August 30, 2018

Taking Risks and Thinking Beyond Your World

My fifteen-year-old daughter and I were playing a question game last night, and taking turns to answer random things about each other. It was all going well until she pulled a card that said, “What characteristic would you like to see me change?” Ugh, I thought. What am I going to share that she should know, without having her feel completely critiqued when we are in the middle of playing a fun game? As gracefully as I could, I shared “I’d love you to understand the world doesn’t totally revolve around you. There are other people, factors, etc.” I thought I’d need to explain it, but thankfully she understood. I don’t think she’s in the minority; anyone with teenagers could tell you this is part of their development.

However, it made me consider a series of work conversations I’ve had of late with some of our evolving leaders. The situation manifests itself in a different way, but it’s a development area for many. However, while not as critical in a growing teen, understanding how the larger system works is a core skill leaders need.

The concept of “systems thinking” means a variety of things to different people. It’s essentially a comprehensive approach to analysis that focuses on the way a system’s varying parts interrelate, work together, and within the context of larger systems. In the context of leadership, it’s not just important to understand; it’s critical to success. Why? Business leaders must be flexible and take disciplined risks to solve problems in a variety of ways and being able to think holistically is a major component of that. Ultimately, it’s the ability to think beyond your own swim lane and take into consideration the broader community.

Let’s explore a simple example. Pretend you are a stellar shooter, and your basketball team is down by one point with just seconds left in the game. You are just one three-pointer away from setting a personal record, and you’ve just been passed the ball. You power down the court, set your feet, shoot...and miss. Your team loses the game. Your coach is furious because two of your teammates were open, and each could have taken a two-point shot for the win. What went wrong? You were thinking myopically, and reducing the situation to elements that just applied to you. Your coach, on the other hand, was considering the overall system.

While this is a fairly basic anecdote, it often parallels business and leadership. It’s not uncommon for a manager to suggest an initiative that aims to forward the organization. It looks to be a good investment and appears to benefit the productivity of the team. Changes are made, but in the process, other teams and ultimately the customers respond negatively. While the project might have benefitted the individual team, it ultimately had an adverse impact on the company as a system because it failed to take into consideration all of the elements outside of the team that might have changed the approach and/or outcome.

Need some motivation to start thinking beyond your own world?  Systems thinking directly correlates to improved performance. How? By using competencies such as process, logic, the broader community, and sustainable success models. Our businesses have so many different contexts to them ( economic, social, technical, etc.) and each of those have their own systems. As a business scales, those interactions become even more complex. The ability to consider each piece of the overarching system will aid you in most effectively delivering impact in both the short-term and well as longer-term sustainable results.   

For whatever reason, we seem to be more inclined to break down a system and attack each piece separately. And while this might be beneficial to the sub-system, it’s not always optimal for the broader system. When we can begin thinking more broadly across the entire system, we can create benefits in both efficiency and productivity. Over time, those sustained improvements happen more organically through intentional partnering across the various disciplines within the broad system.

We expect this skill of systems thinking to exist within our most senior leaders, even if it doesn’t come naturally to them. To truly drive the organization forward, a core job requirement is a consideration of how their function interacts with the others within the organization. The really good leaders understand how to think beyond their function, and how to drive for the overall organization.  However, we don’t have to leave this up to senior leaders. This is a skill every single person can build, regardless of your current role. It’s one thing to drive massive results on your own team; it’s far more impressive when you can deliver more meaningful results by understanding how your work affects the other elements of the organization.

Christina Luconi is Chief People Officer for Rapid7. Follow her on Twitter: @peopleinnovator