One of my clients once told me that it took her a year to get new hires in her organization to think systemically. She was bemoaning the fact that while college graduates were skilled and knowledgeable, they still thought more about their own work instead of the larger organization.  We had been working together in a coaching and organizational development relationship to transform the silo mentality of the organization culture to an integrated one. Her vision was to develop a culture that had employees working for the larger mission of the organization instead of just their department or individual job responsibilities.

She wanted her employees to see their clients in a more holistic way as well. If the employees saw their organization as an interdependent system as their clients that way as well, then they would also work to develop good relationships with other staff in the organization that would create more collaboration and better results in the organization. Our work together was to design a variety of processes that would reinforce the connection and integrated thinking needed to work as an interdependent system. Over the 3 plus years we worked together, we were able to accomplish this vision. I have kept in touch with this organization over the last 15 years and I am happy to say that this culture shift has become deeply rooted in the organization.

I believe most of our organizations are moving beyond simple or complicated work environments to complex and chaotic. Complex and chaotic challenges cannot be solved by analyzing the parts, finding the one part that is broken, replacing, and reassembling the organization. Complex problems require a systemic perspective. Complex problems arise from open systems. Few, if any, of our organizations have solid boundaries between them and their external environment. This increases the dynamic nature of our organizations. We have people outside the organization that are deciding on funding or policies that impact our work, we have economic, political, and social issues that affect our organizations. These impacts create an internal dynamic environment that can’t be understood from its part, rather they can only be understood by going up to the systems level to see the patterns that these dynamics create. Leadership in a dynamic complex environment is to develop strategies from patterns. 

The metaphor of the dance floor and the balcony is a perfect way to see to understand what is going on. When we are dancing on the dance floor, we have an enjoyable time, but only see what’s happening from where we are on the floor. A person looking at the dance floor from the balcony has a perspective of the entire dance floor. This perspective helps them see the dynamics that are occurring in real time on the dance floor and see the patterns that these dynamics are creating.  Leaders who are working with complex challenges and dynamic environments, can’t understand what is happening if they stay in the day-to-day work of the organization (i.e. dance floor). They must intentionally take time to see how things connect to one another. We begin to see systems, when we take time to see the relationships, ties, and interconnections between variables at locally and the larger environment. It is in this way that we can develop a deeper understanding and make meaning of what is happening that is affecting our day-to-day work.

Comedians who comment on political or social issues often have fun painting a picture of how things connect to each other. Their description of these connections may be distorted for the sake of humor, but the process of naming connections between things and drawing a conclusion that helps the listener see the pattern is the same capacity that organizational leaders need to use to help their staff see the bigger picture and make better strategic decisions for the organization.

What helps or hinders your ability to move from the dance floor to the balcony in your day-to-day work?

How do you develop systems thinking in your staff?

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (available for pre-order on Amazon) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change.