Systems-Level Thinking and Leadership for Our Times

Ponder long enough and you might recall hearing at a business conference or reading a blog post from a renowned futurist, author or social commentator some time ago that while things to come remained as always unpredictable, it was likely that the pace of change in our times would indeed accelerate.

Looking around at the ways our lives and work have been altered in the past 24 months alone, it is easy to acknowledge that transformational change has been the constant and human behavior the variable.

Global business executives with deep corporate experience, significant industry insight and functional expertise continue to be challenged by questions about topics they could never have imagined would be ushered to the boardroom or resurfaced for re-examination.

Issues ranging from pay equity and transparency to the role of the traditional office as the hub for business interaction between professional colleagues are now pulling at long-held business norms and challenging leaders to look at their organisations’ structures, people and processes as never before.

It may be that people are looking to you for answers, or perhaps for some signal of how you will face change and whether you will acknowledge it, let alone consider its implications for your team.

It is for a myriad of reasons – some of which are still unfolding – that global leaders would be wise to step back from the tumult and unanswered questions of the moment and consider the potential of systems level thinking as an anchor for effective management leadership.

Our organisations, and we, as individuals, are being called to check our values or consider whether our behaviors and institutions are holding employees together or pulling them apart if our professed values remain opaque or come across in reality as meaningless. 

So much of what we have known as “business as usual” has become unusual, or may have been viewed in the eyes of everyday employees as unfair or unreasonable for some time, and they have now been emboldened to call such issues to question.

As we pause to make sense of new challenges, and the pressures to resolve issues faster and in a way that may require more transparency than in the past, systems level thinking and big picture thinking can help us take stock and bring equilibrium in times of imbalance.

Just consider what this means for each of us, on an individual scale. One inescapable truth is that we do not ascend equally to a common level of achievement across our enterprises. Rather, we fall to the level of our systems.

Systems-level thinking can help turn visions and values into collective good.

System thinking requires a holistic, and particularly today, more inclusive process of analysing issues that face our teams and our customers. It increasingly relies on data as a source of input, but still requires the kind of judgment that can sort what's important for business growth and human engagement.

Yes, this is very much an exercise that should move executives to take several steps back and ask the questions that are most basic, in order to sort the challenges and opportunities that may be faced and fully realised if only we would utilise open minds and outstretched hands to see familiar things anew.

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