How systems thinking enhances systems leadership
April 13, 2021
By Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley
Systems leadership involves organisations, including governments, collaborating to address complex issues and achieve necessary systemic transformations. So, if this is the case, how can systems leadership be helped by systems thinking?
Systems leadership is concerned with facilitating innovation by bringing together a network of organisations. These then collaborate between themselves and with other stakeholders to deliver some kind of service, influence a policy outcome or develop a product that couldn’t have been achieved by any one of the organisations working alone.
Recognising that a network of organisations can achieve something that emerges from their interactions involves a certain amount of implicit systems thinking. After all, the classic definition of a ‘system’ is an identifiable collection of two or more parts that has properties, or achieves outcomes, that can only be attributed to all of the parts interacting, not any one of the parts in isolation. These properties or outcomes may be intended (eg., a service, policy or product), unintended (eg., contributing to climate change), or both.
However, systems thinking, when pursued explicitly, involves much more than just recognising that a network of collaborating organisations is a system. It helps leaders review a wide range of opportunities for change by encouraging them to question the existing system – the boundaries of it, different perspectives on it, the relationships within it (and between it and its wider environment) and how the parts cohere into a system with particular emergent properties, achievements or impacts. Any or all of these forms of questioning could be relevant to addressing a complex issue and achieving a transformation.
Through systems thinking, leaders can generate deeper insights, guard against unintended consequences and co-ordinate action more effectively. Various systems thinking approaches exist. They can help guide (but should not dictate) processes of deliberation to improve complex problematic situations and develop more desirable futures.
Although each individual systems thinking approach has its own strengths and weaknesses, the true power of systems thinking comes from exploring the unique context at hand and designing a bespoke programme that draws on the best of many approaches. Principles and methods may be borrowed from one or more of the available approaches and creatively combined. Some of these are discussed below.