Like an ecosystem in nature, functional and departmental groupings in an organization are interconnected and interdependent, with the health of one group impacting all others in the system. Organizations are made up of a complex web of relationships, processes, and infrastructures that create the natural environment in which team members operate. While each team member has his or her own role to play, they knowingly or unknowingly create ripple effects throughout the entire enterprise. When a business ecosystem thrives, it means that the participants have developed patterns of behavior that streamline the flow of knowledge, nurture talent, and optimize the use of resources throughout the system.
From a leadership perspective, systems awareness is the ability to lead a functional team in a way that benefits the entire organization. Systems aware leaders have the capacity to understand and communicate how the system (assuming it is a healthy one) contributes to the long-term welfare of the individuals that operate within the organization. At its core, systems awareness means that a leader is not looking only at the goals or vision of his or her particular area of influence, but understands how their team functions within the organization and works with other teams to develop solutions that benefit the entire system. With an awareness of systems, the leader has a broader perspective on any given situation, which expands the options for effective action.
When a leader is not demonstrating systems intelligence there are often clear symptoms. A lack of system awareness can cause a leader to focus too narrowly on the short term – which can be necessary at times— but this view creates missed opportunities for long term strategy. A silo mentality is created when a leader’s sole mission is the optimal functioning of their own department instead of the optimal alignment between their department and the overall performance of the organization. In a leadership silo, ideas may flow up and down within a department or functional team but if the leader fails to take into account the broader network of relationships that extend beyond functional confines, overall organizational achievement will suffer.
Leaders who demonstrate a high degree of systems awareness and intelligence:
- Lead with a big picture view
- Address root causes to problems that exist within the system instead of fixing symptoms
- Recognize the complex interrelationship between multiple variables that may contribute to a problem
- Seek solutions that are good for the organization as a whole and at the same time good for the team they lead
- Look for both positive and negative patterns that impact the entire system
- Design systems that naturally generate the results they want
- Identify leverage points within systems that result in positive change and incremental performance improvements
- Appreciate the relationship between the organization’s long-term well being and the welfare of the individuals working within the system
- Anticipate the ripple effects of their actions and the impact on the organizational culture
- Involve all key internal and external stakeholders in decisions that have widespread impact
- Achieve results in a way that are sustainable — balancing human and technical resources to create long term high performance
To improve the ability to lead from a systems perspective, a leader must consistently ask these questions when designing solutions:
- How has our current organizational structure contributed to this problem?
- Are we, through the way we think and the paradigm out of which we function, the cause of our own problems?
- How can we design the system to solve multiple problems across the organization and prevent future problems?
While cultivating a high degree of systems intelligence takes time, it leads to far greater leadership impact than power and influence alone. By using systems thinking across functional boundaries, leaders create meaningful conversations around ongoing and new challenges. Over time, the commitment of the systems aware leader to the health of the whole organization fosters similar commitment in others. The legacy of the systems aware leader becomes service to future generations by creating an environment that encourages team collaboration, big picture thinking, and creates long-term sustainable results.
Grow with purpose.
Emily Rogers is an executive coach, business consultant and retreat facilitator. She strategically advises and supports organizations and individuals in growing and realizing their full potential in purposeful and balanced ways. You can connect with her at www.emilyrogers.com.