#SH302: Breakdown the Complexities of any Organization Using LIST — A Leader’s Guide to Systems Thinking

Systems Check

There she was–angry, frustrated, scared, and thankful all at the same time. The emotions ran together as she stared at her blown out tire on the side of the highway. Now that she was safe, and the car was on the side of the road, she was more angry than anything–angry at herself for not taking care of the issue when she first noticed it. For weeks now, she felt how the car was pulling to the right more-and-more, and she sensed that her wheel alignment needed correction ever since she hit that massive pothole after the snow melted away. But, it was easily ignored with a little adjustment to how she held the steering wheel, and her work got in the way of what she knew was the need for a systems check and tune up. Even though she knew that she was compensating for the alignment being off, she never realized the wear-and-tear it was causing on the tires or the potential harm she was putting herself in by ignoring the issue. Stuck on the side of a major interstate, she could kick herself for thinking she was too busy to address what she knew was an issue, and now her situation is much much worse.

Aligning Systems

Alignment is critical to overall efficiency, and it impacts the performance of the car. More importantly, it is part of a network of critical components of a car that allow it to function. Businesses, schools, or any organization are really no different. They are made up of many parts that all serve specific and necessary functions, and if one part is misaligned, the entire organization will suffer. The challenge is to identify the parts that aren’t functioning properly, understand the context of the misalignment, and pursue a solution that will be sustainable.

Kirsch, Bildner, and Walker tell HBR readers that for solutions to organizational issues to work, “systems entrepreneurs must have a deep understanding of the system or systems they are trying to change and all the factors that shape it” (2016). In other words, leaders need a deep understanding of their systems to implement new solutions to problems that may, in fact, be caused by the system itself. 

The problem is that leaders often make four critical mistakes: 1. Implementing solutions before we truly understand the problem. A lack of discipline for learning within the system is an issue; 2. Treating the multitude of symptoms rather than taking a holistic approach to the problem; 3. Mandating wholesale general solutions for unique situations before gaining an understanding of the context; and 4. Making rash decisions that ultimately won’t make sense to the people who matter most.

What is Systems Thinking?

Systems thinking is defined in a number of ways, but the essence of the notion is that systems thinkers bring together the complex parts of a whole so that sense is made regarding how each part is interrelated. The idea is mostly applied to problem-solving in terms of understanding the larger context before applying a new theory of action. Systems thinking is used in teams so that leaders build a unified perspective before moving to problem solving whereby everyone might otherwise have a unique perspective of the problem. Not using systems thinking as a leader compounds issues because the dynamics and complexities are misunderstood or the team doesn’t have a common vocabulary or there is a lack of discipline with learning (both individually and together). As a result, the solutions proposed will likely be misaligned to the actual problems at hand. And, the larger the system, the more important it is to have a thinking strategy for problem-solving. We propose a simple model for applying systems thinking in your organization.

LIST: A Model for Systems Thinking

Our #SH302 model for systems thinking is simple. We use LIST because at the core of systems thinking is simply listing all of the parts of the systems that are intertwined to makeup the system itself. These cogs are called the interdependent parts of the system. But, that’s not enough, organizations that excel at systems thinking need to be learning oriented, improving on themselves through new developments; they need to understand the context of the system through sensemaking; and they need to have the temperament to build the relationships necessary for sustainable change. That makes up LIST and it demonstrates that the technical aspects of interdependency and sensemaking are book-ended by the soft skills of learning and temperament.

Learning — The discipline of self-improvement and organizational development. The more a leader learns, the more they develop their capacity, the greater they equip themselves with the skills to handle complex situations. As Nelson and Stolterman (2003) describe in The Design Way, “In our struggle to understand an ever more complex reality, we believe the current traditions of inquiry and action prevalent in our society do not give us the support we need—as leaders and designers—to meet the emergent challenges that now confront us.” Leaders must continually develop and grow, to evolve and adapt in order to manage the very systems that are continually fluid and ever changing. One key skill every leader must develop is the the ability to, “use both a telescope and a microscope” as Jon Gordon, leadership guru, told TheSchoolHouse302 in our #onethingseries leadership podcast. Systems thinkers often refer to this as zooming-in and zooming-out to gain the appropriate perspective at any given time. This type of learning enables the leader to develop this critical skill of zooming to view issues, from a balcony or from below, to understand the wholeness and complexity of the issue. It takes a disciplined approach, but it ultimately allows for sustainable changes to occur through growth and development.

Interdependent Parts — There are always moving parts that make up the whole. One requirement of systems thinking is that all of the moving parts are identified. Understanding the parts in and of themselves is not enough. It’s critical to know what they are, the purpose they serve, and how they function within the whole system. Each part plays a specific role and has a relationship with other parts. In other words, each part functions individually and as a fraction of the whole. Recognizing this is especially important when organizations are large, moving parts are interdependent, and this connectedness means that leaders can’t make decisions in one area without initiating a domino effect in other areas. And, weak areas or areas with multiple deficits, are always putting a strain on the system as a whole–much like the tire that blows because the wheels aren’t aligned. A very small misalignment in one moving part can have a major impact on the system as it moves in unison.

Sensemaking — Know the context, understand the system, bring clarity to an issue. Every organization is multifaceted and complex. From large to small organizations, there are hundreds of moving parts that each have their own context. Karl Weick, organizational psychologist, coined the term “sensemaking” as the leadership skill in understanding the context of situations to draw out issues needing a solution. “Executives who are strong in this capability know how to quickly capture the complexities of their environment and explain them to others in simple terms” (Ancona,  Malone, Orlikowski, & Senge, 2007). For systems thinking to be at its best, teams have to engage in sensemaking as a precursor to problem solving. Understanding the true nature or an issue is the only way for a solution to be complete.

Temperament — Stay calm, show care, & build relationships between people and departments. As a leader, your temperament is important in every scenario, but it’s even more critical in times of assessment, change, and implementation of new ideas. That’s why we’re including it as a key aspect of systems thinking. Complex issues are dynamic and traditional problem solving methods fall short. Instead, leaders must bring calm to a scenario, show care for the team of people interested in identifying the moving parts and making sense of them for a solution, and build the relationships necessary between people and departments for change to be sustainable. Baldoni, executive coach and author, says that “temperament is a strong attribute of leadership; those with a temperament that is more focused on others will be those who can lead the most effectively.” Systems thinkers have to be focused on the calm that’s needed to bring people together to solve problems that will otherwise impact everyone at the table.

That’s our model for systems thinking. We have used LIST in large and small organizations, and we encourage you to employ this with your team to ensure that you’re applying the important principles of systems thinking in your organization. If you want help or more information on the model, contact us. 

TheSchoolHouse302 is about getting to simple and maximizing effective research-based strategies that empower individuals to lead better and grow faster.

Let us know what you think of this #SH302 post with a like, follow, or comment. Find us on Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, Facebook, & SoundCould. And if you want one simple model for leading better and growing faster per month, follow this blog by entering your email at the top right of the screen.

Joe & T.J.

Ancona, D., Malone, T., Orlikowski, W., & Senge, P. (2007). In praise of the incomplete leader. Harvard Business Review.

Baldoni, J. (2016). Temperment: What it takes to lead. SmartBrief.

Kirsch, V., Bildner, J., & Walker, J. (2016). Why social ventures need systems thinking. Harvard Business Review.

Nelson, H. G., & Stolterman, E. (2003). The design way: intentional change in an unpredictable world. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.

Senge, P. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art & practice of the learning organization. Random House.

The Learning Counsel http://thelearningcounsel.com/article/what-systems-thinking-education

Useem, M. (1999). The leadership moment: Nine true stories of triumph and disaster and their lessons for us all. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Waters Foundation: Tools to help you THINK http://watersfoundation.org/systems-thinking/definitions/

Wile, K. (2014, August). Peter Senge introduction to systems thinking [Video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eXdzKBWDraM (00:02:20).

22 thoughts on “#SH302: Breakdown the Complexities of any Organization Using LIST — A Leader’s Guide to Systems Thinking

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  1. This part resonates with me the most: “Each part plays a specific role and has a relationship with other parts. In other words, each part functions individually and as a fraction of the whole.”

    I have been an athlete my entire life and what I loved most about playing team sports was the aspect of knowing MY role. There were seasons when I knew I was second string and would spend a lot of time on the bench, acting as a back up for the starter. There were times when I knew I would have a starting spot, and because of my title of team captain, I also knew that I had to be a role model. I was very aware of my place on the team, and I feel the same applies to my position as assistant principal. We have an administrative team of 4, all of whom have different roles (disciplining students, supervising technical areas, evaluating instructional strategies, reviewing budgets, etc.). Sometimes we can help each other with those various tasks, but overall, if one person doesn’t do his/her job, then the repercussions could affect everyone in the school including students, teachers, secretaries, custodians, cafeteria workers, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Holly,
      That is a very true statement. It is so important to have people in the system that can be counted and relied upon. For without that interdependability, the system can fall apart. Working together helps split up tasks that are done to help make the whole function.


  2. You are so right Holly. I have often had to pick up the slack of others for the team. It makes things more difficult. You can achieve more, faster, if everyone is in their “lane” (as I say). We can assist each other, but everyone has to contribute to the work.The team dynamic is so important in us accomplishing the lofty goals we have for our students.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Treating the multitude of symptoms rather than taking a holistic approach to the problem was definitely something that resonated with me. Too often we look for the quick fix or an immediate answer to our problems – the band aid approach, without considering that a deeper dig may in fact help us to identify the root cause of an issue and not only correct it, but prevent other problems by doing so.

    In addition temperament is such a critical thing to keep in mind, especially during times of change. It makes me think of advice I was given in grad school for Leadership – be a duck… you can be paddling frantically under water, but on top you remain calm and collected. I agree that as a school leader you must always remain calm and caring, but especially so in times of stress especially when those times involve change or new ideas. Part of the way to effectively promote change is buy in and you need to approach change in a calm and supportive manner in order to be the calm and composed presence that others may be needing in the all too often stressful times of change.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sue,
      I can relate to the duck analogy. After reading the article and your post on not looking for quick fixes reminds me of the importance of listening and measuring options before making a decision. In Japanese business culture, the one in charge can be identified by how quiet and calm he/she is. Additionally, the boss will also not have the corner office with the big windows. The boss is expected to be in the heat of the business, among the staff, so that he/she can listen and learn from the many experts who make up the business.


    2. Hi Sue,
      I agree that often times a quick fix is looked for rather than trying to get to the heart of the problem. A quick fix is much easier for some to find and doesn’t require as much time and effort that is needed to really dig deeper to find the issues. Digging deeper is much more time consuming and usually results in making changes, which sometimes is hard for people.


  4. I believe that as a newly appointed administrator within a school that I have not had previous experiences in; the two cogs that require more of my time have been interdependent parts and sensemaking. Learning all interdependent parts and how they operate takes time to learn ergo sensemaking is hindered. In this day and age of “hitting the ground running” and making the largest gains in a minimal amount of time one must be present in every conversation and in the loop regarding every decision. True fidelity sometimes can only be reached through time and observation since intentions may not always match their results.


    1. I would agree that starting at a brand new school can be hard in learning the interdependent parts and finding the connection between things. Thankfully, district administration in my case has allowed and even encouraged only small changes and to see and learn about the building before making any big decisions. I know this is not always possible, but I am thankful for it. This does show the importance of having some trustworthy people to listen to and depend on.


  5. Last year, I started as an assistant principal in a new school, moving from the high school setting to a countywide program for students with significant disabilities. As such, I needed to devote much of my time to learning new systems and protocols while constantly using both a “telescope and microscope” to get the full picture. At the same time, I realized the importance of building my teams and relationships at my various offsite locations, and I am glad that I took this very important step. I noticed that some administrative decisions were met with resistance from staff, but where my teams were the strongest, there was less confusion and more acceptance. Reflecting on what made for this difference, the article speaks to “sense making”/”bringing clarity to an issue;” in other words, how well we can communicate our direction. At our upcoming T3 (Teachers Teaching Teachers) conference this Friday, the CRHS building principal and I will be presenting a workshop called “So, You Want to be an Administrator?” Two of our talking points are that 1) administrators need to exude calm during situations when people are most likely to lose it, and 2) they also lose the right to say “no,” meaning that we need to frame our expectations in a way that will create buy-in. In the end, having a hold on processes and protocols is not enough to get ideas turned into action if we cannot get our staff on board.


  6. The section that discussed the interdependent parts is what stuck out to me the most in the reading. Understanding each part in depth is a critical factor in helping to make the system function. Thinking about how decisions will affect other areas is huge. This is an area that I have been watching carefully in my new position. I always have to think ahead and play out how one decision will affect other areas. Working together with others is essential to helping the school system function to its fullest.


  7. Both my principal and I are new to the school this year and finding and learning about all the interdependent parts has been the hardest, I would say. Often the staff is unaware that there are different ways to do things. Or they will say that they used to do something that really worked but now they don’t, and when asked why they say because we didn’t tell them to. It has been a struggle to know everything and all the systems that went on before and how everything worked. We have changed our monthly data teams to a slightly different structure but it allows us to learn about these parts that we didn’t know existed.


  8. I really like the analogy in that we need BOTH a “telescope and microscope.” I had a colleague in which every time something went wrong, her comment was “that’s a system failure.” I didn’t necessarily agree with this statement in every moment, but I think if we look at which part of the system, and analyze it both from intra and interspectively, we can hone in on the cog that might need some oil.


  9. Using List as a leadership model would be smart for anyone in a leadership role. For me as an AP I took lots of value out of the reading. I feel like looking at the critical mistakes that leaders make and then developing systems thinking and bringing it together is a must. I look at the learning piece and really relate to looking at my school as Jon Gordon stated from a telescope and a microscope. Through trial and error I have seen where doing both is necessary. Having the right temperament in relationship building is also a component of system thinking that is also something that I feel is of high importance. I think in education more than any other business, temperament and being able to build relationships is crucial to building a successful team and school.


  10. The “L” in this article reminds me that building a climate and culture in our schools for learning will lay the ground work for needed change. Everyone knows that no one likes change and often it can be said that “change is hard.” If school leaders are able to create an environment where learning and improvement are continual then all stakeholders will become more comfortable with the adjustments that are needed to improve outcomes for students.


  11. In any organize it is important that there is alignment throughout. We often see this in successful businesses like Southwest, Chic Fila, and Amazon. These companies have established an environment that understands that each independent part plays a major role that directly connects to the end goal. If large corporations can do this then academic institutions should certainly be able to. It is a matter of understanding and re-aligning. A teacher should be able to clearly define their classroom goals and articulate how they relate to the school goals, which are directly aligned to the district goals. This vertical alignment is exactly how we ensure that students are receiving high-quality learning experiences from K-12 and from school to school. It begins with clear expectations and continues with daily interactions focused on praise and re-alignment. When we see something that is not aligned than that is when we must confront and alter. If we don’t then everything we do loses purpose and our “product” becomes inconsistent.


  12. The quote that stands out for me is “you’re only as strong as your weakest link.” This is a phrase that I have heard multiple times throughout life whether it was through sports or working in a group or with your department to complete tasks. It is very important to build a strong team and if you do have a weak link, it is important to give them the support and the professional development needed to strengthen them so that the overall team will be successful. When there is a weak link, the focus always tends to go towards that person. People feel angry or frustrated by them because they are not pulling their weight or it creates more work for the other people in the group. People from the outside often talk about what is weak about the team and this could become the illusion of your team. Of course, it is necessary to have a strong leader to identify the weak links and work with them appropriately.When you have strong leadership, usually there are high expectations and the leader’s strength will inspire the people under them to work harder.


  13. Temperament- stay calm, show you care and build relationships between people and departments. I feel this is a very important component in the system. Schools have so many different working parts, if they are unable to communicate or work together effectively, the system can shut down. My school houses 4 different early childhood programs. Each program has its own budget, manager and teachers. It is imperative that relationships are built between administrators and program managers to function as one building, not four separate entities. The Temperament of a Great Leader has an interesting thought: But there’s one quality that the best leaders possess that I don’t think can be learned easily, and that is temperament. It’s an old-fashioned word that refers to a person’s nature or disposition, especially as it affects his or her behavior. And the temperament that the best leaders possess allows them to “quiet the self.”


  14. One of the parts that related to the most was the part about temperament. With any situation- good or bad, new or old, the staff is looking to the leader(s) to see how to react. It is important for the leader to stay calm and so compassion in all situations. If the leader is calm and confident, there is a better chance that the rest of the staff will be calm and follow. In addition, building relationships is key to the success of the leader and the school. The leader must build relationships with each staff member, family, student, and other leaders of the district. There is so much power in knowing ahead of time how your staff tends to react to different situations, knowing their interests, and building that trust.


  15. I really identify with the L for Learning, as one of my mottos is to consistently enhance your craft. I truly value being a lifelong learner and want to instill that same passion for learning into my students and staff. I am currently enrolled in a doctorate program, so I am attempting to rethink what we can do to make EVERY urban school a success; so that no matter what a child’s zip code is, that child is guaranteed a quality education. As leaders, we must constantly be willing to learn about ourselves, our systems, our students, and every stakeholder so that we are doing what is best for our children.


  16. The “use both a telescope and a microscope” has really made an impact on me this year. In the past as a student advisor it is easy to get stuck in the microscope mindset. This year I made sure to remember to make sure to check back on the telescope portion of my mind to make sure that we are on track. My principal and I have met bimonthly to make sure we still have our long range goals and to check them off as we complete them.


  17. I find the element of the systems thinking that resonates with me (particularly this week) is temperament – keeping calm. Being able to remain level-headed allows for good decision making; it’s when emotions come into play that good decision making can be compromised. As a new AP who’s building principal has been out for several weeks due to family health issues, I’ve been fielding all of the aspects of the job that I have, perhaps, been shielded from thus far…including the parent phone calls that can be uncomfortable. I’ve tried, up to this point, to study and make note of how my boss handles these uncomfortable situations; this has been helpful. Keeping calm in order to make thoughtful decisions – it’s been the theme of my week and is really an area that I intend to continue honing.


  18. The section about interdependent parts resonated with me. Often I think we see our decisions, actions and outcomes as linear when they absolutely aren’t. If we ignore or unaware of the opportunity costs, unintended consequences and effects on competing initiatives resulting from our actions we really can’t be effective.


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