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Most organizations do a fairly good job of utilizing parts of innovation, but this piecemeal approach is rarely effective. According to Andrew Papageorge, a systems approach to innovation is much more productive.

Systems are the framework of our lives, even of the universe itself. There are many different types of systems: mechanical, electronic, ecological, and biological systems. A tree is a network of life, expanding in all directions. Cities, as seen from an aerial view, become sprawling systems of interconnecting centers and pathways, main arteries connecting with side streets. Our global telecommunication system and the solar system are similarly linked networks. The human body is a system in which all its parts work together to keep the body functioning properly.

What is Systems Thinking?

The essence of systems thinking is to focus on the whole. The parts are no longer the primary focus. The parts are essential, but what is more important is the interrelationship between the parts as they work together to fulfill the purpose of the whole system.

Systems thinking is a purpose/outcome-oriented approach of thinking that is very different from the piecemeal and fragmented approach we often use. Even though our universe is “held together” by systems, ironically, we continually break things apart, to look at the pieces and lose whatever sight we had of the whole. That process, known as analytical thinking, makes the parts primary and the whole secondary. In systems thinking, the whole is primary and the parts, secondary. This is not only a holistic and strategic way of viewing an organization, it can transform the way people interact.

Systems Thinking vs. Analytical Thinking – Focusing on the Whole vs. the Parts

In the beginning, human beings experienced themselves as one with nature. To survive they needed to understand and control the world. This kind of thinking soon became predominant, and the experience of ‘oneness’ was lost. Breaking things down into parts, analytical thinking became “how” people thought.

Mass production is a great example of analytical thinking. Eli Whitney, best known for his invention of the cotton gin, pioneered the concept of mass production. His proposal to mass-produce muskets for the Army with such precision that all of the parts could be used interchangeably in any of their muskets was revolutionary. The individual craftsmanship of the prior era now gave way to efficient, fast, reliable, and repeatable mass production.

Brilliant engineers like Eli Whitney literally changed the world and how people viewed their place in it. As people left the farm and went to work in the factory, they learned to do isolated tasks the way the engineers wanted them done. The engineers’ superior education and their fascination with machines and mass production required no real intellectual input from the factory workers. The workers job was merely to do as they were told. Working conditions in the factory were questionable, not because managers were “bad people” but because the focus of the factory was not on the people, but on developing new methods for producing goods. The focus of the industrial revolution was to use workers to help machines produce goods.

Today many of us still employ this “machine-like” mentality of breaking things apart, understanding them, fixing or replacing them to manage our organizations. We still think in terms of building, fixing and controlling people and organizations.

In truth, organizations are living systems, not machines, because they are made up of people. As innovators in a living system, we must learn to think more like gardeners than mechanics. When we view the organization as a living system, our perspective becomes one of how to provide the right environment or context for the innovation to occur.

Working with the organization as a living system will allow every person in the organization to participate in swift and continual innovation without the chaos that normally erupts when everyone simply pursues his or her own vision of the “next thing.” Using a system for innovation allows the potential in each person to be unleashed and focused in a much moreproductive way.

You Need a System to Be Most Effective At Work

Most organizations do a fairly good job of utilizing parts of innovation, e.g. creativity, brainstorming or collaboration, but until you are working with a system of innovation that focuses on the whole while also employing all the parts, your innovation efforts will be disjointed. Without all these components in place, you and your team will not be able to continually generate swift and effective innovations.

That’s where the GoInnovate! System comes in. Even though innovation is key to improving processes, eliminating waste, improving productivity, and increasing employee satisfaction, in our consulting work we routinely find that few organizations have a comprehensive system for achieving results through innovation. While in most organizations there are systems for all the other important functions, there usually is no system in place for innovation.

An effective, comprehensive system of innovation addresses the three primarily levels of living systems in an enterprise: individual, team and organization. It will:

  1. Identify and support the core personal values and skills of innovation;
  2. Offer a repeatable process to take ideas and turn them into innovations; and
  3. Take into account the people, processes, structures and technology that have a effect on an innovation’s success or failure.

Conclusion

In today’s hyper-competitive climate, business and government leaders at all levels are challenged to do more with the same or fewer resources. And, there seems to be no relief in sight! But suddenly requiring or telling your employees to be more creative and innovative won’t work. They need a system of innovation to help them do it—one that is swift and effective.

A 30-year veteran of teaching and promoting innovation, Andrew Papageorge is the founder of GoInnovate! Global and the developer of the GoInnovate! System, a comprehensive systems approach to innovation taught in workshops and on-line. He is the author of the book, “GoInnovate! A Practical Guide to Swift, Continual and Effective Innovation.” To learn more, visit www.goinnovate.com.

Listen to this podcast to find out what roles curiosity and humility play in innovation.