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The power of systems thinking

This is a true story.

This is a classic story that I tell when facilitating workshops and delivering presentations to demonstrate the power of Systems Thinking.  The story is about an office building in New York where tenants were complaining about long elevator waiting times.  Occupants began complaining about the poor elevator service at peak hours, where they said that the wait times were excessively long.  Several of the tenants even threatened to break their leases and move out of the building because of this.

A study was urgently conducted to identify the best solution. The study revealed that because of the age of the building, no engineering solution could be justified economically and that the building occupants would just have to live with the problem permanently.

The desperate building manager called a meeting of his staff.  On his team was a recent graduate in psychology.  Accordingly, the young man was able to consider the problem from a different perspective to that of the engineers.  He had not focused on elevator performance, but instead on the fact that people complained about waiting.  In actual fact, the waiting time was only a few minutes.  Why, he asked himself, were they complaining about waiting for only a very short time? He concluded that the complaints were a consequence of boredom, not necessarily elevator performance. Therefore, he took the problem to be one of giving those waiting something to occupy their time pleasantly. He suggested installing mirrors in the elevator lobby areas so that those waiting could subtly look at each other and/or themselves. The manager took up his suggestion. The installation of mirrors was made quickly and at a relatively low cost. The complaints about waiting stopped.

Today, mirrors in elevator lobbies and even on elevators in tall buildings are commonplace.

The process of Systems Thinking helps you to take into account all of the behaviors of a system as a whole, within the context of the environment in which it exists.  Furthermore, it enables you to see the influences and the interdependencies between all the factors at play.  Systems Thinking offers us perspectives and a range of solutions that would otherwise be unavailable to us if we limit ourselves to conventional thinking.  By investigating the underlying patterns, structures and assumptions that lead to an event rather than focusing on trying to solve the perceived problem associated with the event, we are able to discover a range of options rather than just a narrow pathway that we assume to be the single right solution.

Addressing many of the challenges we encounter requires us to adopt a Systems Thinking mindset given the complex nature of the world in which it life and work.  Failure to do this when attempting change, whether behavioural, organisational, or personal, may lead to temporary success, but it eventually ends up as a reversal back to the original situation.

This is summed up very nicely by one of my favourite quotes by Abraham Maslow…

I often make the point in my workshops that in the conventionally thinking world, an event or occurrence is seen as a problem to be solved.  In the Systems Thinking world, an event or occurrence is merely symptomatic of deeper issues.

In my story, conventional thinking may have led to a very expensive and perhaps ineffective solution by defaulting to the option of a physical ‘fix’.  However the young graduate’s ability to identify the deeper factors that underpinned the perceived problem enabled a quick, effective and relatively cost efficient solution to be implemented.  So next time you are taking the elevator, take a moment to look in the mirror and ask yourself, “…can I afford not to think in systems?”