Thought Leadership Studio Podcast Episodes:

Systems Thinking in Marketing

Episode 64 - Find Leverage Points for Marketing Breakthrough from Systems Learning and Strategic Thought Leadership


#coaching, #consulting, #marketing, #marketingstrategy, #marketlistening, #marketresearch, #strategicthoughtleadership, #systemsthinking, #thoughtleadership

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What this episode will do for you

  • Unravel Systems Thinking: Delve into the essentials of systems thinking in marketing and discover how this approach can revolutionize your marketing strategies.
  • Interconnect Marketing Elements: Explore how viewing marketing elements as interconnected parts of a larger system leads to more effective and sustainable campaigns.
  • Learn Systemic Tools and Techniques: Learn about key tools like causal loop diagrams and how they can unveil deeper insights into marketing dynamics.
  • Go Beyond Traditional Marketing: Understand why moving beyond a reductionist approach in marketing can lead to more innovative and impactful outcomes.
  • Strategic Thought Leadership: Discover how systems thinking elevates your approach to marketing, turning it into a form of strategic thought leadership.
  • Questioning Prevalent Mental Models: Learn how challenging conventional mental models in marketing can provide a strategic advantage.

Applying Systems Thinking for Marketing Breakthroughs.

Welcome back to Thought Leadership Studio and, in this case, to our insightful journey into Systems Thinking in Marketing. I'm Chris McNeil, Strategic Thought Leadership Coach and Consultant, creator of the THAUT Process of Strategic Thought Leadership, and your guide through this transformative approach.

In today's episode, we're going to explore how Systems Thinking can reshape your marketing world.

Traditional marketing often isolates strategies and goals ... all the various components are considered separate, in isolation. But with Systems Thinking, we view marketing as an interconnected ecosystem. This shift from a reductionist to a systemic view allows us to understand how these elements work together under a unifying purpose, such as audience empowerment and customer experience. Join me as we unravel the power of Systems Thinking in creating impactful marketing strategies and fostering strategic thought leadership.

Some Systems Thinking Resources:

Curated Transcript of Episode 64

The following partial transcript is lightly edited for clarity - the full interview is on audio. Click here to listen.

After one of my books appeared and the student came in, he said, professor, I just read your new book. He says, it's very good. It contains a lot more than you know. That's true. So I'm going on freewheeling. I'm going to pick and choose from some of the things I said yesterday. Perhaps the most insulting part to use today, my remarks have two foundations, two ideas out of which they spring.

So let me deal with those first. The first is the concept of systems and what systems thinking implies. A system as a whole that contains two or more parts, each of which can affect the properties or behavior of the whole. For example, you are a system and biological system called an organism, and you have parts like your heart, stomach, lungs, pancreas, and so on, each of which can affect your properties and your behavior.

The second requirement of the parts of the system is that none of them has an independent effect on the whole, how any part affects the whole depends on what other parts are doing. So the way your heart affects you depends on the behavior of the lungs, the brain, and so on. The parts are all interconnected.

Between any two parts of a system, there's a director and indirect path. And finally, if you group the parts of a system and the subgroups, no matter how you subgroup them, each subgroup will have an effect on the properties and the behavior of the whole. And none will have an independent effect. And therefore you can summarize those three characteristics of a system into a simple statement. A system as a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts. Now this has a number of consequences which are not apparent, but are incredibly important.

The first is the essential properties of any system derive out of how its parts interact, not on how they act, taken separately. And therefore the defining properties of any system are properties of the whole, which none of its parts have. For example, an automobile is a mechanical system and its essential property is its ability to carry you from one place to another.

But no part of it can do that. There's no part of an automobile. It's motor, it's body, it's seats that can carry you from one place to another. It's only the automobile taken as a whole. Your essential property is life. There's no part of you which separately lives. Life is a property of the whole, and therefore when the hull is disassembled, it loses its essential properties. And so do all of its parts.

- Russell Ackoff Systems Thinking Speech

What is Systems Thinking and What is a "System"?

Let's start with the question "What is a system?" so eloquently answered by Mr. Ackoff. A system is a number of components that work together to serve a system purpose. And if you remove any of the components, it's no longer the same system. So, as he mentioned, a car is a system that has the purpose of taking you from point A to point B. If you remove the tires, it can't serve that system purpose. A pile of dirt, on the other hand, is not a system because if you remove a shovel full of dirt, it hasn't changed its essential qualities.

What is Systems Thinking?And in terms of systems thinking, it might help define it by contrasting it with its opposite counterpart, reductionist thinking. Reductionist thinking would take the car apart and look at the tires in the engine and the seats and the driver and the suspension separately and hone in on one particular area to try to make it better.

And this reductionist thinking does have usefulness in certain situations, but in other situations only by taking the systems view and instead paying more attention to the dynamics of how these parts work together to serve a greater system purpose by working together and address the dynamics of systems by learning how to impact the performance of a system as a system can we solve problems that reductionist thinking can't even get close to.

In terms of marketing, it is the difference between feeling like you're pushing against a wall when you're optimizing various components, but sales aren't going up or even in the decline because the system's pushing back against you and, alternately, finding that leverage point, that place where just a little touch, it creates a breakthrough in performance. That's the beauty, the silver bullet of systems thinking, finding leverage points to impact the performance of the system.

That's especially true in systems that are resistant to change with reductionist methods, and I would certainly put marketing systems in that category.

Arouse Curiosity for Further Exploration.

So what I hope you get from this podcast episode is motivation and encouragement to start looking at your marketing as a whole system and to use some of the tools of systems thinking to study it as a system, to study its system dynamics and to start to play with some leverage points with system interventions designed to improve system performance.

Systems Thinkin CuriosityThis isn't the kind of topic that you can really gain full understanding of by hearing about it on a podcast or reading a book about it. You've really got to practice it. It's like reading a brochure about a motorcycle contrasted with the very different experience from having the wind tugging against your jacket, the smell of burnt oil, the shriek of the high-revving engine and the feel of the tires barely hanging on as you lean into a curve.

Similarly, only by really applying these tools firsthand to an actual system can you really get the full benefit of it.

The purpose here is to give you some ideas, some tools, and to encourage you to start putting them into practice and hopefully also encourage you to suspend your current mental models about marketing to create what systems thinkers call a double loop learning environment, where your normal modes of thinking, your normal mindset about marketing - your belief systems, about what it is and what it's supposed to accomplish, are just held in check and suspended just long enough to be open to other patterns that can help you get more success... other patterns studying your marketing as whole system can reveal.

This episode isn't about teaching someone who has absolutely no knowledge of Systems Thinking how it works. For that, I would point you towards Donella Meadow's great book Thinking in Systems, or the many videos on YouTube of Russ Ackoff speaking on systems thinking.

But if you aren't already familiar with systems thinking, if you aren't already practicing systems thinking, I hope what this podcast would do for you is show you the power of thinking of systems for creating marketing success and breakthroughs and set you off on your own road to discovery- both in understanding Systems Thinking and in applying it to your own marketing and influence.

I hope it will lead you to question the reductionist approach to marketing, which is all too common and maybe question your own mental models about marketing in a way that leads you to see the possibility for different mental models that breakthroughs can come from.

I will share that in applying systems thinking to marketing myself, it certainly limits the customer base because there are many leaders who want to hire for help in marketing within the frame of their mental models of what marketing is. And at the same time, system thinking can reveal the prevalence of dysfunctional mental models in marketing. And to me that's a wonderful opportunity from the point of view of an individual or organization wanting to market in a way that gives great strategic advantage.

When you are surrounded by competition marketing with reductionist thinking, using Systems Thinking gives great strategic advantage.

But I would have to warn the listener that when you start seeing things in systems, when it starts to reveal opportunities for breakthroughs, others around you who don't see things in systems are likely to object.

Often these breakthroughs are counter-intuitive to conventional thinkers.

You have to be willing to follow your own star in spite of a chorus of dissenting voices. But when you see the truth revealed by a system's view, you can no longer unsee it. It's there whether or not the world agrees with you or not, and utilizing it can take you over the top.

Also realize that I'm not asking for your belief. All I'm asking for is your curiosity and your willingness to explore alternate points of view, your willingness to suspend your belief systems about what marketing is, what it's for, what it can do long enough to be able to consider alternate points of view that can perhaps help you create dramatic and powerful increases in audience size, audience engagement, leads and sales - perhaps without even aiming directly for them.

Because one leverage point in taking the system's view is realizing that the system of our media doesn't perform very well when the system purpose is to target a prospect, but it can perform very well when the system goal is to serve the prospect. Serving the prospect with media means to have empathy for what's important to them and to lead them to alternate points of view about your product or service category that can help them get more of what's important to them, perhaps without even being attached as to whether that is best served by your own product or service. Although by having a relationship of service with the prospect, they're much more likely to have the trust that makes them want do business with you, even if your product or service is a commodity with no other difference.

But it's all the better when you have distinctive advantages. Then working on the system with Strategic Thought Leadership - which is what the systems thinking view has led me to - can inform how to best help your audience get more value out of the product or service, make a smarter buying decision, or perhaps even elevate its use to something new and better.

Taking the customer point of view in designing marketing media comes from acknowledging that our prospects and our audience members are autonomous beings with their own goals and their own motives. They're not mindless components of a system like parts of a machine that where the machine might have a system purpose goal, but the individual parts don't. This is a distinction in types of systems that was clearly illuminated by Russell Ackoff, a great systems thinker you can learn much about on YouTube.

The Why and How of Systems Thinking in Marketing

So the question might be how to implement systems thinking in marketing. One way to not do that is to hire a marketing agency to work within the mental models of the leadership. When an agency is perceived as down the hierarchy and the mental model of marketing of the leadership is that marketing is a division, separate and distinct from the rest of the business. And keep in mind management guru and systems thinker Peters Drucker's observation that marketing is not a division, but how a business looks from the outside.

Multiple Perspectives and Systems Thinking in MarketingSystems thinking is about being released from the constraints of prevalent mental models. That's what is called double loop learning. Single loop learning is when you learn to improve performance within a model. For example, a salesperson improving closing ratio of a prospect to a customer during a specific kind of sales presentation. Getting better at that would be single loop learning. Double loop learning would bring the level of mental models, assumptions, belief systems and values into the learning loop. So that feedback would inform not only improvement within a model, but it would inform the model itself.

And it would also question the system goals. For example, when the goal is to sell someone to increase sales, the experience of the prospect is very different from when the goal is to empower a prospect to make a more conscious decision about purchasing resources to better fulfill important higher values, and thereby lead an enriched life.

That's why multiple perspectives is very important to this process. Being able to fully immerse in the role of the audience member, and fully immerse in the role of the prospect, as well as step back to the observer position and see the interaction while being clean of the feelings of either side in particular, these multiple perspectives bring in more information with which to better optimize the system.

So in this case, the double loop learning stance might questions the need for that type of closing meeting with those types of objectives at all, and perhaps question the premise behind the whole system and ask if it would be better to operate from a model designed to achieve the purpose of empowering prospects rather than one designed to target prospects.

Again, we refer back to Russell Ackoff, in this case his observation of the distinction between systems in which the members are autonomous with goals of their own or simply cogs in the machine.

Do you see your prospects as cogs in the machine or as autonomous entities to serve? Which view does big data, which tracks people to predict their next purchase based on past behavior, encourage?

But about the alternative view of strategic thought leadership, where it's a co-creation of a better future with a prospect that couldn't have been as easily predicted because it's creative rather than repetitive? And by being creative, it is further life enriching for all involved.

Getting a Fast Experience of Success in Systems Optimized Marketing

Another aspect of dealing with systems is understanding the perceptual distortions that come from time delays. Building an online learning complex that serves the audience member rather than targeting them takes time to come to maturity. Yet the evidence points to this being a much more efficient and effective way of marketing.

When you look at HubSpot studies that show that inbound leads that come to you of their own volition through your content cost about a third of what outbound leads obtained through targeting cost. So that's a pretty good return on investment of a 300% increase in leads per dollar spent for simply having the patience.

Yet I know that engaging in marketing programs also requires a sense of a fast experience of success, and that's addressed in some search engine optimization circles by doing some paid search placement as the organic search placement takes its time.

In doing systems thinking marketing interventions with strategic thought leadership, which the systems view has revealed as the best way to market, can bring a fast experience of success also by looking at the current customer acquisition systems already at play and rather than deciding how to obtain customers with conjecture around the table in the boardroom, we study where the actual customers have come from, then map that as a system and look to repeat, enhance what's already working as well as optimizing the system in new directions.

By looking at all the steps of engagment and optimizating conversion stages while the system's view is starting to take hold, we're operating with a healthier system as well.

My experience has been you can generate some very fast breakthroughs by reframing the sales experience as one of creating a buying environment, full of rapport and trust, because you actually have the prospect's best interest at heart and you fully and completely recognize the prospects' role in the system as autonomous with their own goals.

The Best of Internet Philosophy

So in considering improving marketing as a system from the customer, client, or audience member's point of view, you should consider a best of internet philosophy - with the internet including artificial intelligence - for what I call the learning pull that you are aiming to satisfy.

Learning pull is the demand for empowerment your prospects look for online and with AI ahead of making a purchase decision. What's the best the internet can already do, and how can you improve the Internet's response to that particular pull or demand for learning or empowerment?

Fast Experience of Success with Systems Thinking in MarketingImproving the whole Internet's response seems like a very tall order until you realize the narrowness of the very specific demand or pull that you are aiming to satisfy. Of course, that requires being aware of the pull on the internet that you can do a better job of for pre-purchase empowerment.

The challenge here is this demand for pre-purchase empowerment, where people are using the internet to make a smarter buying decision or learn how to get more out of a product or service category, or how to satisfy, satisfied a value that may not even yet be connected to this product and service category, or expressing a less than fully functional mental model that could be improved upon for getting more fulfillment of a higher value that could be connected to this product service category.

The challenge is this is off the radar of the typical business leader because people are doing this kind of research in coming to a certain mental stage of readiness before they reach out to an organization directly.

When people reach out to an organization directly, it's just at that point that an organization becomes aware of what they're going for, but this may have to evolve over time and multiple sessions of learning over the internet to come to a state of readiness for engagement to satisfy this purchase pull was the pre-contact learning and how do we gather information for that?

A couple of places are conversations online where people speak openly about a product or service like Reddit, or in the comments section of a polarizing blog. Blogs that polarize people are extremely helpful because people generally will be very direct about sharing their mental models and their values when they feel they are being stepped on. So when we become conscious of unmet higher values and prevalent mental models, when we satisfy demand for learning in our category...

If we can begin to study how well the internet responds to this and begin to build a model, an online learning complex that is the best of the internet in this specific category, the best of the internet in terms of empowerment by leading the way, we getting more higher values satisfaction with a fresh mental model that is more empowering than the prevalent mental models.

Another aspect of the whole system's view is looking at the whole of your media and business interactions together and how well this whole satisfies these higher values and how well it does as the system. What gets in the way of that?

What mental models get in the way of that?

And this is quite different from how traditional marketing is handled, where an agency is hired by a business leader or a team of leaders and expected to create marketing within the constraints of the mental models of these leaders of what marketing is.

With the transparency the internet provides with the concepts of the "visible expert" and Strategic Thought Leadership both including accessibility to the individuals behind business models .. These experts in these organizations that would hide behind logos or behind layers of a hierarchy and try to delegate down that hierarchy to get marketing done. .. It's going to distort the system. It's going to smear the impact of the empowerment they have to offer an audience only an integrator approach

That includes helping them package their knowledge to best empower an audience is going to work, hence the nomenclature online learning complex.

Why Coaching and Consulting as Opposed to an Agency

In the fifth discipline, Peter Senge recognized the need to work on systems as comrades. This is because information doesn't flow up and down a hierarchy and understanding this helps reveal the need for marketing interventions on a systems level being done more from a coach and or consultant role, rather than an agency role that might be perceived as down the hierarchy.

It has to be a relationship of equals so the information flows. It has to be an environment of double loop learning, where the game rules include mutual discovery, mutual learning, and holding up mental models, not as sacred cows, but to be questioned and put on the shelf, adjacent to perhaps better mental models that can lead to breakthroughs.

Breakthroughs happen when paradigms shift. Breakthroughs happen when mental models are questioned.


The transcript is lightly edited for clarity and is a partial transcript- the full interview is on audio. Click here to listen.


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Written by Chris McNeil, Strategic Thought Leadership NLP Coach and Consultant, Founder of Thaut, host of Thought Leadership Studio podcast, and Creator of the Thaut Process of Strategic Thought Leadership.

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