A Need for Systems Thinking

Systems thinking. You can’t earn a badge for it, but understanding this concept is vital to my leadership at the local Girl Scouts council.

In his 1990 seminal book, The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge makes a case for the need to think of our organizations as a complete system. Our interconnectedness makes us all depend on one another for our success—or our failure. It’s been 27 years since I was first introduced to this concept, and I think it’s safe to say the world has not gotten simpler.

The need for systems thinking has grown—exponentially.

At a recent Leadership Team meeting at GSHCC, we reviewed and took a deep-dive into systems thinking and what it means for us. Our work as a Girl Scout council may seem simple—sell cookies and get girls to camp. If only it were that simple!

We do much more than cookies and camp. We are in the business of creating future leaders. Though “cookies and camp” are a part of our approach, developing leaders is a complex process.

Our council is medium-sized compared to the 111 other councils across the country. We serve nearly 18,000 girls in 18 counties. The only way our program has impact and scale is through volunteers—more than 6,000 of them.

As a staff, we are a couple layers removed from the girls and our program. We work with a layer of volunteers, who work with another layer of volunteers, who then work with the girls. It’s a pretty complex system.

Understanding the tenets of a system is important to our work. Practicing the tenets is essential.

Here are the key aspects of a systems thinker we discussed:

  • Seeks to understand the big picture
  • Sees patterns/trends in systems
  • Recognizes how a system’s structure causes its behavior
  • Surfaces and tests assumptions
  • Finds where unintended consequences might arise
  • Finds leverage points to change a system
  • Resists making quick conclusions

I realize there are entire books written on the subject of systems thinking and that simplifying the concept is a bit ironic. But understanding it is so important, that making it real and concrete for leaders whose everyday success depends on it seems justifiable.

The challenge our Leadership Team spent time exploring with our “systems thinking glasses on” was that our volunteers tell us that they feel disconnected from the council. At first glance, this challenge appears to belong to our volunteer support team.

Though they certainly own a part of it, we would miss many other critical components if we all, every leader at the council, didn’t understand our own roles in creating and solving this problem.

From our properties director to our human resource director, we all stepped into what might be going on and took time to think through solutions to the problem. A sense of ownership and understanding of their responsibility as a leader ensued. Leaders looked at not only their team’s role in finding solutions, but began to value the notion that it must be dealt with by us all.

It is just one of many challenges and opportunities that we must use the lens of systems thinking to address.

Peter Senge shifted my thinking with The Fifth Discipline. I have a lot of books that I’ve held onto for many years. This one continues to be a critical reference and support as I navigate the complexities of the seemingly simple world of Girl Scouting.


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