Agility & systems thinking

6th February 2020

In this article, Adrian Reed (Blackmetric) and Lyn Girvan (CMC) sit down for a virtual cuppa and discuss agility & systems thinking. We hope you find the article interesting and enjoyable!

So what is ‘systems thinking’ and why does it matter?

Adrian: That’s a really, really big and broad question, and there are many different ‘traditions’ of systems thinking, as well as debate within the practitioner community over the precise meaning! However, for me it’s really about thinking in systems. We use the term ‘system’ all the time – often to mean an IT System, but so often the boundary that matters is actually set much wider than that. We can have the best IT in the world, but the reality is that most purposeful activity needs the cooperation of a range of humans to make it work.

The “systems” that we perceive can be much, much broader than this. Think about other times we hear the word ‘system’ — we hear about the ‘health system’, the ‘system of government’ and so on. The challenge is that the boundaries of these systems are very much down to the eye of the beholder. As a user of the ‘health system’, I might consider the taxi that the hospital uses to transport a relative between specialist departments to be within its scope. Yet I doubt the taxi driver would consider themselves within it.

Another important part of systems is that they have ‘emergent properties’. They are greater than the sum of their parts. The components of an aircraft are interesting, but it is only when they are connected together that you get flight. The linkages are crucial. In any kind of complex system you’ll often get unexpected, and unwanted, emergent properties. You implement e-mail, somebody invents spam. You burn fossil fuels, you get climate change…. A series of seemingly small actions in one area can have all sorts of unexpected and unpredicted impacts elsewhere. You’ve probably seen this in your own organisation when you implement Project X to fix problem X… only to discover that in fixing Problem X, a new problem emerged!

These sorts of questions (boundaries, purposes, impacts, linkages) are all relevant. So often organisations are built with hierarchies and functions in mind, not flows and linkages. And as a result, all sorts of unexpected outcomes occur.

Of course, this is just scratching the surface.

Lyn: To build on Adrian’s point about organisations being built using hierarchies and functions, this is something we often see in the structure and governance around projects and programmes that focus scope only on the end users or beneficiaries of the change. If we take a systems thinking approach we will also realise that the project and programme teams are a critical part of the system and therefore play a critical role. It’s not just a case of ‘customers ask and we will build’, which is a very transactional way to work. Agile delivery teams have tried to address this, recognising the need for cross functional teams with a diverse range of skills which, when combined, achieve the ultimate business value. This promotes the need to work with customers and system stakeholders in a dynamic way to truly realise the emergent properties within the system. So you would hope that the ‘delivery team’ would recognise that the ‘taxi driver’ in the health system is part of the system and that their part in the system would need to be tested to achieve the emergent properties, or realise the full business value.

However, the adoption of agile practices within many organisations has been done so in the absence of systems thinking. If systems thinking were considered then emergent properties would include things such as: value realised early; empowered delivery teams; decisions made by workers at the right time; and self-organising teams that can organise around the work and can be trusted to deliver. In reality, adoption of agile is treated as a process change, and behavioural aspects from people within the system are ignored or not recognised. The lack of foresight to prove or disprove agile adoption in a wider systems thinking way often leads to unwanted emergent properties such as:

  • teams over-committing work leading to underdelivery
  • Micro management of under-delivery causing negative reinforcing loops, where poor performance leads to more management that in turn leads to poor performance.

It is easy to see how a system thinking approach and techniques such as causal loops could help with such an important organisation transformation such as agile adoption. Yet, the ability to think in this way is something that constrains many organisations from reaching the business agility they strive for.

How does this relate to Agile?

Lyn: Understanding the system, through systems thinking, helps value to the customer to be realised earlier. Through this, linkages between different systems and their processes can be better understood within and across system boundaries, and can prove or disprove whether emergent properties are desirable or not. If not desirable, agile approaches provide options to pivot and change direction to discover emergent properties that are desirable. This is hard to do with traditional approaches as the emergent property does not come to fruition until the end of the project.

Adrian: I think for me, it’s part of the difference between “being agile” and “doing Agile”. In my view, agile approaches are crucial; but this is one part of a much bigger picture. For example, having the ability to deliver software in a quick, responsive and reliable way is crucial. Yet software is just part of something bigger. The fact that a car can receive software updates over-the-air, allowing features to be added after it is purchased, might be important. Making sure the brakes are reliable is probably far more important. Great, responsive, software is a poor band-aid for broken processes and organisational structures. Yet so often it seems to be used as such, and this is absolutely no fault of the skilled teams delivering it- – it is very much a management issue in my view.

What is the difference between ‘Agile’ and ‘Agility’?

Lyn: Agility is what you achieve by ‘being’ agile. Agile is a mindset, a way of working according to the values and principles that underpin the agile manifesto. Following and/or adhering to agile methods and frameworks helps teams ‘do’ agile, but doesn’t mean that an agile mindset is embraced. Many teams and/or organisation ‘do’ agile but never achieve agility. Business agility is the ability for an organisation to be able to adapt and change to changes affecting their business that are often outside of their influence or control. Such things include changes to regulation, to service or product demand and political or environmental change.

Adrian: I agree with Lyn. I would add that for me agility is the ability to spot changes coming, figure out a response to them and then adapt. I’d also (provocatively) add that in my view organisations don’t just adapt to their environments…. They also adapt their environments. Some will do this inadvertently, but some will do so deliberately. Blockbuster Video changed the environment for cinemas. Netflix changed the same business environment even further. Many other organisations are continuing to change the physical environment through their use and depletion of natural resources and fossil fuels. Protest groups and campaigners are changing the environment and creating greater awareness, leading to folks making different purchasing choices. It’s a constant ‘flux’, but it’s a two way flux.

Is there a place for systems thinking in a business analysis toolkit?

Adrian: Absolutely. Some days I struggle to see the difference between strategic, holistic business analysis and systems thinking. I think there is a difference, but the intent is very similar. I think many of us BAs intuitively think in systems; the more systems thinking I read and the more I bring into my practice, the more I am convinced there is a lot we can learn as a community from the systems thinking community.

Lyn: Totally agree with Adrian on this. Systems thinking is core to what we do as BAs. Increasingly technology is seen as the driving force behind business transformation, exacerbated by the digital age. Yet without a systems thinking approach behind these transformations we may find ourselves grappling with unwanted emergent properties that pose a threat to the customers we are serving or, worse still, create vulnerabilities to our organisations or public services. Business analysts, armed with systems thinking in their toolkit, have to remain at the heart of this, focusing on the wider system of interest at all times so we don’t lose sight of the big picture, related systems or linkages.

What one key take-away would you recommend practitioners take on board?

Adrian: Systems thinking is about “thinking in systems” and there’s a whole range of tools, techniques, methods and methodologies for us to utilise. In my view they make logical and exciting additions to our toolkit!

Lyn: People working in delivery teams delivering technology need to wake up and smell the coffee where systems thinking is concerned. Technology on its own is of no consequence until it operates with ‘the system’. Systems thinking is crucial to achieving business agility.


About the participants…

Lynda Girvan

Lyn Girvan has over 25 years’ experience in business and systems development and transformational change, working as a consultant, professional trainer and practitioner in both public and private sectors. Lyn has extensive experience of adding value to organisations at a variety of levels, from coaching agile development teams through to advising on Board-level change programmes. Lyn’s particular strength is applying her knowledge of change, business analysis and agile to help organisations overcome challenging business problems, such as agile transformation and organisational agility.

Lyn is CMC’s Head of Business Analysis, an Agile Coach with the Scrum Alliance, a Fellow of the BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT and a Prosci® Practitioner.  Lyn is an experienced speaker who has provided numerous talks and key notes at European and international conferences over many years. Lyn co-authored the BCS books, ‘Agile and Business Analysis’ and ‘Developing Information Systems’.

Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is a true advocate of the analysis profession. In his day job, he acts as Principal Consultant and Director at Blackmetric Business Solutions where he provides business analysis consultancy and training solutions to a range of clients in varying industries. He is a Past President of the UK chapter of the IIBA® and he speaks internationally on topics relating to business analysis and business change.  Adrian wrote the 2016 book ‘Be a Great Problem Solver… Now’ and the 2018 book ‘Business Analyst’

You can read Adrian’s blog at and follow him on Twitter at