How to build a Systems Lab?

How to build a Systems Lab?

These ideas are a Work in Progress, i.e. in full-on morphing form.

If a systems perspective is not part of your DNA (quite likely), how do you instill rigor around systems thinking at your organization? It’s tough to do this when you’re in the weeds trying to make things happen, or when you’re in full “get-shit-done” survival mode so characteristic of newer organizations.

Must a systems perspective come from its founders? While this is obviously a benefit, it’s not a pre-requisite. How do you establish a separate entity to resonate systems thinking throughout your organization?

Below are my work-in-progress thoughts around establishing a Systems Lab.

Some fundamentals

  • Must be operational. Not purely an abstracted lens. Must know how it can feed itself into the actual operations of the firm
  • Offer tools teams and individuals can ACTUALLY use (e.g. experiencing self tools, not remembering self tools)
  • Have clear understanding of the operational goals & constrains of the product, market, and task environment
  • Must be anthropological. Team must spend time observing what is happening, asset mapping the system. Draw detailed interconnections among the systems
  • Must be systems oriented. (Duh!) Focused on looking at feedback loops, closed as tight as feasible
  • Must have a clear mandate from the managing team
  • Fits into existing workflow, operating principles, current strategies

In addition:

  • Don’t ignore the “connective tissue”
  • Almost like a therapist or librarian for employees
  • Offers employees visual skills for communication. Optional but encouraged. Better can visually represent the complex systems you’re talking about, the more successful will be (depending on the task at hand). See diagramming essay for more
  • Understand that at first, efforts will feel *very* ambiguous
  • At the start, ideas don’t need to be complete. As long as they shift us from our typical in-the-weeds view
  • Aim to align this group to a revenue generator business unit (not a cost center business unit)

Use cases for systems thinking in your org

  • Better understand and respond to product market fit
  • Ethos of product + value to customers (near term)
  • Feedback loops to support long term
  • Better understand and adapt to solution deployment + maintenance
  • Better understand how to grow the co: COMMUNICATION + CONTROL (i.e. the pillars of cybernetics)
  • where control = a policy to make decisions that take action on something=
  • For more on policy, see J Forrester
  • Info feedback loop: Information >> Decision >> Action
  • From D Meadows: best opportunity to structure is when being built. THEN, once built, best way to manage is thru: information & control
  • Even better: How do you translate information to experience?

Where to start

  • Get foundational buy-in from management team
  • Build clear mandate and applicable use cases. Sequence efforts.
  • Learn
  • History of systems dynamics
  • Jay Forrester & information feedback loops >> [ information ] [ decision ] [ action ] PLUS capture of unexpected results
  • Organizations that took on Forrester’s lessons in the 1960s+
  • Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows as a gift to all employees (along with tools by Nicky Case)
  • Seek out old MIT ESD people (Engineering System Division program ended in 2015)— lessons learned?
  • Chat with current System Dynamics group at MIT (Repenning, Sterman)
  • Learn from other, more recent efforts to imbue organizational design & thinking with a systems approach (????)

Areas to apply:

  • Product
  • Market
  • Company culture & organization
  • Long-term impacts to industry

How is this different from a strategy group?

In an ideal world, this manner of thinking would be baked into every team, but in reality it is not— due to backgrounds, focus, incentives, etc. In the same way that tech companies today have welcomed in “business operations” groups to augment efforts within their organization, a Systems Lab would take the same auxiliary approach. Such an effort could certainly be part of a Strategy group, albeit with the difference that a Systems Lab would expressly think from a systems perspective.