The Whole Is Not The Same As The Sum Of Its Parts

Building anything today requires a wholistic understanding from all perspectives. Isolating teams from strategy and process increases the likelihood of an outcome that doesn’t live up to customer expectations.

This broader understanding can be difficult to achieve. However, over the last two decades I’ve found great success by taking a systems thinking approach with teams I’ve lead, globally.

This has allowed me to break down barriers of communication; build stronger relationships; understand the specific problems teams wish to resolve; in addition to outcomes they and their leads value most.

Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish.

Systems Thinking Environment and ecology

This method takes time and patience. It also requires one to be genuinely curious about different disciplines. For example, I’ve asked to be mentored in disciplines I’ve never experienced; continually questioning for clarity regarding choices made and how those decisions impacted roadmaps and other outcomes.

In short, engaging in systems thinking is not a simple task. As Carol Sanford outlined in 2004 it requires leaders to acknowledge that…

Our upbringing and particularly our education have trained our thought patterns to follow a segmented and reductionist path. As a result we have spent most of our lives seeing the world around us in a non-dynamic and segmented way. We have to actually build new capabilities to be able to see the world from a systems perspective.

Once we have seen it through ‘systems eyes’, it is much like the Gestalt pictures of the old and young woman (or the vase and two profiles facing one another). When you know how to see them both, you understand how they were both always there. The new capability to see and to think in terms of systems thinking also starts with being able to “envision” relationships and structural components of nested whole ways of thinking. The classification we are working with here is one of seeing the typologies of relationships and structures within a hierarchy wherein each “type” constitutes a level or plane of thinking capability.

Forth and Fifth Levels of Systems Thinking: Different Capabilities Are Required, Different Potential Offered Originally published at Wharton School, International Conference on Systems Thinking and Management 2004

Identify the functional capabilities of individuals

A key starting point in helping others achieve this gestalt perspective is to first acknowledge the functional capabilities of your team. One can then better position individuals and your team as a whole within the strategic vision of the company.

It’s also important to remember that a job title and description does not limit the capacity of any individual. Identifying an individuals’ interest in other areas of the organization can open doors and unblock them through building lines of communication and trust.

If you are a leader in your organization and would like to get started with this approach take some time to review the ideas listed below and write them out on a piece of paper. Next, under each point detail how you and/or the organization is helping or potentially hindering individuals and your team. (Unpublished notes from workshop in 1978 from Krone and Associates.)

• Most people in an organization will not go further or deeper than the leader in that organization will take them.

• A group, or the functioning capability of an organization, is either enabled or limited by the leader.

• As a leader, unless you plan or design interactions, it is difficult to know whether you are limiting a group or helping them move forward.

• The limiting factor in developing improvements is the functional capability of people and organizations.

• The functioning capability in people and organizations is largely the process of leading.

• A group will not be able to accomplish all that is possible unless the leader can develop:

  • The appropriate use of mental processes to define what needs to be addressed in the situation.
  • The appropriate thought and behaviour in the group to carry out the task

Field Notes

When leaders don’t consider the points outlined above, I’ve found a consistent behavioural pattern begins to quickly emerge and subsequently becomes reinforced.

Individuals and then teams start to mirror the attitudes and behaviours of the leader. They stop listening and the larger strategy gets lost with individual agendas and additional work being requested that is disconnected from the larger organizational goal(s).

In turn they hold tightly to their perspective and they start to either ignore or are ignorant of the larger system in which they work. This is when teams stop collaborating, hide information, and create their own goals in an effort to prove their value.

The other constant I’ve found when leaders head down this path is that conversations tend to lean completely towards the subjective in one discussion and then entirely towards the objective in another. This range of ideas and data begins to quickly push teams towards questioning themselves and others.

Over a short period of time ideas, concepts, and assumptions don’t just add up – they multiply. This multiplicity of ideas creates an even greater divide between teams. As a result, teams lose any sense of direction or understanding of the value they bring to the team and the company. And it is this feeling of a lack of value that causes most to seek opportunities in other organizations.

Remember, the whole is not the same as the sum of its parts. To consider only the outcomes (whole) the organization wishes to achieve, without paying equal reverence and respect to the unique individual and teams (parts) capacities, misses opportunities for growth in capital which can be measured both in terms of innovation, and profit.