An Open Letter: Thinking Systemically and Acting Systematically

Entry 09 Apr 5, 2021 02 min read

Lately I’ve been taking a closer look at building scalable systems within teams. I’ve found the systemic vs. systematic framework useful in that regard, so I thought I’d publish a (slightly modified) message I recently sent to my own team to help frame future discussions.

Thinking Systemically and Acting Systematically

Our team occupies a unique space within the company as it interfaces directly and frequently with outside stakeholders in Marketing, Data, and more. However, we currently find ourselves in a challenging position without dedicated Product Managers who are typically responsible for this stakeholder engagement. Therefore, while thinking systemically and acting systematically are important skills in themselves, they are particularly urgent, important, and necessary now.

First, some definitions: systemic typically relates to an entire system (i.e. “the whole thing”), whereas systematic typically relates to methodically following a more specific process or plan. For example, coming up with a design review process to ensure a cohesive brand identity may involve thinking systemically, while actually following every step of the agreed-upon design review process would be more representative of acting systematically.

As a team, we need to do both. When it comes to thinking systemically, we’ve already identified opportunities for cross-functional coordination and sharing broader goals across the organization. We should continue to identify these areas of improvement and communicate them diplomatically but widely, presenting specific action items to lower barriers to improvement. We should look for other opportunities to improve the entire system, whether it be how issues are surfaced and resolved to how larger projects are managed.

We have more control over acting systematically as this relates more closely to our day-to-day work. Acting systematically requires both identifying and following a process. For example, acting systematically when it comes to design PR reviews would first involve identifying which PRs are appropriate for design review in GitHub — and which are best reserved for a different review process. For PRs that go through design review in GitHub, we should ensure that we reliably follow a consistent checklist, paying special attention to the seemingly smaller details such as including a Deploy Preview link in the PR Description — and even ensuring that the URL appears in the same place with the same text across all PRs.

The systematic is often closely intertwined with the systemic. For example, you may be tempted to field stakeholder requests sent to you via DMs, perhaps because the ask itself is easy or within your domain. However, you should pause and consider the precedent this might set — both for yourself and others. Could this signal to stakeholders that DM’ing individual engineers is how things get done? Is the request one-off or recurring? If recurring, are you comfortable fielding such requests indefinitely? Are you comfortable with stakeholders DM’ing your fellow engineers indefinitely? What systemic consequences could this systematic approach have in the long-term?1

I can certainly start some of the initial work to facilitate systematic work (e.g., re-writing our PR Description placeholder in GitHub), but thinking systemically and acting systematically are longer-term goals that will require everyone’s efforts and contributions. In other words, I will not be able to do this on my own. I need your help — not only in the form of feedback or surfacing issues, but stepping up and taking action so we can tackle this challenge as an entire team.

  1. I’ve found that communicating in public (i.e. in public Slack channels) as opposed to private channels or DMs goes a long way in improving situational awareness and alignment across teams.
Absurd is the new normal