Why we need systems thinking

Albert Einstein said that we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.

That statement is truer today than ever before. The world is becoming increasingly complex and moving so rapidly that the future will look nothing like the immediate past or present.

Linear thinking – the mindset that things will basically continue on their current path – and that any effect has only one visible cause – is no longer appropriate or valid in the 21stC.

Systems thinking is an alternative mindset that involves zooming out from our individual roles and organisations to view the broader systems of which we are part.  We can  join the dots between our own actions and related effects occurring elsewhere – in other places, times and to other people. We see patterns and similarities in complex variables, relationships and behaviours to reveal possible levers for change.

Without systems thinking, decision-making can be constrained within a very narrow scope or range of issues, lacking consideration for wider or long term impacts. This myopia is like a jail, an entrapment that blocks creativity and collaborative, transparent solution-finding.

Consider the failure of a strong and timely leadership response to Institutional Child Sexual Abuse and the Climate Change emergency. Both demonstrate myopia and short-termism on the grandest scale.

The world needs more political and business leaders with a holistic, systems mindset – a new breed of forward thinking people joining forces to co-create the Future We Want.

Today’s leaders are tasked with managing the transition from “ego to eco”, a shift that is now imperative for human survival and the protection of other species. They can harness the transformational power of systems thinking  to get us there.

Do you possess these 7 leadership qualities?


Leadership is the process of leading for change rather than stability. Great leaders possess a set of abilities that enable them to recognise the need for change, create a vision to guide that change, and execute the change effectively.

The challenges posed by globalisation, resource depletion, growing global population and climate change present an urgent need for a shift from business-as-usual. A special type of leader is needed to tackle these complex issues and embed sustainability thinking into every business decision.

According to Poly Courtice, a Director of Cambridge University’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL),

“A leader is someone who crafts a vision and inspires people to act collectively to make it happen, responding to whatever changes and challenges arise along the way.

A sustainability leader is someone who inspires and supports action towards a better world.”       

CISL’s research suggests the following seven key characteristic traits and styles are among the most important in distinguishing the leadership approach taken by individuals tackling sustainability issues:

  • Systemic, interdisciplinary understanding;
  • Emotional intelligence and a caring attitude;
  • Values orientation that shapes culture;
  • A strong vision for making a significant difference;
  • An inclusive style that engenders trust;
  • A willingness to innovate and be radical; and
  • A long-term perspective on impacts.

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) have acknowledged the importance of leadership and commitment in business management. In the revised international standards, ISO14001 and 9001, leadership has been placed at the core of the high level management system structure

Top management will now need to demonstrate leadership and commitment at all stages of planning, implementing and reviewing the health, safety and environmental (HSE) management system.

In the revised standards, leaders have a stronger role in communicating the importance of HSE management and in directing and supporting persons who can contribute to its success. Some ways that Senior Management can demonstrate the new leadership requirements are through the setting of objectives that are compatible with the company’s strategic direction; creating processes and procedures that require staff to apply HSE criteria in procurement and allocating resources for improvement initiatives. Leaders may delegate responsibility for certain tasks but retain accountability for ensuring that the intended outcomes are reached.

A knowledgeable and independent facilitator of senior managers and stakeholder groups can assist in to identify the social, environmental and sustainability risks and opportunities that have the highest priority for the business. This understanding is essential in system planning to drive performance improvement.  Feel free to call me, on 0418 862899 to discuss how I might help.