Systems Thinking

I have been involved in an industry called “systems integration” for over 35 years.

Systems integration is a term used a lot in technology fields (in my case it is the broadcast and AV industry). Simply put it means that every decision is based on the larger overall system. You don’t just buy a piece of equipment for your studio, you look at that piece of equipment in terms of the entire studio, in the work flow and preferences of the people involved, and even in terms of the larger mission of the organization. A single piece of gear may be great, even the best there is, as a stand alone device, but it may not be the best fit in terms of the big picture of what’s going on. And if your goal is to have the best overall studio or control room or playback center, you have to make very conscious decisions based on that bigger picture.

Which of course means, you have to have a very clear idea of what the bigger picture IS.

This idea of systems integration as a very (to use a popular term today) mindful way of making choices has taken root in things beyond technology. Today it is used in business, marketing, even ministry. We’ve come to recognize that if we make choices, always keeping the whole in mind, we’ll make better choices. Each choice we make will make the whole better. As our choices pile up, they will contribute and build a stronger and more effective whole, instead of creating a patchwork mess that just gets us by, and eventually, comes crashing down. Every thing we do simply becomes an enhancement, not a complete rethinking and rebuilding. There are less crisis, and less breakdowns to correct.

If you look at the best, most consistently profitable and powerful companies, I promise you, they use systems thinking in everything they do, from technology choices to workplace philosophies, to marketing. They do it because it works. It gets them from where they are to where they want to go efficiently and with less pain than any other way of development.

Companies that don’t have systems thinking embedded in their DNA lurch from victory to crisis and back with regularity.

The surprising thing to me, is how we, in our individual lives, don’t use systems thinking. We tend to look at our lives as pockets. There’s the home life pocket, the work pocket, the outside life pocket, the creative pocket, the spiritual pocket, etc. Over and over again people come to me as a coach and consultant looking to improve one or two of these pockets. And when I start probing into the other pockets to find out what really makes a person tick and what really drives them and what is really getting in their way, they push back.

“That’s not what I am here for.” they tell me. “I want you to fix “X” (whatever they want to work on.).

I can understand that way of thinking. We humans tend to want to fix what’s in front of us, full speed ahead. It’s the American way. And we can generally do that.

But if we don’t apply systems thinking to our personal lives, we end up in the same place companies and other organizations who don’t use systems thinking, always patching, always fixing, lurching from victory to crisis, stitching together the patchwork and hoping it will hold a while longer.

Why don’t we use systems thinking? Mostly because it takes longer. and it’s more complicated. We want answers and fixes now. We humans are impatient. Give us the quick fix, the magic bullet every time. Give us our memes and our catch phrases and summaries.

And then wonder, why it doesn’t work. Why we never have a sustained period of our lives being what we want our lives to be.

No, if we want a long period of being our best selves, we need to take some time. We need to spend some serious time looking at all the aspects of our lives, and see where our different roles and needs and pockets intersect. It’s slow work. Not hard, but slow because we have to just be, and look honestly at the different aspects of who we are and learn how our personal overall systems are working or not working.

It doesn’t feel like progress. But understanding how our hearts and minds and emotions and actions all mesh and work together is the absolute key to building a complete life that is not just what we want, but what we need to be our best selves.

Where we do begin? By asking a lot of questions. A LOT of questions. And allowing yourself to be honest. If you are working with someone, a coach or mentor, you need someone who both gives you the safety to be honest, and will stretch you to look at the hard stuff when it’s called for.  It’s a process that can take several sessions.

Where do we begin? When I work with my clients, I often begin by looking at our spirits – the underlying part of us that fuels and energizes and excites us. And that is where next week’s essay will focus, on our spirit.

Be well, Travel Wisely,


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