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We Are All Connected

Recently, I have co-facilitated a number of community leadership development workshops as a volunteer with a local social profit organization. One of these sessions, Systems Thinking, focuses on the interrelatedness of the many components that make up a community— from social services to utilities to resident businesses— and explores how that interdependence plays out when problems arise.

Connected by Heather, Flickr

Some of the connections and effects are obvious. Consider, for example, severe winter weather. We immediately understand (and experience) its effect on transportation services. How it impacts other systems in the community is less apparent and may require some thought. When we look deeper, we find a broad range of consequences, both direct and indirect, swirling around the edges of the polar vortex,such as:

  • Power outages caused by excess snow, ice and wind loads
  • Broken water mains leading to shutdown of the water supply, flooding and ice hazards
  • More “slip and fall” incidents at hospital emergency departments
  • Increased demand on police services due to a spike in traffic accidents
  • An uptick in mental health issues stemming from isolation and being shut-in
  • Increased stress on employees with limited time-off options when schools and daycare centres close
  • Spike in heart attacks caused by snow shovelling
  • Increased risk of exposure for outside workers
  • More house fires caused by space heaters
  • Economic loss associated with fewer shoppers, more flight disruptions, increased fuel consumption, frozen equipment, etc.
  • More illness and loss of life among the poor and homeless

And the more we think about it, the more connections we can identify.

As a tool for situation analysis and problem solving, Systems Thinking is particularly useful for tackling:

  1. Complex problems that involve helping many actors see the big picture and not just their part.
  2. Recurring problems or those that have been made worse by past attempts to fix them
  3. Issues where an action affects (or is affected by) the environment surrounding the issue, either the natural or the competitive environment.
  4. Problems whose solutions are not obvious. [1]

Many of the problems faced in a typical community fall into one of these four categories. Certainly, most of the challenges encountered in the workplace do. And quick fix remedies or solutions that provide “temporary relief of symptoms,” without delving into root causes, can’t solve these kinds of problems.

The Workplace is a System

Thinking about systems and how everything within a system is connected (in more and less obvious ways), reminded me of something a mentor once said: “It’s seldom about what we think it’s about.” In other words, most situations are like icebergs and what lies below the surface is much bigger and more influential than what we can readily see. This is true of individual behavior and it’s equally true of systems. Beneath the symptoms of any complex or recurring problem are the tangled roots of many underlying issues, each intertwined and connected with hundreds of others. A Systems Thinking approach starts with an acknowledgement of this complexity and interconnectedness and a commitment to understanding and addressing what lies beneath the surface..

A system is defined as a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole[2] or an entity that maintains its existence through the mutual interaction of its parts.[3] Either of these definitions could be used to describe an organization and its workforce. When issues arise that disrupt the balance of your workplace, put away the bandaids and the pain pills and take a systems approach instead, because:

“We are all connected; To each other, biologically. To the earth, chemically. To the rest of the universe atomically.”

Neil deGrasse Tyson

We can only hope to master the complexity of our organizations by perceiving the underlying connections, and understanding the impact each individual has on each other and on the whole.

 

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