Systems Thinking principles in leadership, problem solving

JUST decided to go back to the basics of the philosophy on which this column is built; thus the Systems Thinking discipline. It is important for the followers of the column to get to understand the discipline that influences my thinking as your columnist.

Systems Think with Sam Hlabati

This column most often focuses on the reasons why a lot of organisations collapse, which we almost always find is their failure to understand the principles of Systems Thinking; thus being oblivious of the fact that for every effect there is a cause and vice – versa.

Systems Thinking is a discipline of knowledge for understanding how things influence one another within a whole system.

In his book The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge described Systems Thinking as a discipline for seeing things as wholes, a framework for focusing on interrelationships rather than individual components; focusing on seeing patterns of change rather than static snapshots.

Systems Thinking has been defined by prominent scholars as a credible approach to problem solving, executed through viewing problems as parts of an overall system, rather than just reacting to specific problems, outcomes or events in isolation as this may potentially contribute to further development of unintended consequences.

Systems thinking focuses on cyclical rather than linear cause and effect, which help leaders, understand the interrelatedness of problems and connections that create the events occurring in our organisations.

Complex whole

It is important to point out, right at the beginning of our journey, that when we refer to a system we mean a grouping of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements that form a complex whole unit.
An organisation is a system of interrelated functions such as human resources management, finance, production, distribution and marketing among others that may exist unique to the organisation’s business. Within the larger organisational system, functional areas can be viewed either as sub-systems of the organisational system or as semi-independent full systems; depending on the level of analysis.

As an illustration, the human resources department can be analysed as a system with sub-systems such as employee relations, talent attraction and retention and learning & development among others.

In spite of elaborate strategic plans that executives put in place; the expected results from the functional areas and the organisation as a whole seem evasive; even when organisations follow such plans to the letter, crossing the “t’s” and dotting the “i’s”. As an unrepresented suspect in the dock, external forces do get all the tribute for the derailment of the plans; and the next strategic plan will be on the table.

Over the next instalments, we will unravel leadership thinking that will help leaders mitigate against the failure of strategic plans by understanding the presence of underlying factors that do derail any course of action that an organisation would want to take. These underlying factors within an organisational situation can be likened to an iceberg. The block of ice (iceberg) which floats at sea shows just a bit of its structure above the waves, with the rest of structure under the water.

The massive weight under the surface is much greater than the visible piece, a lesson that had a high “school fees tag” for Captain Edward John Smith at 11:40 pm on April 10 1912 when he was in charge of the Titanic on its maiden voyage when it struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic; sinking after two hours forty three minutes killing approximately 1 500 people on board.

Leaders should understand the implications of underlying forces in their organisations by instituting the principles of Systems Thinking.

Organisational leadership

The system balancing principles of natural systems are applicable to organisational leadership issues. Ignoring Systems Thinking principles has been one of the reasons why some High Performance Organisations (HPO’s) have lost their competitive advantage over time.

When the Dow Jones Industrial Average was incepted in 1986, it had a dozen participants that included great corporates such US Rubber (which became Uniroyal, now part of Michelin), today only General Electric is among the current 30.

Freek Vermeulen over a few years ago highlighted in the Forbes Magazine five common mistakes that business leaders make about innovation.

Firstly is the delusion being obsessed with numbers (returns) in the first instance, secondly is being trapped by success believing that nothing else matters after succeeding, the forth is the belief that one knows the competition — ignoring unlikely threats and lastly the benchmarking syndrome of doing things in a certain way because everybody else does it that way. These mistakes can be countered by adopting a Systems Thinking Perspective.

Whilst in organisations, systems consist of people, structures, and processes that work together to make an organisation healthy; in nature Systems Thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, plants, and animals work together to survive. We need to understand how the natural systems work to perfection, and why we are credited for damaging the ozone layer, as well as making flora and fauna species extinct because our disturbances in the ecosystem.

Rabbit and fool
A simplistic model of how a balancing ecosystem is that of the rabbit and the fox; in a predatory system.

Assuming that in a simplistic model foxes only predate upon rabbits, and foxes survive only on hunting rabbits; the following would manifest. When foxes catch and eat an increased number of rabbits, the population of the foxes will increase on the basis of increased food supplies.

The increased number of foxes will then catch and eat even more rabbits; which then depletes the population of the rabbits at a rate faster than the replenishment rate. When their food supplies (rabbits) are depleted, the population growth rate of the foxes is slowed down due to food shortages.

During that period when the foxes’ population is depleting, the survival rate of the rabbits is relatively boosted as their killers would be lesser.

Just bear in mind that any increase in rabbit population at any moment is increased food for the foxes whose population will increase in turn; this will bring the system status to the beginning state of blossoming foxes, and the loop becomes recursive.

The principles of Systems Thinking can be used in leadership issues that include among others, change management, organisational restructuring, rewarding performance, managing national interest issues such as controlling crime and redistribution of resources and public service delivery among others.

We shall be tackling organisational leadership matters as raised by myself as well as in response to issues that you may raise with me in the upcoming instalments.

Sam Hlabati is a senior professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), a Certified Compensation Professional (CCP®) and a Global Remuneration Professional (GRP®). Email:; twitter handle; @samhlabati


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