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

By Kristin Schepici on November 14, 2012

Mark Hannum

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.

Feedback
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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About Kristin Schepici

2 comments on “Are you growing yellow corn? A different take on Systems Thinking by Mark Hannum
  1. Tristan Scifo says:

    Great article! I wonder how confronting it would be if we took this perspective to some of the biggest industries in our economy and our personal lives and looked at the medium-long term effects of the decisions we’re making.

    E.g. Short-term price-based decisions on the stock market; digging raw materials out of the earth; using cortisone on our inflamed skin; deciding what information to share with our partners and family.. i think the list would cover quite a lot of ground.

    Perhaps some healthy questions to ask are,
    “What does it cost us to do things right?”
    “What will it cost us if we don’t?”
    “What are we really aiming for here?”

    T

  2. Tristan:
    We should all be thinking this way all the time. It should occur to us what the short, medium and long term impacts of a decision will be. Or for that matter the unintended consequences of our decisions. We don’t have to choose the systemic answer 100% of the time! But think it through! I find your questions interesting because they focus on cost…at least the first two do. Doing things right will probably always have an increased cost, all other things being equal. Doing things right seems to have something associated with it: more time, rare expertise, more money, pricier raw materials. Even writing that “thank you” right has a cost. But we shouldn’t be thinking of doing things right as a cost. I love your third question: what are we really aiming for here? I try to always ask the question: What do I really want to have happen? I try to visualize the answer in the longest time frame that I can with all the variables that I can. For that matter, with all the stakeholders that I can imagine. A principle of systems thinking is that it isn’t what you don’t know that will hurt you. It’s what you know and ignore that will hurt you. So another question: what are we ignoring? What are we pushing under the table and not taking into consideration? It could be a person. It could be a thing. It could be a process. What do we know about but for some reason aren’t taking it into consideration?
    Changing to this perspective would be good for everybody, and often the change that is good for everybody is the hardest change to make!

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