Systemic Leadership

The system view is critical to understanding and managing any system. While this seems obvious to the point of triviality, it carries some subtleties for leaders that are not so obvious. Subtleties that are important to the effective management of systems.

As a beginning point, it is appropriate to lift up a reminder of the nature of systems. Systems are entities that are made up of multiple parts. Systems draw their essential characteristics from the interaction of those parts. Here is a subtle but important distinction: the essential characteristics of the system emerge from the interactions among its parts and not from the actions of the parts themselves.

This is important because it arises from the reality that any part of the system affects the system but only through its interaction with another part or parts of the system. The individual parts are conceptually separate but they are not functionally independent in the context of the system.

The same thing is true of the subsystems within a system. Made up of a subset of the parts, they too can affect the system but only through interacting with the other subsystems or parts.

This means that the system cannot be divided without sacrificing the character of the system. If the parts or subsystems are split apart from each other, their interactions are destroyed as they are taken out of relationship to each other. By destroying the interactions the characteristics of the system are destroyed.

What does this mean for leaders? Organizations are systems. Any separation of the organization’s subsystems or parts will alter the relationships – and with them the functioning of the larger organization. Leaders must understand the relationships and interactions and must focus their management efforts on the interactions rather than on the parts.

Many leaders are tempted to manage the actions of the organization’s parts – to “improve” the parts in an attempt to improve the larger organization. This is tempting because the parts are conceptually different and distinct. But at best this usually fails to improve the organizational performance and at worst can backfire by actually degrading or destroying the performance of the organization.

This can often be seen when one department of an organization introduces processes or procedures to improve the performance of that department. These new processes may improve the target department but actually degrade the performance of other departments and cause an overall reduction in organizational effectiveness. Take for example, a medical office that introduces a medical records system requiring record-keeping practices that divert time given to care delivery to the upkeep of medical records. Although record-keeping improves, the quality and/or quantity of direct care declines due to the demands of the record-keeping activities. This process intervention has a positive effect on the quality of medical records at a price paid by care delivery.

By managing (improving?) the record-keeping subsystem the leaders of the medical office have actually degraded the system performance against its care delivery mission. This points up the folly of attempting to manage systems by managing subsystems or parts.

This is the point of breakdown in many management models. Benchmarking subsystems, continuously improving subsystems and other kindred efforts all lead to the same kind of failure.

A solid, informed system view is critical to effective leadership. Leaders must advance the organization at the system level. They must lead with a focus on interactions among the parts and subsystems rather than on the actions of those parts in isolation. It is at the system level that effective leadership lives. An understanding of and appreciation for that level is the sine qua non of the effective leader.

The leader must adopt a systems view and develop a systems understanding. This includes a system context perspective. The leader of the medical records department in our example missed the boat because she failed to see her department in context with the larger organization. Taken in isolation, her changes might make sense. But considered in context it was actually counter-productive.

By allowing the subsystem change to take place without putting it in the larger context, the medical office leadership was failing to take a systemic view of the organization as a whole. The medical records leader took a systems view of her department but failed to take a systems view of the context, the medical office operation. The office leader failed to take a systems view of his organization. The end result was a detrimental step.

This clearly highlights the importance of understanding the system of interest and its context. Both require a systems view. Because of the very nature of systems, the leader must manage the interactions of the component parts. Effective management of those interactions begins with a systems view.

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