CXO

The importance of systems thinking

In IT we often talk in terms of solutions. Here's why that's the wrong approach.

In IT, we're awash in "solutions." For nearly any problem, from the technical to the business challenge, there's a product that purports to offer a solution for that specific challenge. Even our various vendors and suppliers talk about solutions, providing their people with classes in "solution selling" to drive the point home that identifying a specific problem and offering a product or service to address that problem is the right approach.

Contrast a solutions mindset with systems thinking, where the "system" refers to not only the technology, but business processes, customers, and the underlying market. Systems thinking considers how all these different elements of a system interact, and then identifies ways to optimize the overall system, versus solutions to a specific problem within that system.

SEE: Edge computing research report 2018: Implementation and investment grows across industries (Tech Pro Research)

Consider the case of Tesla

While Tesla has received quite a bit of negative press as of late, the company is a great example of systems thinking versus solution thinking. Consider its initial challenge of becoming a legitimate manufacturer of electric automobiles. A solutions approach to the problem might have been to build upon previous efforts to market electric vehicles, which centered around low-cost, commuter-style vehicles with funky styling that presumably would capture the interest of mass-market consumers who wanted an efficient commuter car.

Tesla instead determined that it could never compete in this segment against companies that had completely optimized their production systems to produce mass-market cars with razor-thin margins, so instead, it created performance cars that appealed to high-income performance enthusiasts. Rather than using existing charging networks (an extremely wise solution), the company took the systems view that it would ultimately create a superior user experience to provide its own high-speed charging network.

While Tesla's story continues to unfold, the company has consistently surprised analysts and consumers by creating a system around electric transportation, versus solutions that solved a small piece of the overall puzzle.

SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of autonomous vehicles (Tech Pro Research)

Applying systems thinking

Systems thinking need not be reserved for problems as large as creating a viable transportation company. Start with the next challenge your IT shop faces. Rather than immediately jumping to point to solutions that solve that particular problem, consider how the area you're focused on fits into a larger system. A fancy new scanner that can process millions of invoices is a reasonable solution to an invoice scanning problem, but it might not be the right tool to solve a sub-optimal accounts payable process that requires an unwieldy amount of paper and manual work. Intriguingly, a "solution" to a single element of a system often sub-optimizes the overall system.

In extreme cases, you may find entire systems that could be abandoned and rebuilt, starting with the business process, before a single dime is spent on the supporting technology. More commonly, you'll find areas that initially seemed unrelated, but can solve multiple point problems with a few optimizations to the overall system. Be sure to think in terms of a business

Sometimes, thinking in terms of solutions is perfectly appropriate. You need not consider a new approach to disaster management when there's a fire and you need a bucket of water. However, constantly striving to understand a system holistically before immediately jumping to a point solution will ultimately optimize your IT environment in the short and long terms and force you and your team to better understand what they're building and supporting. If you can identify, understand, and articulate problems from a systems perspective, you're no longer merely a technology broker, but someone who can truly solve and optimize any business problem.

See also

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Image: Wavebreak Media LTD, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About Patrick Gray

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

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