Systems Thinking For Innovation

Firms that compete through technology based innovation strategy need to contend with how their product/service delivers value in rapidly evolving complex systems present in today’s markets. Complexity has reached the point were we now talk in terms of system of systems to describe markets.  For example, electric vehicles operating within an electrical power generation and smart grid system, advanced aircraft operating within an air traffic management system, a swipe card payment system for an integrated public transportation system, or a medical device operating connected within an electronic records management in an integrated health services system.

Firms need better systems thinking in their strategic and tactical delivery actions. The success of the firm depend on external partners, integration challenges, customer adoption, and market conditions beyond their control. Firms that apply systems thinking  can help to maximize the return on innovation investment that drives profitability, growth, and competitiveness. Engineering leaders responsible for delivering technology solutions in complex systems markets also need to develop their staff the think in terms of systems, adopt systems engineering practices, and apply better strategic tools to leverage systems thinking.


To understand systems thinking firms need to understand complex systems. A system is a set of connected things or parts forming a complex whole.  Individual systems from the examples given could include: an electric vehicle itself; a payment system; a medical device; mobile phone; or tablet. Each alone can be complex systems in their own right. The system of systems takes a wider view of all the individual systems that must operate together in the broader context. Annette Krygiel defined systems of systems as “an interoperating collection of component systems that produce results unachievable by the individual systems alone“. For example, the electric vehicle market comprises systems such as: the electric vehicle itself; electrical power grid; charging stations; electrical power generation/transmission system; and the environmental regulatory system. All of these systems in the electrical transportation system of systems are undergoing rapid transformation but provide exciting potential for innovators active in this space.

Complex systems markets are changing rapidly making it difficult for engineers to predict how their potentially novel products/services will perform in the future system. In today’s markets complex systems perform beyond the sum of the parts and often in unexpected ways with emergent properties. How future technology users will face pervasive connectivity with the evolving ‘Internet of Things’ is an excellent example. The Royal Academy of Engineering observed that “A system is a set of parts which, when combined, have qualities that are not present in any of the parts themselves. Those qualities are the emergent properties of the system. Engineers are increasingly concerned with complex systems, in which the parts interact with each other and with the outside world in many ways – the relationship between the parts determine how the system behaves. Intuition rarely predicts the behaviour of novel complex systems. Their design has to iterate to converge on an acceptable solution. That solution might not be what the customer originally envisaged – aligning expectations with what is achievable is an important part of the design of systems and the design engineer has to work closely with the customer and other stakeholders.”

Engineers also need to ensure system outcomes such as: safety; reliability; robustness; interoperability; versatility; flexibility; and future growth are delivered in complex system markets. In terms of tactical actions, systems engineering is the field of engineering that according to INCOSE (the international professional body for systems engineering) aims to enable the realization of successful systems as defined by these intended outcomes. Eisner defines systems engineering as “an iterative process of top-down synthesis, development, and operation of a real-world system that satisfies, in a near optimal manner, the full range of requirements for the system“. Systems engineering is about managing reality, complexity, uncertainty, and increasingly innovation within budget, schedule and other project specific outcomes. ISO 15288 is the recognized standard for the systems engineering. In fact project management and systems engineering are becoming increasingly integrated as evidenced by the closer cooperation between PMI and INCOSE.

Formal systems engineering methods are described in INCOSE’s Systems Engineering Handbook employing processes, methods, and tools have evolved since the end of WWII to apply systems thinking initially in complex cold war military systems.  Firms in aerospace, defence, nuclear, and transportation regularly use systems engineering to manage complexity, safety, interoperability, and performance but as the world becomes more connected other industries need to learn and adopt these methods. It has only been recently though that other industries have become exposed to systems engineering methods.  Some industries have been more proactive than others but some like construction are finding it increasingly difficult to deal with complex infrastructure projects that involve novel technologies and system of systems. Unfortunately there has been limited talent transfer from the traditional systems industries in many jurisdictions, non-system industries adoption has been slow if there is little need to connect, some see the methods as too costly or difficult to apply. Most university engineering and management programs do not cover systems engineering leaving industry to learn and often relearn lessons in siloes. So stand alone industries need to consider whether they need systems engineering to deliver their value proposition in an increasingly connected and complex world.

Systems Thinking

Systems thinking or ‘big-picture’ thinking, is the key systems engineering mindset that takes a holistic view of the system, its environment, its users, its stakeholders, over its life time. Peter Senge defined systems thinking in The Fifth Discipline to be ” a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather then static snapshots. It is a set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering and management“. INCOSE UK define systems thinking to be “a way of thinking used to address complex and uncertain real world problems. It recognizes that the world is a set of highly interconnected technical and social entities which are hierarchically organized producing emergent behaviour“.

Most engineers are functional experts but as they assume greater leadership responsibility they often have to consider design implications in a broader context and begin to recognize the importance of systems thinking. Functional point designs without consideration for the broader system often lead to inferior outcomes. Engineering leaders in industries that are becoming more complex systems of systems therefore need to develop in themselves and in succession plans how to be better systems thinkers.

To ensure present day firms develop and sustain their competitiveness in the face of an increasingly complex world, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering suggests six principles that firms who leverage engineering capabilities should adopt to apply systems thinking:

  • Debate, define, revise, and pursue the purpose;
  • Think holistic;
  • Follow a systematic procedure;
  • Be creative;
  • Take account of the people;
  • Manage the project and the relationships.

A prior post looked at methods to sustain system thinking as the baby boomer generation retire in the traditional system thinking industries.

At the strategic level how can engineering leaders deliver returns from innovation investments in applying systems thinking?

Innovating in Complex Systems Markets

Rod Adner provided a powerful strategic approach for innovating systems in his book The Wide Lens by putting systems thinking in a business context and a form more usable by industry. Adner’s method looks beyond the execution of the firm’s innovation to consider co-innovation players and the adoption chain in the complex system market.  Co-innovation players are those firms or entities that need to innovate in order for the firm’s innovation to succeed. The adoption chain considers who else needs to adopt the firm’s innovation before full value can be achieved. Adner’s wide-lens steps are:

  1. Build a value blue print that illustrates the complex system market by network mapping of the key suppliers, intermediaries, complementors all leading to the end customer;
  2. Prepare a leaders/followers diagram to illustrate who of the players in the value blue print wins (or benefits) and who loses (and could resist) the firm’s innovation;
  3. Map first mover matrix to understand if being a first mover is an advantage or not;
  4. Considering the 5 levers of complex system market reconfiguration (ie. changes to the value blue print) to facilitate value creation by the firm’s innovation: what can be separated?; what can be combined? what can be relocated? what can be added? and what can be subtracted?
  5. Taking steps to sequence successful complex system market construction through such strategic actions as: minimum viable footprint; staged expansion; and system carryover.

By visualizing the complex system market using Adner’s approach engineering leaders can apply systems thinking that drives profitability, growth, and competitiveness.

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