Open Thinkering


Tag: systems thinking

TB872: Outstanding leadership and making the case for developing STiP

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

a more prominent central human-like figure, surrounded by detailed patterns of interaction. It conveys a strong sense of unity and collaboration, emphasizing the richness of human connections in leadership.

A 2010 research report by The Work Foundation entitled Exceeding Expectation: the principles of outstanding leadership outlined differences between good and outstanding leaders. For the purposes of this post, I’ve stuck to the executive summary (Tamkin, et al., 2010) which outlines three principles of outstanding leadership:

  1. They think and act systemically: they see things as a whole rather than compartmentalising. They connect the parts by a guiding sense of purpose. They understand how action follows reaction, how climate is bound and unravelled by acts, how mutual gains create loyalty and commitment, how confidence provides a springboard to motivation and creativity and how trust speeds interactions and enables people to take personal risks and succeed.
  2. They see people as the route to performance: they are deeply people and relationship centred rather than just people-oriented. They give significant amounts of time and focus to people. For good leaders, people are one group among many that need attention. For outstanding leaders, they are the only route to sustainable performance. They not only like and care about people, but have come to understand at a deep level that the capability and engagement of people is how they achieve exceptional performance
  3. They are self-confident without being arrogant: self-awareness is one of their fundamental attributes. They are highly motivated to achieve excellence and are focused on organisational outcomes, vision and purpose. But they understand they cannot create performance themselves. Rather, they are conduits to performance through their influence on others. The key tool they have to do this is not systems and processes, but themselves and the ways they interact with and impact on those around them. This sense of self is not ego-driven. It is to serve a goal, creating a combination of humility and self-confidence. This is why they watch themselves carefully and act consistently to achieve excellence through their interactions and through their embodiment of the leadership role.

Or, more briefly:

  1. Systemic thinking — outstanding leaders view organisations holistically, understanding the interconnectivity of components and actions. They create an environment of shared purpose, recognising how mutual gains and trust help motivation and creativity.
  2. Focus on people — outstanding leaders place the utmost importance on people and relationships as the key to sustainable performance. They invest a lot of time in nurturing team capabilities and engagement, recognising that people are central to achieving excellence.
  3. Appropriate self-confidence — outstanding leaders leaders balance self-confidence with humility, focusing on organisational goals while understanding their role as facilitators. This approach involves self-awareness and a commitment to influencing others positively, avoiding arrogance.

Thinking about my own career history, perhaps like most people I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing more poor and average leadership than good and outstanding. However, I can think of a couple of examples of outstanding leadership which would certainly back up these three points. In both cases, the people involved were understanding of the differences between the people they led, meaning that they had to help create an environment where all could flourish.

At the same time, in each case there was very much a ‘team’ ethos with an understanding of how we both related to one another and to the bigger picture. With one of the examples, the outstanding leader made us very aware of some of the politics involved and how they were representing and positioning us (as a team) in relation to this. I think that is a good example of systemic thinking.

A search of both the academic and popular literature around systems thinking in relation to leadership brings back a whole range of results. I was struck by the number of links to GOV.UK web page there were, which took me to a list of National Leadership Centre research publications. Of the 19 listed, eight mention ‘systems’ in the title, including one entitled Systems Leadership: How systems thinking enhances systems leadership by Catherine Hobbs and Gerald Midgley, both from the Centre for Systems Studies at the University of Hull.

The authors set the scene by talking about “systemic leadership” which they define as “systems leadership + systemic thinking” (Hobbs & Midgley, 2020, p.1). This is required because of the ‘wicked problems’ facing society:

Systems leadership views organisations as composed of interrelated parts, and it focuses on coordination of these parts to achieve a given purpose. When the issue being addressed is too complex for a single organisation to deal with alone, multiple organisations can become involved. Nevertheless, the idea is the same: constituent parts of an existing system must be ‘joined up’ into a greater whole.

(Hobbs & Midgley, 2020, p.1)

It’s a short paper at only four pages, but I was still surprised not to see any mention of anything resembling ‘B-ball’ and the role of the practitioner. Instead, a range of approaches is discussed with the focus on the importance of joined-up action. ‘System change’ here seems to be used systemically but the focus seems to be on changing the way (i.e. systematic) way that ‘delivery’ is done by public-sector bodies. Instead, argue the authors, we need an “exploratory, design-led, participative, facilitative, and
adaptive” future (Hobbs & Midgley, 2020, p.4).

Although I’ve never worked directly in government, as an informed (and often concerned) British citizen I have a keen interest in how it works. I’m also connected with a lot of people who work in various government departments. So I was interested to stumble across guidance on the GOV.UK site for civil servants entitled Systems Leadership Guide: how to be a systems leader. Although the word ‘systemic’ is mentioned six times in the overview, the approach outlined seems to be more systematic in nature.

For example, the following diagram seems like quite a standard circular diagram that you would see on ‘leadership’ slides in every sector around the world:

Circular diagram entitled 'Systems Thinking Journey'

The linked page, The civil servant’s systems thinking journey, goes into more detail with the above steps to make them feel less prescriptive. In addition, a systems thinking toolkit and systems thinking case study bank provide seem useful. What is still missing is discussion of the practitioner reflecting on their own ‘tradition of understanding’ and biases.

Although there is discussion of systems being both things you can see and things you can’t, the assumption still seems to be that systems are ‘out there’ in the world, and that systems thinking is an approach to increase performance or outcomes. It seems to be just another approach:

Systems thinking can be used alongside existing project management and stakeholder management techniques like Agile, P3M and Prince2 to strengthen them for dealing with complexity, uncertainty, multiple perspectives and broader interdependencies.

(The civil servant’s systems thinking journey, 2023)

The thought of using Prince2 alongside systemic approaches actually blows my mind.

One of the realisations I’ve had since starting this module is how pernicious the provision of pretty diagrams is. As with the GOV.UK example above, with systems thinking it’s problematic not to start with the individual practitioner reflecting on their own role in the world.

So how do we define what ‘systems thinking’ is. Can we use a systems thinking approach to define it? Now, given that I wrote my doctoral thesis explicitly trying to avoid ‘one definition to rule them all’, you’d expect me to appreciate an approach (Arnold & Wade, 2015) which uses a systemigram instead of simply presenting a contextless word-based definition.

A systems thinking systemigram

Although potentially ‘scarier’ for those new to systems thinking (like me!) than the GOV.UK diagram, it’s so much richer.The resulting definition of systems thinking is: “The capability of identifying and understanding systems, predicting their behaviors, and devising modifications to them in order to produce desired effects.”

This may not be exactly the definition I would choose, but I appreciate being able to see how they arrived at it. It’s the kind of thing I’ve called for with frameworks for years. Just as with learning a new language, developing a systemic sensibility involves understanding what is and what is not useful when it comes to resources and discussion of systems practice.


Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Different types of change

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

This abstract image captures the essence of situational change, focusing on adaptability with dynamic, fluid shapes that appear to be reacting to external stimuli, conveying a sense of immediacy and reactivity.

Similar-sounding terms which are conceptually similar are tricky to deal with when you’re new to them. So this post is to help me tease apart the differences between systemic change, systematic change, system change, and situational change.


  • Systemic change refers to deep, fundamental change in the nature or operation of a system.
  • Systematic change pertains to ordered, methodical change following a specific process or protocol.
  • System change is a broad term for any change affecting a system, including systemic or systematic changes.
  • Situational change relates to changes in response to specific circumstances or environments; these are often more immediate and reactive.

Let’s dig in a bit more:

Systemic change

Systemic change involves altering the underlying principles, relationships, and processes that define how the system operates. In the context of Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP), systemic change is about shifting the way a system behaves or functions at a deep level, often in response to complex issues or emergent properties. It’s not just a change within the system, but a change of the system itself.

Systematic change

As I explained in my very first post about this module, systemic and systematic change sound very similar. However, the latter is about working step-by-step in a more methodical and planned way to try and effect change. Working systematically often involves following a specific methodology or set of procedures to achieve a desired outcome. With STiP, this might involve methodical approaches to problem-solving or implementing changes within a system.

System change

This is a general term which can encompass both systemic and systematic changes. ‘System change’ is a popular term at the moment, especially in relation to the climate emergency but it can be used from everything from minor adjustments to major transformation in the components, structure, or functioning of a system.

Situational change

If system change is general, then situational change is more context-specific, often referring to changes in particular situations or environments. The aim is less about changing the overall system and more about adapting or responding to specific circumstances or events. As a result, situational change is often reactive, dealing with immediate issues or problems as they arise.

Image: DALL-E 3

TB872: Systemic inquiry and the ‘design turn’

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category

An artistic depiction emphasizing the 'design turn' in knowledge and learning. The image displays a stark contrast between two halves: the left side features structured, linear patterns in monochromatic tones, representing conventional learning systems. The right side bursts with colorful, abstract shapes and swirls in a spectrum of reds, yellows, and blues, symbolizing a shift to creative, user-centric design thinking. The central area, where these two halves meet, blends the elements, illustrating the transformative journey from traditional methodologies to innovative, design-led paradigms.

The direct consequence of the profound changes in the character and role of organised knowledge is that the future must now be regarded as increasingly a human artefact — an art-in-fact. The future can no longer be regarded as a natural object, a fact already there or objectively determined by present trends. Rather, it must be chosen.

Hooker (1992), quoted in Ison (2017, p.269)

The above quotation reminds me of this Steve Jobs video in which he says “everything around you that you call life was made up by people who were no smarter than you; and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use”. There is no ‘fact of the matter’ but rather approaches we can take to shift our own and other people’s perspectives.

A ‘design turn’ is “a shift in perspective and level, as well as in critical reflexivity” (Ison, 2017, p.270). It’s a move towards incorporating principles and practice from design thinking to create a more holistic, generative, and creative approach. It’s visual, focused on action, and inherently user-centred; taking a ‘design turn’ means “considering a situation as if it were a learning system” (Ison, ibid.).

My situation of concern (S2) is the work that We Are Open Co-op (WAO) is doing with the Digital Credentials Consortium (DCC) around Verifiable Credentials (VCs), where we’re helping with documentation and asset-creation. If I think about taking a design turn with this work, then it means challenging some assumptions.

For example, the reports put out by the DCC either implicitly or explicitly discuss primary and secondary audiences for influencing the Higher Education (HE) system to use VCs for issuing digital credentials. We created a simple diagram of this, and then compared that with one we created from the user research interviews carried out with staff.

Analysis of the difference between what the DCC's reports identified as their audience and what user research interviews with staff identified as their audience.

Having clarity around who it is that you’re trying to influence is key to designing effective documentation and assets, and telling the right kind of stories. We’ve therefore carried out some more user research interviews with the DCC’s Leadership Council, and will be running a ‘Theory of Change’ workshops for staff in the next couple of weeks.

The outcome of these workshops should allow us to agree on primary and secondary audiences and therefore draw an appropriate boundary for the situation of concern involved in this work. In turn, this should mean that we can spot the influence that different audience groupings have on one another (i.e. ‘system dynamics’) so that we can map feedback loops and opportunities for intervention.

Screenshot of Theory of Change workshop (Whimsical board)

The key to all of this is testing and iteration. One of the ways we’re doing this, in addition to the above is by starting to tell stories which introduce mental models and metaphors. Through a series of blog posts and other assets, we expect will learn what resonates with the wider public, with particular stakeholder groups, as well as discovering unexpected connections and ways of describing the required conceptual shift.

Helen Wilding, who is now one of the tutors for this module, wrote a blog post about the design turn when she was a student herself. She reflects on a video which discusses how you never arrive at a ‘blank slate’ situation; there is always something going on, meaning that “in effect you are working your way through understanding an existing dynamic and trying to think about how to work to improve it” (Wilding, 2013)

This ‘design turn’ is something which sits comfortably with me. Unlike some of the other approaches and ways of thinking on this module, design thinking is something more familiar and embedded in the kind of work that WAO do with clients. For example, we don’t ‘deliver’ projects, but explore situations with clients through tools and approaches such as user research, experimentation, prototyping, and encouraging people to work more openly.

So in terms of taking a design turn to “go about designing a learning system to enact a systemic inquiry in the context you are using… for your Systemic Inquiry 2” (The Open University, 2021), the learning system is to a great extent the existing practices of the co-op of which I’m part. There are certainly some approaches from this module that I’m already adding into the mix with our work, but in terms of a learning system, the main thing is to help our client (the DCC, and in particular the director) learn more about, and how to influence, the system of which they are part.

This might mean, for example, helping them realise that they don’t have a direct way of themselves influencing a key stakeholder group. So who can they influence? How? What kind of assets and resources might they need to do this? How might their documentation need to change? What about the events they go to? What would the ‘minimal lovable product’ be in this regard?


  • Ison, R. (2017). Systems practice: how to act. Springer, London.
  • The Open University. (2021). ‘2.5.1 Taking a design turn in your practice’, TB872: Managing change with systems thinking in practice. Available at (Accessed 26 January 2024).
  • Wilding, H. (2013) ‘Returning to the “design turn”’, Just Practicing, 12 March. Available at: (Accessed: 26 January 2024).

Top image: DALL-E 3