Joseph Understood What Is Known Today As “Systems Thinking”

A mother tries to understand why her son is acting aloof during dinner.  Could it have something to do with the disagreement he had with his father over the weekend or something with his schoolwork or perhaps the fact that he is a young teenager?  A supervisor cannot seem to connect with a staff after multiple attempts.  Could it be the discouragement from leading a less than successful conference or the recent physical exam that identified some health concerns or perhaps being away from home a lot the last couple of months?  The answer is likely YES and more!

Systems thinking is an approach to problem solving, by viewing “problems” as parts of an overall system rather than reacting to specific parts, outcomes, or events, and potentially contributing to unintended consequences.  If a leader concludes that a situation will get better when one area is “fixed,” he or she will likely be discouraged when finding out that one solution just heightens another deficiency.

God designed life to be interconnected.  We might not like mosquitos (at least I do not), but to eliminate them would leave predators without prey and plants without a pollinator.  One seemingly corrective action can open the proverbial can of worms!

When it comes to developing a healthy organizational culture where people can thrive, a leader must grasp something of the interconnected complexity of the parts.  What is or is not done in finance and communications and recruiting and execution of strategy (etc.) all relate to each other.  To focus on one part without realizing the connection to other parts is a common mistake that hinders the solving of most problems.

Joseph had plenty of time to think during his prison days about how parts contribute to the whole.  The realization of his youthful dreams was in jeopardy due to some of the choices he made with his family and choices thrust upon him as a slave then as a prisoner.  After being appointed Prime Minister of Egypt he had the wisdom to discern not just how to grow and store food during the seven years of plenty (when most people would have thought him crazy, like Noah talking about a flood), but how to distribute it, how to indenture servants in an honoring way, and how to relate to nearby nations who were suffering from the extreme famine.

Although the bulk of Genesis chapters 41-47 tell of God’s purposes of sustaining His chosen people, there are insights into the means He used of working through Joseph.  In 47:13-26 we observe five decisions to sustain health for the Egyptians (and Jacob’s family): financial, all hard currency was collected (14); property, all livestock was gathered (16); real estate, all land was purchased (20); distribution, all people co-located to cities (21); and indentureship, enabling people to sow and reap (23-24).  Joseph recognized the interconnected parts and organized the agricultural and delivery systems brilliantly.  His efforts were duly praised by the Egyptian people, “You have saved our lives!” (25).

How do we learn to see the systems at work in any given problem?  The arena of coaching has taught us to ask, “what else?” “and what else?”  Only from the discipline of digging deeper and not rushing off with the first or most natural solution can a leader see the multiplicity of interconnected parts that need leadership thinking and execution to reach a better place.  Otherwise, unintended consequences are sure to pop up.  Think systems.

Next Blog: Differentiating between strategic and tactical leading.








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