A. Leadership Capacity

3. Advanced Leadership Capacities

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Systems Thinking

Systems thinking  is a concept that recognizes the interconnectedness of virtually everything around us. Systems thinking attempts to understand how a series of interrelated components behave and interact.1

Systems thinking – is the process of understanding how things, regarded as systems, influence one another within a whole. In nature, systems thinking examples include ecosystems in which various elements such as air, water, movement, plants, and animals work together to survive or perish. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_thinking

The study of systems thinking has become more popular and complex in recent years, but it can be practically applied as an approach to problem solving that involves addressing individual opportunities or challenges as part of a larger, interconnected system. That is in contrast to more traditional problem solving, through which individual issues may be addressed in isolation, without considering the full impact of one course of action or another. 

In general, systems thinking is most valuable when:

  • Solving complex, intricate, or unclear problems.
  • Addressing nagging, recurring issues that existing methods haven’t resolved.
  • Approaching issues that result in a broad range of impacts.
  • Approaching problems where solutions aren’t apparent.
  • Uncovering the root causes of a multi-dimensional problem.

Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine an area where farmers have been suffering from drought for an extended period of time which is affecting their ability to produce crops and ultimately support themselves. The government, in an attempt to aid the struggling farmers decides to subsidize the adoption of a more powerful pumping system. The more powerful pumping system can bring water from farther away so it should solve the problem of not having enough water for the crops, should it not?

If you use a systems thinking approach to look at this problem, it would become clear the issue of drought for example, has not been addressed.  The better pump solution only serves as a bandage.  Droughts are the product of many interconnected, contributing factors the complexity of which must be dealt with by a solution for it to be truly effective. 

Given the complexity of sustainability and its relationship to the various areas of an organization, it is absolutely necessary for leaders to embody strong systems thinking capacity. While that type of thinking comes naturally to some, it does not come easily to others.  Effective systems thinking will help identify the full range of opportunities and potential benefits, ensuring that decisions are made with consideration given to the interests of the entire organization. That leadership capacity will very positively contribute to a program’s potential to actually enhance performance.2

To learn more about how to execute systems thinking to better address complex problems related to organizational sustainability click here  icon_library_16x16

To learn more about implementing solutions that effectively address complex problems click here  icon_library_16x16

Design Thinking

The goal of design thinking is to use the problem solving discipline that designers typically employ to improve our ability to generate solutions. Design thinking is about understanding problems, creatively generating possibilities, and critically implementing solutions. Effective design thinkers are capable of solving complex problems, even when a feasible solution (or even the path toward developing one) is not immediately apparent. 

Design thinking is applied through an iterative process (that varies slightly depending on the source) used to generate ideas and develop solutions and can be broken down into the following stages:

  1. Generation: is the process of creating possibilities and alternatives. While this seems like an obvious step, most people under-emphasize this step in an effort to get to a decision more quickly. When we look at a problem, we may see an apparently obvious solution, but the first ideas are rarely the best. Creative, lateral, divergent thinking should be the emphasis at this stage.
  1. Refinement: involves narrowing, selecting, and refining specific ideas. It also involves critical thinking, which is usually abundant in organizations. The danger here is that people become naysayers, and will begin spouting off reasons why ideas won’t work. That is a nice opportunity for elimination of some ideas, but it’s important to keep the conversation focused on constructive improvement, rather than mere criticism and problem-finding.
  1. Implementation: is the active testing stage of the decided solution. The goal here is to try the idea, either in part or in full, in order to get a sense of how it works in practice. In a sense, you are creating a first run or a prototype of your solution. The opportunity is to learn very practically from your experience.
  1. Iteration: the entire process is continually iterative, and not even necessarily directional. A team may jump between generation and refinement many times, while only ever test implementing ideas at the level of discussion. The team may also bounce between interdependent problems.

As part of developing a highly effective sustainability program, leadership must be able to conceptualize and frame problems, create order with a vision, see and list possibilities, and rationally refine and implement specific solutions. Effective design thinking capacity will help immensely toward this end.

For a free tool to help your organization learn more about and engage in design thinking click here  icon_free-tools_16x16


1. For  very basic introduction to systems thinking a very useful book is: Meadows, Donella H., and Diana Wright. Thinking in Systems: A Primer. White River Junction: Chelsea Green Pub., 2008. Available in print. 
2. For more information on systems thinking see The Natural Step’s resource Understanding the Problem found here: http://naturalstep.ca/understanding-the-problem

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