A visit to Harvard

A visit to Harvard

As some of you may recall, I had planned to continue in the coming weeks with the concept of deliberate practice, and I certainly will do so next time. However, I have also been reminded that, for much of the summer, I have said that I would write about some of places I went in the busy June to August period and have not had time to blog about. So, this week I write a bit about one of those occasions.

During a trip to Massachusetts in late July, I stopped in at Harvard University to give a guest lecture in the class of my friend and colleague Mark Esposito. His course is about “systems thinking”, and I was there to lead a discussion about how the concepts of systems thinking apply to leadership.

Mark and I made a short video after the class, in which we discuss some of the links between systems thinking and leadership. You can watch it here

As usual with Mark, I was impressed with the level of engagement and reflection he elicits in students. One aspect of what he was doing with this group was of particular interest to me. He asked them to prepare a “dynamic biography”, and to be ready to present it to the class. Since I have long espoused a concept I call learning to “lead by autobiography”, where I encourage my clients to make the deep journey inward to true self-knowledge, it was intriguing to see Mark use a somewhat similar exercise with the Harvard students.

Of course, the obvious question when I speak to groups such as this one is: Why talk of systems thinking and leadership together? Just how are the two concepts related? One of my first statements to this class was an admission that I am not at all an expert on systems thinking, and that I have never studied it formally. In fact, it felt like I was there as much to learn from the group as I was to teach them.

On the other hand, and despite my lack of “proper” training in the realm of systems thinking, I have long considered the ability to take a holistic approach to organizations as a crucial attribute of winning leaders. In today’s world, leaders at any level of a corporation can only succeed through an understanding of their organization in all its intricacy.

So, let’s consider some of the ways becoming a systems thinker can help a leader to perform, learn and grow.

Systems thinking and complexity: Every day, our world becomes a bit more interconnected and a bit more complex. Consequently, I encourage my clients and students to spend a significant portion of their time doing certain types of reflection. Part of systems thinking is about learning to slow down our mental processes, taking time to reflect, and becoming more attentive each day to how our organizations work.

Increased complexity and connectivity bring with them an augmented need to understand how systems fit together and how we fit into them. Leaders today take in enormous amounts of information, and they need to process that information from the vantage point of their teams, and in the context of an overall organization and its mission.

While many working people in today’s fast-paced society live from moment to moment and find little time to contemplate the proverbial “big picture”, my coaching experience has taught me this simple truth: Learning to incorporate reflective time into their busy lives is a skill that the best leaders master. In doing such reflection, they not only develop a broader perspective on their organizations. They also become more self-aware, and thus more able to understand the influence they can have within their companies and teams.

Systems thinking and teamwork: Since our traditional organizational structures are built around corporate functions, departments and silos, we tend to focus more on action than on interaction. In other words, our primary concern is measuring our daily activity and its direct impact. As complexity and connectivity increase in the world, we will need to go beyond this action orientation, to focus on interaction as well, to see our everyday functions as part of a larger system, and to understand the numerous patterns of cross-influence in our corporate structures.

Team learning and coordinated action are attributes of the best organizations. Forces inside organizations can work to make collective brainpower either more or less than the intelligence of the individual team members. As such, systems thinkers are critical to group performance. They help insure that the various disciplines interact in ways that cause the whole to exceed the sum of its parts.

We should promote the notion of systems thinking at all levels of our companies, as systems thinkers are more likely to remain productive and positive. Numerous studies have demonstrated that employees tend to be highly engaged in their work when they see the broader significance of what they do every day. Likewise, when they lose the sense of belonging to a meaningful endeavor, people tend to become discouraged and frustrated. Encouraging a broad, systemic vision of organizations aids employees and teams in seeing larger patterns of meaning, and in understanding their role in creating those patterns.

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