Skip to main content

When simple answers run out … systemic awareness in business

When simple answers run out … systemic awareness in business
Published: November 19, 2019
Share this article:

A practitioner’s perspective

Ally Yates has been a long standing client of Impact’s, having worked with a range of companies over her career. Her current role includes supporting a global manufacturing business to develop its leaders for the future. Ally has sought to capture the practices of the most successful senior leaders into the design of her programmes and hence has included a strong focus on developing systemic awareness: the capacity to act mindfully through building a rich picture of the interconnecting elements that make up a situation. The conversation below reflects some of Ally’s views in a recent discussion with Karen Jaques, one of Impact’s senior consultant team.

Q: Why is having systemic awareness useful in business?

I’ve not previously seen anything like the current pace of change in business: senior leaders are under massive pressure, facing complex, interconnected problems and shifting consumer preferences. The time of simple solutions and CEO “saviours” is long gone and business is developing new capabilities to embrace the future. Leaders find themselves collaborating more and more – both inside and outside their organisation – to find the most resourceful responses. Systemic awareness helps leaders to create a rich picture from many angles and lessens the pressure on them to have all the answers. I believe the quality of results we achieve is heavily influenced by our quality of awareness and having diverse perspectives (particularly from outside the organisation) opens up the potential of a wider field for finding a way forward. Systemic awareness can also be protective, as it helps to ready an organisation for uncertainty. Being more aware of the bigger context in which you operate helps to lower your risk because you might be slightly less surprised when the next “big thing” comes over the hill.

Q: Can you share some examples of where you’ve seen senior leaders using a systemic perspective?

One CEO I’ve recently worked with strongly emphasises the connection between the flow of profit, society and the environment – building a strong narrative in the company around doing well by doing good. I describe this as an eco-systemic way of positioning the organisation, in terms of what can it do for the world. Most of the executives I’ve worked with who think like this also seem to have a strong sense of personal purpose that they frame in terms of what they can give back to their team, community or aspects of the broader world.

Another pattern I’ve noticed in effective senior leaders is that they focus on building connections to address issues rather than solving problems themselves e.g. encouraging their management teams to work in collaboration not competition and to spend more time looking outward from the organisation to see what they can learn from customers, NGO’s, sustainability experts etc.  You can also spot people with this kind of systemic awareness because they are strong at empathising with a team’s difficulties whilst keeping their eye on what might be possible in terms of innovating something new.  People with these qualities have been behind some of the biggest recent innovations in a company I’m currently working with.

Q: What helps to develop a systemic mindset and what do you need to let go of?

My top 3 suggestions would be:

  1. Think beyond just being good at problem solving. When we see a problem there can often be a knee-jerk reaction to fix it. Yet many things we see happening in business are symptoms of another issue. If we only fix isolated symptoms, without inquiring more deeply into the causes, we can waste a lot of energy, time and money. I encourage people to think of ‘outcomes rather than solutions’ to help them to explore the situation more fully.
  2. Create time for reflection. Systemic awareness is available to everyone, but it gets crowded out by over-packed diaries. Our brains need both the time to think and a change of scene. This helps us to notice what’s at play and facilitates insight, allowing us to unlock a better way forward.
  3. Let go of blame and judgement – of yourself and others. I invite people to move from an ego-based awareness (e.g. worrying about what others think) to a more eco-based awareness (asking how you can be of service in this context?) This helps create the freedom to find ways forward that a smaller frame of reference could never have generated.

Connect with Ally Yates.