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Systems Thinking and Open Systems in Organizations
by Mike Beitler

Systems thinking is important for Organizational Change (OC) practitioners (and managers) because rarely is there an "evil" person in the organization bent on bringing pain and destruction. Bad behavior, or ineffective behavior, is often unwittingly rewarded by management. Protecting turf, not communicating with peers, not contributing to the team, high absenteeism, and resisting change happen for a reason.

In many organizations (especially in American organizations), the management team goes "headhunting" immediately after an error occurs or a problem arises. "Heads will roll!" they declare. The assumption is that there is a bad person causing the problem; if they get rid of the person, they get rid of the problem.

More often than not, the person is not "the problem." The problem is typically embedded in the system. If we don't change the system, we will soon face the same problem again.

Lessons from Other Professionals

Systems theory was not originally developed by OC practitioners. Systems theory has roots in the early theories of physical scientists. They correctly understood that physical phenomena don't operate in a closed vacuum; physical phenomena continuously interact with other phenomena in any given system.

Fortunately, the wisdom of systems theory did not start and end with the physical scientists. Social scientists, including sociologists and psychologists, have also adopted a systems approach.

Systems thinking has been a highly effective tool of counselors with at-risk youths. "At-risk youths" is a nice way of talking about the types of teenagers who frighten us (at risk for drug use, teenage pregnancy, or a life of crime). Many frustrated counselors were devoting many hours to these youths. Typically, after these youths faced up to their problems, and committed to changing their behavior, they were sent home. But with alarming predictability, these at-risk youths reverted to their old behaviors. Why? Were they insincere about change?

Counselors eventually realized that sending these youths back to the same abusive fathers, alcoholic mothers, and drug-abusing friends was inviting failure. The youths needed support for their new behavior; that meant changing the system. Counselors began counseling the entire family. Changing the system (the family) has been much more effective.

Organizational change consultants and managers must take the same systemic approach. Peter Senge is often quoted for his work on organizational learning. Personally, I believe Senge's larger contribution is in the application of systems thinking to business organizations. Systemic change involves a lot of work, but the change is powerful and lasting.

Open Systems

Open systems theory takes systems thinking one step further. Systems Theory changes our diagnostic focus from the individual to the system. Open Systems Theory helps us recognize the fact that the system itself is embedded in another, larger system. This larger system, its environment, exerts substantial influence on the organization.

As OC practitioners we may see system-wide problems that exist within the walls of the organization, but we must remain aware of the environment in which the organization operates. A business organization's environment includes its customers, suppliers, competitors, government regulators, and so on.

About the Author

Dr. Mike Beitler is the author of "Strategic Organizational Change." Read 2 free chapters of the book right now at

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