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What is Whole System Change?

I wish I could write that I get asked this question all the time, but I don’t, and I suspect people dismiss the term “whole system” as a new age concept or something the highly intuitive analytical folks have thought up to stump the boots-on-the-ground folks who are out there trying to get things done. “Systems thinking” is about how many parts make up a “whole”.  It requires a suspension of belief that “parts” are good or bad but instead focuses on understanding how all parts are connected and work together to adapt and maintain equilibrium.

“Systems thinking” applies to every field of endeavor and in fact, it applies to just about everything under the sun from our bodies, environments, communities, families, technologies and yes, our work organizations. Some of the systems thinkers who influenced me include Peter Senge and Geary Rummler but each field has great thinkers who share similar assumptions, three of which might be simply stated as follows:

  1. Feedback is valuable data that we use to let us know how we are doing, therefore, feedback loops are an important part of any system design.
  2. We strive to adapt and maintain, based on feedback from internal and external sources.
  3. We cannot change one part without affecting all other parts.

“Whole system change” is about moving from a one source perspective, i.e., ‘we are different, please don’t include us in this effort” to a fundamental belief that change in one area will impact all others. Management theory based solely on logic will negate this assumption and take a surgical view of organization change. So, for instance, change brought about by downsizing and merger efforts might be measured by the amount of savings in resource buckets when in fact the impact on the whole system should include feedback from customers, managers and line staff. In a similar way, if you short change your body by feeding it junk food, you may produce a short term economy in a “quick easy fix” but whole system feedback will inform you that your body is not doing well. 

Change is constant, so when organizations contemplate dramatic shifts, all parts of the system must be brought into the game and feedback loops must be created to allow every part of the system to adapt and adjust.

A whole system perspective will necessarily shift people from looking at the world from their own silos and consider that we exist as part of a complex set of inter-related parts. And on top of that, we are human beings who make decisions based on rational and irrational motives. Sometimes we don’t understand why our body acts the way it does (things happen beyond our control) but we adapt and adjust based on the feedback our body gives us. In a similar way, organization health depends on a whole system perspective which means paying attention to feedback. Good health and viability are not guarantees but paying attention feedback (our indicators) increases the likelihood that we will reap good returns on our investments. 

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