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#558: Are You Trapped by Linear Thinking?

Posted By Mark Haas CMC FIMC, Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Updated: Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Much of what we are hired to do is to improve specific components of organizations, but we also need to be aware of the impacts of our changes on the rest of the client's organization. How should consultants balance efforts to create highly efficient, linear processes and holistic, systems organizations?

Part of the answer lies in the scope of your engagement and part in your ability to see (and influence) the organization as a whole. Many consulting practitioners (including those who attended business school) tend to be schooled in reductionist thinking, which treats organizational strategy, operational or cultural problems by breaking them down into their component parts. Then, we see these components as needing to be optimized and reinserted into the whole organization. Many disciplines and practices (e.g., ISO, Six Sigma, Lean, Process Quality Control) reinforce this view. This reductionist, linear thinking is how we are trained to think but it was not always so.

Children grow up thinking in systems terms. They begin to see the whole before they see the parts or understand how parts contribute to the design or function of the whole. Leaving aside whether this is good or bad, we teach math, science, and early lessons in history as components and then build into the whole. It does, however, color our view of the world in almost every discipline and it takes study to regain our systems view of the world. Restoring and extending a systems view of organizations and commercial or community organizational ecosystems is an indispensible part of being an effective 21st century management consultant.

Only recently have educators begun to specifically teach system thinking in schools. The Waters Foundation is one such effort. An hour with a search engine looking for "systems thinking" will give you a good start to develop these skills.

Tip: Don't get trapped by linear thinking. However our work is scoped, we are obligated to improve the client's position, and that rarely is restricted to just one component. That means building a systems capability t be able to see how your recommended changes in one area will affect the whole organization.

© 2011 Institute of Management Consultants USA

Tags:  consulting process  innovation  knowledge assets  systems 

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