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Systemic thinking – a solution to future organisational challenges

Tuesday, January 23, 2018 - Bjarne Stark, Manager & Facilitator, Mannaz

The future will call for something different to the fundamentals we have applied in the past. The systemic approach will drive progress in your organisation or company, even in an uncertain future where the unknown will permeate all working procedures.

The future will become increasingly unpredictable. Sure-fire successes will become obsolete in a few months, and new techniques, new platforms, new networks and new ways of thinking emerge almost daily. Traditional companies and systems will encounter problems if they try to understand the shape of the future. At the same time, agile, young, digital companies will grow unimpeded and become so-called unicorns in less than two years. This scenario may sound alarming, but the future we are contemplating includes both major opportunities and risks – and naturally, everything in between.

The big question for all of us standing on the threshold of the unknown might be: How should we collaborate, make decisions and act in the future when knowledge based on past experience becomes unsafe? How can we make our organisations more flexible and dynamic – despite many organisations becoming very large?
Systemic thinking is a theory-based approach to developing people and organisations, and it is vital input for answering the question above. Systemic thinking reveals nothing about which structures are expedient, or what you should count on in uncertain times, but the thinking indicates how you can cooperate and continue to deliver results even in a highly uncertain climate pervaded by the unknown.
"Systemic thinking moves the focus from individuals to relationships."

Many systems

We have systems everywhere. For example, the psychological system in my head creates order, ensuring that what I encounter makes sense to me. At the same time, I belong to a team at work. This is a social system. Social systems, in particular, easily become complex. For instance, sometimes teams do not get on. When seeking an explanation for a team's challenges, you will not discover just one explanation but as many different explanations as there are team members. I am often surprised that explanations from people in the same situation vary to such a large extent.

My point is that as we perceive things differently, analysing the problem in the team using a traditional cause and effect approach is useless as it will never produce an unequivocal answer. Instead, we must learn to approach the challenges of cooperating in order to create new content in our relationships. Then systemic thinking will move the focus from individuals to relationships. Rather than asking what the problem is, we could ask what we want instead, how we work together best, and what we can do more in the future. In that way, systemic thinking is an answer to how you should work with people in an organisation.

An example from football

Take the Danish football club AGF. It has changed its coach and players repeatedly. And everyone talks about its great untapped potential. Regardless of the talents of the coaches or players, they cannot seem to make a good team. I believe they are trapped in a mechanical view of how you create good football, and they get 2 + 2 to equal 3. I would venture to suggest that if you tackled the task by creating a winning team via a systemic approach with a focus on how the club should communicate and cooperate, it would release the team's potential more effectively. The Danish national coach, Åge Hareide, is sometimes mentioned as a coach who sees the task as a whole. He involves players in how they play best, and creates better results based on the team's resources.

I think we all know the feeling of the flow that arises with smooth cooperation. One person says something that someone else builds on – and that gives the impression we can achieve a lot together. The same feeling occurs in strong teams in a working environment. We 'make each other good', and together we can master creating unique solutions so that 2 + 2 become 5.

"With systemic thinking, we put the truth in brackets. We must work out the

best course of action together and continuously adjust and develop solutions


A clash with objective knowledge

Indirectly, systemic thinking also clashes with objective knowledge – the script. We can never really know what people are thinking, or how they will react, so what is the right course of action? With systemic thinking, we put the truth in brackets. We must work out the best course of action together and continuously adjust and develop solutions together. No one has a pre-printed script, because as Nokia's former CEO said: "We did everything right, but we lost!".

However, that is not the same as throwing all your knowledge out of the window. Knowledge is welcome but systemic thinking dos not adopt a deferential or respectful approach to knowledge because we never know what innovation and new opportunities the future has in store. So, while it makes sense to gain inspiration from knowledge, you should also try to be curious about other people's views on useful solutions in order to build open, exploratory collaboration based on dialogue.

A survey* of teams at 35 Norwegian companies revealed that teams that are good at exploratory dialogue, are also efficient. Similarly, job satisfaction increases because you do not wear each other out, and the frequency of conflicts falls. The classic perception has otherwise been that when you get job satisfaction to rise, efficiency falls, but we can see that a systemic approach can produce both simultaneously. In practice, the systemic approach therefore comprises a long list of tools for managing conversation and models such as types of questions that promote cooperation and leadership based on dialogue.

Do you talk too much – and not listen enough?

Hand on your heart. Personally, I have had to practise listening more and talking less. And I think that applies to many of us. But if you listen half of the time, your counterparts can bring their knowledge into play, and you will all become wiser. Who knows what kind of opportunities will arise?

At the same time, research also indicates the importance of how we talk together. If our speech is positive and we explore opportunities, we perform significantly better. By comparison, employees who deliver the worst results talk about themselves 97% of the time**. Yes, you have probably met this type of person.

Just try to apply the systemic approach in a meeting scenario, which is our most frequent kind of collaboration process. What if our meetings were just a little more professional – not just in relation to structure and content, but with a special focus on managing the conversation and mode of conversation – there is no telling how much we could improve efficiency and creativity in a very short time?

The future will call for something different to the fundamentals we have applied in the past. Fixed rules and structures will become non-productive. We must coordinate more with each other in complex contexts, and obviously, we should therefore begin thinking in systems and processes to safeguard the future – also when there are many unknown factors.

* Bang & Middelfart, Oslo 2010
** Marcial Losado, The role of positivity and connectivity in the performance business teams, 2004

About Bjarne Stark

Bjarne Stark is a facilitator and manager at Mannaz, where he primarily works with process consultation and project management. Bjarne has extensive management experience after a number of years as the director of studies at KaosPiloterne, a hybrid business and design school. He has also led his own consultancy firm, worked as an internal development consultant for Aarhus County, been a project manager and worked as a planner in the advertising industry. Bjarne's passion is facilitating motivating and meaningful learning processes as a way to create development and learning on both an individual and organisational level. If you would like more knowledge on consulting services relating to process management and project management, you are welcome to contact Bjarne Stark at