Systems Thinking

by Dallas Mount

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I was recently given some book recommendations by Executive Link member, Shanon Sims. Book recommendations are everywhere right now, but when someone you respect says “read this book” you pay attention. Shanon recommended The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. The Fifth Discipline is about training yourself to think in terms of systems. Humans are predisposed to linear thinking. When I do this, I get that. Senge explains that when things are disconnected in time and space humans struggle to make the connection.  

In ranching, systems thinking is necessary. The interconnections between ecology and production creates complexities where systems thinking is needed. One example of this in ranching, is pregnancy rates in 2-year old first calf heifers. If your pregnancy rates in your 2-year olds are low, your mind will immediately go to something that happened a few months ago. Did you change your vaccine program, graze them differently this year, should you consider adding a supplement during breeding? All of these are fair questions, but the problem may be something that happened 2.5 years ago. Could it be that this group of heifers’ mothers were nutritionally stressed when these heifers were still in the womb, and it has manifested itself now as delayed reproductive maturity? A linear thinking manager misses this possibility because when cause and effect are distant, in time and space we have a difficult time making connections.

Instead this manager decides to add a supplement and next year if pregnancy rates are back to where they deem them acceptable, they will assume they solved the problem with the change that they imposed. From now until that manager is done, that feed supplement will always be fed because they remember what happened the year the 2-year olds had low pregnancy rates. When in reality, the added supplement may have had no effect on the pregnancy rates.  

Systems thinkers ask deeper level questions. What in the system is creating this result? If I change X or Y, what systemic effects will occur. Personally, I struggle with systems thinking. I like to gather what information I deem relevant and then make what is often a hasty decision. My intention is to move our business toward our desired mission and vision or to correct an issue causing frustration. However, in my haste to get on it, I often miss unintended consequences or fail to recognize the impact of this decision on another person. The leaders I respect and try to emulate as I mature are those who consider and confer before making the decision. They take the time to hear and seek out deeper input on the issue and often put off the decision for just a bit longer. I’m not suggesting we become a slow-moving behemoth, but sometimes taking a bit more time to ask systems questions before pulling the trigger can prevent the unintended consequences and get to the underlying systems level thinking.

Senge goes on to describe the businesses of the future that will be defined as “learning organizations”.  These organizations have a culture of always questioning the status quo, being made up of individuals who are life-long learners and connecting the personal visions of the individuals with the shared vision of the organization.   

I’d suggest you add The Fifth Discipline to your reading list and strive for systems thinking in managing your business to create a “learning organization” among your team.


6 Responses to “Systems Thinking”

August 11, 2021 at 7:56 am, Monte+lerwick said:

Thx for this Dallas. This has been a constant struggle for me, everything is a system and understanding/documenting then creating lessons learned/best practices seems to be where we are at right now. I tend to get lost in the weeds trying to understand why crops or livestock did really well or really poorly. It seems like if we have our baseline systems planned out and are consistent in best practices, we can at least solve most of the controllable variables in a straight forward way.


August 11, 2021 at 8:30 am, Daniel McQueeney said:

I just ordered The Fifth Discipline, I’m looking forward to expanding my thought process!


August 11, 2021 at 4:42 pm, King Scott Coffield said:

Thank you Dallas, timely suggestion in this time of multiple changes in all phases of grassfarming, cattle production with conservation of resources.


August 11, 2021 at 7:42 pm, Doug Gillham said:

The Fifth Discipline was on the RFP reading list back in the mid 1990s. Not an easy book to read but I could see where it may have been an influence for Stan Parsons when he was developing Executive Link. I loaned my book to someone and never got it back.


August 14, 2021 at 9:05 pm, Burke said:

For sure. Systems thinking is a life-long process. In agriculture we must become exceptional observers and note takers. Everything is interconnected and often occurs underground. Almost all of our decisions have delayed results or consequences–compounding and cascading effects that role forward for years. Biology is usually slow and we must observe and try to link to past practices and decisions. Good decisions in farm and ranch production are highly dependent on quality observation and systems thinking.


September 07, 2021 at 7:13 pm, Joe Morris said:

Thanks for bringing this up, Dallas. I have recently discovered the work of Dave Snowden, who adds to this conversation the notion of complexity and the important differences between ordered, complex and chaotic systems. Being different, each requires different management approaches. Check it out.


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