Beyond “top down” and “bottom up”: system leadership

Path

We face a host of systemic challenges beyond the reach of existing institutions and their hierarchical authority structures.

This is an important observation in Stanford Social Innovation Review’s (SSIR) recent article on “The Dawn of System Leadership”.

In the context of the UK, the Department for Work and Pensions is to my eyes is an institution struggling to grasp the nature of the problems it is trying to solve and is structured – organisationally and culturally – in such a way as to minimise its chances of success.

It’s also the case, though, that “bottom up” approaches to systemic challenges don’t, by themselves, provide the solution we’re looking for. Questions of representation, fragmentation, strategy, tactics and consistency plague attempts of the grassroots to affect problems in the way groups want.

Over the last 2 or 3 years I think we’ve seen more and more people explicitly thinking beyond “top down” and “bottom up” when it comes to systemic or complex challenges, and more of the need to create spaces in which the right mix of people, organisations, power, expertise, experience, styles, cultures and so on are brought together. I suspect it’s more a case that some (areas? people?) have been doing this for a while and we’re at a stage where it’s being formalised through things like frameworks and fancy names. Nevertheless, seeing how other people articulate the approach they think is needed to work through these systemic, complex challenges has been useful in clarifying and sharpening my own thinking on this.

The SSIR article has been one of the best such articulations. It goes under the rubric of “System Leadership” and below are some of the choice parts from the article which describe best what system leadership and system leaders are and do.

System leaders have the ability to:

See reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves encourages others to be more open as well. They build relationships based on deep listening, and networks of trust and collaboration start to flourish. They are so convinced that something can be done that they do not wait for a fully developed plan, thereby freeing others to step ahead and learn by doing. Indeed, one of their greatest contributions can come from the strength of their ignorance, which gives them permission to ask obvious questions and to embody an openness and commitment to their own ongoing learning and growth that eventually infuse larger change efforts.

To do this, system leaders typically have three capabilities:

The first is the ability to see the larger system… Helping people see the larger system is essential to building a shared understanding of complex problems.

The second capability involves fostering reflection and more generative conversations. Reflection means thinking about our thinking, holding up the mirror to see the taken-for-granted assumptions we carry into any conversation and appreciating how our mental models may limit us.

The third capability centres on shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future… This shift involves not just building inspiring visions but facing difficult truths about the present reality and learning how to use the tension between vision and reality to inspire truly new approaches.

In order to be systems leaders, the SSIR authors note several “gateways” to be passed through by individuals. The two that struck me as most useful are as follows:

Re-directing attention: seeing that problems “out there” are “in here” also—and how the two are connected: Continuing to do what we are currently doing but doing it harder or smarter is not likely to produce very different outcomes. Real change starts with recognizing that we are part of the systems we seek to change. The fear and distrust we seek to remedy also exist within us—as do the anger, sorrow, doubt, and frustration. Our actions will not become more effective until we shift the nature of the awareness and thinking behind the actions.

and

Re-orienting strategy: creating the space for change and enabling collective intelligence and wisdom to emerge: Ineffective leaders try to make change happen. System leaders focus on creating the conditions that can produce change and that can eventually cause change to be self-sustaining. As we continue to unpack the prerequisites to success in complex collaborative efforts, we appreciate more and more this subtle shift in strategic focus and the distinctive powers of those who learn how to create the space for change.

Finally, there are two observations within the article that particularly help us to move beyond “top down” and “bottom up” alone and to the peculiar mixture of the two that we need. The first is to note that

collective intelligence emerges over time through a disciplined stakeholder engagement process—the nature of which could never have been predicted in advance.

This leads naturally to the second:

transforming systems is ultimately about transforming relationships among people who shape those systems.

Whilst many of these characteristics of system leadership and system leaders are familiar to many who have successfully chipped away at systemic and complex challenges, I find the SSIR description, characteristics and approaches of its ideas a useful prompt for my own thinking and approach.

(SSIR has much more on this topic under what it calls “Collective Impact”. Matthew Taylor over at the RSA has been writing a lot about this, too; see, for example, Beyond Belief – towards a new methodology of change.)

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rich_w

Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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