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Are you growing yellow corn? A different take on Systems Thinking by Mark Hannum

November 14, 2012

Why is systems thinking so important for leaders and managers? The answer lies in the ease with which we don’t think systemically. It’s so easy for us as human beings to be distracted by what’s on the surface and ignore the real underlying patterns and structures. Taking the time to see what’s truly happening in our fast-paced world is extremely difficult and leadership in organizations often get caught up in the daily grind of growing the business. They can get very intense about winning deals, satisfying customers, making profits.

But, I was taught very early on that thinking systemically is actually very natural. Many of us do it automatically. Farmers for instance, want healthy crops. They want corn that’s yellow, and flavorful, and full of kernels. And they know that light, nitrogen, other nutrients, water, organic matter in the soil, and living creatures such as worms work to make conditions perfect for growing healthy corn crops.

However, all you have to do is go to a grocery store on a nice summer day, and you can see how easy it is to mistake yellow corn for healthy corn. Farmers who are too pressured or too distracted can also make the same mistake. They know deeply hued yellow corn sells. So they buy and use the right fertilizers and chemicals to enhance the yellow hue of their corn. And they get yellow corn!

But what they also get is a plethora of unintended consequences. They create pollution with the run-off from the fertilizers. The pollution causes problems in the water system. The water problems cause the fish to die. The fertilizers also cause the worms to move away or die. The organics that the worms create don’t get created. The soil does not aerate properly and becomes compacted. Compacted soil does not hold water. The soil dries out and all of the biological and organic activity starts to slow down or halt. Well, almost. Detrimental fungus and parasites love this environment! But the farmer does get yellow corn. Keep this up for several years and you start to see real deterioration and eventually collapse.

Just as a poor thinking farmer will focus on making the corn yellow, a poor thinking business leader will focus only on winning deals, satisfying customers, and making profits. But these are only outcomes…like focusing on yellow corn.

If you want healthy outcomes, focus on the culture of the organization and how things work to create healthy outcomes. Our world is moving too fast and our pop culture dares us to only look at events. Great leaders look right past all that and focus on the conditions to win deals, satisfy customers, and make profits. A great leader will think systemically.

Are you focusing only on outcomes, or are you focusing on creating the conditions that result in positive outcomes? Are you trying to grow yellow corn or healthy corn?

More info
To be effective as a leader, making connections between seemingly separate, unconnected events, factors, and processes is imperative. Click here to learn how Linkage can teach you to be a better systems thinker.

More about Mark
Mark Hannum

Mark Hannum is a Principal Consultant at Linkage. He has over twenty years of experience in organizational and leadership development, coaching, competency modeling, and executive team building and alignment. Mark’s skilled leadership and innovation has resulted in the successful implementation of many organizational design projects with client mergers and acquisitions. He is also a frequent featured speaker at many training and education events.

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