Systems Thinking

Systems thinking is one of the important cognitive skills a leader can nurture. Essentially, systems thinking recognizes that the parts of any whole can only exist or be understood in relation to the whole. A system is an organized collection of parts (or subsystems) that are highly integrated to accomplish an overall goal. The system has various inputs, which go through certain processes to produce certain outputs, and together, accomplish the overall desired goal for the system. It is considered by some to be a theory of ecology.

This way of thinking about a system helps us to move away from focusing on a simple and linear “cause and effect” relation to one that is complex and emphasizes the relationship of the parts of a system to the whole system. The art of systems thinking requires a re-conceptualization of traditional perceptions of relationships, which often do not offer enough context to effect the kind of change today’s organizations need. Likewise, the tendency in some organizations to isolate parts of the system (i.e., department, division, or level of leader) for “correction” or training without considering how this group affects, and is affected by, other parts of the system often results in a highly engaged group that has little chance of implementing change within a system that has remained static around it.


A high-functioning system continually exchanges feedback among its various parts to ensure that they remain closely aligned and focused on achieving common goals. If any of the parts or activities in the system seems sub-optimized or misaligned, that system makes the necessary set of adjustments across the system to more effectively achieve its goals.
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