Systems Thinking

By | May 4, 2016

My old approach to systems thinking.

When I met a new team, or the team’s primary focus changed, I used to run an exercise with the team that went like this: draw a flowchart of your processes. For example, a work request is made, it gets developed, then it is released.

We’d then go back over it and fill in the missing bits: testing, merges.


Someone would then highlight that we’d missed out other work types: bugs, change requests. So we’d add those in too.


Do you know how many teams had consensus on their process right from the start? Zero. I must have run this exercise over 20 times and not once did a team agree from the outset. They always got to an agreement in the end, but it took time and a discussion. This was healthy. They then went on to agree how they wanted their process to be.

Making the exercise better using toast.

A while ago I watched a video by Tom Wujec on TED entitled, “Got a wicked problem? First, tell me how you make toast”. It was similar to my exercise above, but with a couple of twists: firstly, he preceded the real exercise with a simpler task of mapping out the system of making toast; secondly, people had to draw out their ideas using pictures. He’ll explain it better …

Notes on the exercise.

Wujec references his site,, which has lots of templates and information on it. However, unlike the video, it appears that he just runs one of the three elements from the video and doesn’t get teams to first draw it on a sheet of paper, then move on to sticky notes, then work together as a team. I found that this longer approach had more effect. When you then go onto the real question in hand, you can remove the initial stage, just having the individuals work on sticky notes, then collaboratively.

Working silently, as he recommends in the video, does seem to get good results (difficult to prove you get better results, but I’m happy to believe that it stops endless discussions about the minutiae).

When to show the video? I would only show people the video after they had completed the whole toast exercise, but before they move on to the real system thinking exercise. I think this adds a bit of kudos to the process, allows them to have a break and revel in the fact that the video shows even worse the drawings they did!


Toast image courtesy of brofosifo

One thought on “Systems Thinking

  1. Clive T

    I’ve tried this with a couple of teams now (haven’t shown the video) and it works well getting the results and making sure all the different elements are pulled in. Moreover it makes the team members involved and feel as the output is theirs; which is most of the issue usually. The not talking approach makes it go a lot smoother as it cuts down the “endless agreement”.


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