How to Use Systems Thinking to Solve Complex Problems

Tangled mass of ropes

There used to be a telephone jingle that went something like this: “We’re all connected, New York Telephone”. Trust me, you don’t want me to sing it. But it springs to mind whenever I hear the words, “Systems Thinking”. People who know me, know I’m a systems thinker. Even if I can’t see the connections before I tackle a challenge, I know they have to be there. And that they’ll be the key to figuring it out. So this week, a tweet from my friend and fellow problem-solver Debbie Adams got me thinking about this topic again. Here’s how systems thinking works to help solve complex problems…

One important aspect of systems thinking is keeping your perspective, and the ability to see the big picture. If you’ve ever been wrapped up in a big, hairy, all-consuming problem, you know perspective is the hardest thing to hold on to. But it’s vital. If you have ever been inside a maze, you’ll know that it can be difficult to figure out which way to turn. Yet if you view the maze from above, the route can seem patently obvious. Stepping back from the thing you’re trying to solve or improve periodically, to remind yourself of what you are trying to achieve, will keep you moving in the right direction, and get you back on track when you take a turn that doesn’t work out.

Systems thinkers search for the key. More importantly, they believe there is a key. Not kidding ourselves that there is a magical key that will unlock everything, but that it will become clearer, if we keep working on it, how to solve the problem. In the words of Marie Forleo, “everything is figureoutable“.

Big problems also take time to solve. Even when we don’t yet know the solution or solutions, we systems thinkers allow ourselves the time to explore how and why things are connected. Similarly, we know that while complicated things are linear (and so we can get to the solution in a stepwise fashion), complex things are most decidedly not. They’re more of a tangle, with many knots to be untied. So we need to stop looking for a linear solution and make the time to understand how things are inter-related or interconnected.

Another challenge that systems thinkers are good at surmounting, is remembering that there is never only one right way. Every action we take will trigger a series of reactions. Some will be seen, and some won’t reveal themselves until later. So a willingness to try and to experiment is useful. Observation, formulating hypotheses, and testing to see if we’re right, will help us eliminate actions that don’t get us where we need to go. And they will help us recognize if the step we just took was a useful one.

Have you ever puzzled over something repeatedly, and then had a friend say, “Oh, you just need to do this!” and it seems so obvious once they say it, you wonder why you didn’t think of it? That’s why being able to look at the problem from different viewpoints is important to the process.

Lastly, because it really is all connected, as systems thinkers, we need to look inward. I know that in approaching any problem, I must acknowledge that I am also part of the system. So we need to maintain a positive attitude, and ask ourselves, what assumptions am I making that may be preventing the outcome I want? What can I change about my mindset, or my approach, that will net a better result. That doesn’t mean wallowing in guilt, shame, or blame, it simply means accepting that actions have consequences, and that we all have actions we can take toward the solution. In simpler terms, expecting someone else to solve the problem without me being part of the solution is unlikely to have a sustainable result.

To recap, remember these important things the next time you’re faced with a messy problem to solve, so you can make better decisions:

  1. Keep the big picture in mind.
  2. Look for how things are connected.
  3. Have faith that a solution is possible.
  4. Take the time you need to work through the tough bits.
  5. Look for keys, but not a magic wand.
  6. Learn from the perspectives of others.
  7. Use the scientific method and experiment.
  8. Recognize reactions to your actions.
  9. Know that as part of the system, you’re also part of the problem – and of the solution.

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m the CEO and a Partner here at PANOPTIKA. We help our clients make better decisions for their businesses and careers. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Plus, you can subscribe for updates straight to your inbox with the handy button, below.

The Best Way to Make Customers Listen

How do you make customers listen to you, when you have something you want to tell them? The very best way to make customers listen, is to think about who you serve. Everyone serves someone, and if you’re in business, any business, you serve your customer. Universities serve their students. Corporations serve their customers (even before shareholders, or the shares won’t be worth much). Once you know who you serve, there are four more things to do, to get customers to listen:

  1. Listen to them first. Hear their aspirations, their challenges, and their concerns.
  2. Tell them that you’ve heard them, so they know you are listening.
  3. Back up what you’ve told them with action.
  4. Share the results.

Once they know that you’re willing to put them first, they’ll listen. You won’t need to ask twice.

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m a Partner here at PANOPTIKA. We work with our clients to help them see everything they need to know to make better decisions for their businesses and careers. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn – and we’ll also send our weekly post along with some other useful tidbits, direct to your inbox – just click the handy button, below.

Four Rules for Better Decisions

Arrow pointing in two directions in barren desert

Decisions are hard. Especially in times of great uncertainty. That’s why thinking about how we make decisions, and creating frameworks for better decisions, can lighten the load when the going gets tough.

We have four rules we like our clients to think about, when they’re trying to make challenging decisions in their business:

  1. Know that, no matter what, not everyone will agree with your decision.
  2. Understand that, once taken, it’s important to stick with the decision long enough to see that it’s working, or isn’t.
  3. In conjunction with the previous, before taking the decision, define carefully how you will judge whether it worked, or didn’t.
  4. Ignore red herrings and other extraneous information (or decision points) that are not pertinent to this specific decision.

Getting a handle on these four things will help you make decisions with more confidence in the process, even when you’re worried about the potential outcome.

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m one of the Partners here at PANOPTIKA. We work with our clients to help them see everything they need to know to make better decisions for their businesses and careers. You can also follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook, or click the handy orange button below to subscribe to news you can use.

Some thoughts on hard things

Hands reaching out

President Obama famously had a sign on his desk that read, “Hard Things are Hard”. That really sums up this week. As if it wasn’t enough that we are embroiled in a pandemic, we have witnessed humans enduring pain, suffering, and death of a whole higher order. At the hand of other humans. How is such a thing possible? What do we do with it? How do we unpack it?

Last week, we talked about dealing with trolls. Of the tips we shared, numbers two and five are especially important this week, about dealing with negative messages (especially directed at ourselves). First, exercise compassion – pay attention to the remarks and see if there is a grain of truth that represents an opportunity for improvement. Secondly, if you have done something wrong, own up to it. Apologize and explain what you’ve done – if they’ve called you out on a legitimate complaint, say you’re sorry and tell them how you’re working to solve it. We’ve watched this playing out in real time this week, in a host of situations.

Companies and individuals have realized that silence is no longer acceptable. But speaking out isn’t enough. We need to look deep inside ourselves, do something to support others who are working to solve the problem, and figure out what personal action we need to take. Lego is a good example – they took a public stance. They donated money to support anti-racism causes. And then they looked for a contribution they could make, in their own house. You can read about it here.

For our part, we’re giving our privilege some deep thought. We will speak up more often where we should, and be quiet and listen where we must. Thank you for your patience with us. If you’d like to make a donation to an organization supporting anti-racism efforts here in Canada, here are three:

The Black Legal Action Centre

Black Women in Motion

Black Youth Helpline

And if you can support this event, happening today, or spread the word, we’d appreciate it.

I am Megann Willson, and I am a Partner here at PANOPTIKA. I’m better than I was yesterday. Not as good as tomorrow. And nowhere near what I hope to be when I’m done. I am listening, learning, and speaking…sometimes well, and sometimes in need of another lesson. Thank you for your patience. We’re listening here, here, and here. And we’d be grateful to have you join us for our weekly news.

What to do when the Trolls Show Up…

Troll in forest

You’ve started to get some traction with your social media posts or your blog, and then…the trolls show up. What can you do?

The natural urge is to feel defensive. To want to fight back. But is that in your best interest? Most of the time, it’s not. Here are some steps you can take when confronted with negative information:

  1. Remind yourself and your team that happy customers often say nothing – you may have many “likes” or “shares”, but much of the time, of comments
  2. Exercise compassion – pay attention to the remarks and see if there is a grain of truth that represents an opportunity for improvement.
  3. Consider the source – are they a “troll for hire” or bot, simply programmed by an algorithm to respond to certain phrases or topics?
  4. Don’t argue – looking defensive won’t get you anywhere and will add validity to their remarks
  5. Apologize and explain what you’ve done – if they’ve called you out on a legitimate complaint, say you’re sorry and tell them how you’re working to solve it
  6. Take the conversation offline – and show that you’re offering them another way to voice their concerns
  7. Push them out of the way – enlist your allies (customers, clients, or stakeholders) to help you build up the positive comments

Bear in mind that often the people who are bothered the most by trolls are team members who work their hardest to be good, kind, compassionate, and helpful. They’ll want to defend themselves. The best thing you can do for them is to have a clear policy and a place where they, too, can voice their concerns. Do that, and encourage them to support your efforts to manage what is sometimes a very unruly and discomfiting beast.

I’m Megann Willson, one of the Partners here at PANOPTIKA. We work with our clients to see everything they need to know to make better decisions as they find, understand, and engage their customers. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, or subscribe for weekly updates using the handy button, below.

5 Tips for Remote Meetings with Clients

Person working remotely

Online meetings really are the new normal. For “people people”, they can be difficult. They feel strange and impersonal. For those who prefer smaller meetings for interactions with others, the chatter from unmuted conversations and myriad images on the screen can be overwhelming. For the private person who separates work and home into distinct compartments, the blurring of lines can produce feelings of invasion, anxiety, or even violation. And the distraction of dogs, spouses, and kids, can mean that even the most focused attendees can easily get side tracked. Combine all this with wanting to make a good impression with clients, and you’ve got tall order to fill. We’ve been working remotely with many of our clients for decades, and we’ve got five tips for remote meetings with your clients that we hope will make your days just a bit easier.

  1. First, plan in advance, just as you would for a face-to-face meeting. Email an agenda, if you’re in the driver’s seat, with no more than three key topics you want to cover. Or if the client has asked to meet with you, a simple, “what would you like me to be prepared to work on for our meeting?” goes a long way to setting the stage that they’re still as important as ever, and that you are taking the meeting seriously.
  2. Next, find a good space. In a small space like our big city condo, that can be a challenge. We’re lucky to have a dedicated office space, but not everyone does. Whether it’s your couch, your dining room table, or perched on your bed with a virtual backdrop, what’s most important is to eliminate distractions as much as possible, so you can give the client your full attention.
  3. Then, dress up how you want to show up. If your colleagues are into pjs and t-shirts, that’s their call. If you’re trying to mirror the client and their style is more relaxed than it might normally be, you can still do your smartest smart casual and not make a misstep. You need to present yourself in a way that makes you feel confident and comfortable.
  4. Also, when you’re online with the client, do the same thing you might do in their office. Pay attention to their environment. Learn what you can about them that might help you create a richer connection. Find out how they like to live and work. Show some empathy and ask how they’re holding up, if this is a new way for them to work.
  5. Last of all, ask yourself how you need to meet, to best accomplish the goals of this interaction. Even though it is currently “flavour of the month”, do you need a video call at all? Just because everyone’s on a Hangout, a Zoom, or a Teams right now, doesn’t mean those are the right tool. Maybe just the sound of your voice is enough. Or an email. Or even an old-fashioned handwritten note. Marshall Mcluhan said that the medium is the message, and he was never more right than right now.

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m one of the Partners here at PANOPTIKA. We work with our clients to help them see everything they need to know to make better decisions. You can find us on Twitter, on Facebook, or on LinkedIn. We can meet you online, or hop on a call. And if you’d like more news you can use delivered straight to your inbox, sign up with the handy orange button.

Get Close to Customers…From a Distance

hands reaching out of monitors to make a transaction

Even as the great re-entry begins, we’re all realizing that the way we do business will have to change. Probably forever. So how do you create those close ties to customers that have been proven to result in greater lifetime customer value, more referrals, and less push, more pull marketing efforts? How can you get that close to customers, from a distance?

First, you need to really reach out and understand what’s happening with your customers now. All bets are off. Any assumptions you had in the pre-pandemic days are gone. You might actually be at an advantage if you’re starting a new business – you won’t have to dismantle any old habits. But let’s assume you’ve had good customer relationships thus far. I hope you’ve stayed in contact during the quarantine, distancing, and slowdowns that have occurred. Whether you’ve decided to stop, start, continue, or change your marketing tactics and relationship approach, you need to validate. That’s not so easy if you can’t see customers in person, or as often, as you used to. (Partner Steve Willson has some excellent tips in this video, though. We hope you’ll like, share, and subscribe to the whole series).

After you’ve got the lay of the land, there are four things you need to think about:

  1. Is there someone I can refer to those customers, to show them I’m putting them first?
  2. How can I give those customers what they want, or solve a problem for them, before I talk about me?
  3. How can I reward the ones who have already purchased during this crazy time we’ve been going through, even if their own businesses or incomes were suffering?
  4. Who is in their network who could become a customer, if I can encourage them to give me a referral?

Just this morning, I was discussing with a client of mine, what changes they want to make in their business, and that the time is now. When everything is shifting, there’s no better time to make the changes you’ve known need to be made. Keep thinking about your customer first while you do it. (If you want to dig deeper into customer service, we highly recommend reading Shep Hyken’s Cult of the Customer). If we didn’t have customers, we wouldn’t have businesses.

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m one of the Partners here at PANOPTIKA. We work with our clients to help them see everything they need to know to make better business decisions. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. And if you’d like to receive timely ideas and tips to help you find, understand, and engage customers, sign up for news you can use with the orange button.

The Best Time is Now


I didn’t get the blog written this week. I have a new client. In these pandemic times, that is fantastic news. And this client, well, like many businesses, they’re fighting for their lives. So I owed it to them to make sure they got some time from me. I also had commitments to a strategy planning session with my CCSBE Board. I also had work with our collaborators at Platinum Pivot. All this to say, if you miss your target and need to stage a recovery, the best time is now.

That wisdom has been around for a while. There’s an old Chinese proverb, often quoted, that says the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. Readers usually see a post from us on Thursday or Friday. Funny thing, though. We’re regular people, and once in a while, commitments just get in the way. We break promises even to ourselves. I bet that’s happened to you, as well. My friend, coach Debbie Adams, would tell you that when you’ve fallen off the wagon (your plan) you’ve got to chase that wagon!

We’ve all been going through unprecedented times. This week, conversations with clients, contacts, and colleagues have been taking on a different tone. They’re feeling a shift, like the frenzy of video calls is subsiding somewhat, and they’re getting work done. They’re looking at their businesses and making changes. They’re holding strategy sessions and planning for the future with a frisson of hope. These are good things. So if you’ve got something you’ve let slide, and it’s important to you, the best time is now. I just did it, reaching out to you.

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m one of the Partners here at PANOPTIKA. We work with our clients to help them see everything they need to know to make better decisions. If this was helpful to you, I hope you’ll share on social. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Or you can subscribe to our news, straight to your inbox, using the orange button, below.

Make Space for Positive Thinking

Sunrise from space

Happy #spaceday. If you know me, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of all things space. That’s not what I’m going to talk about today, though. I want to talk about the importance of positive thinking in tempestuous times.

Business people the world over have been encountering unprecedented levels of turmoil, upheaval, and disruption. With so much change, and so many challenges, it can feel overwhelming. It can lead to a negative attitude, pessimism, and cynicism. Covid-19 isn’t the only thing that’s infections. Negativity is, also.

We’re all entitled to our feelings, and it’s reasonable to let yourself experience a full range of emotions. However we can choose where we direct our focus. Like driving a car, where we focus is where we steer, and where we steer determines where we end up. The mind is like that, too. If we make space for positive thinking, it will soon snowball, leading to an overall improvement in our mental wellness, and in our work and home lives. So make time for some positive thinking today. Stick with it. Good things will happen in no time. Attitude is altitude!

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m a Partner and CEO here at PANOPTIKA. Our name means “see everything”, because we work with our clients to help them see everything they need to know to make better decisions for their careers and businesses. You can also find us on LinkedIn, on Twitter, on Facebook, or sign up for weekly insights using the orange button, below.

5 Productivity Hacks for Working from Home

Image by Tina Koehler from Pixabay

I’m going to start with the best hack of all. Go easy on your customers, employees, your kids. Most importantly, go easy on yourself. So yes, absolutely, it’s easy to fall into an unmotivated abyss. But the opposite doesn’t have to be climbing Mount Everest. Make a to-do list for the day and make sure you have things on there for work, for yourself, for family, and then for friends or community. Then slash it. Under each of those categories, ask yourself, “If I could only get one of these done today, which one is my must-do”? Focus on those, give them your best, and know that you’ve done enough. Don’t try and be the productivity Queen or King. 

Next, find an accountability partner. In your regular office, perhaps you had colleagues who would send cues like, “Hey, how’s the Perlmutter Project going?” , which would prompt you to think, “I’d better get on that!” Find a friend who needs the same nudge and agree to call each other once a day just to see if you’re on track for the one thing you’ve said is your most important thing.

Working from home might also feel like a good excuse to lounge around in your pj’s and work whenever you want. “Whenever you want” can easily can blur the lines between work time, and personal time and become all the time. Plenty of people are suffering from that now. It’s one thing to be comfortable, but the reason we dress up and show up at work should be for ourselves. When we feel confident, we sound confident. So if you’re making phone calls or connecting on video, dress for the way you want to show up. Not for the way you’re feeling right now. You’ll feel more productive, and you really will get more done. 

Plan ahead! If you’re sharing a small space, working around kids and school, phone calls, video calls, for more than one person can be a challenge. As much as possible, coordinate your calendar and practice time-shifting. Everyone has to give 100% on this, so the key is to be generous with your time, but greedy with your schedule. This will let you get things done without having the added apology time that close-quarters friction can cause.

And number five, try a modified Pomodoro. Let’s call it the “tomato sandwich”. Do a task you’re not thrilled about, but that must be done, and sandwich it with a thin layer of something you really want to get done for you. Wrote a draft of that report? Excellent. Treat yourself to a nice cup of tea. Finished your latest group video call? Read that interesting article you’ve been meaning to start. It might be Pavlovian, but it works!

I’m Megann Willson, and I’m one of the partners here at PANOPTIKA. We help our clients see everything they need to make better decisions for their businesses. You can find more ideas on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or click the button and subscribe for our Friday News You Can Use.