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The historical link between systems thinking and leadership

Some people challenge the application of systems thinking (ST) to improving the leadership process. They consider this grand, unnecessarily complicating, or jargonistic. ‘Can’t we just call it holistic’, some say. Here is a response to that charge.

Background to systems thinking

Before coming onto leadership, here is the relevant background about ST. It is a loose meta-discipline like mathematics, comprising hundreds of sub-specialisms, methodologies, brands and tools. It is therefore suited to imaginative adaptation to a range of worthwhile applications. ST practitioners come from many backgrounds and ‘camps’, and the discipline’s flexibility shows up in their competing vigorously for their own version of the ‘truth’ while appropriating aspects of ST that help their cause, core business or brand.

The late W. Edwards Deming, still a powerful influence today and thought of by many as one of the father figures of ST, didn’t himself use the term until late in life when having spent time with Russell Ackoff, an unchallenged ST pioneer. Deming instead preferred to speak of ‘continuous improvement’. He came from the total quality movement after the second world war, having earlier worked in the US on productivity issues.

Before acquiring its relatively modern term, systems thinking’s origins did not lie in quality but in fields such as cybernetics, going back to the early 20th century. Some true systems thinkers still shun Deming because he was in the ‘wrong’ camp; others have climbed onto the modern bandwagon. The term ‘systems thinking’ gained popular and generic status in the 1970s. ST was considered especially useful for non-convergent issues, sometimes known as wicked or messy problems. Methodologies and language were increasingly corrupted and adapted, in part reflecting the shift towards a service economy. The approach received a boost from Peter Senge when he referred to ‘systems thinking’ as The Fifth Discipline (1990). Senge describes systems thinking as “a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing inter-relationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots”.

Systems thinking today can be thought of as spanning two main applications or aims. The first is efficiency. This was and is the main interest of the continuous improvement camp. It spawned the ‘lean’ movement. It is applied primarily in the field of production, originally manufacturing and its offshoots, and builds on the Toyota Production System, particularly the work of Taiichi Ohno. The ideas were imported from Japan to the USA by Deming, an American, who worked in Japan from 1950. Another key figure at this time was Walter A. Shewart, a statistician, who Deming collaborated with from 1938 and espoused and built on his ideas. A prime concern of the continuous improvement body is driving out unplanned and unwanted costly variation in repetitive operational systems. When using this method, the boundaries of the system for analysis purposes need to be tightly circumscribed (a ‘closed’ system) in a transactional environment.

The second area of interest is effectiveness. Here, ST is applied mainly in the field of human (soft) systems. It is often seen as a more strategic application, where innovation may be required. A prime concern is how best to respond to natural human variation, which is inherently expensive but is what individual members of the public expect, because (unlike cars on a production line awaiting parts) their needs and wants are unique and unpredictable. In this field, a definition of the boundary of the system can be more ‘open’ and take into account the influence of the socio-economic environment, but even this needs its boundary defining before the process can be properly analysed.

In the broad world of work, there are many overlapping areas of application affecting both efficiency and effectiveness and concerning both the plusses and minuses of variation. A prime example nowadays is call centre design. The danger comes when the two approaches are mixed thoughtlessly, and where efficiency dominates and produces unintended consequences that damage both efficiency and effectiveness. Shared service reorganisations often collapse because efficiency drives out the ability to absorb natural variation, which then pops up elsewhere as an unintended consequence, unexpectedly raising costs and rendering the new venture uneconomic, being more labour intensive and therefore more costly rather than less. This is one of the paradoxes of ‘economies of scale’, the harsh lessons of which are continually being relearned the hard way.

In some sectors the historical antecedents of ST have merged. The best-known model in the UK, and increasingly worldwide, is the Vanguard Method, originated by John Seddon. This method is applied to the service sector, for which the original systems thinking model was always more suited than the original quality model. Seddon himself pioneered the lean approach before abandoning it because it failed adequately to address variation. Seddon is an eclectic, pragmatic innovator; he has melded the best of both core models. He has incorporated into his ST model Deming’s continuous improvement model (as has Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (Senge, 1990), Deming’s 14 points and his System of Profound Knowledge. And Seddon has gone further than Deming himself did to position Deming as a father of ST as such (which he wasn’t, in the narrowly defined and original meaning of that term), but – confusingly – Deming’s methods were, of course, systemic.

The upshot today is that ‘systems thinking’ has become the portmanteau expression for most non-IT systems-based improvement work in organisations. Those who are active in applying ST in their formulae for improving, say, child protection services (a current application) often choose to use variants such as ‘whole systems’, ‘systems-based’, simply ‘systems’, ‘holistic’ and of course ‘systemic’.

Where does this leave the application of systems thinking to leadership (and ‘systemic leadership’)?

Leadership’s interest in ST – indeed whether leadership can itself be thought of as a system – is out on a limb, along with other more conceptual applications such as the political system. Leadership is not akin to a production line (hard or soft) which is concerned with matters of practical delivery and work flow – though flow concepts such as hand-offs, feedback loops and unintended consequences do arise when discussing leadership.

Business has an interest in improving leadership’s own effectiveness more than leadership’s own efficiency. Effectiveness matters in two directions: first reflecting inwardly on the way the leadership process works (such things as power and hierarchical structures); and secondly applying leadership outwardly to improve the way the system works to benefit the organisation and business.

In looking outwardly at what leadership is needed for and applied on, one of its applications can be to improve an organisation’s efficiency. That requires managers to understand the world of ST as applied to production and service systems. Similarly, improving leadership’s own process effectiveness can happen only if leadership is thought of and managed as a system.

Like Seddon, William Tate has been equally pragmatic, not being precious about precise definitions or loyal to the origins of systems thinking. Acting eclectically, he has extracted relevant principles from the broad ST field and seen how best to apply them to the challenge of improving the leadership process. To ST and its conceptual and terminological derivatives he has added complexity science and organisational dynamics such as consideration of the organisation’s shadow system. To move from systems understanding to systems action, the model depends on an adaptive use of OD (organisation development); that is, the application of OD methods to improving leadership, rather than the direct development of the organisation. The result is the hybrid systemic leadership model.

But what is a system?

In its normal field of application (outside of leadership) a system is often thought of as an organisational form or design whereby the component parts need to integrate for the whole to work effectively (hence concerns with such things as flow, and with economies of scale – or rather, the risks inherent therein). In the context of liberating leadership, Tate thinks of the system as comprising all those things that surround managers (around and between them) that they sometimes blame as ‘the system’. These component parts include rules, conventions, cultural facets, such as how power is exercised, relationships, authority and sign-off levels, hierarchical structure, policies, procedures, incentives and rewards, gaps and spaces, accountability, performance management procedures, etc., all of which need to work in an integrated way if high-quality leadership as a whole is to be released and delivered effectively. In turn, these elements call for the application of leadership that is systems-aware. Interestingly, some of these ‘levers’ are mirrored in Meadows’ leverage points – places to intervene in a system, such as information, rules, incentives, self-organisation, goals, structure and paradigms (Meadows, 2009).

Some of the core principles of systems thinking inter alia that Tate has called upon in his own work on leadership and used in The Search for Leadership: An Organisational Perspective, include the following:-

  • Concentrate on the whole, and the interconnections between the parts.
  • Explain things in terms of the system’s overall purpose.
  • Focus on the system’s purpose ahead of its processes and procedures.
  • Look out for things (synthesis) more than look into things (analysis).
  • Put seeing what is actually happening ahead of what needs to happen.
  • Check what is going on in the organisation by personal examination.
  • Don’t let short-term pressures get in the way of understanding the system.
  • Build and make use of feedback loops.
  • Understand complex dynamics through patterns and feedback loops rather than cause-effect links.
  • Facilitate and value emergence.
  • Be pulled by what the customer wants; hear the customer voice.
  • Understand demand and respond to it (avoid provider-supply dominance)
  • Make continuous improvement the goal.
  • Encourage self-adaptation.
  • Consider all the players and actors, of which the organisation is one.
  • Be aware of natural oscillations.
  • Don’t isolate strategy makers/making from the front line.
  • Stimulate and seek organisational learning.
  • Embrace the edge of chaos.
  • Make the most of uncertainty.
  • Recognise the system as a source of waste.

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