In this episode, consultant and author Paula Bell shares her approach to Systems Thinking – a holistic analysis approach to understanding how the parts of an organizational system interrelate.

Paula Bell is a Business Analyst, consultant, mentor, author, and speaker known for providing guidance to aspiring business analysts. She’s held just about every role in a RACI matrix including business analyst, technical writer, project manager, developer, test lead, and product owner.

After listening to this episode, you will understand:

  • What Systems Think is and why it’s important
  • How to begin
  • How you can better understand your customers and build a solution for their needs

Show Notes

Simply put, Systems Thinking is understanding the whole, not just the parts. The system isn’t just technology. It can include people, processes, and anything else related to how things get done.

Have a holistic view of what you’re doing. Understanding the individual parts of a system and how they interrelate can help you to identify gaps and understand upstream and downstream impacts.

When you work in a silo, you tend to make decisions without considering upstream and downstream impacts. This leads to inefficient or even failed processes and systems. We need to understand impacts up, down, and across the organization.

Sometimes, even subject matter experts don’t understand the big picture and do things because they’ve always been done that way. Asking questions and having a holistic view will help us to identify inefficiencies activities that don’t contribute to organizational goals.

“That’s how we’ve always done it” is the most dangerous phrase in organizations today.


Where Do We Start?
When starting a new project or new role, start by understanding how the organization is structured. Identify who the key players are, which departments are involved, and who makes the decisions. An organization chart can help you to understand how the organization is structured.

Once you understand the structure, start building relationships. Once the stakeholders know who you are, one question to ask is “If you can change one of your biggest challenges today, what would that be?”.

You will likely hear patters or themes that will allow you to better understand the organization. Keep those thoughts and patterns in mind when proceeding with the project to have a holistic view and make informed decisions. This helps with understanding and negotiating scope as well as managing scope creep.


Learn to Love Challenge
Don’t be afraid to ask why. Often, we may be given a solution to implement instead of a business need or problem to solve. Challenge assumptions and work to understand the business goals and how the solution is expected to meet those goals.


The Importance of Systems Thinking
If you fail to understand how the parts of a system interrelate, changing one part can have negative impacts on another part. While your project may be successful, the organization as a whole could experience a negative outcome.


Systems Thinking Approach

  • Leverage org charts as well as vision and mission statements to understand the structure and goals of the organization.
  • Process maps help you to identify inefficiencies within the system.
  • For root cause analysis of some of the issues you’ve considered, Paula often uses a fishbone diagram
  • Use a consequence matrix to understand solution options and the pros and cons of each option.


Paula’s Tips

  1. Understand how your organization functions by reviewing organizational charts and vision/mission statements
  2. Begin building relationships
  3. Learn about tools such as 5 Whys, a Consequence Matrix, and Fishbone diagram


What’s Your Take?
Do you have a different approach to systems thinking?  Please share your experience in the comments below.


Links mentioned in this episode

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