greater organizational culture and context. Please see that short article for more detail.

We hope you take time to practice Pond Thinking™. This higher-level Systems Thinking will increase your capacity as a leader and increase the sustainability and effectiveness of your results and engagement of your team. Plus you’ll know you’re growing and developing as a leader.

Clear Impact Consulting Group is Dr. Joel M. Rothaizer, MCC and Dr. Sandra L. Hill. Our work includes executive coaching, organizational/team consulting, and leadership development. Please feel free to contact us: partners@clear-impact.com, 780–430–0714. We are open-source with all our leadership curriculum. Please see our articles at www.clear-impact.medium.com.

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Clear Impact Consulting Group

Clear Impact Consulting Group

Building individual and organizational capacity through executive coaching, organizational/team effectiveness consulting and leadership development.