Monday, September 04, 2017

Systems Thinking and Organizational Learning - Initial Thoughts (Post 1)

This month of learning is going to be an experiment in Working Out Loud (WOL) or more specifically Learning Out Loud (LOL).  Systems Thinking is the theme and I'll write posts based on what I learn and wherever my thinking is going.

Here's a simplistic way of grasping the concept of systems thinking: Nothing operates in a vacuum. Everything is part of a larger system.  When we analyze things (whether objects or problems) as if they operated in a vacuum, we are missing the bigger picture.

Here is how it relates to some of my work.  I help projects document their lessons.  A key challenge I have as a facilitator is to get project team members to focus on what THEY (within the team) learned and could have done differently or will do differently in the future as a result of their experience and consequent learning.  Inevitably, the team will refer to challenges that were brought upon the team that were outside their control.  The project can be thought of as a system, but it is part of an organization, which is a larger system, and it is connected to outside stakeholders who are part of an industry, which is an even larger system.

Insight:  While it is essential to push the team to focus on THEIR lessons, it is equally important to articulate lessons at other levels, to adopt a systems thinking approach.   When I talk about individual, team and organizational learning, and then intra-organizational (or perhaps industry) learning, I may be talking about systems within larger systems.  How do we ensure appropriate lessons are captured at all levels?  The lessons are distinct at each level, yet interconnected.

Here is how systems thinking relates to some of my earlier work in international development:  Individual international development projects have little chance of having any significant impact unless they pay attention to the broader context.  In the old days, we talked a lot about donor coordination and supporting country policies so that the country environment was more conducive to specific development efforts and donor activities didn't overlap or conflict.  I think (hope) that nowadays, approaches based on systems thinking are more prevalent.  Coordination of donor activities and alignment of policies may be a good start but certainly not enough.

Question:  What's the connection between systems thinking and issues related to scaling development interventions to have a larger impact?

Question:  What's the relationship or connection between systems thinking and design thinking?
For reasons unclear to me at this point, the concepts of systems thinking and design thinking are co-mingled and confused in my mind as if I was meant to connect the dots between them and yet I don't grasp either of them well enough on their own to make the connections.


  • Harold Jarche, Working and Learning Out Loud, blog post, November 10, 2014.
  • An example from USAID's use of systems thinking to support efforts in the health sector: Complexity and Lessons Learned from the Health Sector for Country System Strengthening (2012)
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