Nollind Whachell

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Perceiving Problems and Solutions With Systems Thinking

There’s an awesome article on systems thinking written by Pegasus Communications Inc. entitled What is Systems Thinking? that articulates the primary problem that so many companies face today in finding innovative solutions for their product or services. It helps us to understand the clear distinction and role of customer relations and product / service design and how these two seemingly separate teams can effectively work together as a cohesive whole alongside their customers.

Systems Thinking as a Perspective:
Events, Patterns, or System?

Systems thinking is a perspective because it helps us see the events and patterns in our lives in a new light—and respond to them in higher leverage ways. For example, suppose a fire breaks out in your town. This is an event. If you respond to it simply by putting the fire out, you’re reacting. (That is, you have done nothing to prevent new fires.) If you respond by putting out the fire and studying where fires tend to break out in your town, you’d be paying attention to patterns. For example, you might notice that certain neighborhoods seem to suffer more fires than others. If you locate more fire stations in those areas, you’re adapting. (You still haven’t done anything to prevent new fires.) Now suppose you look for the systems—such as smoke-detector distribution and building materials used—that influence the patterns of neighborhood-fire outbreaks. If you build new fire-alarm systems and establish fire and safety codes, you’re creating change. Finally, you’re doing something to prevent new fires!

This is why looking at the world through a systems thinking “lens” is so powerful: It lets you actually make the world a better place.

Today, many companies see the event and some even see the patterns. Very few see the system solution and even fewer execute that solution properly.

Customer Support as Firemen

In our digital world, there are many online products and services that we’re using today. In the process of using them, problems appear, just like a fire breaking out in a town. And who comes to our rescue like firemen but the customer support people of that product or service. This is the point though where many companies stop because of a lack of perspective and awareness. In effect, they see the event and may even see the greater pattern causing the event but they fail to see the greater systematic problem and how to fix it.

To clarify this further, especially in relation to customer support, imagine a town repeatedly having more and more fires within it and the townspeople asking the mayor “What are you doing about this problem?” His response? “What problem? Our firemen are addressing the fires very efficiently. We’ve even been awarded the best fire department in the region!” Again this is the typical mindset of most companies today in that they see Customer Support as the final solution to the problem. But it isn’t.

Customer support is about customer relations. It’s not about just solving singular “events”, because you can’t always solve them all, its about employing people who have the perspective and awareness to see both the events and the patterns arising from them, so they can relay this information back to the entire company, particularly the development team, where it can empower them to make the right choices for change.

Correct me if I’m wrong but I believe it was even Joel on Software, or was it 37 Signals, that emphasized this by indicating not to keep a feature list but instead to watch for patterns and when those patterns arise sufficiently to then deal with them in a systematic way. That’s great when you have a team of people who have the perspective and awareness to see the systematic patterns arising from those events. But most support teams don’t as they have been trained behaviorally from a corporate cultural standpoint to just to focus on the event only and to deal with it as quickly as possible.

Development Teams Help Prevent Fires

Thus the end result here is that we need companies to see customer support as not the final solution, because again they can’t solve all of the problems, but instead primarily as a liaison group to communicate information which in turn empowers the company to make the necessary changes internally via their development teams. That’s where the real problems are solved. By the development teams upgrading and innovating their products and services which in turn makes them more usable and functional, thus reducing the problems encountered.

The key emphasis here though is that for all of this to work, you need individuals in all areas of the company who have an understanding of systems thinking to help them see their work as not just a slice or component of the whole but rather an integral and interdependent part of it. Only then will get you customer relations teams and development teams working symbiotically together in unison with their customers as collaborative members of the design and development process as mentioned by John Thackara in his book entitled In The Bubble.

From Designing For to Designing With

The relationship of the Dutch to dikes demonstrates that looking after technology is as much a matter of social organization as it is of engineering. People are too often described and thought of by designers as users or consumers when we really need to think of them as actors.

Some companies, like Valve Software, are understanding this and are light years ahead of others, as not only are they designing their products in close collaboration with their customers but they are even giving their customers the tools to empower and extend their products in ways that the company can’t even conceive. Thus the customer evolves from just a consumer to a collaborative creator and essential participant in the design process of their products and services.

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