Systems thinking renaissance: emerging leadership practice from data driven disruption

This year has been sensational.

I've been fortunate to have met many very smart people, locally and internationally, who are driving change on a broad range of inspiring, remarkable and high impact programmes.

Across a very different range (of complex) projects in transportation, sport, Health, Education, societal solutions, banking, Insurance, supply-chain and service-sector(s), it has been interesting and tremendous to learn of two commonalities emerging from a strategic thinking or professional practice perspective.

With that, the commonalities are represent a shift from traditional "strategic planning", which is increasingly considered to limit an organisations attention to the real causes of their performance, ability to change and or success from untapped (often unknown) potential. That being, across all of these sectors emerging leaders and front-line practitioners are employing fresh approaches in favour of Systems Thinking (and variants of this) and relatedly, in reshaping how "data" is used/structured (to design, support and “monitor” new strategy and or performance systems that derive from systems thinking outcomes).

"Systems thinking is the ability or skill to perform problem solving in complex system. System theory or systems science is the interdisciplinary study of systems in which System Thinking can be learned. A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and it is more than the sum of its parts (subsystem)" - Wiki University

Whether implicitly or explicitly used, Systems thinking appears to be having a renaissance. and enabling organisations to (re) organise, bring together partnerships and or deliver higher quality, or more precisely beneficial products, services and or solutions. Consistently, practitioners across these sectors are employing systems thinking to view their sphere of operation (and more broadly) from new perspectives. This includes remodeling how their customers, networks, structures, components, patterns of operation and cycles of performance all interact - rather than seeing, diagnosing and or reacting to partially understood symptoms, specific and or retrospective events (Single-Loop Strategy or a reductionist approach).

Thus, it is argued that the renaissance (of systems thinking) has occurred due to the time of advances in cloud based data technologies, with examples such as PowerBI, Azure, Machine Learning and AI. This is a good point as systems thinking was always compromised by the dominant approaches to strategic control (in use of past performance of, for example, financial, product and or service data) and how this reinforced hierarchical organisational models.

However, these technologies have enabled new knowledge to occur, faster, with broader data-enrichment that suits every component of systems thinking models. i.e. New data technologies continue to make it easier for practitioners, of all backgrounds and professions, to access tools, at low cost, to plot or represent very complex systems models.

The advantage of this is to define action upon the real root causes of issues (or represent new opportunities not evident in traditional org. data) or more reliability set trajectory on real opportunities. These tools, with a systems model, enable a reevaluation of all macro and micro circumstances; often shifting the agility of organisations favourably as the balance of "power" shifts from the "few" to the leadership led "empowerment" of front line expertise.

In most cases, the shift involves quite some departure from organisations struggling to deliver or maintain “performance” to the same targets with the same activities with fewer or sparse resources (where the target has or may no longer have validity).

However, the real value, and a common play (or major justification for funding) towards new form of strategic control (or agility) is occurring by increasingly the immediacy of “intelligence” to support attitudinal, experiential, predictive and counter-anticipatory models. These enable a new level of agility in being able to derive hidden or elusive behavioural characteristics about why, in what way and how organisations environment functions (tied to systems thinking models and how all components interact).

As a result, IOT and AI are no longer buzz words or things contained in the proverbial “can kicked down the road”, but are increasingly discussed as today’s “capability necessities” required from empowered front line leaders. To that extent, these enables are tantamount to justifying complete alterations (not incremental adjustments) of posture or policy, through to now being crucial enablers, or digital coaches, to support or alter how leaders and empowered actors alter their own belief systems for different types of decision making.


·      Transport: Rethinking transportation infrastructure and needs, leveraging IOT (with all of the multidimensional inputs, sensing opportunities) to create a new capability multimodal services and quality regional planning; rather than substituting the same “congestion” and cost issues that exist with petrol for electric.

·      Health: Erosion of massive wastage, redeployment of spend into intelligence to create total transformation of patient experiences and journeys; from prevention through to care-situations and cure.

·      Education: Using regional modelling to rethink the role, structure, programmes and fit of schools for community development.

·      Banking/Services: Internal digital strategy, new staff-devised HR policy and people empowerment that is informed or defined by diagnosing “strategic fit”, anticipation of customer needs and experiences – with sophisticated life-stage modelling; enabling staff through “as-a-service” hardware/software technology benefits at home.

·      Societal solutions: Establishment of multi-party operating models, brought together or alignments of interests created only by systems-thinking derived causes (the real causes) or information to solve very complex societal issues.

When putting all the pieces of a systems thinking model together – the overall effect of practitioners becoming systems-thinking practitioners, leveraging the value from top-end digital and data technology, is defining the defining factor for transforming strategy development into disruptive outcomes. 

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