A Systems Thinking Approach to Business

When I first started working in the corporate space as a sales engineer, I realized quickly that I would need a common way to look at very different businesses. As a sales engineer, it was my job to go in and close deals while laying the technical foundation for the project management work that followed.

The challenge that I quickly found myself in is that on Monday, I’d be talking to a Fortune 10 bank. On Tuesday, I’d be talking with a retailer in the restaurant space that made sauces. On Wednesday, it would be a Fortune 100 publishing company. On Thursday, I’d be with a tool and die shop with 100 employees. Friday would end at a non-profit organization in the political space.

How would I begin to make sense out of what these companies needed, especially given that I usually didn’t have more than a few hours to understand their business, what was important to them, and convince them they really needed to buy our software?

A Systems Thinking Approach

Without realizing it at the time, this is when I really started developing a systems thinking mindset to business. I couldn’t focus on what was different from one company to the next. If I expected to be good at my job, I had to focus on what was the same. What could I learn from my work on Monday with a Fortune 10 bank that would help me on Thursday at the tool and die shop?

I started approaching things from a process perspective. Lay out the process of what the company is doing, show them how the software I sold would make that process more effective, efficient, and productive, and take it from there.

With this systems thinking approach, it didn’t matter what the process was. It didn’t matter what products the company sold. I learned that any part of any business could look the same through a systems thinking lens and that one could make rapid value improvements to any system with the right tools.

Increasing Knowledge and Understanding

Over time, I continued to hone this approach of looking at every business through a common lens. Even after I quit working as a sales engineer, I continued to look at businesses and teams as a collection of systems that could be improved with a systems thinking approach.

I dove deeper into learning process improvement methods and tools which got me certified as a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt. This gave structure to what previously had been a bunch of random thoughts I had come up with through my years of working to make things better. I learned that there were names for much of what I had established as my way of improving business. There were new and exciting tools that enhanced my abilities to improve a business.

I completed additional complimentary learnings including a certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP). This helped me better understand and manage individual improvement projects.

I also completed a master’s degree in organizational leadership. From studying how organizations function to the human psychology of work, I added more and more understanding and knowledge of how businesses work and how they can be improved. The additional deep dive on leadership topics was also a welcomed addition as improving a business requires leadership of those being impacted by change.

The Systems Thinking Framework for Businesses

A few years back, I was ready to make a change. As I looked around at what I could do with the knowledge that I had, I realized that everything in the process improvement and systems thinking space was targeted at big business. I also knew from my time as a sales engineer that any business can benefit from systems thinking, regardless of the business’s size or industry. I found a space that I was passionate about that could bring value to those that are typically underserved in the topics of systems thinking and process improvement.

One of the first things I did was drew this diagram. What started as a lens I used as a sales engineer and continued to develop over the last 20+ years eventually made its way down on paper.

This represents every company ever from a systems thinking viewpoint. It doesn’t matter if you’re Amazon or a one person startup, you need to have these systems in your business to succeed.

Some are more important than others, and what’s important will change over time, but fundamentally, every business needs systems to –

  • Alert potential Customers to the business’s existence
  • Qualify and convert potential Customers to actual Customers
  • Deliver one or more products
  • Manage the operation of the business (accounting, knowledge, processes, etc.)

If you are missing one or more of these, your chance at success is zero in the long term.

Applying a Systems Thinking Approach to Your Business

While the mechanics of how your business works are somewhat different from any other business, a systems approach means you can look at any part of your business and use a common toolset to fix any part of it, regardless of your specific industry and regardless of the specific system.

When you start to understand that a lead creation system has the same key attributes as a delivery system which has the same key attributes as every other system in your business, you can now start to improve your business in a systematic way.

You can approach increasing your leads with the same toolset that you use to make your accounting more accurate. You can improve sales conversions with the same toolset that you use to hire employees. There is nothing you can’t address in your business with a systems thinking approach.

Start by comparing your current business to this systems thinking framework diagram. What do you do well? What do you not do well? What’s missing? What do you want to do better? How does each of your current systems relate to the outcomes you’re looking for in your business?

When you answer these questions, you’ll start to identify the systems in your business that are more of a priority to improve.

Get to work on improvements using a systems thinking approach. Understand your inputs, process steps, and outputs of the system.

Make a hypothesis on a change you can make to get better outputs and better outcomes. Make the change and measure the results. Continue to iterate and watch the improvements happen.

Additional Resources for Learning

Here are some additional resources that you can use to continue to grow your knowledge of systems thinking and learn how to benefit even more from systems thinking in your business.

Optimize For Outcomes, the Book – I wrote this book documenting how I work when improving processes and systems for businesses. This is a step by step guide that will teach you the approaches and mental models needed to effectively and efficiently improve any system in your business.

Optimize For Outcomes, the Course – 3.5 hours of me taking you through deeper discussions on the topics covered in my book. You’ll learn more tools and gain a better understanding of how to use the tools and mental models needed for a great systems thinking approach to your business.

Introduction to Systems Thinking for Entrepreneurs Course – This course is 45 minutes on the foundations of systems thinking to get you really grounded in the basics that you can start applying immediately. You’ll gain additional insights into what systems thinking is and how to apply it to your business.

Advanced Systems Thinking for Entrepreneurs Course – This course gives you a deeper look at the tools and mental models of systems thinking. It also gives a look at some of the more advanced topics of a systems thinking approach including things like feedback loops and synthesis vs. analysis.

As always, if you have questions or comments, you can reach me at brian@optimizeforoutcomes.com.


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