Why systems thinking should become your go-to leadership strategy

Paul Slezak
Strategic Thinking

Think back to when you were a child.  

How often did you blame someone else, or something else as opposed to owning up to a mistake? 

Perhaps telling your parents that an expensive painting just happened to fall off the wall while you and your siblings were kicking a soccer ball in the lounge room; Or telling the teacher you were late to class because the bus never came, while in fact you forgot to set your alarm, slept in, and just missed the bus; or maybe even trying to convince your parents when your report card was far from glowing that the exams were the hardest papers ever set, when in reality you just hadn’t studied for them at all. 


Now what about more recently in your professional life, either as an employee or even as a business leader? 

Have you ever blamed the customer for not quite understanding what they were buying? Accused a departing employee of not being a fit for the business even when you knew you’d oversold the opportunity? Or perhaps you even blamed the weather for a drop in revenue? 

I remember hearing a business leader once saying that a long, cold winter had caused a massive dip in sales. And before you ask, no … it wasn’t a swimwear, ice cream, or sunscreen business. It was a professional services firm! 

Anyone guilty of playing the professional ‘blame game’? 

Many years ago, as a recruiter I had a Regional CEO from a major investment bank ask me to recruit three very similar roles for three different divisions. When I met the respective divisional leaders, it quickly became clear that I could easily recruit one person who could manage the function for all three business units.

When I suggested this to the CEO (while hinting that he would also save on two chunky recruitment fees), he admitted that he’d just heard his leaders complain they were understaffed but hadn’t really probed any further. His managers had been blaming poor performance on lack of headcount, and yet it took an external recruiter to uncover that there may have been other underlying problems that three new (practically identical) hires wouldn’t necessarily be able to resolve. 

When you are looking at your business, what aren’t you seeing? Or when assessing your business, are you perhaps guilty of burying your head in the sand? 

As leaders, many of us are often so busy keeping all the plates spinning, that if or when an issue arises, we simply drop everything and try to fix the specific problem.  

In the example above, it was the CEO hearing three of his managers crying out for additional headcount so recruiting would surely be an easy fix. However, if you only worry about problem solving, you will only ever ‘focus on the fix’ whereas you often need to scrape away the layers and dig deeper to the root cause or look at what other parts of the business might be impacted by the issue at hand. 

Leaders should try to avoid focusing purely on what’s immediately in front of them and carve out sufficient time to start leading effective change while looking ahead at the longer-term plan. 

This is where Systems Thinking comes in. 

According to the management gurus (primarily in academia), Systems Thinking is “a comprehensive approach to understanding and analysing the way a system’s parts interrelate, and how systems work over time and within the context of larger systems”. 

Have I already lost you? Are your eyeballs rolling so far back that you can see the hair growing on the back of your head? 

Or what about this: “Systems Thinking is an approach to problem solving that attempts to balance holistic and reductionist thinking.” 

Eyeballs still rolling, right? Maybe even more confused? 

In the context of what leaders do day-to-day, Systems Thinking reinforces that decision makers need to move away from siloed approaches to problem solving and see problems as part of a wider system.  

In other words, as opposed to examining the parts, consider the whole; rather than trying to diagnose the symptoms, try to shine the spotlight on the underlying processes; and instead of obsessing about who’s wrong, perhaps think more about what’s wrong. 

By implementing a Systems Thinking based strategy, leaders should focus more on breaking down silos to deliver positive change by looking at the broader picture, and not just one specific piece of a puzzle. 

What are the silos that exist in your business today?

I’m sure many of us have felt like we work in a silo or have even (perhaps even unintentionally) created silos. 

Does the legal team work autonomously? Or do they work closely alongside marketing? Does finance work hand in hand with sales or do they purely come together on an as-needed basis? How frequently does the product team rely on the voice of the customer experience team or are they paddling up different streams? 

Organisations can only function when the people, the processes, and the technology (the potential silos) are all in sync.

So, when a leader adopts a Systems Thinking approach to business operations, she isn’t just looking at the people (or teams), processes, and product / software in isolation. She’s looking at (thinking about) the broader situation … in other words, the system. 

Apologies for hitting you with some more management theory, but it’s important here that you appreciate that making a positive change in one area of ‘the system’ could in fact adversely affect another area of the system, which is why ensuring ongoing open communication across all parts of the business can avoid inadvertently creating silos. 

If people are choosing to leave the business, don’t simply replace them. Try to find out whether there are underlying issues. If there are too many cooks in the kitchen preventing a process from moving ahead more seamlessly (if not becoming fully automated), delve into why so many people are (or feel the need to be) involved. If customers aren’t returning, don’t simply assume they no longer require what you offer. Perhaps there’s something in the user experience that isn’t quite as intuitive as you think. 

What are the real issues? 

Don’t let the ‘iceberg of ignorance’ creep in.

Rest assured, this is the last piece of management theory you’ll read in this post! The “iceberg of ignorance” is a concept that stipulates that those at the coalface of a business are aware of 100% of the problems facing an organisation; supervisors are aware of 74% of issues; middle managers are aware of 9%; and senior leadership are aware of only 4% of issues. 

If a certain organisational problem was a children’s fable, the moral of the story would be that there's far more to it than meets the eye. And to come back to the iceberg analogy, leaders should spend more time beneath the surface … a direct link back to Systems Thinking. 

What can you do to start thinking more systematically as a leader? 

  • Stop thinking in silos. Think more about the bigger picture. 
  • Appreciate that simply addressing a problem will not necessarily fix the broader issue. 
  • Look at your business through a new / different lens. 
  • Ask for help in identifying potential complexity or dysfunctionality within the organisation. 
  • Truly understand your employees, your customers, and your competitors. 
  • Acknowledge (and reinforce) the importance of continual feedback. 

Whether you’re in charge of a project, a business unit, a satellite office, a region, or an entire company, thinking systematically is a leadership responsibility that should underpin any strategy for gaining efficiency, effectiveness, and collaboration right across the organisation. 

Remember, Hellomonday provides coaching and support to every leader, prioritising development initiatives that result in long-term sustained learning and change, reinforcing habits through curated learning and impactful coaching, and ideally helping leaders embrace systems thinking.