It may not be obvious to the members of a high performance team, but it’s quite possible — if not likely — that they approach their work as systems thinkers. In fact, their very success as a team may be because of their systems thinking approach. How can they engage in systems thinking without knowing it and how do the principles of systems thinking lead to their success as a team?

Teamwork is any dynamic process that emerges based on the interactions of individuals who are working toward a common goal. Team members bring their unique knowledge and expertise to the common endeavor that everyone is working on, and sometimes their knowledge is very specialized and diverse. But team members also bring individual behaviors, and it is largely their interactions with each other that determine the team’s performance.

High performance teams in particular almost always have certain attributes. The members have a shared goal, and are all aligned around that goal. They have defined roles and work processes for improvement. They know who is going to do what, and when, and how. They use feedback data to make data-driven decisions. They have leadership support or the ability to seek support as needed.

Most importantly, they recognize interdependencies among the team members, the team, and their organization. They accept that change is a given, and due to complexity and specifically what we call dynamic complexity, they know how to manage for that. There is a high level of collaboration and openness to new practices.

Similarly, systems thinkers see a situation and an environment as a web of interdependent relationships that are always changing, and they know that if they tweak something in one place in the system, it will have ripple effects elsewhere in the system.

If they try to improve performance in an area, among the steps they take before making any intervention is to go get data and talk to other people in other departments or functions, and ask themselves, ‘If we do this, what will the consequence be elsewhere?’ They learn about the consequences. They manage the web of interdependencies and relationships rather than trying to optimize any one part, and as a result, they gain insights about leverage points and unintended consequences that may be counterintuitive or seemingly unproductive for one part of the system. They then make the necessary interventions and continue to work toward their common goal.

Systems thinking is a discipline that focuses on how well a particular system is achieving its goals, and it helps people learn to make decisions and adjustments locally that align with system-wide performance requirements. In this way, it fits the description of a high performance team.

For teams that aren’t already performing at optimal levels, Friday Night at the ER is an ideal way to learn about and practice the core strategies of systems thinking. The tabletop simulation is a risk-free environment where teams can experience what happens when they share responsibility for performance beyond their own departments, remain open to new ideas, and use data for decision-making.

One team of senior leaders who played Friday Night at the ER as part of a recent study, for example, demonstrated significant gains in financial performance during the simulation as a result of applying three key principles of systems thinking — innovation, collaboration and data-driven decision making. Their experience, which is not uncommon, is detailed in the January 2021 issue of Healthcare Management Forum. See Applied systems thinking: The impact of system optimization strategies on financial and quality performance in a team-based simulation.

To learn more about the simulation and how teams can learn from it to improve their own performance, schedule a free demo today at

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