Seeing the Big Picture: How Systems Thinking Can Help

Considering how each part of an organization’s work interacts with other parts can help organizations such as the Canada Revenue Agency identify problems and develop effective solutions.

You may have heard that the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) is having some trouble with its external communications. CBC reported last Wednesday that many of the CRA’s letters are so full of “gobbledegook” that some taxpayers are calling the CRA to find out what the letters mean. However, this story is about a lot more than the importance of clear communication in the public service. It also shows how Systems Thinking—considering how each part interacts with other parts of the whole—can help organizations identify problems and develop effective solutions.

The first lesson of Systems thinking is to look at the big picture. This is harder to do than it sounds. It’s easy in any job to get caught up in the details of your own work and forget how this work fits into the bigger picture of the organization. At Delsys, our clients often want to delve straight into the details of their work because this is what they know the most about and what they experience directly. Clients often resist taking a big picture view of their work because they see it as a strictly philosophical exercise.

However, the CRA story shows that looking at the big picture is much more than a philosophical exercise. It shows how difficult it is to notice how work in one part of an organization negatively impacts another part unless you look at this work in the context of the organization as a whole. For the CRA, the work of informing taxpayers wasn’t really complete when the letters were sent out. The people sending the letters may have thought it was complete, but from the organization’s perspective it was still unfinished because the letters added to workload in call centres. The problems that confusing letters were causing couldn’t have been identified until they were looked at as part of the bigger picture.

This story should not be considered grounds to single out the CRA for criticism. In thinking about work as part of the organization as a whole, they are ahead of many other organizations. They’ve recognized that it’s not only how you do your work, but also how you think about your work, that matters. They’ve also shown that looking at work differently is more than just a philosophical exercise; it helps in identifying inefficiencies, gaps, risks, and potential improvements. In short, it gets results. Hopefully, other organizations can learn from the CRA example and look at their work differently.

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