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Leadership and Systems Thinking – Tips, Tricks and Traps

By Eric A Denniston, Managing Director, Denner Group International 2-20-2-13

Takeaways:  Leadership and systems thinking go hand in hand. Start by seeing the larger picture and creating a common vision and common goals before taking action. Be disciplined about keeping things simple rather than making them complicated. Help your stakeholders understand the outcomes for themselves as well as the business.

Leadership and Systems Thinking go hand in hand. This may not be the first place you have heard about this but think about it. Leaders are invariably charged with seeing the whole picture – which must naturally be a systemic exercise – and then executing or causing action on a tactical or analytic level. Seeing the whole picture, while not that simple, can be simplified into recognizing the various systems that are nested within the over-reaching system the leader is dealing with.

Tips, Tricks and Traps

Let’s explore some tips, tricks and traps around this business of Leadership and Systems Thinking.

  1. One combined tip and trap that comes to mind is to define the system for which you are solving an issue.  Say you want to launch an initiative around professional dress in your business. The first tip is to be sure to define the over-reaching system you are addressing. Does it encompass and affect everyone in the organization and/or does it extend outside the organization? In other words, be clear that the intended outcomes are defined both within and outside the organization. The first trapis to not dig deeply enough to answer such a question. Who is affected by the initiative – just your employees? Does this have desired outcomes with your customer AND with your suppliers? 
  2. The second tip is to ensure you are measuring the desired effects of the initiative on the business. Do you have some metrics you can put in place to measure SOFT results, such as how employees, customers and suppliers respond to the initiative? One trick is to make sure you measure both positive and negative reactions to the initiative even before it is launched, in an open and candid fashion. Yes, this takes more time and work, but the flip side is the trap. The trapis that if you don’t gauge reactions to this type of initiative, you may face the law of unintended consequences. This is where one or more groups of stakeholders literally and figuratively stop your initiative. Any investment in time and money you have made at that point may in fact have been wasted. 
  3. A third tip is to have the discipline to use no more than one sheet of paper to articulate what the initiative is all about. This will help make it easier for your stakeholders to read, understand, refer to and follow the initiative’s processes. Using bullets is a good tip to accomplish this. The trick lies in working hard at making it all fit onto one sheet of paper. The trap is to presume your stakeholders will simply follow an edict. Don’t forget the always present WIIFM factor (what’ s in it for me?). Your stakeholders will more eagerly embrace your initiative if you help them understand the outcomes for themselves and for the business.7 Habits of Highly Effective People

As usual, Systems Thinking as a discipline relies on structures and processes to be used effectively. Understanding this precept is key to using Systems Thinking in Leadership activities.  If you “begin with the end in mind,” as stated in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, your leadership effectiveness will be greatly enhanced.

If you would like to know more about building your leadership skills or Systems Thinking please contact me or visit our website.

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