Systems Thinking in Team Leadership

Systems Thinking

Systems Thinking 

“Systems Thinking” on leadership is when you visualize a system (your organization) as a collection of interrelated parts (Divisions, Departments, etc.) bound together to achieve a purpose (products and services), where the relationships between such parts are as important as the parts themselves, and where the whole (your organization) interrelates with its external environment (your customers, your suppliers, the market, the economy, the government regulations, etc.) as well.

Simple, isn’t it?

For example, any living creature is a living system – the human body, a flea, an elephant, etc.

What is "systems thinking" on leadership? 

Organizations have shared attributes with all living systems, and as stated above, the focus is on the relationships of all the pieces as they interact together, as opposed to only focusing on just the individual pieces themselves.


Russ Ackoff – an authority in systems thinking – gave the following elegant and beautiful illustration (1971 unpublished speech, The Second Industrial Revolution), cited by Dannemiller Tyson Associates, “Whole-Scale Change” (Berret Koehler, San Francisco, CA: 2000):

“Let me try to give you a feeling of why that [systems thinking] is so, by giving you an example rather than trying to give you a generalized proof. I would like you to go through the following thought experiment. I read in the New York Times the other day that there are 142 makes of automobiles available in the United States. So let’s get one of each and bring them into a large garage – 142 cars.

“We’ll hire ourselves a good group of first rate automotive engineers and first ask them to do the following: Inspect those 142 cars, test them, do any damn thing you want to, but come out and tell us which one has the best carburetor. So they run a series of tests and they come out and say the Buick has the best carburetor. So we make a note – Buick carburetor.

“Then you say fine, now we would like you to do the same thing on transmissions. So they test the transmissions and they come out and say the Mercedes has the best transmission – we make a note – Mercedes transmission.

“You say okay, take the distributor, and they run through and they come out and say the Dodge has got the best distributor.

“Then one by one, we take every part until we have every part required for an automobile and we have identified the best parts available. Now when that is done, we tell them to take those parts off those cars and assemble them, because then we ought to get the best possible automobile.

“But, do you get it? You don’t even get an automobile. And for a very obvious reason.

“Because it turns out that the parts don’t fit, and that’s what systems thinking is all about.

“It says that the performance of the whole is not the addition of the performance of the parts, but it is a consequence of the relationship between the performance of the parts. It is how performance relates, not how it occurs independently of the other parts. That is what systems thinking is about.

“So, synthesis is a different way of thinking and looking for explanations. It tries to find it by looking at wholes, the larger whole, of which things are a part rather than by taking things apart.”

What is "systems thinking" in organizations? 

Several authors have built different organizational models, for example:

Dannemiller Tyson Associates (ibid.) built the “Star of Success” – composed by strategic direction, processes and systems, relationships, resources, and information – to design and facilitate large-scale organizational change.

David A. Nadler and Michael L. Tushman, “Competing by Design: The Power of Organizational Architecture”(Oxford University Press, New York, NY: 1997) built the “Congruence Model” – composed by input, strategy, work, informal organization, people, formal organization, and output – to diagnose organizational behavior.

Alan P. Brache, “How Organizations Work: Taking a Holistic Approach to Enterprise Health”(John Wiley & Sons, New York, NY: 2002) built the “Enterprise Model” – composed by external factors (suppliers, the economy, customers, etc.) and internal factors (leadership, strategy, culture, etc.) – to change organizational DNA.

What is "systems thinking" in team leadership? 

In the exact sciences (mathematics, chemistry, biology, etc.) you can guarantee that two plus two equals four—but there is no such thing in the realm of the inexact sciences (organizational behavior, management, leadership, etc.).

However, the long-term success of your team is the direct consequence of the way you lead it—it is the direct consequence of the leadership competencies you perform on a daily basis.

In leadership there are no silver bullets, no magic recipes, and no new and latest management fads that will cure all your team’s organizational illnesses.

However, the team you lead is a system, and as such, there is a number of organizational levers that will have the greatest possible impact on performance and on the success of your team.

These organizational levers are your team leadership competencies that you must apply in order to build sustainable HIGH performance within the team you lead.

To learn three of these team leadership competencies, get your FREE Personal Leadership Development Plan

These three competencies are key and foundational leadership tools, that—unfortunately—most managers ignore. Check them out right here