Systemic Leadership – Part 1

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

A quiet revolution is happening in organizations.  As we move ever deeper into a connected world, it is the relationships between people and systems that is becoming the essential focus of our attention rather than the traditional approach of focusing on the people/systems themselves.  Systemic leadership integrates the traditional reductionist paradigm with the emergent connectivist paradigm in order to more effectively approach relationship challenges.  The systemic approach to leadership is essential for those who wish to influence complex organizations in rapidly changing environments.

1.     Understanding Organizations in the 21st Century

Have you noticed …

  • The management of change seems to be more problematic than it used to be?
  • The drivers of change are more complicated than they were in the past?
  • It is becoming increasingly difficult to draw practical advice from the overwhelming amount of information available?

These are all symptoms of living in a world of increasing complexity and of geometrically multiplying data.

During Part 1 we will:

  • Explore the Reductionist’s paradigm;
  • Explore the Connectivist’s paradigm;
  • Examine the new realities of work in contrast to traditional expectations;
  • Conclude that systemic leadership is “both/and”, and not “either/or”.

1.1    The Reductionist’s Paradigm

Our traditional view of the world is based on the reductionist paradigm.  In a reductionist’s world, the whole is the sum of its parts.  Take, as an illustration, the car.  The whole system that is a car is built up of parts in a rational, and highly researched way.  It can be taken apart and put back together again.  Parts can be replaced.  The traditional view of organizations is similar.  Organizations create departments or divisions (independent parts) that have responsibility for specific functions (like the parts of a car).  The Chief Executive, like the driver of a car, is expected to control the speed and direction of the organization.  The organization, like the car, has distinct boundaries that separate it from its outside environment, but is designed to access resources from the environment as well as contribute to it.

The key assumptions associated with a reductionist’s approach to organizations are as follows.

(a)       Organizations can be understood and managed from an ‘independent parts’ perspective.

The assumption here is that if something is not working there is a part of the organization that is defective and needs replacing or, at least, repairing.  Once it is replaced, the organization will, once again, function well.  This focus on an organization’s parts often leads to the false conclusion that the organization is no more than the sum of its parts.  Furthermore, traditional organizations list their physical and financial resources and assets in their annual reports as evidence of their overall strength.  Business convention, and the City, require this.

(b)       An organization’s boundaries with the outside world, and the boundaries within, need to be maintained.

The reductionist’s perspective leads to a maintenance of the boundaries both within the organization and between the organization and its outside world.  The ‘ivory tower’ reputation of some senior management teams is an indication of how some organizations are seen as separate and bounded within their own structure.  And a frequent criticism amongst employees is that ‘the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing’ … departments don’t communicate with each other.

(c)       Linear chains of causality can be used to understand the dynamics of the organization.

The linear chains of causality that exist in machines and ‘assembly-line thinking’ further reinforce the reductionist’s approach.  It is assumed that A causes B causes C.  Much time is spent in organizations sorting out the reason why something has occurred in order to prevent it from happening again.  The people that are spending this time assume that straightforward causal chains can be identified, isolated and altered.

(d)       Change can be introduced incrementally within organizations.

New car designs usually evolve over time, with each year having some new variation over the previous years.  Only rarely is there a quantum, or revolutionary, shift.  And even then, much of the ‘established’ thinking is carried over into the new.  Traditional organizations also tend to change incrementally, remaining stable and predictable from year to year.  Of course, organizations may have periods of ‘revolution’, as we shall explore at a later stage of this module, but even during these times there is often a persistence and carry-over of some of the more deep-rooted aspects of the organization.

(e)       Organizations have ‘simple complexity’.

While we may acknowledge that many modern organizations are complex, the assumption is held that their dynamics and any associated problems can still be understood if enough time and information is brought to bear on a particular problem or issue.  Usually, effort is put into breaking down the component parts of the organization so they can be understood at their own level before reassembling the information to develop a complex understanding of what’s going on at the organizational level.

(f)        Organizations can be controlled from a key point.

Like the driver in a car, the Chief Executive is seen as an individual who can control the speed and direction of the organization.  The statement ‘change has to start at the top’ is evidence that this assumption is alive and well.

The characteristics of a reductionist’s worldview, as outlined above, drives the behaviour of many people working with or within organizations today.   As such, these people will:

  • Engage in incremental change;
  • Defend boundaries;
  • Participate in assumed linear causality;
  • Attempt to control the behaviour of individuals.

1.2    The Connectivist’s Paradigm

Our traditional view of the world is increasingly being challenged, across a wide front of disciplines, by the connectivist paradigm.  The connectivist’s world operates very differently from the reductionist’s world.  Where the car was used to illustrate reductionism, the Internet will now be used to illustrate connectivism.  The Internet exemplifies some of the paradoxes of complex systems, as well as some of the ways in which such systems maintain order.

The Internet has a basic structure within which individuals and organizations can operate.  This structure consists of:

  • Nodes and links …
  • With each node being the centre for a web of connections …
  • And each node having web-like connections with other nodes.

This structure is simple, and yet it has allowed for phenomenal flexibility and breathtaking evolution in the design and content of the World Wide Web.  Individuals can initiate change from anywhere within the system.  A person can easily set up a new web site to become a part of the Internet or subscribe to a service and have immediate access to, and influence over, topics of their choosing.  New information spreads rapidly, but understanding and consolidating knowledge becomes ever more challenging.  Search engines become another level of organizing as individuals develop their own search and sort criteria for information and, hence, create their own structure and meaning.  And the dynamics of the Internet are highly mobile.  A web site can go from a very few hits to 100,000 hits within a 24-hour period if its content is judged to be attractive and interesting through the informal communication networks of the web.  Within this basic structure there is constant change, creativity and innovation.

The most powerful people in the connectivist world are those that shape the system gradually and persistently, based on their knowledge, interests and personal agendas.  In the connectivist’s world, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts – as the Internet illustrates.

The key assumptions associated with the connectivist’s approach to organizations are as follows.

(a)       Organizations can only be understood from the perspective of the whole system.

Because organizations are complex webs of connections, we have to separate ourselves from them in order to be able to observe and understand them (we have to adopt a ‘meta’ position).  We have to remove ourselves from the playing field and go up into the stand in order to see the dynamics of the game.  And if you take the system apart (think back to our Internet illustration), you will find no meaningful discrete parts.  Indeed, as the deconstruction took place, you would observe a gradual loss of functionality rather than a sudden breakdown.  This is how human groups and organizations operate.

(b)       Organizations have connections that create blurred boundaries.

Links and connections span traditional boundaries and make it impossible to have distinct boundaries the way various machine parts have in, say, a car.  As commerce and industry has evolved, indeed, as nations have evolved, traditional boundaries have eroded.  Co-operative ventures and agreed interdependencies in activity chain developments are an increasing characteristic of our connected world.

(c)       Organizations behave in non-linear ways.

Unlike the linear causality of the reductionist paradigm, the vast number of connections within modern organizations create opportunities for discontinuous (revolutionary) change.  The kind of thinking that is required to understand and influence these systems is that of working back from the outcome to understand the web of connections that create and maintain the system.

(d)       Organizations are always in dynamic flux.

When many highly-connected variables are in play, high degrees of movement become a characteristic of the system(6).  And as the number of variables within the system increases, so we experience an ever-increasing speed of change.  We have all experienced this.  With the onset of networked computer systems (intranets and the Internet), email, voicemail, and cellular phones, we experience an increase in the number of requests for a response that, in turn, causes us to feel we are living in an increasingly ‘urgent’ world.

(e)       Organizations have complex complexity.

In contrast with the simple complexity of the reductionist worldview, the complex complexity of the connectivist’s worldview geometrically compounds the variables and unknowns we need to work with as leaders and decision-makers.  A connected system is never closed from outside influences and is always affected by variables that exist outside of its own departments, functions or social groups.  Our traditional mindset suggests that with persistence and good information we will be able to gather all the knowledge we need to make a good decision or solve problems.  Complex complexity means we need to become comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty.  There will always be an element of continual learning and missing information in our decision-making and problem solving.

(f)        Organizations can be influenced but they can’t be controlled.

When the Internet pioneer Jon Postel died in 1998, his Financial Times obituary noted that he helped influence the development of the Internet by realising that no single person or entity could ‘control’ it:

“The Internet works because computer scientists all over the world are prepared to reach agreement on the best standards to adopt.  The process of reaching that agreement is managed by a relatively small number of people, of whom Postel was one.  Their power stems not from official status or governmental nomination, but from their ability to create a consensus.”

Consensus, in turn, stems from a shared purpose.  Due to their high degrees of connectivity, networks do not respond to force.  Indeed, they resist it.

By way of an illustration, we can consider the properties of wet sand.  Wet sand is composed of silicon and saline and, maybe surprisingly, it performs in a similar way to a network.  It resists the imprint of our foot when we stamp in the wet sand.  However, when we place our foot down and wait, the wet sand allows our foot to sink into it.  This capacity to ‘make an impression’ is akin to the influencing strategy that best works with individuals and groups, i.e. placing and waiting.

The characteristics of reductionism and connectivism discussed above can be summarised as follows:

The reductionist orientation                               The connectivist orientation

Parts perspective                                                 Whole system perspective

Distinct boundaries                                             Blurred boundaries

Linear causality                                                    Non-linear causality

Change incrementally                                        Dynamic flux

Simple complexity                                              Complex complexity

Can be controlled                                                Can be influenced

1.3    Competing Expectations and Realities

The reductionist-driven legacy of the early scientific and industrial ages, that so profoundly shaped our perspective on organizations, is still with us today.  As we began to develop machines that extended the capabilities of our bodies (the wheel, the steam engine, the internal combustion engine, the car) we also began to think in more machine-like ways and apply these mechanistic principles to our work, our organizations and ourselves.

But more appropriate to the 21st Century is an emerging worldview that moves away from mechanistic images of reductionism and adopts the organic images of connectivism.  The very real tension between these two worldviews becomes apparent when we contrast what is expected by tradition with the realities we experience.  Here are five examples of this tension.

(a)       Perfection is expected first time vs informed experimentation.

We are often expected to be – and are paid to be – ‘right first time’.  Consequently, we think of an idea, we plan it carefully, and we expect it to work out the first time we implement it.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  Well, most of our experiences tell us differently!  We think of an idea, then we plan it and implement it the best we can.  On the first pass, it often looks more like informed experimentation.  There are things that we underestimated, factors we didn’t consider and surprises that occur.  Each time we try something new we learn from the experience and use that learning to problem-solve and refine the original idea.  Even though we intellectually understand the difference between perfection first time and the reality of experimentation, we often measure others and ourselves by the standard of perfection.  This is one of the fundamental tensions between expectations and reality.

(b)       Goals are predictable with complete certainty vs additional and new goals will always appear.

Each year, traditional performance management systems drive organizations to develop goals and objectives for the coming year, and then cascade these throughout the system.  Usually, a staff appraisal system is tied into this process.  Sometimes interim reviews take place in the form of supervision or 1-2-1’s.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  In reality, surprising challenges present themselves almost continuously.  And responding to these challenges may be more important than achieving some of the goals identified in the formal performance management process.  This is a major dilemma.  Do we shift our attention to the new challenges, or work towards those goals and objectives against which our performance and pay will be measured (not forgetting that ‘what gets measured gets done’)?  The reality in goal setting is that the dynamic flux of a connected world creates situations that are more fluid than our goal setting systems would have us believe.

(c)       Control is expected vs absolute control is rare and cannot be maintained.

Most of management literature implies that managers should be able to control all the employees that report to them.  We talk of a manager’s ‘span of control’.  This form of control is necessary in order for the manager to deliver expected outcomes or products.  Managers are given authority and power over employees in order to ensure the appropriate levels of control are maintained.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  In reality, absolute control over people is rare – even impossible.  Think of the numerous ways people can resist control when they put their minds to it.  While the illusion of control might exist for a period of time, it cannot be maintained over the longer term.  What is possible is influence (remember the wet sand!).

(d)       Single mindedness and efficiency are the standards of competence vs detours fuel creativity and innovation.

Single mindedness and efficiency are valued attributes in most staff appraisal systems.  We measure our effectiveness, in part, by how long it takes us to get to somewhere.  We complain about attending meetings, and the processes associated with making decisions because they rarely live up to our standards of single mindedness and efficiency.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  The reality of human organizations is, again, very different.  Few people are truly single minded and efficient.  In meetings we watch the same conversation come up again and again.  This is because complex agendas are running.  Likewise, decision-making is fraught with the arguments that emanate from varying viewpoints.  On the other hand, humans are unsurpassed in their ability to be creative and innovate.  But they don’t accomplish this efficiently.

(e)       Predictability is assumed vs probabilities are the norm.

We believe that people’s behaviour in organizations should be predictable and rational.  That’s the way things ought to be … isn’t it?  But rarely do we have this sense of predictability.  We can see patterns that may indicate the probability of a future event, but we cannot predict what is going to happen.  This concept can be illustrated by weather systems.  We can accurately predict the weather for the next four hours, but not for the next four days.  General weather patterns give us some indication of what future weather will be like, but these patterns do not tell us what will happen on a specific day.  So it is with people in organizations – there is very little predictability beyond the immediate time frame.  Yet we still spend many hours trying to predict reactions and events.

These competing expectations and realities can be summarised as follows:

The way things ought to be      The way things actually are

Perfection is expected first time                                     Informed experimentation

Goals are predictable with complete certainty       Additional and new goals will always appear

Control is expected                                                             Absolute control is rare and cannot be maintained

Single mindedness and efficiency are the                  Detours fuel creativity and innovation

standards of competence

Predictability is assumed                                                 Probabilities are the norm

If the organization we are working with is more like ‘The ways things actually are’ instead of ‘The way things ought to be’, we are working with a connected system that will be more organic than mechanistic.

1.4    Living in Both Worlds

The paradigm of the reductionist world is one of truth, one single answer, one best way.  Reductionism proposes that there is always one best strategy, with the roots of this thinking being in:

(a)       Aristotlean logic which argues that a statement is either ‘true’ or ‘false’, and

(b)       Newtonian science which argues that physical systems are linear with simple complexity.

As alluded to earlier, this is the paradigm that, historically, has had the greatest influence on the world in which we grew up.  And, indeed, there are times in our highly-connected world when this paradigm is of great benefit.  The American space programme that placed a man on the moon was founded on Newtonian science.  Consequently, the connectivist paradigm does not supersede the reductionist paradigm, nor make it right or wrong – or less valuable.  It is just that the reductionist paradigm is valid for a narrowing range of 21st Century experiences.

So the reductionist and the connectivist worldviews are not mutually exclusive.  It is not necessary to choose between one and the other.  They both deserve a place in our toolkit.  But given that the connectivist worldview is, for many – the unfamiliar view, the remainder of this module focuses on connectivism.  And I hope it will become clear that practicing systemic leadership is about assessing the worth of operating from a reductionist point of view and a connectivist point of view within any given context, and then choosing accordingly.  Systemic leadership is “both/and” not “either/or”.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

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One thought on “Systemic Leadership – Part 1

  1. Having read this I believed it was really enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time
    and effort to put this article together. I once again find myself spending a
    lot of time both reading and leaving comments.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

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