In this issue

Summer 2012/13: Leadership and Systems Thinking

From the Editor

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.’

Robert Pirsig (1974 p92)

In the quintessentially ‘70s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, author Robert Pirsig explains the power and resilience of social systems.

Systems, whether local or global, often challenge and confound leaders interested in bringing about lasting and positive social change. I was fist exposed to systems thinking while working as a young manager struggling to implement organisational change programs. I was fortunate to attend one of the first workshops Peter Senge conducted in Australia, following the launch of his ground-breaking leadership book The Fifth Discipline in 1990. Most people who heard Senge speak came out convinced that by embracing systems thinking we would be able to work our way out of problems that had previously seemed intractable. Later, my masters’ research investigated three successful leaders of change and found that a capacity for systems thinking and self reflection and an openness to learning explained a large part of their success.

When we understand systems we see the world differently, and are better able to address complex and dynamic problems. Big-picture systems such as national economies, health care systems, markets or political systems all have sub-systems, which themselves have interconnected component parts. We saw the stark reality of this when the ripple effects of the recent global economic crisis took hold around the world.

In essence, ‘systems thinking’ entails a consideration of the whole and its parts, and the complexity, paradox and interconnections within them. It also involves examining a situation from multiple perspectives, looking for long term as well as short-term effects and consequences, and recognising patterns, cycles and relationships.

Systems thinking is something that is being embraced in the education and health sectors, but not necessarily elsewhere. This is not surprising; when we are captured in our own paradigms we are usually unaware of their existence, at least until we try to communicate with someone with a different paradigm! Self-awareness, and the ability to reflect honestly on our actions and mental models, is crucial.

Adopting a systems mindset changes not only how we think about a problem in the first place, but what the solutions might look like. For leaders, this may mean letting go of the need to find quick, ‘definitive’ answers. In a complex, interconnected world it is simply unrealistic to expect heroic leaders to come up with solutions to problems and take organisations forward on their own.

Ron Heifetz, whose work was reviewed in Knowledge Connect No. 7, has long been telling us that ‘adaptive challenges’, of the type faced by the social sector, will never be overcome by traditional ‘authority’ approaches to leadership, which look for certainty and quick results.

It is only by seeking the collective input of stakeholders, and embracing distributed leadership – leadership across and throughout an organisation – that systems thinking can be operationalised. This point has been reinforced by writers such as Otto Scharmer (Theory U) and Deborah Ancona (The Incomplete Leader).

In this edition of Knowledge Connect, we consider some key ideas on leadership and systems thinking, ideas that have direct relevance to the social sector. Guest reviewer Mehreen Faruqi revisits one of the seminal concepts driving systems thinking, Rittel and Webber’s idea of ‘wicked problems’. This important idea has been around for some time now, but few people have taken the trouble to go back to the source, which Faruqi does for us.

Our other guest reviewer Hokyu Hwang, looks at Suarez’ study of the multiple career journeys of social sector leaders. Also reviewed is Donella Meadow’s much-loved Primer on systems thinking, Faruqi’s work on leadership, complexity and change, and John Sterman’s essay on systems thinking and policy resistance in the public health and welfare sectors. Finally, the RSA considers one of Donella Meadow’s challenges to ‘expand the boundary of caring’ in Matthew Taylor’s essay on 21st Century Enlightenment and its accompanying animation.

We leave the final word on leadership and systems thinking to Donella Meadows:

“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”

Dr Tracy Wilcox

Guest Editor, Knowledge Connect