Systems Thinking for Effective Managers: The Road Less Travelled

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Prashun Dutta

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    Advance Praise

    It is quite an intellectual masterpiece and must read for any practicing manager to get nuances of “big-picture,” processes and the stance to keep in day to day management, for success. Delving in depth on stark distinction between “science-based approach” and “systems-based aspects,” interestingly the author has illustrated the inadequacy of scientific approach in general management, while clearly articulating various systems-based approaches and aspects that can help steer with dexterity in innumerable managerial situations—simple or complex!

    Rajeev Batra

    CIO, Times Group, Bennett Coleman & Co. Ltd

    This is a thought-provoking book on systems thinking, applied to managerial effectiveness. The author draws from his rich experience as a management practitioner, and his wide range of intellectual interests (which include science, poetry, and mythology) to make a compelling case for a “holistic” approach for decisionmaking in organizations. Grounded in intellectual rigor, he links theoretical constructs with real-life executive experiences in an engaging manner. This book will appeal to both the management thinker and the thinking manager.

    Shankar Krishnan

    Group Head—Strategy (Shapoorji Pallonji Group)

    Prashun's book is truly an eye-opener. It skillfully reveals the insufficiency of traditional management thinking in dealing with the complexities of today's business situations and the appropriateness of the systems approach in doing so. Building on the inherent systemic attributes such as emergence and self-organization is clearly the need of the hour. Managing, as he declares, is indeed like dancing with an elephant.

    Sudipta K. Sen

    Ex-Vice Chairman & Regional Director, SAS Institute; Partner, McKinsey & Co.

    This is an excellent book on “systems thinking” and “holistic” approach that successfully straddles the world of academia and practice; a goal often sought but rarely achieved. What makes the book an interesting read is that the author has explained the concepts with numerous illustrations and in doing so he has shared, in almost an autobiographical form, experiences from his professional journey spanning diverse roles including that of a management consultant, a CIO, a strategist, and a student of quantum physics and Vedanta. The book will benefit anyone who describe themselves as “problem solvers”—management consultants, strategists, business leaders, NGO leaders, bureaucrats.

    Soumitra Pandey

    Partner, The Bridgespan Group

    Post overcoming the Y2K bug, the “overkill” of technology that followed, has defined and shaped the world as it exists. Consequently, the prime driver in the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world of today is, “continual change” in both the societal as well as the business contexts. As such, the potency of linear extrapolation in solving the complex problems of today is limited if not totally irrelevant. In such a context, a “systemic” world view as a problem/mystery solving mechanism in the world of possibilities, rather than a “systematic” science and conventional, “pure logic-based approach,” as in a relatively stable earlier environment, stands out as an obviously more appropriate view to follow. Prashun has very “simply and succinctly” handled this “complex” issue.

    Rajeev Bhadauria

    Group Director (HR), Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL)

    Fascinating read and an “interesting journey.” Prashun shares his perspective and his experience that make a case for “Systems Thinking” so as to make us more effective. The book introduces you to novel but yet proven concepts on how thinking comprehensively can significantly enhance the possibility of a better outcome. The most interesting part of this journey was that learning is through many examples that leave a mark and charge your thinking. Prashun thank you for this journey….

    Manish Choksi

    President, Asian Paints

    Dr Prashun Dutta's book titled Systems Thinking for Effective Managers, is essential reading for managers and leaders who want to see the bigger picture in life to be able to make sense of the interconnected causal effects across the known ecosystem It also imbibes the humbleness required knowing that you will never control the larger system, you can only influence portions of it. This deeply philosophical but practical book will make you reflect on your life. It is highly recommended.

    Sumit Chowdhury

    Founder & CEO, Gaia Smart Cities; Adjunct Faculty, Carnegie Melon University; Ex-CIO & President, Reliance Jio

    Acknowledgements

    Dedicated to my spiritual master Paramhansa Yoganandaji and in memory of my parents Sandhya and Bishnu Pada Dutta

    Foreword

    For several months last year, commuters in Gurgaon suffered from an unusual bottleneck. A new flyover to speed up the traffic could not be opened to the public. Also, a station for a new rapid rail metro line, which would reduce the road traffic, could not be opened. The reason was that the flyover landed right in front of the entrance of the station. The location of the two at the same point created a huge safety hazard. For a year before that, citizens had been watching both solutions to their commuting problems being employed simultaneously. Both agencies were rushing to complete their own solution. Two solutions should have been better than one. However, they crossed each other and made the citizens’ life worse. Clearly, both departments were not seeing the whole picture. Or, having seen it, they were not willing to cooperate with each other. And so the citizens suffered.

    We can see many examples of the absence of systems thinking and systems acting around us in our daily lives. Some are clearly visible, as in the conflict between the rail and road improvement projects in Gurgaon. However, many other instances of silo-thinking and silo-working, which are not as concrete, have even more profound effects on our lives.

    Fear of increasing unemployment is becoming a problem in almost all countries with the advent of technologies which are displacing human beings in manufacturing, in services, and even in knowledge sectors. Even before the advance of technologies in the past 15 years, many countries in both developed as well as developing world—Spain, Greece, Italy, India, and countries in the Middle East, for example—were already affected by rising unemployment of youth. Technology is not the only cause for unemployment in societies; there are many other causes too. Therefore, economists and policymakers correctly say that an entire “ecosystem” must be improved to generate more jobs and livelihoods.

    The question is: Who is responsible for improving the entire ecosystem? Business leaders say it is not their job; the government should do it. Within government, then, which ministry is responsible? The education and skills ministries, who should ensure that enough suitably skilled people will be available to work? Or the industries ministries, who should ensure that there will be enough jobs for these people when they are ready to work? If they do not coordinate their policies carefully, there would be no jobs for many more educated and skilled people ready to work. Which is already the situation in several countries.

    Job creation is not the only “systems” problem that requires cooperation amongst many stakeholders with different perspectives, but also climate change, degradation of rivers and oceans shared by many countries, persistent poverty, and increasing inequality in societies are also systemic issues. They require combinations of many perspectives and the cooperation of all nations and diverse stakeholders to manage them. They are not seen as the core agenda of any agency. Nor are such issues resolvable by any one agency, even if one is assigned the responsibility to do it. Such systemic issues must become the agenda of many agencies and many stakeholders, and they must resolve them together.

    There is a mismatch between how we are taught to understand reality and the ways in which systems must be understood. The Humpty Dumpty of knowledge fell off the wall with the so-called “enlightenment” that spread across the world from Europe since the eighteenth century. With the advance of scientific thinking, knowledge has been broken up into compartments. Specialists know more and more about less and less. Humpty Dumpty must be put together again. We need to see the whole system and the whole truth; not truth in fragments.

    Managers are taught to manage complex tasks by breaking them into parts; and to organize their enterprises in divisions each with its own agenda and focused on its own responsibilities. Then, logically, each division is judged by its performance in its assigned task. Going further, rewards and incentives are given based on performance. Thus, silo-thinking gets converted into silo-acting, with each division competing against others for more recognition and more reward, rather than collaborating with them to improve the whole. In this way too, Humpy Dumpty falls off the wall and the system breaks into pieces.

    Non-systemic ways of thinking and working have become institutionalized. They are difficult to change. Extensive resources and time will be required to put them together again to address the many systemic problems that affect us—in our personal lives (think of healthcare, in which many specialists are required to fix separate parts of our bodies with few doctors to provide holistic solutions); in our communities (making our city systems work, as in the example of traffic management in Gurgaon); and also wider societal problems (such as job creation and climate change).

    Prashun Dutta's very timely book will help managers to become more effective in systems thinking and systems acting. Systems thinking is “a road less travelled,” as he says. More of us must travel on this road now to make the world better for everyone.

    Arun Maira Chancellor, Central University of Himachal Pradesh Ex-Member of Planning Commission Ex-Chairman, BCG India

    Preface

    It all started in the January of 1990, when I received an invitation to attend a “workshop on systems thinking,” to be conducted by the systems group of the consulting firm I worked for. Meeting up with friends in the beautiful weather of the host city was a motivator and I consented willingly. During the sessions spread over three days, I garnered an indistinct idea of systems and a tepid curiosity to investigate further. Subsequently, I got assigned to a consulting project taken up by the systems group and that presented me with the opportunity to delve deeper into its intricacies. The next six months were both busy and educative as I, amidst the consulting assignment, was attempting to unravel systems concepts.

    This learning turned out to be particularly revealing, though, in retrospect, I realize I had just begun the journey. The concept of an interconnected world of holism, integration, and assimilation was both thrilling and inspirational. Quite suddenly, John Donne's No Man Is an Island or Blake's To see a World in a Grain of Sand started making more sense. I glimpsed what Tagore felt when he remarked about the “eternal wonder of unity.” Looking around, the concept of “quantum entanglement” or the lessons of the Upanishads were no longer confined to a cerebral discussion of intellectuals, but grounded in the reality we commoners encounter. Of course, historians, economists, and sociologists have often viewed their subject as a whole and extracted lessons therefrom I deduced that Arnold Toynbee, Romila Thapar, Adam Smith, Niklas Luhmann, and several others who have written and spoken about integrated collectives and systems have furnished a basis for holistic thinking.

    While learning was enjoyable, practicing this in consulting assignments was gratifying. I felt much more confident in taking on large projects and their outcomes were very encouraging. Shifting from consulting to an executive position gave me further scope to apply this acquired knowledge. Learning, of course, continued unabated as I read more and tried out those concepts in my functioning. With growing responsibilities, systems approach was the guiding star in their execution, often with favorable results—appreciation far outweighed criticism I also discovered that several managers, and all visionaries, were intuitively systemic in their thinking. Even amongst my peers I noted that some had adopted many of the aspects of systems thinking without being familiar with the nomenclature. Without any formal training, they had realized the importance of such an approach from their years of experience.

    When one encounters for the first time something that shakes the person to the core, the desire to share it with others becomes paramount. That is what happened with me and systems thinking. I started talking about systems theory and practice to anyone willing to lend an ear. Much of my audience were friends and colleagues who were informed business professionals holding responsible executive and consulting positions, and their feed-back was extremely encouraging. Sharing these ideas at various public fora was also equally satisfying. Perusal of further reading material on this subject made me realize the insufficiency of existing literature on the crucial interface between management and systems. Exhorting one to evolve into a holistic thinker, or to look at the “big picture” was not always yielding the expected results, because of this unaddressed gap.

    This hiatus between the need and the availability, in systems-management literature, and the necessity of bridging this gap was the compelling motivation to write this book. I have attempted to present my journey of learning the ideas and illustrations in a cogent form and highlighted the major learning points that I felt were particularly interesting. My attempt here is to cobble together a knowledge base of ideas and practices that I think would be particularly useful for the practicing organizational executive. I hope you, the reader, would find it both enjoyable and beneficial to traverse the journey with me.

    The masculine gender has been used for ease of writing and should be understood to include she/her as well.

    Acknowledgments

    As a systems thinker, one fully appreciates the famous words of Helen Keller “alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.” Nothing worthwhile has ever been achieved by anyone alone; it is always a collective that delivers, and this book is no exception. Consequently, acknowledgments for this book are due to many people spanning temporally and spatially in diverse zones.

    To begin, I must acknowledge the acuity of vision exhibited by the then management of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) for having established a systems center three and a half decades ago. Mr F. C. Kohli, the then Director-in-Charge of TCS had engaged P. N. Murthy, who had earlier been a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology at Kanpur, to manage the center and it was the latter who induced me to join the center in 1990. My earnest and respectful thanks to both of them

    Knowledge of systems has been in development over many years and at various locations. Scientists, thinkers, practitioners, and teachers have all contributed to this and it is this capital that I have used to write my book. My sincere and heartfelt gratitude to each and every one of them. Some of these great men are mentioned in the book while many are not and I thank them all for having lent their shoulders to me to look farther.

    The gentlemen who have taken time out of their busy schedules to read the book and give their comments either as foreword or endorsements deserve a big Thank you. Mr Maira, Mr Choksi, Mr Batra, Mr Bhadauria, Mr Shankar Krishnan, Mr Pandey, Mr Sen and Mr Chowdhury, please accept my sincere gratitude for your contribution in the making of the book. I would also like to thank my many friends with whom I have discussed ideas contained in this book, who have shared my enthusiasm, and furnished meaningful feedback. I must also thank Ms Amrita Chowdhury and Ms Mayuri Naik for the help rendered to complete the book.

    Thanks are due to SAGE Publishers, particularly to Ms Sharmila Abraham who consented to consider this book for publication from its first draft which was, at best, a dump of inchoate ideas. I must thank Ms Manisha Mathews of SAGE for guiding the interaction process in a non-intimidating manner and shepherding it right till the end. A word of thanks for Ms Priya Arora of SAGE for editing the book efficiently.

    My sister Gopa has been a constant source of moral support in the writing of this book, albeit from a distance, and a grateful thank you to her. Finally, my family, Pradyot, Prashant, and Pushpita deserve a very big “Thanks” for having undertaken this difficult journey with me. They have helped in several ways but more importantly been the center of my life and all endeavors therein.

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    About the Author

    Prashun Dutta, a veteran with over three and a half decades of work experience initially as a management consultant with the National Productivity Council and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and later as a senior executive at Reliance group of companies, has a heady mix of management consulting and industrial engagement under his belt. A postgraduate in industrial engineering and a Fellow (equivalent to PhD) of the IIM Calcutta, he has worked in the areas of strategy, structure, and systems for an array of businesses and governmental organizations. As a senior executive with Reliance Industries, Prashun started with managing the business analysis function for the Polyester Fibre Group and went on to assume the role of chief information officer (CIO) at Reliance Infrastructure. Subsequently, he became the CIO at Tata Power from where he superannuated in 2015. Now attached to Gaia Smart Cities, a startup company in the smart cities, and Internet of Things (IoT) space as Advisor, Prashun is applying his systems thinking approach anew.

    The diverse experience is posited on a polymath personality, with wide-ranging interests from history through quantum physics to tennis and music. Acquaintance with such apparently disparate areas allows Prashun the appreciation of subtle commonalities and interlinkages that exist between them. The consequent “big picture” that emerges, feeds the passion for systems thinking and Prashun has an abundance of it. This book is a direct outcome of this intrinsic fountain.

    Like most articulate/eloquent individuals, he delivers talks on a variety of topics and has written extensively in several magazines and journals. A recipient of several awards both for his work and as a thought leader, he now lives in Mumbai with his wife and two sons.

    He has started penning his thoughts in a blog, Managing In The Big Picture (thebigpicture492.wordpress.com).

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