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Decoding Complexity: Implementing Systems Thinking in Decision-Making

29 Jan 2024 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      





Systems thinking has been an academic school of thought used in engineering, policy-making and more recently adapted by businesses to ensure the products and services are considering the ‘systems’ that they operate within.
Further, it is a holistic approach to understanding and solving complex problems by considering the inter-relationships and the inter-dependencies within a system. When it comes to decision-making, a systems-thinking mindset can be highly beneficial.

Despite strong interest, the relationship between systems thinking and complex decision-making has received consideration. With the use of a skill set called systems thinking, one can hope to better understand the deep roots of these complex behaviours to better predictions and ultimately adjust their outcomes.

With the exponential growth of systems in our world comes a growing need for systems thinkers to tackle these complex problems. This need stretches far beyond the science and engineering disciplines, encompassing, in the truth, in every aspect of life.

What is a Systems Thinking Approach?

Let’s look at the example of a busy hospital where staff shortages lead to heavy workloads and staff burnout. As a result, many staff quit, causing even more staff shortages, heavier workloads and even more staff burnout.

Staff shortages problem in a hospital

The hospital tries to solve the problem by hiring temporary staff. In the short run, this balances out the workload, and lessens the pressure on the hospital staff. The hospital managers now have less incentive to find a long-lasting solution to the problem.

However, with time, the rate of medical error increases in the hospital as the temporary staff are less familiar with the established processes and procedures. Ultimately, the hospital staff’s workload increases even more.
Whole Systems Thinking is a method to understand how things (elements and systems) are related, and how they influence one another within a whole.

Further, decision-making is a crucial aspect of our daily life, and it can take various forms depending on the context and complexity of the circumstances.
You have many decision-making examples in your daily life, simple things such as deciding/choosing what to wear, what to eat, which book to read, and what task to do next.

Of these let’s examine two common scenarios such as career choice and business decisions;
First, let’s look at the Career Choice Scenario; a high school graduate is trying to decide between attending college and entering the workforce or pursuing a vocational program. In this decision-making process, the individual considers personal interests, future career prospects, financial implications, and the potential for personal growth before making the decision.

Now let’s look at the Business Decision Scenario; a company is considering whether to launch a new product into the market. In this Decision-Making Process, the company conducts market research, analyzes potential risks and returns, evaluates competition, and considers the company’s financial resources before deciding whether to proceed with the product launch or not. So, the important point to reflect on is that the decision-making process differs from scenario to scenario and varies in aspects.

Individuals often have mental models or ways of thinking about how a system works. When addressing problems within a system, interventions should be designed with an understanding of the broader context and potential unintended consequences.
Time delays in the system can impact the effectiveness of interventions. Understanding these delays is essential for anticipating the timing and impact of changes.

Military Science

From the earliest times, military expertise and strategists played a crucial role in winning wars. Success in combat is an essential condition of military organizations and the ultimate purpose of military equipment depend on the ability of decision-making and putting them to optimum use to win the battle. To develop our argument, we create an analytical framework for assessing the impact of military strategy on battlefield performance. This framework is built by surveying and categorizing various conceptualizations of military strategy to identify propositions for how the strategy could affect the outcomes in war.

It is also important to reflect on the asymmetric warfare that we have experienced, which is a type of war between an individual, group, country, or other entity that acts in a hostile manner, in engaging in combat, whose relative military power, strategy, or tactics differ significantly and both may attempt to exploit each other’s relative weaknesses. Asymmetric warfare is a form of irregular warfare in which enemy combatants are not regular military forces of a nation-state.

Subject-Specific Experts Vs All-Round Experts’ Leadership
With my experience, I observe that subject-specific experts and all-round experts’ leadership are important in the management and execution of decision-making. We must have an optimum ratio that suits the role and task of your organization. In the present context, Artificial Intelligence (AI) metrics could help you to shape and ease your burden of selection. AI metrics refer to the quantitative measurements and indicators used to assess the performance, effectiveness, and various aspects of the AI system. 





These metrics help to evaluate how well an AI model or system could function, and they can be used to monitor and optimize its performance over time. In the choice of AI metrics, it’s important to tailor the choice of metrics to the specific context and goals of your organization. It is also important to regularly reassess and update the metrics based on the evolving needs and challenges in the deployment of AI systems.

Sri Lanka’s military draws its heritage from the British military. Being a part of the Commonwealth, we continue the same rank structure as the Royal Army, Navy and Air Force. However, Singapore being in our ASEAN neighbourhood and still being a part of the Commonwealth, no longer uses the British-style across its armed services.

Military Experts in the Singapore Armed Forces

Let us focus on the Military Domain Experts Scheme (MDES) - Singapore Armed Forces.
It is a separate rank scheme that was introduced in April 2010 by the Singapore Armed Forces. This system has been proven to be successful and it was a smooth transformation.
Military Experts use their expertise in areas like technical, engineering, nursing and intelligence to enhance the capabilities of the military to maintain highly complicated machinery or systems to improve skills and proficiency to support the ever-growing high-tech Singapore Armed Forces.

These Military Experts are soldiers who serve in a specific military domain. Military Domain Experts Scheme, which is from the civilian professional expertise in key military domains, comprises a rank structure organized according to qualifications and experience.

Further in this approach in the military context, the choice between subject experts and all-round experts depends on the specific roles, tasks, and goals of the military-selected expertise of the organization. Both types of expertise can be valuable in different capacities. The following are the considerations for each of them.
Subject Experts in the Military

Specialized Skills: Military operations often require specialized knowledge, especially in areas such as strategy, tactics, intelligence, engineering, logistics, and technology. Subject experts can bring deep understanding and proficiency in these specific domains.
Mission-Critical Tasks: In operations that involve complex and specialized tasks, having subject experts in key roles is essential. For example, experts in cyber security, aviation, or intelligence analysis can be crucial for specific military missions.

Training and Education: Subject experts play a vital role in training and educating military personnel in specialized fields, ensuring a high level of proficiency in critical areas.
Deep Understanding: Military Leaders with subject expertise have a deep understanding of specific areas, which can be crucial in industries or organizations that require specialized knowledge.

Credibility: Subject experts often command credibility and respect from their team members because of their in-depth knowledge. This can contribute to effective communication and influence within the organization on decision making.
Strategic Decision-Making: In situations where decisions require a high level of technical or domain-specific knowledge, military leaders with subject expertise may make more informed and strategic decisions.

All-Round Experts in the Military

Adaptability: Any military environment could be dynamic, requiring personnel to adapt to changing situations. All-round experts may be better suited for roles that involve a variety of tasks and responsibilities, contributing to the overall flexibility of the military force. Military Leaders with a broader skill set can be more adaptable in dynamic environments. They would be better equipped to handle diverse challenges and make decisions that consider a variety of factors. 

Interdisciplinary Collaboration: Military operations often involve collaboration between different branches and specialties. All-round experts can facilitate agile communication and coordination between diverse units, promoting a more integrated and effective force. In organizations with diverse functions and departments, leaders with all-around expertise can facilitate collaboration and understanding between different teams.
This can lead to a more integrated and cohesive organizational culture. 

Leadership Roles: Military Leaders at higher levels of command may benefit from a broader understanding of military operations, encompassing strategy, logistics, and personnel management. All-round experts in leadership positions can provide a comprehensive perspective.
Effective Communication: All-round experts excel in communicating complex ideas to a broader audience, fostering better understanding and alignment across the organization.

Concluding Insights
Certainly, the military structure I described, with a mix of subject experts and all-round experts, has parallels in various commercial entities, especially in large organizations where leadership roles are diverse and require a range of skills. By comparing hypothetical commercial organizations, we can highlight the diverse approaches that businesses may take based on their industry, history, and strategic goals by contrasting similarities and differences. Though we discussed focusing on my forte you can always compare and contrast any commercial entity taking the guidance from the same line. The process remains the same fitting into a different role and type of operation.

In summary, a systems thinking approach to decision-making involves a deep understanding of the complexity, interdependencies, and dynamics within a system. It requires a holistic perspective, the consideration of feedback loops, and the ability to map and visualize causal relationships. This approach helps decision-makers navigate uncertainties and make more informed choices in a complex and dynamic environment that is stable and unchanging but, should be better when we are facing “VUCA” Volatility, Uncertainty, Chaos and Ambiguity. I wish to reiterate that a systems thinking approach is applicable across various domains, including business, healthcare, environmental management, and social systems.
It encourages a more comprehensive and strategic approach to problem-solving by considering the interconnectedness of elements within a system.

In conclusion, systems thinking is an approach that views a system as an interconnected set of elements with relationships and interactions, emphasizing a holistic understanding of the system as a whole. This approach encourages a comprehensive perspective on complex issues, helping individuals to identify and address problems by considering the interconnectedness of various elements within a system.
Further, I wish to give credit and acknowledge the information gained from my research on web-based open-source articles.

The writer is formerly Commander Sri Lanka Air Force, Ambassador to Afghanistan and President, Association of Retired Flag Rank Officers.
(Presented at the Doctor of Business Administration programme on contemporary business issues capsule, Postgraduate Institute of Management University of Sri Jayawardenapura, 27th January 2024)

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