Systems thinking - is it the key to agile organisations?

Leadership Blog  |  5 minute read

Justin Temblett-Wood

Written by Justin Temblett-Wood

Systems thinking - is it the key to agile organisations?

At a time when leaders are looking to make their organisations more agile, many are beginning to consider whether systems thinking holds the answer.


Trying to be agile without effective systems thinking is a little like trying to navigate a mountain range using a map that has no contour lines. It becomes very difficult to get a clear view of your context - and you can imagine yourself to be approaching a summit while in reality you’re still stuck in a ravine. 


Systems thinking makes sense of your environment: the ecosystem of your organisation within the ecosystem of your industry, which is in turn affected by the moving parts of a global context. When you become an effective systems thinker, new paths present themselves because you can see the landscape you are a part of.


Why we miss the macro

If you’re a scientist at a pharmaceutical company, your career is distinguished by examining details. You’re promoted because of your proficiency with the microscopic, even the atomic. But once you become part of the company’s leadership, your attention needs to be on the macro, which can feel like whiplash if you haven’t been prepared for it. 


Just as delivering medical breakthroughs doesn’t predispose you to understand the pharmaceutical industry as a whole, so many technical, even business roles do not set you up to see from a systems perspective. 


Many corporates anatomise what makes a good leader into segments like negotiation, presentation or management skills. Some are applauded for their charisma, others are promoted for their technical skills or productivity. But it’s possible for them to achieve all this without learning to be present to their team, let alone to be present to their wider organisation, industry and global context. 


The mark of a great leader

A great leader is much more than the sum of their parts. But one of those parts is the ability to tune into the whole. To understand the interconnected system of which they are a part. And when it comes to making agile decisions that could make or break a company, systems thinking is far more important than the ability to give a good speech. 


These leaders understand that cause and effect isn’t always immediately obvious. That when you put X in you don’t necessarily get Y out the other side. Instead they see the circular nature of actions, responses and reactions and feel less pressure to solve problems in a best-practice, by-the-book fashion. Which in turn enables them to access creative thinking in a time of crisis.


Because they see cause and effect on a grander scale, they don’t need to line up their ducks in a row. They know that great teams and collaboration is the work of emergence rather than formation, so they’re better able to ride out the rough to get to the smooth. And when something isn’t working, they understand it’s better to interrogate the issue rather than rush to fix it.


Our context is everything

If we try to comprehend the whole but aren’t honest enough to let it disturb our own frame of reference, we will still be left with tunnel vision. We might have an idea of how the land lies, but we don’t understand how to locate ourselves in it. So sometimes we need someone outside our organisation to play the role of a ‘you are here’ sign.


When we become aware of our context, we are no longer held captive to it in the same way. We understand that we have a frame of reference, a bias, a way of thinking and a way we believe things should be. Most importantly, we realise that this is not the only way - so we listen to those who think differently. 


Context is decisive. If we don’t choose to invite other perspectives into our decisions, our contexts will make our decisions for us. 


How to challenge the way things should be 

When we relax our view of the way things should be, paradoxically, it can increase our ability to change the way things are. 


There’s a standard way to roll out a vaccine and it involves years of clinical trials. This was the case for so long that it set an expectation, which, if pushed against, would result in accusations of unethical practice. So for a long time, the priorities for pharmaceutical companies in a vaccine rollout were compliance and process.


Now, because they have been present to the world’s need, pharmaceutical companies have broken with standard procedure to deliver an answer people need. 


In the same way, if we are present to the needs of our organisation, of our industry and the world, it demands that we interrogate our norms. Our response to crisis and change becomes more agile because our processes aren’t front of mind, the wider system is.

Systems thinking, when seasoned with honesty and an appetite for breakthrough, enables us to push against the status quo and seize opportunity in an unpredictable climate. Check out how we help organisation leave siloed thinking behind or get in touch to explore how we can help you ignite your ambitions.



Published 10/03/2021

Subscribe by Email

Achieve more breakthroughs. Get expert leadership ideas, insights and advice straight to your inbox every Saturday, as well as the occasional bit of news on us, such as offers and invitations to participate in things like events, webinars and surveys. Read. Lead. Breakthrough.