How can you change the system?


It’s a question that many leaders – in organisations and communities – are seeking the answer to. And mostly, we think of the tangible, or structural components of ‘the system’. In fact we often confuse this one element with ‘the entire system’.

The video below provides a simple description of what a system is, and introduces the three elements – personal, structural and cultural – that we need to thinking about as one whole if we really want to influence changes in a complex system.

Relationships matter

Relationships between different elements of the system are the key, and this was highlighted for me again last week in Robe, where I attended as one of the lead facilitators for a community leadership development program for the Leaders Institute of South Australia.

We spent two days getting to know each other. And this is important for at least two fundamental reasons.

1. The people are the complexity – become familiar with it

As alluded to above, we often talk about complex adaptive systems or complexity as though it resides ‘out there’ somewhere. Now it’s true that a part of the system is tangible. Perhaps in roads or infrastructure at work. But these arise from intangible structures within people’s minds.

Taking this insight further, we know that what people think is deeply socialized by the background, experiences, families, and cultures they were raised in and live in.

All these socialising influences are alive in the present moment when you conduct a meeting about changing something or being more effective. A large part of the complexity exists within the people. The more you know about who they are, the more you can appreciate the new perspectives that each adds to the conversation.

The people are the system. Bring it together so that it can ‘hear itself’ and uncover what is happening and what needs to happen.

2. Adaptive change requires strong social bonds

As the new group of leadership program participants shared their backgrounds, it was also easy to detect the social bonds between them all deepening. These stronger social bonds aid conversations where people really open up and share what they think, challenge each other’s thinking, and do adaptive work together.

The social bonds will hold you all together when the going gets tough and they need to innovate and adapt together.

A useful leadership question is: how deeply do you and your team know each other?

If you want to develop the capacity to work in complexity within your own team, please contact me. I love to chat all things people, leadership, complexity and change.