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Joining a New Project – Applying Systems Thinking

Thanks to Wikipedia for this definition: “Systems thinking is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole”

Let’s take a simple example to illustrate a common problem when people arrive on a project. As a team we currently make large cups of black coffee for our customers who are very happy with them.

1.John fills the water, 2. Mike grinds the beans, 3. Phil puts the cup in place and finally 4. Sally presses the go button and serves the customer with the finished coffee. Sounds very simple doesn’t it. Our customer is getting what they want.

Now let’s say John is replaced by George who is asked to fill the water. George has experience of making expressos, he’s really good at that. Now he wants to change the system, as that’s what he did in the last coffee shop and everyone loved his precise work, he was really really good at getting just the right amount of water for expresso’s, he even made sure it was at the right temperature. So George now comes in and does the same job resulting in the customer getting an Expresso sized coffee, they are not happy.

In this example George has very good intentions, he’s using a lot of skill, what he doesn’t see is his impact on the system. If he didn’t talk to the customer he may never know. What we can do when we join projects is not realise that we’re part of a larger system. There are customers for our product, they may expect certain outputs. Our support team may need that handover document to operate the service, our project manager may need the release report to highlight risks. All of these are probably of no value to us but they do matter in the context of the whole system.

So what should you do? Understand the existing set up, try to see beyond the boundaries of your job and understand the impact before you change things. You may know a better way to do something but consider the system before you change it.

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