Transform your organization using systemic thinking

Learn about systemic thinking and how it can help leaders create and maintain organizational change.

Steffan Surdek
January 25, 2021
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I talk and write a lot about co-creative leadership these days. When people ask me to name the key traits of a co-creative leader, I usually list the following five skills:

  1. Being a voice among many in the conversation
  2. Unleashing the leaders around them
  3. Building capacity on their team
  4. Dancing with the system around them
  5. Encouraging learning by doing

This article is the fourth in a series that will explore each of the key skills co-creative leaders need to know. This fourth key skill we will unpack together is how to dance with the system around you.

Dancing with the system around you

I got my initiation to systemic thinking when I attended my first Management 3.0 course as a participant a long time ago. At the time, it seemed very useful but it felt abstract as well. I had a hard time understanding how this could help me better work with clients. Then I decided to jump into the water and try it out to better understand it.

What I learned since then is that working with organizations from a more systemic approach opened up many doors for me. No longer did I need to have a big plan up front, I just needed to have an ear closer to the ground. Based on what I could hear, the next steps came to me naturally. Now when I do organizational transformation work with my clients, systemic thinking is one of the key things I teach them.

In this article, I will give you a high-level introduction to this powerful skill for change leaders. By the end of this article, you should have a better idea of how to apply systemic thinking in your everyday life.

What is a system?

The first important thing to understand is that you are surrounded by different systems all over your life. A system in this case is a group of two or more people interacting together. To be more specific, we should actually call these Complex Adaptive Systems because they adapt and react to what is happening around them. For example, imagine you close down the street in a city... What happens to the traffic? It gets redirected and begins flowing in a different direction to adapt accordingly.

In an organization, complex adaptive systems can represent different teams or departments working together (see illustration below). To keep this simple, imagine you have a marketing department and a sales department. Each of these on its own is a system, but a third system can appear when teams from both departments work together.

As you can see, the number of systems around you can grow quickly and exponentially. When you talk about "the system", it needs to be clear in your mind which one you are talking about. In the example above, this means either the marketing or sales department, or both teams together.

You will start becoming a more effective change leader when you notice the different systems around you and what they are telling you. What you see will help you better direct and guide your team in a fluid and dynamic way.

When we talk about looking at it from a systemic perspective, there are a few questions to think about. What are these systems around me? How many teams do I have? How are they interacting?

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How to listen to the system around you

There are different things you can listen for and notice in the different systems that surround you. Inside a team for example, what are the dynamics going on between people? Who has influence and who does not? What does the team talk about? What are the elephants in the room that the team does not talk about? Paying close attention will help you understand people’s needs and identify what you can do to meet these needs.

By listening to what people inside a system are saying, you will then start building a better understanding of their beliefs as well. Imagine a group that believes everything needs to go through their boss. What happens when you, as their boss, tell them that they can make their own decisions? Will they believe you right away or not? As a change leader, you can learn to recognize this belief in the system. You can then work through it by acknowledging the current belief and helping the group change it.

Another thing you can pay attention to is what the system is capable of doing. Are you asking your team to do something that is too much for them? Are they capable of telling you this or not? How are they telling you this and how are you adjusting your request to support them? As a change leader, when you notice this, you may choose to give people smaller pieces of work or do some of the work with them to better support them.

Finally, you can listen to what the system currently needs. Do they need more independence, more of your support or do they need something else? When you have an ear to the ground, you can feel what the system needs and find ways to meet these needs. At this point, you will no longer have a need for that big change management plan that traditionally spells everything out up front.

Just remember that what you hear will be tainted by your own personal beliefs and perceptions. The more you talk about the same system with other change leaders, the richer the picture of that system that you will get.

How to inject things into the system

Once you can hear the system, you can start injecting new things into it to cause the system to adapt. Injecting something can be as easy as proposing a new idea based on conversations you had with people. You can also base your suggestion on what you feel the system currently needs.

To inject an idea, start by talking about it with individuals or smaller groups of people. Doing this in a small group first will show you if there is resistance to it. Keep bringing it up casually and someone you spoke to may eventually bring up the idea to a larger group. When this happens, the convergence between people becomes more natural and easy, because it is not the first time they hear about it.

The idea of injecting something is not always to get an immediate result. Sometimes you may want to do it to check where the system is currently at in regards to an idea. With one of our clients, we gently injected an idea for about six months. That is the time it took before we noticed the system was ready and willing to do something about it. Remember, as a change leader you are playing a long-term game, not a short-term one.


As a change leader, systemic thinking is a key skill to develop. So how can you start applying this valuable notion in your life? At this point, you can probably notice the systems around you. Try listening to one of your systems at a basic level for a day.

Focus on what the system is telling you and categorize what you hear. Then, identify something simple you would like to inject into the system and talk about it to a few people. You will need to keep practicing this skill again and again to get better and better at it.

Want to know more? Learning how to guide your teams more dynamically using systemic thinking is part of the core principles we teach in our upcoming Management 3.0 training courses.

What are the systems around you? What are the systems able and not able to do? What are some of the things that you injected in the system recently?