Systems thinking applied to leadership

August 6, 2015

Read time 2 min

Systems thinking is often considered too broad, too abstract and too academic. This is yet another attempt to make it more concrete. In a nutshell, how does systems thinking apply to leadership?

Let me tell you about John. John is a slacker. He just doesn’t get work done. His productivity is bad and the quality of the work he does finish is sometimes even worse. John has worked for the company for two years. Initially he performed well, but for the past six months it’s been all downhill.

Let’s first look at the traditional approach for dealing with John. The key question is: What’s wrong with John? What is he doing wrong? What can we do to fix him?

In the traditional approach it’s the person who needs fixing. Managers spend their time worrying about, and trying to fix, individuals. This often leads to traditional methods such as target setting, performance evaluations, “coaching” or ultimatums.

What would the systems thinking approach be like? First, we need to understand how we got to where we are. In fact, there’s only two options: either we hired the wrong person, or we hired the right person but our environment turned him into a zombie.

In the first case, we need to take a long hard look at our recruiting and on boarding. In the second case, the systems thinking approach is to ask: What’s wrong with the system? What’s wrong with the context? What’s wrong with the environment? Which structures are causing this behavior?

The systems thinking method for fixing bad performance is to focus on the system. What do we need to fix in our company policies, our work design, our team setup, our processes, etc. to avoid such issues in the future?

So here it is, in a nutshell:

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