It is a perspective that tends to enhance and
underscore focus; one can then pinpoint one’s attention on essential and vital
information without being sidetracked by unnecessary or irrelevant details. It
is generally analytical, poised, and task-oriented, which would be most
beneficial for most plans, projects, and undertakings. A systems thinker would
preferentially focus on one issue at a time and not get bungled up in multitasking
scenarios, which usually - notwithstanding anecdotal evidence or popular
folklore - often lead to haphazard and unwanted outcomes, results, and
It was some time ago I had the pleasure to attend an ETH
talk by Ursula Oesterle on Innovation and Global Citizenry in which she
explained her own perspective and approach as a systems thinker. Ursula Oesterle
currently works for the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and is the
Vice-President for Innovation and has head years of experience in Silicon Valley. She considers herself (as I would myself) a
global citizen; she is a Swiss citizen who grew up in the Philippines.
It is interesting to note that she projected and embodied
both cultures. Her analytic way of seeing and interpreting the world was influenced
by genetics and her family but her mannerisms and behaviors, a personal nervousness
as well as jittery awareness and consciousness of the other, pointed towards
her cultural environment and upbringing of the Philippines. In a somewhat similar
fashion, my passion, drive, and dedication are in and from my blood, the Persian
land I was born on, whereas my thinking has been shaped by my German
upbringing and my mannerisms and behavior are mainly a hybrid between German
and Canadian values with a dash of Iranian sentiment.
But we are not only formed by our genetics and our
childhood and immediate environment, but we also define and refine ourselves
through our choices and education, as well as the lack thereof, and this has significant impacts on her thoughts and behavior. In Ursula’s case, her decision to study
for a physics degree first, helped her become even more systematic in her
thinking and in interpreting the data as well as the world, including the world
of business, the field that she entered at a later stage.
In fact, Ursula Oesterle has a progressive forward-oriented
outlook as she sees the future as part and parcel of a fiction that we write
and create. The past may have given us some tools and materials, yet the future
is not set in stone and there is a significant amount of leeway and agency but
also personal responsibility that comes with it. Through personal responsibility
and concrete actions, we can achieve a potential variety of subsequent results
and outcomes. For our goals to materialize and to become a reality down the
misty lane of time, we need to always check and obtain feedback on specific data
What that means is that we need to have clear and
clearly stated outcomes and then have a progress metric to assess and evaluate each
of them. This feedback should be based on scientific and demonstratable
standards, but, at the same time, they should not be limited nor limiting in
scope and extent. Put simply, we need to set our goals and then evaluate over
time if and to what extent we have reached them and establish the length of
time it took us to get to that point.
Throughout, it is best to have a dynamic outlook. This
reinforces the fact that our goals and plans should be not only clearly set and
established but they should also be fluid enough and hence not be set in stone;
we ought to allow for necessary and productive fluctuations and adjustments. In
other words, one needs to have a learner’s mind and approach when it comes to
evaluating one’s own level of success and progress. To have a clear plan and a goal for the future is good and beneficial, but at the same time, one must be
flexible enough to upgrade and adapt to changes, whenever necessary or
This is often difficult as many will stubbornly move
and plow ahead until they reach their set goals. But this will come at a cost
to one’s business and often to one’s pocket as well, so it is the best strategy
to learn to reduce as well as to accept and live with a certain level of uncertainty
in life and in one’s endeavors. This can be done with the combination of an
open mind and a defined system. The information or data points will then give
us tangible information about whether the measures in place are fruitful and
productive or whether they are misguided or harmful and need to be modified, or
For instance, one thing that Covid-19 has taught us is
that the digital era is a moment of opportunity instead of a hindrance or obstacle.
Many transitions and changes are necessary now in the face and in light of these
new circumstances and situations. In many cases, it is about either adapting to or
perishing under the new reality. This also gives us the unique opportunity and
excuse, if you will, to do something radically different. It is not so much
about patching upgrades or repairing parts but rather about building brand-new
operating systems. Grander and bolder changes in direction of technology will
offer more benefits than ever for those who dare to take the digital leap and
accept the risks and dangers associated with such dramatic change and
This switch has been seen and felt in the teaching environment.
The traditional classroom - the known and familiar source of comfort and pain - has disappeared
for the time being. The new reality for many instructors is to conduct and teach
virtual and online courses. Those schools and universities who had previously experimented and flirted with such initiatives as well as those who are ready to jump ship and embrace
the new horizon of possibilities with its load of challenges and difficulties
will be the ones to succeed and thrive in the future.
Yet those who desperately hold onto old-fashioned and
inadequate means and forms of education will not be able to survive. It was surprising
for me to find out how ill-prepared many, if not most Western teachers as well
as elementary and high school institutions have been in the face of this
pandemic, whereas, ironically, developing economies and countries, such as the
Philippines and Mexico, have been better suited and more willing to deal with and adapt to the changes. As Ursula herself pointed out, this was due to the already used
and trodden path and the prevalent infrastructure of televised teaching methods in
poorer and rural areas and it did not require nor represent a fundamental nor a substantial existential shift for them.
Another important and relevant switch is the one from
manager to leader. We need to put aside the need to micromanage, steadily and
constantly telling others what to do and be seen and perceived as the boss, the
always vigilant parent. This is an outdated, and might I add, inadequate and
counterproductive way of thinking and of managing personnel. Instead, the boss
needs to realize and acknowledge that they do not know everything, and instead, they should ask questions instead of giving orders and be willing and ready to
give support whenever needed or required.
This kind of openness will invite others not only to
participate in work matters but they will also feel validated in the process.
This will make a leader out of the previous boss and manager. A leader is
someone who does not give orders but manages to motivate and inspire their workers
and employees to do their bidding without expressly having to tell them. There
is then no need for vigilant presence to ensure that work is done and
accomplished as they will do so on their own accord.
People may follow bosses with a grudge or even against
their will, but they will follow a leader not by and via force but through
their own desire and volition. Put differently, they will come to do what the leader
wants them to do and sometimes be inspired to go the extra mile, as the action or
undertaking is considered in both of their interests; a content employee is an important
and often neglected and overlooked asset to the success of the business and enterprise.
Finally, a combination of both a learner process and a
data-driven process is the best path to take for innovation. It is akin to
pinging for immediate data and receiving feedback. Sometimes it is confirmation
that one is in the right and has chosen and embarked upon the correct path,
while on other occasions the data will counter and go against one’s plans and
intentions. The best attitude to adopt is one of mindfulness and of letting go. One’s goal should be not about being in the right but taking and continuing
the best direction for one’s business. That often means adjusting to reality
and the facts and going with the flow.
But thinking systematically will only get you so far. It is best to combine it with empathy. If you are the founder and manager, it is in your best interest to ensure that all those who work for you are not only treated with respect but also with empathy. This will go both ways. Once you take care of the physical and emotional needs of your employees, they will return you the favor by doing their best to make your business succeed further. It is another win-win situation, and it does not entail much of a sacrifice. In fact, as a business leader, it will make you feel even better, both personally as well as professionally.