A while back, I wrote about why empathy is so critical in the Digital Era and yet one of the most undervalued human characteristics. I wrapped up, as I always do, with an exercise to help embrace the idea: explore Design Thinking.
I hope you did so.
While I believe that embracing Design Thinking is essential, it’s also just one piece of the puzzle for digital leaders that are trying to guide their organizations into this new era.
In fact, it is one of two essential mental frameworks that form a sort of yin-yang relationship and which serve as the cultural foundation of successful Digital Era organizations. Design Thinking’s partner in crime? Systems Thinking.
The Big Idea: Design Thinking is About More Than the Experience
Before I get into Systems Thinking and why you need to adopt these two mental frameworks simultaneously, we need to properly frame the role of Design Thinking in the digital enterprise.
According to David Kelly, the founder of both Standford’s d.school and IDEO, Design Thinking — and by extension leadership — all comes down to seeing the world from your customer (or employee’s) perspective.
Kelly explained to FastCompany: “The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing–building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help. Once you understand what they really value, it’s easy because you can mostly give it to them. You can give them the freedom or direction that they want. By getting down into the messy part of really getting to know them and having transparent discussions, you can get out of the way and let them go. The way I would measure leadership is this: of the people that are working with me, how many wake up in the morning thinking that the company is theirs?”
This understanding is critical because it breaks down the view of the customer experience as a strictly external function. Instead, what Kelly is explaining is that it is the same empathetic perspective that will both enable you to create a differentiated customer experience — and enable you to lead your organization during this time of disruption and transformation.
Leading your organization, however, requires that you employ this customer and employee-centric thinking in the context of the complex environment that is the modern digital enterprise — which is where Systems Thinking comes into the picture.
The Impact: Design Thinking + Systems Thinking = Experience + Execution
After I published Do You Really Understand the Customer Experience, a good friend of mine, Jeff Ton, wrote asking if I thought it was possible to deliver a great customer experience without having a highly optimized operational model.
The answer is simple: no.
In many cases, it is the effectiveness of the operating model that is a primary component of the employee and customer experience. As such, you cannot embrace Design Thinking without thinking about those operational components that will impact the experience. To do so, you need to adopt the principles of Systems Thinking.
The term was coined by scientist Barry Richmond and popularized by Peter Senge in his book The Fifth Discipline. To paraphrase Senge, it is a way of thinking about the whole interconnected system and how changes in one part of a system affect both the whole of it and other parts — especially when the cause and reaction are separated by time and space.
Adopting Systems Thinking demands that practitioners be able to see the big picture, but also be able to zoom in to understand the impact that one part of the system — and particularly a change in one part — affects every other part.
As you look at the customer experience as the totality of a customer’s journey with an organization, and then look at all of the various touch-points they will have to the many operational components of an organization, you quickly come to understand the criticality of the yin-yang relationship between Design and Systems Thinking.
The experience you seek to deliver is inextricably intertwined with your ability to execute.
You cannot begin to genuinely embrace Design Thinking, therefore, without embracing Systems Thinking, which will enable you to look at the whole of the operational model. Likewise, adopting Systems Thinking demands that you extend its purview beyond an operational perspective to assess how changes in one part of the systems will impact the experience in other parts of it.
The good news is that these two mental frameworks are so interconnected that together they serve as a solid cultural foundation for any organization seeking to create a highly adaptable, experience-first organizational model.
The Next Step: Connect the Dots
As you might imagine, your exercise when it comes to understanding the interconnection between Design Thinking and Systems Thinking is to begin educating yourself on Systems Thinking.
A great place to start is this Systems Thinking Resource Page by The Donella Meadows Project.
This page provides an excellent overview of the various approaches to Systems Thinking and different practical ways to embrace it. It also includes a summary of Senge’s work, which I think is a great place to start.
One of the things you’ll notice is that Systems Thinking is not just connected to Design Thinking. It’s also connected to the principals behind self-organization management models, business and operating model transformation, and even some of the underlying concepts of developing a culture of creativity, imagination, and empathy.
You will see that whereas the Industrial Age was all about isolation and creating specialization, the Digital Era is all about interconnection. So while you’re starting to get your head around Systems Thinking and exploring its connection to Design Thinking, actively explore how it also connects to, well, everything!
Founder & Institute Fellow
Charles Araujo is a technology analyst and internationally recognized authority on the Digital Enterprise and Leadership in the Digital Era who advises technology companies and enterprise leaders on how to navigate the transition from the Industrial Age to the Digital Era. Having spent over thirty years in the technology industry, he has been researching Digital Transformation long before it became the uber-buzzword of today, and is now focused on helping Digital Era Leaders prepare themselves and their organizations as the macro trends of the primacy of the customer and the primacy of the algorithm collide, ushering us into what he calls The New Human Age.
Principal Analyst with Intellyx, founder of The Institute for Digital Transformation, author of three books, and most recently the co-founder (with his wife) of The MAPS Institute, he is a sought-after keynote speaker and has been quoted or published in CIO, Time, InformationWeek, CIO Insight, NetworkWorld, Computerworld, USA Today, and Forbes.