Systemic Leadership – Part 2

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

2.     Ways of Being in Organizations in the 21st Century


The growing role of technology in our lives, the impact of mass media and the drive towards a global economy, are all fuelling the rapid growth of our connections with the environment.

Part 2 will explore:

  • New ways of relating that are consistent with the increasing connectedness of the modern world;
  • New ways of influencing change that are consistent with the increasing complexity of the modern organization;
  • New ways of leading that are consistent with the increasing independence of the modern workforce;
  • New ways of working that draw on a progressive agenda that recognises the realities of our highly-connected world

2.1    New Ways of Relating

We take for granted the many highly-connected systems in our lives.  For me to visit a friend in Edinburgh with my family for the New Year celebrations last year, some of the systems upon which I depended included the internet over which I booked my flights, computer networks for airline ticketing, weather systems that would determine the speed and comfort of the flight, air traffic control systems that would ensure our safety, spaces available at the airport car parks, my car’s mechanical system, motorway and local traffic systems, my own – and my family’s – biological systems, the technical infrastructure systems such as electricity and water that support these other systems, and … this is to name but a few of the more obvious systems!  This illustrates the interdependences that need to work efficiently for me to ‘take for granted’ that I will be where I want to be (Edinburgh), when I want to be there (New Year’s Eve), with the people I want to be there with (my family).

Relating this to a ‘traditional’ tool of management, open systems theory describes how organizations consist of multiple systems with interdependent networks that cross the boundaries of what, increasingly loosely, defines the boundaries of the organization.  Drawn from the biological sciences, open systems theory emphasises connectivity.

In the connectivist’s world, it is useful to view organizations as webs of relationships and processes in order to understand, shape and effectively work with them.  Furthermore, we need to become skilled at:

(a)       Optimising relationships and connections;

(b)       Relational thinking;

(c)        Understanding emotional dynamics.

And to pull these together, we also need to …

(d)       Practice new ways of relating.

(a)       Optimising relationships and connections.

Virtually all organizations have a clear goal, often supported by an aspirational vision.  But as layers of organizational complexity develop, in the form of distinct work units and functions, the ‘message’ becomes corrupted by alternative views of the world drawn from local concerns.  Disharmony is frequently the result.  As a result, some effective leaders think of themselves as the conductors of an orchestra, with their task being to bring the component instruments of the orchestra back into harmony, and maintain the pace of activity set by the score from which they conduct.  Developing this analogy yet further, the requirement for some of the new organizations of the 21st Century will be to effectively improvise around a theme rather than follow a well-conducted score.  The implications for instrumentalists and conductor alike – regarding communication, empathy and a deeper connectedness – will be clear to any musician!

However, the reality for most people within most organizations is fragmentation, i.e. individuals are unaware of the overall vision, how they fit within it and, indeed, how the overall system functions.  But despite our naivety, what we do in our various positions affects the whole system in ways we little appreciate.  In our capacity to bring about or assist in organizational change, we need to wise-up to our role and influence by nurturing wider perspectives and a broader range of relationships.

Optimising relationships involves seeking and incorporating diverse ideas and perspectives, and formulating relationships based on trust and integrity.  In a connected world, these skills take on great importance.  Our value and effectiveness to an organization is directly proportional to the degree to which we engage with what the organization is trying to achieve as a whole, rather than taking the parochial view of what’s going on in our unit or division.

Becoming a facilitator of connections requires an increasing amount of time to be spent on developing and maintaining relationships with others.  In connected organizations, the relationships we build become the key sources of coordinated effort and, as such, should become a part of everyone’s daily working practice.  There are, of course, some key challenges to be met.  One is of making time available to develop and maintain appropriate relationships.  Added to this is the fact that it is often difficult to start opening channels of communication across organizational boundaries.  But the cost of not building relationships is one of being in a fragmented organization that drives our behaviours down increasingly short-sighted, unproductive, and unsatisfying paths as we become disjointed from the vision and frustrated by poor communications.

Remarkably, most organizations attempt to control, restrict, or manage information and knowledge.  This traditional approach maintains a hierarchy in which ‘management’ is differentiated from ‘workers’ in part by the knowledge and information they hold.  But continued attempts to control information is not only damaging to an organization’s ability to learn, but is also impossible to maintain.  Controlling information flows may appear possible when organization’s are viewed mechanistically, as linear causal chains.  But when viewed as complex networks (like the Internet) the only conclusion to be reached is that information is uncontrollable and necessary for the health of the system.

When an organization shares information and knowledge about the challenges it faces, the people within the organization are able to hold meaningful dialogues about these challenges, increasing their understanding of themselves and their roles.  This understanding can then become the basis of a shared culture that can effectively evolve in response to challenges.

(b)       Relational thinking.

In highly-connected systems, the distinction between independent and dependent variables becomes blurred.  We are used to linear causal chains of logic based on independent variables because these fit nicely into the structured hierarchies of the traditional organization.  But connected systems don’t work in this way.  In networks there are many variables in play at the same time and the impact of these variables cannot always be immediately seen for several reasons.

Firstly, there are too many variables.  The weather is a perfect example of this principle.  Many variables go into constructing a weather forecasting model and predictions are rarely more than a statement of what is likely rather than what will be.  This is not generally a problem for us as we have an appreciation of this complexity.  The same should be true of highly-connected systems.  As connections increase, the numbers of variables in play also increases, so the search for meaning and prediction based on single causality is no longer a relevant pursuit.

Strategic Planners have long come to terms with this fact, following the groundbreaking work of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies in the nineteen seventies and early eighties.  Their pioneering work with scenarios acknowledged the inadequacies of the traditional ‘two or three independent variables’ approach of those who worked with econometric models.  Shell established an approach that considered the relationships between multiple variables at play in their external business environment.  From this base, a holistic approach to strategy can be established, that seeks to understand the potency of a wide range of options that will contribute to the desired outcomes for the business.  However, this approach does require us to become intellectually and emotionally comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty!

(c)       Understanding emotional dynamics.

Traditionally, emotions have had no place in organizations.  Work was a place of rationality.  Now words with emotional implications such as ambiguity, uncertainty, commitment, excitement and passion have found their way into organizational language.  We also talk about cynicism, fear and withdrawal as forces to be wiped out in organizations.  The people that demonstrate these behaviours are seen as a liability.

Highly-connected systems facilitate the spread of emotions within an organization because they do not restrict their connections to rational information – they spread everything, including the emotions of the people sharing the information.  And if there is little trust within a department or organization, everything becomes emotional.  This leads to rumour and increased crises.

Having a more emotionally intelligent workplace can dramatically increase our ability to productively collaborate with each other.  When individuals are emotionally intelligent, they have self-knowledge, can manage their own emotions, have empathy and are sensitive to group dynamics.  In highly-connected organizations where emotional content is flowing freely, we need to develop greater degrees of emotional intelligence in all employees.

(d)       Practice new ways of relating.

Based on the above, in order to meet the challenges of working with, and within, highly-connected organizations, the following agenda for action needs to be considered.

  • Promote a trusting environment where people can speak honestly about what they see and experience.
  • Develop your own emotional intelligence and help develop it in others.
  • Share information widely.
  • Engage in boundary-spanning activities.
  • Intentionally create new relationships.
  • Create relational instead of organizational charts.
  • Look for ‘families’ of solutions for interdependent problems (balance creative/divergent and critical/convergent thinking).
  • Learn to accept the complexities of highly-connected systems (and their attendant uncertainties).
2.2    New Ways of Influencing

Change in traditional, hierarchical organizations is seen to be ‘created’ by one or more individuals.  Change in highly-connected organizations is ‘influenced’.  A connected organization undergoes constant shifts as it evolves in response to changing circumstances within and without its blurred boundaries.  This is not to suggest that the occasional ‘revolution’ is out of place.  If evolution has not kept pace with the changing internal or external environment, radical change may be required to place the work unit or organization into its new niche.  But whether its evolution or revolution we are experiencing, the key to an effective response lies in:

(a)       Understanding the shifting dynamics of change

(b)       Adopting different approaches to change

(c)        Optimising our influence in a highly-connected world.

(a)       Understanding the shifting dynamics of change.

As discussed earlier (Section 1.2(d), ‘Organizations are always in dynamic flux’), the interconnected information age has changed our perception of time by increasing our sense of urgency and accelerating the need for an immediate response.  This sense of diminishing time to respond to change can cause stress and frustration.  Much of this frustration is founded in either the organization’s inflexibility, an individual’s inability to be open to change, or both.  Within traditional, hierarchical organizations, change involves top-down initiation, the use of positional power to ensure action and the fostering of dependency relationships.  A hierarchy assumes the source of intelligence is at the top of the organization and the people at the bottom of the organization are the receivers of information.

The dynamics of change in a highly-connected organization involve influencing change from multiple points using gentle nudges with ‘time-outs’ for the system to respond and mutually shape the direction.  Each person decides what information to draw on from a variety of sources available, and intelligence exists everywhere within the system – not just at the top of the organization.  The coordinating forces for such change are around shared values, vision and purpose.  No one wants to be told what to think or do.

Dynamics of change in traditional hierarchical organizations

  • Change is initiated at the top.
  • The source of intelligence comes from the top of the organization.
  • Change occurs through forcefully sustained progress towards a specific goal.

Dynamics of change in modern highly-connected organizations

  • Change is initiated from anywhere.
  • The source of intelligence exists throughout the organization.
  • Change occurs through a coordinated nudging and waiting by many people who share a vision.

Many people today work with the tension that is generated between these two sets of dynamics.  They work in traditional, hierarchical organizations but feel the effects of increasing connectivity as their organizations function increasingly as modern, highly-connected systems.  Our continuing challenge is to live with the tensions these two systems create whilst organizational structures adapt to the evolving realities of the 21st Century.

(b)       Adopting different approaches to change.

As suggested in the final paragraph of Section 1.4 (‘Living in Both Worlds’), one of the core competencies of systemic leadership is ‘paradigm cognition’ – the ability to recognise when different paradigms are most useful and shift thinking (modelling) and behaviour accordingly.  It is becoming increasingly important for us to recognise the underlying belief systems we have about change and intentionally map our change strategies to the context in which we are working.

There are three different ways we can approach and influence change at an organizational and individual level.  These are:

  • Making change – the traditional, hierarchical approach that assumes change can be predicted and controlled;
  • Surviving change – the approach triggered by the increase in interruptions, problems and crises in our day-to-day lives;
  • Organic change – the approach that challenges us to evolve beyond surviving rapid change to learning how to trigger natural change within highly-connected environments.

By way of some background to these approaches, today, work demands different abilities and skills for different contexts.  The organizing principles of ‘making change’ were effective in times of predictability.  Thereafter, as the environment became more turbulent, the organizing principles of ‘surviving change’ allowed us to react to the interruptions and surprises.  But now, as systems become more complex and dynamic, influencing the future through ‘organic change’ becomes critical.  The following table considers these three approaches to change with respect to focus, organizational values and how meaning is gained.

Making Change

Focus of change – Forcing or driving change through the system by positional power. Change comes from the top.

Organizational Values – Predictable and controlled change brought about by individuals who are enthusiastic about the organization’s goals. Develop long range plans and get buy-in.

Meaning-making – Found in predictable patterns and staying on purpose. Holding a clear belief in the ability to succeed. Mission statements.

Surviving Change

Focus of change – Surviving change that is forced upon us from external forces. Environmental scanning is a strategic tool to help protect the organization.

Organizational Values – Increase the organization’s capacity to survive. Constantly adjusting to environmental conditions. Developing individual ways to cope with change. ‘Do more with less’.

Meaning-making – Found in threats and opportunities that emerge as patterns in the largerpicture of the desired result. Strong belief that we can survive this.

Organic Change

Focus of change – Influencing the system through organic strategies. Increase organization’s readiness for change. Become a learning organization.

Organizational Values – New ways of relating, new ways of influencing, new ways leading. Do business differently, develop strategic partnerships.

Meaning-making – Found in relational thinking. Strong belief that collective iicture of the desired result will lead us to new ways of influencing the system. Integrated learning and perpetual innovation.

Given these approaches to change, the principle challenge for all of us is to learn as we go.  Organic change strategies are in their infancy and no one is yet the ‘expert’.  We must each rely on our own insights and inspiration.  Fortunately help is close to hand as, often when breaking new ground in thinking, it is helpful to use analogies.

There are many analogies available to us from the natural world.  One has already been used, that of ‘wet sand’.  Another is ‘birds on a wire’.  These are described below, but are only intended as a starting point for thinking about natural change strategies.  Beyond these, you may wish to look for your own examples in nature.

‘Wet sand’ demonstrates one of the properties of highly-connected systems.  When we stamp our foot down on wet sand it congeals and our foot is met with a hard surface.  However, when we gently place our foot down on wet sand, the sand slowly ‘accepts’ our foot and allows it to sink in.  Human networks have a similar response to force.  Kurt Lewin, in part, recognised this in the 1950’s and developed ‘Force Field Analysis’ to help us manage change.

‘Birds on a wire’ demonstrates another property of highly-connected systems.  Around Autumn, we can often see flocks of birds gathering on a telegraph or electricity wire.  If you pause to watch, you are likely to see an interesting ‘dance’ before they all leave to fly south.  The birds collect on the wire (or in a tree!) and after a while one or two birds take off.  The birds that are left flutter their wings but choose to stay in place.  The birds that took off fly in a wide circle and eventually come back and sit on the wire with the rest of the flock.  Time passes and again some birds take off, usually a few more this time.  The remaining birds ruffle their feathers but stay in place.  The flying birds return.  This process continues with time delays in between action, and each time a few more birds take off and return.  Eventually, when a critical mass of birds take off, the entire flock lifts off with them.  The behaviours that initially looked like failed attempts to get the flock moving were actually precursors of a large-scale change for the whole flock.  This image of movement can also be seen in human organizations.

(c)       Optimising our influence in a highly-connected world

A few guidelines can help each of us along our path of optimising our influence in a highly-connected world.  As with the two analogies given above, these are simply a starting point for each of us to develop further what works for us.

  • Be open to the system – our value within an open system is directly related to our connections.
  • Find diverse perspectives to help interpret what we see when we scan the larger environment – we must learn to see the patterns emerging from apparently random events.  We must ‘hear the message amongst the noise’.
  • Recruit people who have the ability to adapt to changing environments – this means looking for evidence of a track record of adapting to changing environments.
  • Enhance the resilience of staff and their working units – resilience is the ability to recover quickly from change and resume a sense of balance after being bent, stretched or compressed!
  • Learn creative and critical thinking – and know when to apply each.
  • Create a sunset clause for all programmes – define, in advance, the contingencies, life-cycles and defaults.
  • Find stability at the appropriate level – stability should be sought at the level of what we are aiming to achieve, and not at the level of how we do things.
  • Reward experimentation and innovation, not perfection – even if perfection were achieved, its value would soon be outstripped by the pace of change.

2.3    New Ways of Leading

Every week a new book is published that provides a new model of how to lead or structure organizations in order to increase their ability to react more effectively to the rapidly changing times we live in.  Recommendations include:

–           Becoming a learning organization

–           Implementing total quality improvement

–           Developing smart alliances

–           ‘Co-opetition’

–           Re-engineering the business

–           etc.

Synthesizing some of the ideas we have explored so far, leadership in a highly-connected system requires a shift in focus.  New ways of leading centre around:

(a)       Meaning making;

(b)       Facilitating the flow of energy;

(c)        New ways of relating to and influencing change;

(d)       Facilitating organizational learning;

(e)       Developing the capacities of others.

(a)       Meaning making.

Meaning making is the on-going process of helping people see the connection between their day-to-day work and a shared sense of purpose.  Just as a weighted keel provides stability to a yacht, meaning provides stability to an organization.  The creation of meaning is the attempt to provide a keel to a highly-connected organization.

(b)       Facilitating the flow of energy.

Energy should be generated by our activities, not consumed by them.  When we bring people together, we need to be conscious of how the energy flows.  If there is less energy at the end of a meeting than there was at the beginning, something is wrong with the group’s use of energy.  New ways of leading experiment with new organizational structures and processes to diminish the amount of wasted energy, and generate the maximum amount of new energy.

(c)       New ways of relating to and influencing change.

New ways of leading trigger change by using the natural dynamics of the system.  This was, substantially, the subject of Section 2.2, i.e. understanding the shifting dynamics of change, adopting different approaches to change, and optimising our influence in a highly-connected world.

(d)       Facilitating organizational learning.

The most intelligent adaptation of any organism or organization is to accelerate learning.  In order to thrive, an organization’s rate of learning has to be faster than the rate of change of its environment.  By way of an illustration, in addition to adopting its scenario and option planning approach to strategy, the Royal Dutch/Shell Group of Companies put a significant resource into accelerating corporate learning during the mid 1980’s, a time when major discontinuities in its business environment were underlining the need to live and thrive on uncertainty.  Their effort included:

  • Drawing together experts with a wide range of perspectives
  • Experimenting with computer conferencing via the embryonic World Wide Web
  • Widening the use of scenario thinking and option management
  • Learning how to learn

(e)       Developing the capacities of others.

In a highly-connected organization, one person cannot control the system, nor can one person fully understand it.  However, many people working towards a core purpose can influence the system at large in a common direction.  Therefore, models of collaborative, shared, or multilevel leadership become more important.  Developing the capacities of others becomes essential in building a ‘leader-rich’ organization.  Part 6 this Module will be concerned with this.

2.4    New Ways of Working

Drawing the points made in this Section together, we have a set of guidelines for action as follows:

Spend time articulating individual and organizational core values. The core values of an organization have more power to create alignment than any performance appraisal or goal setting process.  By exploring individual core values and seeing how these match up to the vision and mission of the organization, a natural shared meaning evolves.  Once this is in place, staff are equipped to self-organize their behaviour around their own and the organization’s values.

Facilitate learning conversations. A learning conversation is different to a debate or discussion.  It is a shared dialogue where different opinions are seen as an opportunity to gain a greater understanding of what everyone involved is thinking, feeling and perceiving.  This is a key strategy for generating the information and learning needed to guide the development of an organization.  And, furthermore, it increases the number of ways we formally and informally come together, reflect on what we are doing, what we are accomplishing, and what we are learning collectively.

See and influence patterns that emerge within the organization. Taking time to observe patterns that recur on different scales throughout the organization is a way of seeing how the organization is organizing itself.  As patterns are recognised and named, meanings and responses can be generated.  This requires us to get off the playing field and spend some time in the stand to see the emerging patterns that evolve from the dynamics of the system.

Develop and model a systems perspective. Each of us will do this differently.  ‘Activists’ and ‘pragmatists’ may apply systems thinking by practicing and talking with others who also share this perspective.  ‘Theorists’ and ‘reflectors’ may prefer further reading and research as a way of bringing these systems concepts into awareness and practice.  Awareness is the first stage of modelling a systems perspective.  The second stage involves playing with these concepts in our day-to-day work.  The more we understand and practice systems thinking, the more we will personally integrate the concepts.  This personal integration of a systems perspective can then be brought – through unconscious competence – to every meeting, conversation, or problem solving activity in which we are engaged.

Challenge others to see systems. Once we begin to see things in larger patterns and are comfortable with blurring our boundaries, our next role is to challenge others to explore systemic perspectives as a way of viewing organizations.  When colleagues use a ‘parts mentality’ in their work, we can challenge their assumptions.  By comparing the ‘parts mentality’ with an holistic perspective, we can see if the dialogue helps us see the bigger picture.

My website contains further resources that may be of interest …

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