Systems Thinking

Organizations have a long tradition of problem solving everything. Find the problem and create the solution. New Commons thinks of this as a mechanical approach:  exchange the broken part with a working replacement.

This often backfires, because organizations are not simple machines that wear out and break down. "Solutions" end up creating new problems because organizations rarely envision the full consequences of each act of problem solving.

By focusing only on the immediate problem (as a mechanic would), organizations prevent themselves from seeing the whole system of relationships that will be affected by "the solution". When organizations allow themselves a broader perspective (as a physician might take), they often discover that their "problem" was more of a "symptom". Thus organizations begin to diagnose unhealthy conditions and develop therapies to cure the disease, not just treat the symptom.

As medicine is a science of a higher order than mechanics, this whole systems approach produces strategic plans of a higher order. More realistically tied to existing and emergent conditions. More inclusive of all the factors necessary for success. More fully connected to the capabilities required. More closely aligned to core goals. And, of course, more doable.


Put simply, design is a conscious attempt to create an ordered future from the present chaos. Some designers even say, with some justification, that design is life.

Regardless of the definition, design choices represent a strong indication of where an organization is headed.

While graphic design of organizational materials represents the most obvious example of this, all of an organization's design decisions make a statement. How is the organization itself designed? What design principles are expressed in the office or factory spaces where work occurs? Are the work flows consciously designed or simply "the way we've always done it"?

By addressing the entity itself and all its functions as a design challenge, organizations open themselves to a range of possibilities that can produce radical improvements in outcomes.

Finally, if design is creating an ordered future from the present chaos, then it must continuously adapt to incorporate changing conditions and new factors. Properly applied, design allows an organization to breathe in and out with the forces at play, taking in new ideas and putting out new products and services.


Highly collaborative organizations often point to the adoption of this practice as the catalyzing force that drove them to new heights. Collaboration speeds development, uncovers more options and creates better, more fully vetted decisions. If collaboration can deliver these results, why isn't the practice more common? The answer is simple - because it's hard.

Individually, most of us prefer to have things "our way". We frequently see our own vision as the best one and have trouble seeing value in other ideas. In an organizational setting, long-standing hierarchies create entrenched centers of power that can be difficult to move to a decentralized, collaborative structure.

Simply put, collaboration faces an uphill battle almost everywhere. How does an individual or organization become more collaborative? Our experience points to the simple dictum: practice makes perfect.

We don't offer any tried-and-true techniques to become collaborative, because there are none. Each organization needs to develop a collaborative methodology that fits their people and their work. However, we can offer some basic practices and questions to consider.

First, determine who the partners need to be. Does everybody get input on everything?  Will you need to define teams around projects? Are 100% of the partners inside the organization or does the team include external partners? Who, if anybody, is "in charge"? How are final decisions made? 

Second, create a place where collaboration happens. It could be the conference room or it could be a collaborative tool like SharePoint, but it needs to be clearly defined as the place where participants work together under a "different set of rules" than elsewhere. For example, the manager who acts as gatekeeper to the director under normal conditions must allow subordinates' ideas to enter freely and unhindered in the collaborative workspace.

Third, listen, learn and link. This, really, is collaboration. A collaborative team can develop, literally, a super-human brain because individual team members cover gaps in the knowledge of others. Together, a team of three or four could know almost everything necessary to complete a project, but only when team members recognize the gaps in their own knowledge, the strengths of others and - and this is crucial - are able to create the connections between their knowledge and that of others. As team members come to rely on the strengths of their collaborative partners, the group's knowledge and effectiveness can grow exponentially as the team becomes unburdened by their individual knowledge gaps.

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New Commons

545 Pawtucket Ave, Studio 106A
Mail Box 116
Pawtucket, RI 02860
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+1 401 351 7158 (fax)

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