A principle of systems thinking is that we need to see connections within our systems to understand and to begin optimizing the whole. That’s because over time connections within a system create relationships and strengthen interdependence.  Interdependence in turn changes what leaders need to focus on to optimize the performance of the system or organization.

As leaders if we don’t focus on the whole and only on the parts we create unintended consequences. Taking this thought one step further – the more we optimize a part in an organization, the less effective the whole system will be.

Last month I focused on the interdependence within nature, and how it makes the entire ecosystem stronger. This idea of whole vs part invites a major shift in how we think about organizational leadership and organizational dynamics as well. Conventional practice is for managers and leaders to develop high performing teams and divisions. But those high performance groups aren’t usually measured by their impact on the organization as a whole. The manager’s mandate is to optimize the part of the organization that they are leading, and they get recognition and rewards for doing this. This conventional practice reinforces a manager’s focus on the part, not on the whole system. It also reinforces the assumption that organizations are not interdependent, which can be dangerous.

When we don’t recognize interdependence within and between our organizations, we act in a way that greatly diminishes the overall effectiveness of the larger organization. Organizations are filled with connections, relationships, and interdependence. When we invited technology into our organizations, it began to manifest our connections in tangible ways. Our emails didn’t wait for an inbox to be cleared by a gatekeeper. Our connections seamlessly slipped past hierarchical boundaries and information spread at an accelerated rate. Technology facilitated connections that already existed in our system.

The Goal is Optimize the Whole System

Interdependence requires us to rethink conventional practice. If optimizing a part over the whole weakens the whole system, we need to shift our leadership focus to how all our departments and divisions work together to optimize the whole and serve the entire organization. This is a challenge because so many of our structures and processes rank success and performance in a way that doesn’t reinforce strengthening all departments. It also doesn’t facilitate their ability to work together in an integrated way.

Fortunately there are some actions that can help ensure a focus on the whole  as well as the part. Here are some strategies to consider when choosing to support the whole organization:

  • Build meeting agenda items that focus on questions or issues that “feed” the whole organization. Many staff meeting agendas are filled with “part-focused” topics. For example, a topic that is an issue for a specific department or division but isn’t seen as relevant to others who are attending the meeting.
  • Assess your organization by highlighting the strongest and weakest performance of the divisions or departments in your organization. Instead of strengthening the best performing departments, use the assessment to see how the weaker departments could become stronger. What is hindering their ability to perform well? Is it leadership, resources, unclear purpose, dysfunctional dynamics, or something else?
  • Resist the urge to rank your functional areas as more or less important. When we make some functions “second-class citizens” within our system, we are inadvertently diminishing the overall success, effectiveness, and performance of the organization. This means that profits, customer relationships, and productivity are not optimized.
  • Articulate and/or strengthen a higher shared purpose for your organization that all the departments and divisions can meaningfully support. This reinforces the entire organization and shifts our focus to the whole instead of the part.
  • Consider aligning your budget process with the goal of strengthening all the parts, to achieve a big boost in organizational performance.

The idea that optimizing the part over the whole organization weakens the performance of an organization is a challenging one because it is counterintuitive to so many traditional learned rules and background assumptions. Interdependence changes the way we optimize the performance of the whole. Instead of favoring a part of the organization or system (or society for that matter) over others, interdependence helps us see that the departments that are dysfunctional – or the parts of our society who struggle – are diminishing what our organization and society can become.

The question is, do we want a high performing organization, society, or world? Then we must embrace interdependence and learn to work together to make things better as a whole.

Learn more about Dr. Kathleen Allen and her book Leading from the Roots here.