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Sustainable Innovation

System smitten?

System smitten?
Published: July 3, 2018
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Jo Appleby, In Conversation with…Karen Jaques and Garrett Weiner, Senior Consultants at Impact, on ‘Systems thinking’.

There seems to be no end to the use of the word ‘system’ in our global societies, from boardrooms to newsrooms, political conferences to business summits. It is used frequently to sum up pretty much everything in today’s society, from immigration, education, healthcare to  our political systems. Is “systems” just a buzzword?

So, I became interested to know why systems are relevant in the world of business and what it means in terms of leadership. To help me, I had a conversation with my colleagues Karen Jaques and Garrett Weiner – here’s what we talked about…

Broadly speaking, systems are a collection of parts that function as a whole. Ecosystems, social systems, cellular systems, galactic systems...they come in all shapes and sizes.There’s another important quality some of them have – of evolving or learning. These complex adaptive systems (CAS) are a self-organising framework of interconnected, interdependent parts that are usually in some state of change. This includes both contemporary businesses and the market more generally.

Another larger CAS is our entire global society. It is constantly changing, which means that many organisations are unable to predict future trends, supply or demand, whether 10 months  or 10 years from now.

For example, with the development of the self-driving car, what might this mean for the transportation system and the system known as the automotive industry?  How might they prepare themselves for such an unpredictable future, identifying potential solutions to uncertain challenges?

With all of these uncertain, non-linear and complex challenges ahead, we still seem to be focused on using linear, simple solutions to address them. Einstein is noted for saying “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that was used to create them.” And so, as we go about creating new complex problems, we need to think differently when we design solutions. This is where ‘systems thinking’ comes in. This is a huge topic, so let’s just focus on a few aspects here...

There are some interesting models out there, which are useful in terms of thinking about this stuff. Keith Grint emphasises that complex problems require a step change in terms of leadership action.  He refers to such leadership needs to use ‘soft power’, leading by framing key questions, with the aim of encouraging collaborative action. Grint points out that some leaders frame problems as simple when they are not, seeking to protect themselves from the anxiety a systemic view can create. Simple problems can be dealt with by command and control, complex ones need a far higher tolerance of ambiguity.  Such ambiguity is something followers often don’t want to acknowledge either!

Another model is the Cynefin Framework (Snowden) which outlines five decision making contexts from simple, complicated, chaotic, complex and disorder.

Dan Snowden’s framework helps leaders to align how they understand situations and what behaviours are needed. For example the Complex context requires sense checking, probing, questioning…the practice is emergent, and the cause and effect relationships can often be seen only in hindsight!  In other words, you’ll need a variety of real time perspectives as you walk your path. We will return to this theme in a later article.

These and other models are useful to help us understand the nature of the challenges we face, but according to KJ, you also need to take into account who you are and where you are within a system.  This takes some emotional investment and self-awareness… ahh!

Why does this matter?

  • Because you might be part of the “system”, you might be ‘in it’ as much as others for example, leading a culture change. A lack of awareness of your own place can limit your effectiveness

  • At times, addressing complexity requires thinking and acting outside of the ‘rules’ and norms, requiring us to consider (and confront) our explicit and often implicit boundaries of ‘permission’.

  • You are unlikely to have direct answers and that’s an uncomfortable reality to face which  takes courage to be okay with. No one person has the answers to these complex problems.

It will take collective action to address complex issues; no single actor or part has the authority or overall responsibility (for the entire system).

It is no surprise to me that enquiry of ourselves is a good starting point to enable us to better understand the environment we operate in and how we can collectively go about navigating our complex, systemic futures.


Keith Grint -

Cynefin Framework -