agile systems thinking

a system must be managed. the secret is cooperation between components toward the aim of the organization. systems thinking takes a holistic approach to solution development, incorporating all aspects of a system and its environment into the design, development, deployment, and maintenance of the system itself. understanding these concepts helps leaders and teams navigate the complexity of solution development, the organization, and the larger picture of total time-to-market. they are represented by the safe solution object, the tangible object that delivers the end user’s value and is the subject of each value stream—the application, satellite, medical device, or website. when it comes to such tangible systems, deming’s comment that “a system must be managed” leads to some critical insights: there’s a second aspect to systems thinking: the people, management, and processes of the organization that builds the system are also a system.

otherwise, the components of the organization building the system will optimize locally and become selfish, limiting the speed and quality of value delivery. as illustrated in figure 2, each value stream consists of the steps necessary to integrate and deploy a new concept through a new or existing system. understanding and optimizing the full value stream—the third aspect of systems thinking—is the only way to reduce the total time it takes to go from concept to cash [2]. this allows leaders to quickly recognize that the actual value-added processing steps—creating code and components, deployment, validation, etc.—consume only a small portion of the total time-to-market. an example of a value stream map is provided in figure 3. note that in this example that almost all the time between a feature request and deployment is wait time, resulting in a highly inefficient process. systems thinking requires a new approach to management as well, a perspective where managers are problem solvers, take the long view, proactively eliminate impediments, and lead the changes necessary to improve systems and performance. these lean-agile leaders: understanding the elements of systems thinking helps leaders and teams recognize the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ of their actions, as well as the impact on those around them.

understanding “what is systems thinking” is important to developing a deeper understanding of agile. that approach comes naturally to me; however, it is something that needs to be learned and reinforced. people often rush to judgment like that without fully analyzing a situation. think about it – in this situation, “systems thinking” is a powerful tool i learned a long time ago when i first read peter senge’s book: “the fifth discipline – the art and practice of the learning organization” in the 1990’s. the practice of systems thinking can be complex – you can use the phrase to refer to a set of tools – such as causal loop diagrams, stock and flow diagrams and simulation models – that help us map and explore dynamic complexity. it is a perspective that sharpens our awareness of the whole and of how the parts within those wholes interrelate.

the biggest obstacle to systems thinking; however, is our tendency to over-simplify something that is complex. instead of seeing the real complexity that is inherent in many situations, people who engage in binary thinking are sometimes looking for a simple, cause-effect explanation for something that isn’t really very simple at all. we need to rethink what agile is as well as rethink what traditional project management is to see them in a new light as potentially complementary rather than competitive approaches and “systems thinking” is the key to that. it is also the key to becoming a “learning organization”. here’s an example from a linkedin discussion i recently participated in that is more directly relevant to the subject of agile project management: “ultimately project management is a type x/violent approach to delivery. there’s a saying that i think is very relevant to this that says: as long as people cling on to some of the simple myths and stereotypes that exist about what “project management” is, it will be difficult for them to see “project management” and, more specifically, “agile project management” in a fresh new perspective.

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when i started some 10 years ago, i fixed software delivery problems by setting up agile teams doing high performing agile teams utilise the concept of systems thinking very effectively, as they continually inspect and in lean thinking and agile methods, the focus is on global systems goals: deliver value fast with high quality and morale—, what can be used to script the change to safe?, which is an aspect of systems thinking?, optimizing flow means identifying what safe, how does safe provide a second operating system that enables business agility?, assume variability; preserve options, agile development systems thinking and lean product development, why is systems thinking important, what can be used as a template for putting safe into practice within an organization?

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