A School Leader’s Guide to Systems Thinking: Using the LIST Model to Solve Problems

by | Dec 29, 2022 | 0 comments

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 angrier 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 that 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 vehicle that allows it to function properly. Schools, businesses, and other organizations 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. As such, school leaders need to be able to align systems and take notes when they’re not. 

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.” 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. One such system, with all its facets, policies, and engrained practices, is our school system. From federal policies to state departments to local school districts and even school reform specialists, systems thinking is needed for any substantial changes to be made, especially when problems are age-old and persistent

The problem is that leaders often make four critical mistakes: 1. Implementing solutions before we truly understand the problem, lacking the discipline for learning within the system before looking for solutions; 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. It’s why we developed a new model for school leaders who want to use a systems-thinking approach, but first, let’s define “systems thinking” for school leaders. 

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). Without systems thinking, 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 to school leadership. 

LIST: A Model for Systems Thinking 

Our model for systems thinking is simple so that school leaders can lead better and grow faster. We use LIST because, at the core of s systems-thinking approach, we are listing all of the parts of the system, which are intertwined to make up 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 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 bookended by the soft skills of learning and temperament. School leaders can remember LIST as a model and use it to address problems in their schools before the wheels are wobbling and we’re on the side of the road. 

Learning: Effective school leaders use the discipline of self-improvement to impact organizational development 

The more a leader learns, the more they develop their capacity, and the greater they equip themselves with the skills to handle complex situations. A focus on self-development also leads to an impact on organizational development. When the school or school system is in a constant cycle of learning and growing, it handles change faster and better than when it’s stagnant. We wrote about this concept of learning in Passionate Leadership, where we uncovered one key to schools that have high levels of achievement for students and teachers. We named this type of environment a “learning culture.” In a learning culture, everyone is apt to learn, bringing their “I’m a learner, first, and a teacher or student, second” mentality to school each day. This completely changes the organizational dynamics in how we approach problems. And, it works best when the school leader sees themselves as what Ryan Hawk calls a “learning leader.” 

The good news is that if you’re reading this blog, you want to lead better and grow faster. You’re already practicing what it takes to be a learning leader, applying the discipline for self-improvement, and hopefully modeling that for others in your system. It’s the first aspect of systems thinking that we introduce because without learning as a core tenant, all other aspects of systems thinking will fail. You can’t take a systems-thinking approach if you’re stuck in the way that you see yourself or the system in the first place. 

Interdependent Parts: Effective school leaders can identify all of the 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 or simply complex due to the nature of their scope. This interdependent connectedness means that leaders can unintentionally make decisions in one area that initiates a domino effect in other areas. And, weak areas, or areas with multiple deficits, put an unnecessary strain on the system as a whole–much like the tire that blows because the wheels aren’t aligned. Very small misalignments in one moving part can have a major impact on the system as it moves in unison. 

School leaders can easily fall prey to a misaligned systems problem because of how many moving parts are within a school. We can identify these parts in the curriculum as it unfolds for the learner or as each part of the school works in isolation but also within a system–food services, teaching, and learning, mental health and wellness, buses, etc. The more moving parts that you can identify, the more you need to apply a systems approach, most notably when there’s a problem. 

Sensemaking: Effective school leaders understand that context plays a role in problem-solving 

Every school and the school system is multifaceted and complex. From large to small schools, there are hundreds of moving parts and people, each with its own context. Karl Weick, the 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.” For systems thinking to be at its best, teams have to engage in sensemaking as a precursor to problem-solving. Understanding the true nature of an issue is the only way for a solution to be complete.

Sensemaking often leads to empathy as well, which is a leadership superpower. When we know the context of a person or situation, we can see more clearly why something is a problem. And, we can address the circumstances far better if we don’t use blame as our first reaction. Sense-makers do so through the use of a “beginner’s mind.” Rather than applying the typical preconceived notions and foregone conclusions that come from an expert stance on things, they ask questions and create space to make the most sense of what’s actually going on

Temperament: Effective school leaders stay calm, show care, and build relationships with the people they serve 

As a leader, your temperament is important in every scenario, but it’s even more critical in times of change and when we’re implementing new ideas. That’s why we’re including it as a key aspect of systems thinking for school leaders. 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, the 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 their own emotions; they realize that their reactions–positive and negative–are contagious. Being calm brings necessary peace to the people as they work to solve big problems. Without it, we don’t maintain proper perspective, which ends up damaging relationships between people and departments.  

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 thinking systems as a school leader.

As always, we want to hear from you. Please hit us with a like, a follow, a comment, or a share. It helps us and it helps other readers, like you, to find our work so that more school leaders can lead better and grow faster. 

 

We can’t wait to hear from you. 

Joe & T.J.

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