Today we are going to discuss how systems thinking can help us in terms of fulfilling our corporate vision. To do that, let’s look at a model developed by Peter M. Senge. He actually uses it in the context of an individual vision, but it can easily be used for a corporate vision as well.
Peter discusses how every phase of growth is affected by balancing forces. There is no such thing as infinite growth, because there will always be factors that limit the potential. These forces are a natural part of every system. It is our own duty to figure out what they are.
Now, let us just assume that SC Johnson, a company that sells household products, wants to enter a new Asian market: Vietnam. You might wonder why SC Johnson? The reason is simple. It’s because I like their vision statement:
THE BEST PEOPLE OF ALL BACKGROUNDS,
DOING THEIR BEST WORK,
SUPPORTED BY A CULTURE OF INCLUSION AND FAIRNESS,
TO DRIVE INNOVATION, QUALITY, AND RESULTS.
Okay, so SC Johnson wants to enter the Vietnamese market and they want to live up to their vision.
Because of the balancing forces, there will always be a gap between what they want to achieve and the current reality. Think about it: could an organization ever be 100% fair in every single situation? I don’t think so. Of course that doesn’t mean that you should not strive towards it.
Not being able to reach your vision makes you uncomfortable, so you have two options: either you take actions to achieve the vision, or you give in to the pressure and lower your vision. Since you’re really committed to it, I’m sure you want to go with the first option. So how are you going to do it?
Here comes the tricky part. Creating a truly inclusive organization means that you will need to change – and change always leads to resistance. Most people will react to change by pushing even harder. They will do the obvious:
- hire from a more diverse talent pool
- let people participate in relevant trainings
- hold people accountable for inclusive behavior
While all these steps are good and necessary, they will not lead to change if the “balancing forces” are still at work. Often these forces are difficult to identify and not directly obvious. In this case they could be something like this:
- stereotypes about certain minorities
- an authoritarian national culture in which only the opinion of the boss counts
- a manager who does not value diverging opinions herself and acts like a role-model for other employees
Of course there are many more possible explanations. It is your job to find out what they are. The point is to approach the problem with an open mindset. Look for the answer in not so obvious places. Listen carefully to your employees and observe the situation as closely as possible. If necessary, hire an external consultant. Maybe your colleagues are more willing to open up to him or her.
The point to remember here is that the most obvious answer is not necessarily the right one. Plus, it can be difficult to find out whether or not you are on the right track. There is only one way to find out: through trial and error. I there is something you assume could be the problem, change it and see what happens. But do not fall into the trap of thinking that you found the magic pill to all your problems. Often solutions are only good to heal the symptoms, not the disease itself. In these cases you haven’t figured out the real problem just yet. Keep going!
Unfortunately there is also one more danger: often solving the real problem takes much time and you can feel the impact only very slowly. In this case the problem is likely to be an underlying belief of your colleagues – and beliefs simply do not change quickly. If your efforts do not pay off immediately , don’t worry! It could be a good sign. Symptoms are quick to cover up, diseases take time to heal. You need to find the right balance between staying open-minded about the source of the problem and being patient. System-thinking pays off on the long run, it is not something for people who want to see results yesterday.
If you want to learn more about system thinking – do have a look at Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline”. It is one of those books that will change your thinking completely – I promise!