ICS Magazine

The Entrepreneur As Systems Thinker: Getting Down to Basics

November 20, 2007

There is a unique quality that makes world-class entrepreneurs different than simply owners of businesses. They are Systems Thinkers. Systems Thinking is holistic thinking. It puts the pragmatic and the idealistic, the ends and the means, the process and the methods and the people and the tools and the results and the metrics of all of it under one glass, under one vision, under one perspective, under one entire scan of interest, to make sense out of fragments that by themselves make sense, but only to a limited degree.

Systems Thinkers see things in context with other things – contingent and non-contingent things – intuitively, in a leap that seems to makes no sense on the face of it, but which, when you understand what drives that intuition, that seemingly fanciful leap, that putting together of sometimes unseen and unanticipated pieces, makes absolute, brilliant and wonderful miraculous sense.

A mouthful? Yes, but only at first glance.

A very successful man once said to me, “Michael, no matter how successful I have been, I could only be so one step at a time, by doing one thing, and then doing another thing, and then another, step one, step two, step three. While you, on the other hand,” he said, his passion for the subject obviously building up, “You seem to jump immediately to the end without seeming to take any of the steps which are so necessary to me. Frankly, you drive me crazy! What is it that makes it possible for you to do that?”

I laughed at his obvious frustration, not unkindly but because I knew what he was saying to be true. But my seeming “genius” for seeing the un-seeable so clearly was really only a result of my passionate interest in seeing that way. I felt strongly that the only way he could develop that part of himself (if he really wanted to, that is) was to become as passionately interested in doing so as I was, while at the same time giving up his intense need, for a time at least, to being so damned successful at everything he did. In short, he had to nurture the part of himself which wanted to create something for no reason whatsoever other than because it interested him, as opposed to because it furthered his interest. That’s what the entrepreneur in us does, as opposed to the technician; the entrepreneur invents stuff, the technician does stuff. To paraphrase, too much doing makes Jack a dull boy. But there’s more to it than just that.

The entrepreneur sees things telescopically; the technician sees things microscopically. Both are necessary, of course, but each view of the world provides a completely different relationship with the world.

The Microscopic and the Telescopic
Think about it for a moment. Look through a microscope. What do you see? You see a microscopic universe. You drill down, deeper and deeper into the smallest of things, into things as they are exactly right now. You look into space, the space that makes up things. Now, look through a telescope. What do you see? You see a universe, expanding into the past and the present. You see worlds within worlds within worlds. You’re looking both at the present and at the past; you’re looking at both space and time.

Interestingly, the vast expanse of space and time can easily look like what you see through a microscope. Isn’t that amazing? It’s just that the telescopic is so much more expansive than the microscopic.

The entrepreneur is so much more expansive than the technician. The entrepreneur looks at the future, the present and the past all as one thing. That is what systems thinking enables one to do. As below, so above. Worlds within worlds within worlds. The magic of it, the unimaginable magic of it; that’s what happens when you look into a telescope. Of course, that’s what happens when you look into a microscope, too. But, it’s the context of all that which is so fascinating. It’s the whole of it that’s so intriguing. It’s what Amazon.com, or Visa, or Starbucks, or Wal-Mart or Google must have looked like at the moment of vision, at the moment of inspiration, at the moment of seeing the biggest of things.

A system is a set of things, actions, ideas and information that interact with each other, and in so doing, alter other systems. In short, everything is a system. Ultimately, the systems you set into place will perform their duties, and free you to do the things you want to do.