“How can I see the forest if I’ve just learned what a tree is?”

That was the question posed to me by a young woman on my team a few years ago.  I’ll call her Helen.  I was her manager, and I was failing her.

I hired Helen into our work group because she of her high ceiling: she was the top performer at a separate division of our company, and I poached her to help our unit improve the quality, timeliness, and efficiency of our work.  I wanted fewer daily issues coming my way, and wanted to empower people to make fast decisions.

But in her first two months, she struggled to pick up our business.  She consistently made errors, and, most troubling of all, seemed unaware that she was doing so.  My Vice President wanted me to send her back to the prior group.

To avoid doing so, I tried coaching Helen through some of the work that she was struggling with.  At one point I noted that she seemed to get stuck on details at the expense of the larger picture, and she blurted out the question that’s the title of this piece.  “David, how can I see the forest?  I’ve just learned what our group’s trees are!”.  And she was right.

Helen, like most in our group, was new to our industry.  Even our experienced team members had only seen a snippet of what we did.  How, then, could I expect them to grasp the implications of their actions two or more levels downstream?  I realized in that moment that Helen needed a map of the forest.

She needed a systems approach to learning our business.

Systems thinking, you see, is not just a way of seeing the whole.  It’s a way to grasp the whole in an intelligent, helpful way, and to place details and specific events in the context of something bigger and more complex.  Some people seem to be systems thinkers from birth, and others think more particularly.  They see details, and use those details to construct a logical picture of the whole.

Anyone whose job requires an understanding of both the big picture and a grasp of details needs to master systems thinking.  Systems Thinking was recently written about by The Guardian as a key to sustainability, and the Harvard Business Review has outlined operational systems thinking methodology, if you’re interested.

But back to Helen.  I had expected her to look at an event, know what to do, and to consider the vast array of implications that might be triggered.  I made the crucial mistake of assuming if I taught the pieces effectively, she would put that puzzle together on her own.


I realized that a simple systems-thinking model might help her grasp the big picture, without sacrificing the important attention to detail that had made her a rising star for our organization.  I noticed, above all, that Helen (and others) tend to focus on Actions they can perform, to the detriment of secondary Impacts.  I’ve thus divided the model into Actions and Impacts stages.

I also use tree and forest imagery to provide further color to make it more memorable for myself and for Helen:

4-Step Systems Thinking Model (click on the words to see the model itself)

  1. Name the Tree.  Action.  The first step is to understand, literally, what the thing is.  What kind of tree is it?  Sometimes it’s new to us, or perhaps we’ve seen it before.  Helen didn’t know our business that well; she didn’t know the difference between our Spruces and our Bonsai trees.  The action of understanding what the tree is must come first.
  2. Why is the Tree Here?  Impact.  All Trees (and files, and events) happen for a reason.  Therefore the tree has links to other pieces of the business ecosystem.  For example, an email from a vendor about a late order has to be handled in a certain way.  But before we try to trim that Tree, we need to understand whether something upstream in the process has caused it to be late.  Maybe we ordered it incorrectly.  Perhaps we didn’t communicate effectively.  Understanding why the Tree exists requires that we evaluate the history of the process, and that’s important to effectively Tend it.  Understand its Impact before taking the next Action.
  3. Who else Tends Trees?  Impact.  Who else needs to know?  A colleague or client?  A regulatory body?  These possibilities can be defined in advance, but asking the questions prompts good thought.  This step helps shape the Action to come.
  4. Tend the Tree.  Action.  Now that we understand what kind of tree it is, and where it came from, and who else is interested we can truly know how to trim it.  What must I literally do with it?  Is there a process that I must follow?  Do I need to invent a new way?  To use the tree analogy, Palm tress have very different trimming process than do an Oaks (do you trim Oaks?).  As managers we need to explain the difference, clearly and simply.  Learning and understanding the tree-trimming process is the “doing” step of systems thinking.

Most people who learn a system focus on the Actions – steps 1 and 4, which are about What something is, and How to fix it.  Steps 2 and 3, exploring the Impact, the Why and the Who of the thing, sometimes play larger roles, especially from managers’ perspectives.  This model helped Helen understand the many different aspects of her work because it guides her through which questions to ask and what implications to consider.  Helen had to consider implications before acting.

Crucially, Helen could use the model to limit the number of things she had to consider.  Rather than looking at a Peach tree and wondering if maybe it needs trimming the same way Palm trees do, this model encouraged her to eliminate possible actions because they don’t fit the circumstances.  This aspect of the model was crucial for our business.

As for Helen, within a week of mastering the model, all performance issues were gone.  Within four months she was a Team Lead, and within a year she was managing a team of ten people.

The model, in action, lubricates our wheels of thought.  With thought, especially when guided, comes understanding, and the more understanding exists throughout a team, the better it runs.

So I encourage you to steal this 4-step model, or to develop one that might fit your team’s circumstances a bit more.  You’ll be amazed at how well your team can adopt systems thinking, and how much of an impact that will have on collective understanding and performance.