Applied Systems Thinking

7 minute read

Originally posted on theholosgroup.com 


There are a number of approaches to supporting leaders conceptualise and engage with ‘transformational change’ with the foundation of The Holos Group’s approach being a combination of both horizontal and vertical leadership development to both support and drive the transformational change process.

Our approach is further supported by the principles and practices of  Adaptive Leadership and the ground-breaking work of Heifetz & Linsky from Harvard University, with particular emphasis placed upon the importance of establishing and maintaining a suitable container (or holding environment) for supporting the change journey.  And third, our approach to designing and delivering transformational change experiences involves the cultivation of highly agile and collaborative operating environments for supporting people and organisational systems to transition through the change journey as quickly and efficiently ash possible with minimal wasted effort.

Recently, Pete Holliday and I spend the day with the Senior Leadership Team (approximately 80 people) of a large organisation implementing a significant business transformational change agenda. We have been engaged to work with the organisation’s SLT for a period of 12 months to positively impacted the organisation’s change agenda.

The Holos Group was engaged by the organisation to support the SLT because of our experience in  develop individual and collective:

leadership capacity

  • The SLT’s agility to understand, engage with, navigate and capitalise upon highly complex, ambiguous and constantly changing contexts. It is a ability underpinned by a leader’s cognitive capacity to process complexity and their behavioural dexterity in leading through that complexity.

In our work with the SLT we worked with the principle that the SLT’s individual and collective capacity is enhanced through vertical leadership development – building a leaders ways of thinking about and conceptualising complexity. The importance of ‘vertical’ leadership development to leader impact and performance cannot be over-stated. More than intelligence, professional expertise or experience, or behavioural competency, a leader’s level of conceptual thinking and how they ‘make sense’ of complex contexts is the single most important determining factor influencing a leader’s impact and performance.

leadership competence

  • A SLT’s skill in interacting with and through others in catalysing, crystallising and cohering decisive action to deliver purposeful change using adaptive change principles and processes.

In our work with the SLT we worked with the principle that the SLT’s individual and collective capability is enhanced through horizontal leadership development – broadening a leader’s base set of skills for acting within complexity. The specific leadership capabilities required depends upon the context in which a leader is leading, with the context of this particular operating environment being “highly complex, ambiguous and constantly changing”. The Holos Group’s Generative Leadership Model was used as a foundation for developing the SLT’s collective leadership competence. This model consists of a set of four foundational leadership skills (Systems Agility, Risk-Taking Agility, Decision-Making Agility and Collaboration Agility) identified as critical for leading adaptively in transformative change environments.

leadership confidence

  • The SLT’s willingness to implement strategies based on how they are conceptualising the transformation ‘opportunities’ they identify intimately determines if and how the organisation’s transformational change agenda is implemented.

Of the many factors underpinning the development of collective confidence, we utilised a triangulation of trust, courage and belief (in oneself and in others) as our foundation.

In working with the SLT in a recent Forum we focused on the developing the group’s collective leadership capacity, capability and confidence using an Applied Systems Thinking tool. Applied Systems Thinking (or ‘Systems Agility’) is a foundational ‘skill’ within our Generative Leadership Model (along with Risk-Taking Agility, Decision-Making Agility and Collaboration Agility) that both supports horizontal leadership development and facilitates leadership capacity upshift (vertical leadership development).

The tool we use as our foundation is the Integral Framework, a deceptively simple (in all its complexity!) and radically underused systems thinking tool that encourages the user to consider and integrate four inter-related aspects co-arising within any system. The Integral Framework was first conceptualised by Ken Wilber and is often described as the ‘ultimate theory of everything’ able to integrate every other theory, praxis or approach into one or more of its four foundational aspects.

Integral Map_BASE

As depicted above, the Integral Framework consists of of two continuums (Individual-Collective and Interior/Intangible-Exterior/Tangible) intersected to present for aspects of a system:

  1. Subjective (the Upper-Left Aspect or “I” Quadrant)
  2. Objective (the Upper-Right Aspect or “It” Quadrant)
  3. Inter-Subjective (the Lower-Left Aspect or “We” Quadrant)
  4. Inter-Objective (the Lower-Right Aspect or “Its” Quadrant)

As presented in the image below, each Quadrant of the Integral Framework reveals a plethora of considerations when undertaking Systems Thinking and when all perspectives are ‘integrated’ or synthesised together a leader’s appreciation of a system increases exponentially.

Integral Map_Extended


Within the context of the Forum we were using the Integral Framework both in a developmental context (teaching the SLT a new tool for considering their individual and collective work contexts) and as a systematic method for generating new insights and leadership actions focused on improving organisation’s transformation performance.

In applying the tool we invited the SLT to diagnose the ‘current state’ of IT system implementation opportunity for the organisation. The specific opportunity was ‘on the launch pad’ for implementation after nearly 2 years of planning. To put the complexity of the IT system’s implementation into context it has been described by one senior executive of the organisation as “conducting a heart-lung transplant on a patient at the same time that patient is running a marathon.”

To add a level of necessary complexity to the application of the tool is diagnosing the ‘current state’ of the IT system implementation and the organisation’s readiness for its implementation we invited the SLT is also consider each Quadrant of the Integral Framework through four levels of increasing complexity. Combining the four foundational Aspects (‘quadrants’) of the Integral Framework with the four levels of increasing complexity yielded  16 unique, yet inter-related, perspectives for considering the implementation of the IT system.

The four levels of complexity within each Quadrant of the Integral Framework were:

Level 1 – Tactical

  • Role: Implementation
  • Time: immediate (i.e., today, this week, this month)
  • Focus: localised (self, work role, team)
  • Activities: single action, set of ‘basic’ tasks
  • Considerations: Consequences of performance

Level 2 – Operational

  • Role: Co-Ordination
  • Time: short-term (i.e., this quarter, this year)
  • Focus: functional (division, department)
  • Activities: co-ordinating outputs, regulating quality
  • Considerations: Content of performance

Level 3 – Strategic

  • Role: Transformation
  • Time: mid-term (i.e., 1 – 3 years)
  • Focus: organisation-wide
  • Activities: steering the organisation’s purpose, organisation-wide objective setting
  • Considerations: Contexts of performance

Level 4 – Systemic

  • Role: Synergisation
  • Time: long-term (i.e., 3+ years to generations)
  • Focus: eco-system (industry, sector, market)
  • Activities: industry stakeholder engagement & alignment, optimising eco-system performance
  • Considerations: Constructs of performance

And to bring the Applied Systems Thinking process to life even further we used masking tape to map out a life-size Integral Framework and  invited the SLT to physically position themselves within one of the 16 identified perspectives. Within each perspective we invited each ‘perspective’  to respond to a focusing question specific to their ‘location’ within the integral framework.

So what happened?

To begin with there was a great deal of confusion as each individual member of the SLT attempted to comprehend the unique considerations within their specific perspective of the larger system ‘map’. In the first instance the process revealed that systems thinking is something we naturally do as human beings. It feels unnatural to consider only one perspective independently within a larger whole when we naturally seek to understand how aspects of a system are connected and interact with each other.

Second, it is challenging to consider 16 perspectives of a single ‘thing’ (in this case, the current state of a IT system implementation) concurrently. As a result the SLT gained a deeper appreciation of the importance of working together as “one mind” in sensing into what the organisation needs to be aware as it initiates the implementation of the IT system.

Third, and most importantly the SLT identified four foundational leadership opportunities for them collectively in how they work together to understand, engage with, navigate and capitalise upon the IT system’s implementation. Interestingly for us, the four factors they identified correlated exactly with the four foundational leadership skills (Systems Agility, Risk-Taking Agility, Decision-Making Agility and Collaboration Agility) that underpin our Generative Leadership Model.