Leadership Distinction #39: Systems
From a rather personal perspective, two significant things occurred in 1956. For one thing, MIT Professor Jay Forrester developed a holistic approach to aiding our observation of complex processes, which today we refer to as Systems thinking – one of the most helpful tools an organization leader may apply to the task of engineering intended change. The second thing is that I came into being, making it possible that I could one day correspond with you about the powerful role Systems plays in leading.
Although we traditionally use the word Systems for technical objects in which the elements work interdependently as part of a process of doing some purposeful work, Systems applies as much to people operating as elements of a work network, also with an intended purpose or outcome. This is the domain of organizations and those who lead them. Because to guide an organization we need to learn to see it as a whole system.
The behavior of technical or people-based Systems over time, is ultimately a function of the relationship between the elements that comprise them. In your organization do people know how they relate to each other element with whom they interact within the system? One way to uncover this is to observe – with listening as much as seeing — the feedback the System is generating. System feedback loops reveal either a reinforcing of what’s already happening, a growth influence, or, a balancing – which serves as a check against growth. When our strategies fail to pan out this is where we’d best be examining.
Peter Senge’s The 5th Discipline, The Art & Practice of a Learning Organization propelled and widened the Systems work of Forrester and others by expanding upon the methods with which to interpret the complexity that increasingly confounds people at the top of organizations. I can’t recommend it highly enough for your leadership toolkit.
The resources you manage to deliver change operate within Systems – complex Systems made up of adaptive learning elements – otherwise known as people. These people speak, and in effect, the Systems of which they are a part, also speak, through feedback loops. If you are to generate the result you want, you must have the capacity to listen to all that is being said.