Developing a Systems Thinking Lens for Collective Leadership

Resource type
Developing a Systems Thinking Lens for Collective Leadership
Systems thinking approaches are gaining traction as an effective way of understanding and working with increasing complexity. They are being put forward by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development as well as the World Health Organisation as a way to tackle the complex and unpredictable environments we now operate in. As the world has become increasingly interconnected, national or local boundaries cannot isolate and control social problems. The climate emergency, war and political instability have become everyday realities that accompany an ever-widening gap between those who have and control resources, and those who do not have enough to meet basic needs. The usual responses are becoming more and more ineffective; all interventions have unseen consequences or emergent properties that cannot be predicted using an inputoutput outcomes model. Designing interventions therefore requires a fresh lens to manage our way through turbulence and uncertainty. Most complex situations benefit from a complementary mix of a systematic (linear) decisive intervention as much as a systemic (whole-view) understanding of a proposed intervention. In this sense, adopting a systems thinking approach requires both framing the situation using a systems lens, as well as a commitment to take action and learn forward in realtime. When utilised in this way, a systems thinking lens complements rather than replaces traditional management tools. It draws on well-tested concepts and tools and relies on the systems leader to develop their practice, which includes the art of knowing what is needed and when. It is about threading traditional planning methods together with an understanding of the interrelationships, multiple perspectives and boundary judgements that influence the framing of a situation. It is becoming increasingly clear that effective leadership is embedded and invested: objective management science has no place in a world bound by interconnectedness and unintended consequences. Leaders are, as we shall see, an inherent part of both the problem and the proposed intervention. The purpose of this paper is to share some concepts informed by systems thinking to support you, as leaders in your organisations, to bring a systems-informed lens to your work. It puts you as a practitioner-leader at the centre of your own practice and encourages you to reflect critically on your positionality, as well as the lens you use to understand and intervene in complex issues. This paper has been developed on foot of training piloted with public service leaders in Scotland in the summer of 2022, and acts as an introduction to developing your systems literacy skills. While we are all born with a systems sensibility, many of us lose that sense of connectedness and interdependence with the world as we grow up. This paper acts as a prompt to bring a complexity informed approach to your work practice. It also contains some pointers for further resources and tools that may support your learning.
Collective Leadership for Scotland
Library Catalogue
O’Donnell, J. (2023). Developing a Systems Thinking Lens for Collective Leadership. Collective Leadership for Scotland.