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Applying systems thinking in the workplace: 4 Essential steps

Written by Staff Writer

September 12, 2023

By Raine St.Claire

While it is relatively easy to examine things up close, taking a step back to adopt a broader perspective demands a unique mindset, strategic thinking, and a distinctive problem-solving approach.

Prominent figures such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Steve Jobs, Stacey Abrams, Bill Gates, Malala Yousafzai, and Barack Obama, among others, exemplify systems thinking.

As visionaries and strategic thinkers, these individuals shared common traits such as curiosity, courage, and a willingness to challenge the status quo. They perceived problems as interconnected elements within a complex network of systems, unafraid to explore the broader ecosystem.

Though systems thinking may sound like corporate jargon, at its core, it involves adopting a wide-angle perspective, recognising our interconnectedness, and taking action with empathy and innovation. Actions lead to consequences, many unforeseen, and systems thinking encompasses solving intricate problems while achieving objectives that benefit the entire entity, whether it is a company, school, community, region, or family.

In today’s modern work environment, applying systems thinking to our current challenges allows us to approach them with enhanced strategic foresight. Especially in an era characterised by constant change and looming uncertainty, systems thinking equips entities to tackle complex problems more effectively. 

What is the essence of systems thinking, what does it take to nurture this approach, and how can its application cultivate holistic excellence?

Defining systems thinking

Systems thinking is the capacity of individuals or entities to address intricate problems. It involves employing strategic and holistic thinking to comprehend complex systems. Without systems thinking, teams may narrow their goals and pursue them myopically, at times undermining other teams or broader objectives. Entities aspiring to transcend the sum of their parts require managers who can think systemically and communicate transparently to ensure everyone comprehends the system. Systems thinking represents a comprehensive approach to problem-solving, aiming to understand how systems operate, their perspectives, and how to enhance system behaviours.

The system thinking methodology does not follow a strict formula; rather, it demands an understanding of fundamental concepts to apply a systemic approach to today’s most challenging problems.

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Systems thinking in leadership

Many prominent strategic leaders leverage systems thinking skills to initiate change. This demands a profound grasp of mental models with the goal of improving them to optimise performance. Many leaders, perhaps unbeknownst to you, have employed systems thinking tools to reach innovative conclusions. Nevertheless, systems thinking in leadership is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each issue presents distinct system dynamics. Let’s explore what this could entail in the context of leadership.


A visionary perspective involves leaders looking ahead with both pragmatism and optimism. Leaders who employ a future-minded lens allocate significantly more time to planning in their personal and professional lives compared to those who lack this trait. Meticulous planning leads to elevated team performance, enhanced agility, heightened team engagement, increased innovation, a greater propensity for risk-taking, improved performance, and heightened resilience.

Strategy and planning

Incorporating a systemic viewpoint involves essential elements such as strategic thinking and planning. Leaders have the ability to step back and gain a holistic understanding of the entire system before delving into a detailed analysis of its operations.

Adopting a growth mindset

At its core, systems thinking is about problem-solving, necessitating leaders to recognise that they do not possess all the answers. They must be eager to learn new things, and leaders embracing a growth mindset are better equipped to comprehend system dynamics from this vantage point.

The willingness to embrace mistakes

Many of us have encountered managers unwilling to admit error, even when data and science contradict their theories, strategies, or processes. This fixed mindset impedes progress. In contrast, leaders who think systematically are open to acknowledging their mistakes. They can discern when a systems theory proves ineffective and embrace the vulnerability of reconsidering their initial assumptions.

Examples of systems thinking

  • Smartphones
    Landline phones tethered us to walls in the past, but visionaries like Steve Jobs anticipated how connectivity could revolutionise our interactions and consumption habits, leading to smartphones.
  • Cryptocurrency
    Cash in wallets has become obsolete, replaced by debit and credit cards. Yet, systems thinkers pushed the envelope further with cryptocurrency, transforming the way money moves in secure digital networks.
  • Renewable Energy
    In response to climate change, system thinkers sought sustainable energy sources. Renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, reshaped businesses, travel, and manufacturing, contributing to the development of a low-carbon economy.

Concepts of systems thinking

  1. Systems Mapping
    Understanding a problem necessitates comprehending the ecosystems within which it resides, achieved through systems mapping.
  2. Interconnectedness
    Identifying how systems are interconnected is crucial in understanding complex issues.
  3. Synthesis
    Synthesis involves making sense of things within the context of the problem you are tackling.
  4. Emergence
    Larger entities can arise from smaller components, a key factor in understanding system dynamics.
  5. Feedback Loops
    Feedback is essential for gauging the effectiveness of actions. Implementing feedback loops helps identify when things are not working as intended.
  6. Causality
    Understanding cause-and-effect relationships within systems is crucial for addressing their components and their impact on outcomes.

Applying systems thinking in the workplace: 4 Essential steps

  1. Cultivate Future-Minded Thinking
    A forward-thinking approach equips organisations to navigate uncertainty and change, leading to improved performance, adaptability, innovation, and employee retention.
  2. Embrace a Growth Mindset
    Entities must embrace ongoing learning and development to foster growth.
  3. Create Space for Feedback
    Feedback mechanisms are essential for growth and improvement.
  4. Utilise Coaching
    External perspectives can be invaluable for solving complex problems, enhancing effectiveness, and uncovering untapped potential.

Incorporating systems thinking into your entity’s DNA can be transformative. It empowers you to navigate the complexities of today’s dynamic world with a holistic and strategic approach. As you embrace these concepts and foster a culture of future-mindedness, a growth mindset, feedback, and coaching, your entity can thrive in the face of uncertainty and change.

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