My Masters thesis Professor at Warwick University once called me the woolliestsystems engineer he’d ever met. He said I wrapped a story around every concept or system I was discussing or writing about. I just did it again.
For a period this bothered me.
Only when I ran Power2Switch (great team, a couple thousand customers in 5 states) subconsciously utilizing systems theory (diagram below) did I understand the value of compelling narratives as part of the output of a business. I came to understand (and aspire to) the ability of great leaders to take the inputs (ideas and people), run it through their strategy and processes (system) and generate two important outputs
- their actual product/service and (equally important)
- the story or narrative of their business.
This inputs -> system -> output structure is the core tenet of systems theory/thinking and great leaders apply it without even thinking about it.
System thinking is most simply the analysis of the interaction between all the elements of a system. The system can be combinatorially complex (airline schedules across multiple destinations for multiple planes) or dynamically complex due to the changes that occur with the movement of time (like in the case of a business).
Diagram from Systems Thinking for Business by Rich Jolly
Most business leaders do not think about their companies using a systems approach, this leads to missed opportunities for improved products, inefficiencies and consequently lost revenue. This is both an issue at the company system level (what inputs do you need to create the output) and at an industry system level (what systems are fundamentally changing within your industry? how does that affect your company?).
Good leaders/business people inadequately think about their business through a basic systems lens, the effects are felt in the form of plateaus in revenue and lack of growth.
Great leaders and successful business people on the other hand very carefully think about their companies through a systems lens and augment that with, what I think is the killer sauce, a compelling narrative that combines their personal stories with the business. Think about it; Mohamed Yunus of Grameen Bank, Oprah Winfrey, Coco Chanel, Henry Ford, Sara Blakely of Spanks, Estée Lauder, pick a Gandhi, Richard Branson, etc and the master of the narrative Steve Jobs. We think of all these leaders as much for their products/service (output) as we do for the narrative they crafted around said product or service.
It is that compelling narrative that elevates the simple input, systems, output structure into an unforgettable part of a customers consciousness. I see this everyday, through Asha Labs I work with business owners and their companies to get those inputs right (and some of these leaders are geniuses in their fields), to put in place the systems and processes to create a great product/service and (most importantly) help them craft a compelling narrative so the world knows and is drawn to the what, why and who of their business.
So I say thanks Prof, without you I wouldn't have learned systems thinking. And thanks especially for clueing me in on my woolliness and the super powers of well crafted and authentic narratives...
ps: the systems thinking approach to business also applies to career planning, just replace the inputs and outputs.