Multi-level Systems Thinking

As we emerge into a post-digital, post-pandemic world we have seen how hyper-connected our societies, industries and environments have become. The well known metaphor of the butterfly flapping its wings and causing a storm on the other side of the world has become painfully evident over the last year. Whether it is due to digital transformation, globalisation, the impact of climate change or the pandemic we see how everything is connected.

Working with a mindset of multi-level systems thinking is an essential capability for any leader in today’s world, but what do we really mean by “multi-level systems thinking” and how can it be developed?

Defining multi-level systems thinking.

Collaboration and partnership have been buzz-words for management over the past few years. However, this has tended to result one-to-one relationships between organisations rather than cross-system communities or ecosystems. Real value only emerges when all aspects of a system work together in a generative manner, with each part playing its own role and supporting the others. The days of “winner takes all” have gone as we move towards a more sustainable approach to leadership. We all need to work together to solve the systemic challenges the world faces. A multi-level systems approach emerges when the mindset of individualism and isolation moves to one of shared success. There is no “us and them”, there is only “us”.

The need to work systemically.

At the heart of multi-level systems thinking is the ability to work systemically. This requires a deep understanding of how any particular system operates. Working systemically means working at each level of:

  • Structure and process. This is where most effort has traditionally been focused, with the result that change is often short lived and not sustainable.
  • The shared perspective, or culture, of a particular system. What is the shared language and thought process that shapes the system?
  • The behaviours of people within the system. These individual behaviours shape the way that the system creates outcomes, both positive and negative.
  • The underlying beliefs of the people in the system. Working systemically starts with understanding and shifting these belief systems.

Creating a capability for sustainable leadership.

Working systemically with a multi-level systems perspective is not something that is typically taught in the current education and business school system. Hierarchical, isolated organisations are still prevalent in our society. Building this capability in the current and emerging generations of leaders is essential if our world has a chance of thriving in the future. Opening our minds and our hearts to new ways of working and sensing how we are all part of a bigger system is the starting point.

As evidenced through the pandemic, climate change, huge wealth divides and continued inequality, the world is calling for more holistic, systemic leadership. Whether it is to increase the chance of success for your own organisation or to contribute to a better future, now is the time to embrace this new way of thinking and acting.