Systems Thinking: Look at the Connected Whole and Ask Why

I’m a keen squash player and having recently hurt my back, I’m getting physiotherapy. The clinic I’m going to (a referral from a client – thanks Wendy!), backs an unconventional approach. The premise is that root causes to injuries are often not related to the place of the injury (my back), and occur elsewhere is the body. In my case, the causes are my foot, shoulder and thorax!

In organizational settings, a key systems thinking practice (and there are a handful) is to “go wide” in examining complex cause and effect relationships. Sometimes the connection between cause and effect is clear, but often determining the exact relationship between the two is very difficult.

For example, when considering lower employee engagement survey results, one might infer that the people manager is the reason for the lower scores. However, the reasons (the causes) might actually be factors like a lack of organization-wide career development, high workload resulting in stress and a lack of work-life balance, or low trust and confidence in senior leaders’ strategic direction.

A systems thinking orientation encourages the analysis of the nature of multiple root causes and how they contribute to the situation. A simple, yet impactful tool that can be used to identify root causes is the “5 Whys”. It involves looking at any problem and asking: “Why?” and “What caused this problem?” Very often, the answer to the first “why” will prompt another “why” and the answer to the second “why” will prompt another and so on; hence the name, the 5 Whys.

After three physio visits, I’m making good progress and hoping to be back on the squash courts soon!

Our Critical Thinking workshop explores this and other systems thinking principles and tools.

Nic Tsangarakis, Principal