What Makes a Systemic Approach to Management More Effective and Appropriate for Current Organizations?

“But can you see the big picture?” That might be the most important question currently asked of leaders within organizations. 

An engaging new book that just hit the market, Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization maintains that many organizations are still very much trapped in an outdated paradigm of silos, fragmentation, conflicts, and a zero-sum game, and their leaders end up creating unhealthy corporate cultures through outdated thinking. 

I recently spoke with Domenico Lepore, Angela Montgomery, and Giovanni Siepe -- the authors of this book -- and asked them: What makes a systemic approach to management more effective and appropriate for current organizations? Here is their complete answer: 

When we begin to see that the everyday tasks of business are all connected at a deeper level, then we begin to see the power that those actions can have for a much bigger picture. And for that we need a “Theory of Everything for Management.” 

For decades now, people have been hearing about ideas such as the “butterfly effect” where the notion is that small causes can lead to big effects. This is just one evocative example of what we may call non-linear reality. In other words, we have come to understand the world in a radically different way to how we understood it one hundred years ago. Back then, the kind of mechanistic models that came from Newtonian thinking were applied directly to labor and production. Everything could be safely divided up into separate boxes and commanded from on high through a vertical hierarchy. That is why organizations were created with levels of command and separate departments. They even had to adapt accounting methods to report on this box-like “reality”. 

Today, instead, science has been telling us for some time that reality is non-linear and that we must understand new models based on complexity and that means understanding interdependencies and networks. So what does that mean for business? We need only look at the global crises we have been living through to see that a huge shift is happening and that many failures are due to a lack of understanding of how reality actually works today. It is no longer adequate or appropriate to divide organizations up into functions/silos that have difficulty talking to each other and that squabble over budgets. Not only do we need to see organizations as whole systems, we must work with whole supply chains, and beyond that, to how organizations impact all their stakeholders and their environments. 

 In Quality, Involvement, Flow: The Systemic Organization, we describe a “Theory of Everything for Management” based on the work of W. Edwards Deming and the Theory of Constraints. These combined bodies of knowledge provide all the philosophy, method and tools for managing in our age of complexity. We explain organizations at their most fundamental level, how to see them as systems and how to organize work as a flow through a pattern of all designed interdependencies to satisfy a common goal. When we talk about work in any organization, essentially we are talking about processes and projects. We describe an effective way to design those processes and manage projects successfully in a systemic way with Critical Chain Project Management. 

Change is a challenging process and we dedicate an entire chapter to it. We need to understand the human needs and the cognitive leap it takes to work in an organization fit for the 21st century, with no artificial barriers and that engenders the desire to continuously improve and innovate. Working in a systemic organization means constantly working on the cognitive challenges, overcoming conflicts as they arise and strengthening the emotional intelligence required to live with uncertainty. We provide details on the Thinking Process Tools from the Theory of Constraints that provide the support for the new skills – cognitive, creative, emotional and logical – needed to keep pace with rapidly evolving markets. 

We show how change can be also highly positive for those who work systemically, eradicating unnecessary barriers and tasks, creating opportunities for real empowerment and self-development, and finding more unity between who we are as people and what we do on a day to day basis. Thinking and acting systemically means having a practical way to overcome the zero-sum game that keeps business stuck in the win-lose mindset that has caused so much havoc in the markets and can only lead to more polarization. Working systemically is all about finding win-win solutions upon which we can build sustainable prosperity, for ourselves, our customers, our suppliers and all the stakeholders. 

Everything moves so fast now. Executive heads are rolling for not knowing how to cope in our new digital era. In spite of all the shifts happening, including the digital challenge in particular, most business schools continue to teach pretty much the same things as 50 years ago with a few new programs added on. We dedicate a whole section of the book to outline a program for business schools that is up to date for our era of complexity, from strategy to accounting.