Personal Mastery on System Thinking

Subject: Decision Making
Pages: 19
Words: 5248
Reading time:
19 min
Study level: PhD


Organizations comprise a variety of elements or separate entities operating distinctively with each other. In some organizations, such elements are characterized by a hierarchical flow of voice of command from top to down. The main challenge faced by the organization is how to integrate these entities so that they remain harmonized for the sake of their success. Some of the theoretical paradigms that scholars have proposed to resolve these challenges include change management and system thinking. However, this paper does not dwell on the change management; on the contrary, it focuses on the system thinking.

System thinking encompasses the process of ensuring an understanding of the manner in which various things found in the environment operate harmoniously with one another. One example of environmental systems is the ecosystem, which comprises plants and animals among other intermediating elements such as the air, movements, and water. For such systems, it is crucial for all the elements to operate in concert for survival. Otherwise, they would perish with some elements becoming extinct. When the concept of system thinking is applied to organizations, the distinct element that comprises the whole includes people, work processes, and structures. Similar to the case of ecosystem system, failure for these elements to operate in harmony with each other has the impact of culminating into a grand malfunction of an organization in its quest to achieve its strategic objectives and goals, which are enshrined in an organizational vision and mission statements. The main objective of this paper is to discuss the concept of system thinking in the context of the United Methodist Church (UMC). The choice of this organization lies in the fact that the writer has worked as a clergy for this organization for over ten years before being engaged in overseas missionary work in Malaysia.

Defining the concept of system thinking in the context of the UMC

The United Methodists Church (UMC) is an institution that is made up of a number of separate entities operating in a hierarchical manner. The hierarchical systems determine the manner in which various individual components within the organization relate with one another. In the UMC, Episcopal polity is the largest ruling organ. Arguably, this organ is equivalent to the government. Bishops do the administration of the organ. Essentially, bishops are appointed through conferences that are collectively termed as Episcopal areas represented by the bishops in the polity. In addition to bishops, there are clergies. The appointing power of the clergies is a reserve of the bishops. The bishops also choose the areas through which the clergies are placed. UMC also has presbyters and deacons. These two groups of the organization’s leaders are also referred to as elders. Presbyters who are chosen to serve the UMC in their lifetime are the ones referred to as the bishops.

From the discussion of the structure of the UMC above, it is clear that the concepts of system thinking are applicable at the organization because the concepts enable one to create the understanding of how specific components work together within a whole (Meadows, 2008, p.65). This understanding is critical for the case of UMC since integration of the hierarchical structures, which are made up of clergies, bishops, presbyters, and deacons is of paramount importance for the proper running of the organization. In case problems arise in the hierarchical structures of the UMC, the concept of systems thinking is effective in resolution of the problems through addressing concretely the challenges of the constituents of the overall system (Seddon, 2008, p.29). From this dimension, it is imperative to define system thinking in the context of its applicability at UMC as “an approach to problem solving by viewing problems as part of an overall system rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes or events, and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences” (Hutchins,1996, p.13). This implies that system thinking is principally a set of practices or habits as opposed to a thing that UMC can utilize to enhance integration of various elements that make up the organization. Consequently, UMC, as a system, can be explored “within a framework that is based on the belief that the parts of a system can best be understood in the context of relationships with each other and with other systems rather than in isolation” (Hutchins, 1996, p.33). Thus, the application of system thinking theory is best applied in the context of the UMC organization from the paradigms of the elements constituting the whole as being cyclical as opposed to being linear and guided by principles of cause and effect. The goal of the paper is then to conduct an examination of various interactions and linkages of the UMC elements, which make the organization a system. It is also beneficial to note that, in any system, various events are separated by some distance. Inappropriate minute invents (decisions), which may act as catalysts for producing immense changes (organizational chaos) especially in case of complex systems such as UMC, may emerge in an organization. Consequently, in the application of the concepts of system thinking in the UMC, it is critical for system thinking to act as a mechanism of assessing long-term effects of decisions made by every element that make up the whole organization.

How organizational components interconnect to create complex organizational systems

The interaction of the various components within a system produces complex patterns especially where flow of accurate information faces some drawbacks. This situation is what is termed as a fractal phenomenon in the system thinking theory (Hutchins, 1996, p.98). For instance, in the case of UMC, the congregations, which are served by the clergies, may have some problems. Many of the people in the congregation may fail to have an integrated definition of the problems whose response is being sought. Since any issue is presented to the person in the lowest rank in the hierarchical structure for forwarding to the final decision making authority in the hierarchical organizational systems, the drawback in the definition of the problem has probabilities of being replicated at all stages of the bottom–up communication flow.

The above problem makes solutions given by the utmost decision maker to suffer flaws also. Consequently, so long as the problem definition remains problematic, it is likely that the solutions given will always remain incorrect. Additionally, it is also possible that certain aspects of the problems and solutions in the channels of information flow will be lost even if the problems were correctly defined and integrative. These challenges make the organizational components that constitute an organization have complex interactions since it is critical for information to be accurately propagated from bottom to up and top to bottom for them to operate effectively. However, since human errors cannot be eliminated to the zero point, interaction of various elements within systems remains a complex phenomenon. In the appreciation of the likelihood of such complexities, UMC has put incredible strategies to ensure that there is a well-established communication and command flow pattern. Generally, the Bishops are the supreme authorities who are tasked with all critical decisions affecting the church. The junior members of the clergy also have their spheres of command. Therefore, any decision they make is escalated to the top for approval.

By the systems thinking theory, the ‘Episcopal Polity’, is the organ that ascertains the stability of the UMC. All other groupings within it are the unique systems that keep it running. However, the sub-organs must work alongside each other in a complimentary fashion if the institution is to operate at desired efficiencies. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that all the sub-organs constitute different people who cannot think and reason in exactly the same way due to thinking and reasoning differences. Therefore, the most applicable decision is reached upon consideration of a number of possibly efficient and effective alternatives that are raised through opinions given by different people. In organizational settings, the more the number of alternatives available to a single problem, the harder it becomes to single out the most imperative alternative. Given that UMC has her face experienced in the global fronts, the threshold of these challenges becomes even more amplified. This argument implies that the complexity of an organization as a system can be explained by interconnectivity of various elements that make it up, and which are made up by people who are different in various extents. Although, UMC is guided by a common aim and mission (help in spreading of the gospel coupled with making the world a better place to live), it is not immune from this challenge.

The various components of the UMC cannot operate efficiently towards attaining a common organizational aim and mission while operating independently. In this regard, the regional conferences cannot operate independently of the polity because the region remains paralyzed unless the polity gives approval to decisions made by a conference regarding critical issues such as budgets. The polity cannot operate without the conferences because these grassroots establishment makes the supreme authority aware of issues at the local level. This aspect helps in defining the system-thinking tenet of interdependence, which states that all parts in a system must work alongside each other in such a way that they influence each other (Ackoff, 2010, p.125). While interdependence is essential in ensuring that various components comprising the UMC organization remain focused to the main objectives of why the organization is established, it also introduces a substantial challenge because, if one component fails in attaining its anticipated contribution to the success of the overall system, the UMC in this context, the entire system becomes ineffective. This implies that analyzing the success of an organization in terms of attainment of its objectives, goals, and missions entails considering the success as occurring in case all the success factors for various components making the whole record no failure to achieve their predetermined outcomes that are necessary in making an overall organizational decision. Therefore, with regard to UMC, since the system thinking theory holds that independent parts cannot make a system, one laity member cannot claim to be the UMC system.

In fact, systems are largely interconnected. They constitute intangible or tangible things and relationships. According to Kim, “an individual elements or phenomenon exists in relation to other phenomena as if in a spider web where pulling one strand of the web will likely affect many others” (2000, p.53). This implies that every element is influenced by all other components comprising the whole organization in an organizational setting. Therefore, it is crucial to conduct an analysis not only of the individual elements that make the system but also the existing interconnection between the individual entities for clear and concise understanding of the system to be developed.

Using systems thinking to create a concept map to describe a complex problem

It is possible to apply system thinking theory in the mapping and describing of complex problems within organizations. In the process, system-thinking theory is essential in the “analysis of difficult and recurrent intractable conflicts whose solutions are not obvious and that involve complex issues thus requiring multiple actors to coordinate” (Gephart et al., 1996, p.37). Traditionally, the endeavors to map complex problems within an organization were static. This means that only piecemeal of the actual problem was provided. This approach led to the creation of problem-solving mechanisms that lack feedback loops and or “cross-factor interactions over time” (Davis, 2011, p.104). For this reasons, Davis further postulates that, in organizations operating from the theoretical paradigms of system thinking, “over time, everything is connected to everything” (Davis, 2011, p.104). This complexity of interconnectedness of various elements that make up an organization introduces difficulties in the mapping of analytic works that are meant to solve various challenges that are encountered within any organization including the UMC. This problem can be eased by development of cognitions of the relevance of communications that are effective, reconstruction planning, and a good stabilization on complex problem mappings and planning. Through analysis of challenges encountered by every element in a system, system-thinking approach aids in overcoming various shortcomings of the traditional approaches of resolution of complex problems within an organization. This goal is accomplished through “helping an analyst to address various problem mapping challenges in the traditional frameworks of organization challenges and conflict management” (Davis, 2011, p.110). This makes system thinking significant in the mapping and description of a complex problem in the UMC.

In the UMC, system thinking acts as a mechanism of mapping complex problems that affect the individuals entities may be argued as having three principal roles. Firstly, in Malaysia, where I currently work, there are many challenges that affect various immigrant groups. These problems often call for the designing of several programs that ensure that immigrant groups of people will be able to handle the challenges that have resulted to dwindled self-esteem. Considering this as the desired goal of all programs, it is crucial that each program works to enhance the effectiveness of the other program. This way, system thinking will help an analyst looking for various approaches through which the challenges encountered by Malaysian immigrants can be solved “from fragmented analysis and programming to a more comprehensive understanding of a conflict situations that remain comprehensible” (Davis, 2011, p.81). This means that problem mapping and problem description approaches can be made compelling through the application of concepts of system thinking thus enabling long lists of the solution to be eliminated. It also becomes possible to “identify the key drivers without oversimplifications” (Ackoff, 2010, p.37). When this is done for every program, it becomes possible to contextualize various solutions to the challenges faced by the immigrant communities as a whole rather than as fragments.

Secondly, through the deployment of concepts of system thinking, programs developers are able to develop a problem description approach that is portable to all individual components of a system. Portability is achieved in the “sense that problem analysis can easily be fed into the strategy, program development, and monitoring and evaluation” (Riciglino, 2011, p.7). Lastly, good problem mapping techniques provide mechanisms for capturing both the complexity and richness of the problem with the objective of creating a wide overview of the agency and the environment within which people seeking to implement solutions to problems operate. In the context of the immigrants of Malaysia, the challenges can be cutely mapped and described. However, this is possible upon viewing of the entire operation of the organization from the contexts of constituting various components each having a principle focus in the contribution to seeking the solution to the overall problem in relation to its chief focus of indebting to ensure that the immigrants get equal rights.

Evaluating realistic solutions to organizational problems using systems thinking

Evaluation of possible alternative solutions to a problem is conducted to ensure that the mechanisms deployed to resolve a certain problem are effective. This means that, in the evaluation process of the postulated solutions, it is critical for all the identified solutions to be looked at from many angles of view to identify the likely problematic areas in the solutions before implementation. System thinking happens to be one of the theoretical paradigms that can be employed to assess solutions proposed to recurrent problems among the components of systems because “it helps solutions implementers to view events and patterns in a new light thus responding to them at higher patterns” (Riciglino, 2011, p.26). The Malaysian immigrants’ woes are critical experiences that attract the attention of the UMC. Responding by sympathizing with them constitutes a means of reaction. However, the evaluation of the effectiveness of the reaction is dependent on the capacity of the UMC missionaries in Malaysia to help these people resolve the challenges such as forced labor and unjustified imprisonment. Indeed, the most effective strategy is the one that would reveal the patterns of the woes of the Malaysian immigrants. This step is necessary since the most focused efforts need to be deployed in the areas where the problems afflicting these immigrants have the highest threshold. However, by simply choosing to locate the missionaries in the areas where there are large numbers of suffering people does not resolve the challenge. In fact, it is not merely effective in the resolution of the challenge. Rather, it is desirable to foster interaction between the people trying to handle the challenges that are faced by immigrants. This attempt is essential in helping them to open up to reveal the challenges that they are experiencing. Arguably, this can only be successfully realized if system-thinking theory is applied from an additional perspective. This perspective is that it acts as a tool for fostering communication between various components that comprise a whole.

Using system thinking as a tool for communication implies employing it to act as a language for expression of values and feelings held by every entity within the system. In this end, the concern of the evaluation of the system thinking aims at digging out information of the extent to which system thinking paradigms employed within the UMC stress on the purpose of the interconnectedness of all the components in the operation of organizations as a whole. Therefore, in the evaluation process, the most preferred approach of controlling and monitoring the UMC is the one which emphasizes “circular feedback (for example, A leads to B, which leads to C, which leads back to A) rather than a linear cause and effect” (Gephart et al., 1996, p.41). Arguably, in the context of the UMC organization, applying system thinking as a communication tool in the evaluation process entails determining how clergies, bishops, and other hierarchical representatives of the whole organization link up together to aid in the realization of the organizational goals and objectives in a harmonious manner. Indeed, in the structuring of information flow, the aspect of system thinking as a communication tool is incredibly useful because feedback will be provided through members of the laity as to whether or not the institution should go with the objectives based on the message firmly received by each member of the church.

Assessing the long-term effects of decisions

The decisions that are made by organizational leaders require having a long-term positive impact on the success of an organization. In the context of the UMC, these decisions need to ensure that the UMC continues to deliver the gospel in the end in a bid to win the souls of people as witnessed by the missionary program in Malaysia in which several Vietnamese immigrants have been reached through the prisons gospel programs done. This success is owed to the consideration of the need to assess the decisions that are made by the missionary leaders and or by the entire UMC organization emphasizing on the need to ensure that all people are treated with dignity irrespective of their places of origin. This decision is inspired by the biblical teaching that all people are created in the image of God. Therefore, all decisions that are taken by the missionary leaders working in Malaysia are all aimed at emphasizing the importance of this position held by the global UMC fraternity.

While endeavoring to help the Malaysian Vietnamese immigrants, it is crucial that the missionaries focus on wining their trusts and confidence so that they can believe that UMC missionaries are not yet another disguised body meant to have them returned home for their individualistic interests. This effort calls for assessments of the effects of the decisions that are taken by the missionary leaders in Malaysia for the degree of their long-term impact on the well-being of the immigrants. These decisions are made through involvement and interaction of various bodies both within and without the UMC fraternity. For instance, in the processing of the Vietnamese paper, which would see some of them flown back home while completed, the church has to involve the government in the process. Therefore, there must be agreements between the UMC and the Malaysian government officials in the immigration department. These parties need to operate harmoniously if at all the church is to succeed in its missions to have the dignity and respect of immigrants of Vietnam restored. Apparently, the government would only append its signature through its appointed officials only upon having the undutiful belief that flying the immigrants back to their native home would have a positive impact on Malaysia in the long-term. Therefore, the decision adopted by missionary leaders should ensure positive long-term impacts on the immigrants and the government besides having the UMC global fraternity’s participation in the facilitation of the process of taking back the immigrants back home applauded by the two parties in conflict.

The above discussion suggests the incorporation of perspectives of system thinking in the decision-making processes in organizations. It is crucial that the long-term impacts of a decision are not only considered from the perspective of a system as a whole but also in terms of the constituent components. For example, the decisions made by the bishops, for instance, in the appointment of clergies, need to have positive impacts for the success of the UMC. Equally pertinent to note is that the bishops reserve the power to place the clergies in certain areas. People have different characteristics that define their personality. Therefore, it is vital for the selection of the area for placement of the clergies to be done such that clergies are placed in the places that suit them well in the sense that conflicts would not arise because of the interactions of the clergies and their congregations within their areas of placement. This way, “the systems thinker’s pragmatic focus on determining what is actually happening serves as a preventative to self-delusional wishful thinking” (Kim, 2000, p.83). Nevertheless, this does not mean that a wishful thinker acts as the substitute to realistic appraisal.

The purpose of assessment of the long-term effects of decisions made in an organization is perhaps more crucial in an organization that is dynamic and complex. In the same line of argument, Hutchins adds, “the continuous assessment process that is characteristic of system thinking is essential in a volatile and a rapidly changing environment” (1996, p.55). The UMC is arguably one of the many complex organizations since persons coming from across the diversity divide dominate it. The core thing that unifies the organization is the need to spread the word of God. Although there is no perfect checklist to ensure that an organization behaves in accordance with the principles of system thinking, for the UMC, the assessment of the long-term impacts of the decisions made by the organization is done through a number of ways.

In the first place, the decisions made by all the UMC organization leaders are based on the purpose for which the church was initiated. Decisions are made according to the established criteria, procedures, and processes. For instance, before authentication of any decisions, a consideration is given to determine whether the congregation will embrace or reject it. Secondly, simplistic cause and effect relationships are considered as inadequate for creating a plausible understanding of complete social systems (Kim, 2000, p.69). For this reason, the UMC embraces the feedback loops in its decision-making process by considering them as the best ways through which the dynamics of the organization can be thought about in a bid to make a valid conclusion on the most preferred direction of action. Since the goal of the UMC is to ensure that the entities comprising the organization work in harmony to make the preaching of the word of God effective, the major concerns of the bishops are to think about the UMC as a whole, as opposed to parts. This means that assessment of the long-term impacts of the decisions made by the bishops is necessary regardless of the impacts of the decision on the parts that make up the UMC. However, a major area of concern is the impact of the decisions on the organization as a whole. Arguably, this is an attempt to look at the organization from the contexts of what is happening as opposed to what it would want to happen.

Performance capacity of staff members to achieve goals and organizational objectives by way of interviews

The subject of organizational success is not the province of the individual components of organizations. Organizational components must interconnect to create complex organizational systems, which help in determining the organization’s performance. The main question is how these components interconnect to realize the performance of an organization. The components of an organization realize effective performance through the creation of strategic plans. From the context of the UMC, the strategic plan for the Christian leaders emphasizes the fact that effective leaders are the ones who need to have “two aspects: doing the right thing (vision) and doing things right (implementation)” (Senske, 2003, p.85). This argument arose when I was appointed to initiate a new mission ministry in the community of Vietnamese people in Northern Virginia about nine years ago. The first thing I did with only ten Vietnamese brothers and sisters in the bible study group was a good mission plan for our team to aim to develop our new ministry. We discussed in many ways and made many suggestions. We agreed on a final strategic plan cultivating to introduce the gospel into the Vietnamese cultural context through social and educational programs such as interpreting in court, helping to take a driving test, opening the ESL classes, and establishing the Vietnamese language academy for Vietnamese children who have been born in America. This example reveals the significance of integrating the characteristics of the elements that constitute systems in the derived measures to enhance the performance of an organization guided by principals of system thinking.

Practices to lead through organizational chaos

Stemming from the previous arguments, organizations comprise several interlinked components. Chaos emanates when these components fail to integrate and operate harmoniously. However, leaders still have a noble responsibility within their mandates to ensure that an organization maneuvers through such trying times to attain stability. When an organization is going through a period of chaos, the most plausible practice for leading is the development of leadership that is rested on the paradigms of self-organization of various components that make the organizational system. With regard to Shaw (1997), “self-organization, as opposed to natural or social selection, is a dynamic change within the organization where system changes are made by recalculating, re-inventing, and modifying its structure in order to adapt, survive, grow, and develop” (p.238). During times of organizational chaos, it is desirable for an organization to learn to re-invent mechanisms of controlling the factors that result in the disorientation of the system components from the strategic focus of the whole. Leading by self-organization coincidentally happens to be a practice that encourages creative adaptation and re-invention “due to the introduction of, or being in a constant state of, perturbed equilibrium” (Shaw, 1997, p.239). A good example of an organization that is led by self-organization is a learning organization.

Learning organizations permit self-organization of various components that make up the whole in a manner that permits smooth interactions of the components as opposed to the realization of chaos management through some kind of leader-invented form of change (Senge, 2009, p.88). The practice of leading through self-organization implies that, during times of organizational chaos, the main role of a leader in an organization is to look for the best matches between various components within the organization as it evolves to put strategies to ensure that such matches are given subtle substrates to foster growth.

From the context of the UMC, bishops are the leaders and managers of the church in various geographical regions. The task of leading by self-organization squarely falls on them. The main question is how they can do this task. In response to this query, successful managers will know how to organize people into effective teams taking into consideration that there will be a wide range of concepts about intelligence, attitudes, cooperativeness, trustworthiness, honesty, and productiveness. To bring about orderliness and smooth running, it is necessary to define clearly the interpersonal roles of the leaders in which “managers engage in a great deal of interaction by continually communicating with people” (Gomez-Mejia, Balkin, & Cardy, 2005, p.11) or ascertain good communications to draw clear lines of responsibilities. The tasks done by an organizational manager can only be accomplished directly congruent with the adaptive direction of harmonization of the components of the system that is in chaos. This means that, during chaos, leaders have no obligation to force certain changes lest they dismantle and disintegrate the entire organization into fragments that cannot be reunited. Arguably, attempting to force changes can be attributed to fracturing of churches into separate pieces. This happens when the church leadership takes strong sides on certain issues without giving room for negotiation or for people with a different opinion to express their cases fully.

Contributions of system thinking to organizational learning

Many change management scholars contend that organizational learning constitutes one of the most effective mechanisms of enabling organizational managers and leaders to come up with dynamic and systematic perspective of contextualization of organizations. To effect these changes, the concepts of system thinking are vital. A learning organization is the one that is capable to borrow from the past problematic areas that act as hindrances of the performance of the organization (Senge, 2009, p.8). Hence, it avoids replication of such challenges in the future. Therefore, every situation that is encountered hardly turns out to produce similar implications to the organization in the future. Organizations collect people together for achieving a singled out function. For instance, for the case of the UMC, the noble function of the church is to ensure that the gospel of Jesus Christ is spread across the globe to people of all diversities and affiliations. Hence, organizational learning as a paradigm embodied within the theoretical perspectives of system thinking seeks to “explore ways to design organizations so that they fulfill their function effectively, encourage people to reach their full potential while at the same time helping the world to be a better place” (Senge, 1996, p. 44). This reveals why the UMC has established missionaries in different countries to address specific challenges that are faced by people like the Vietnamese immigrants in Malaysia.

Since system thinking entails looking at organizations as systems that are made up of separate parts, system thinking has an immense contribution to organizational learning since the problems that exist within the components thus complicating the entire whole are the ones, which facilitate learning. Without problems, solutions cannot be sought. Additionally, when solutions are sought in good time, it implies that such problems would not be anticipated to derail an organization. Therefore, by embracing systems thinking, the UMC is not anticipated to derail from its core object of spreading the gospel without dividing people along diversity lines, social, economical, and political lines.


System thinking encompasses looking at the world from the perspective of ‘wholes’ and then focusing on scrutinizing the existing relationships between the parts of the ‘wholes’. By deploying the theory of system thinking, the paper argued that stubborn problems within an organization could be resolved with high success rates. However, by presenting a case example of the UMC church, it has been argued that organizational components interconnect to create complex organizational systems. Therefore, for an organization’s success, system thinking needs to benefit the organization in terms of performance, provision of practical constructs for mapping and describing complex problems, evaluating realistic solutions to organizational problems, assessing the long-terms impacts of decisions made in an organization, and enhancing organizational learning.


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