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What might a systems approach to leadership mean for each of us?

Talk is commonplace of how systems approaches can solve complex problems. But how might it help leaders make real world decisions? How might it help leaders like you?

Being a leader facing complex problems is hard. Leaders are urged and lobbied to do many things. Priorities often rub up against each other in ways that are not straightforward. We know leadership operates at many different levels; and that the context in which leaders operate changes a great deal, none more so than in recent months with Covid-19.

I’ve spent the last three years working at Wasafiri Consulting attracted by a mindset of tackling real-world complex problems with a ‘systems’ approach. With Wasafiri and beyond, my work has ranged from humanitarian response in Southern Sudan in 2000, to helping the African Union Commission and their partners apply a performance framework for transforming agriculture in Africa in 2020. Complexity has been a consistent feature.

As many of us grapple with complexity every day in our work, what is it that makes a problem complex? A problem, like reducing malnutrition or improving smallholder farmer access to finance in Africa, is complex when it has four characteristics: multiple people or institutions are needed to make progress; the problem has multiple root causes; the situation surrounding the problem is consistently changing; and the problems are produced by systems that are functioning, at least for some people some of the time. On this last point, media commentators often refer to system failure, of say an education or health system. Systems can’t fail per se. They can certainly fail a majority of people, but some people are always benefiting. The questions are: who? And what can be done? Answers to these questions can unlock points of leverage for change.

Navigating these complex problems requires leaders to:

  • Work collectively: Leading system level change is no work for would-be heroes;
  • Take action: Complex systems are changing all the time; they are dynamic, and new aspects are emerging. These properties mean you can never quite know what effect your decision will have until you apply it.
  • And learn and adapt as you go: Learning from action is rarely as easy as it sounds. It requires leaders willing to let go of ideas they were attached to, ready to be surprised by how events turn out, prepared to see much heralded interventions ‘fail’. It requires leaders to sometimes start small and experimental, adapt and grow.

Lurking underneath these ways of working is an essential competence for leaders working for systems change: living with ambiguity and difference. I’ve often felt this element is underplayed and if made more explicit, we might help improve leadership for systems change.  This was illustrated recently by David Nabarro, currently the WHO’s representative on Covid-19. He is undoubtedly a ‘systems’ impact guru. Recently in an ODI webinar he outlined five components of adaptive leadership engaging in complex systems (see minute 41). Leaders need to:

  • See the big picture – and their own smaller picture to which they connect directly.
  • Recognise that everyone sees the big picture differently – there is no ‘one truth’.
  • Appreciate that every context is different, and that ways forward need to be locally specific.
  • Seek to connect with others where they are mentally, rather than where one thinks they should be.
  • Leaders need to relate and engage with the emotional rhythm or pace of others.

This leadership mindset will help with making better decisions each and every day for systems change.  However, if we wish to maximise the effect such decisions have on evolving systems in a positive direction it helps to be guided by a practical framework.

Since joining and contributing to the development of Wasafiri’s approach to systems change – called Systemcraft – I now have a framework for action lodged permanently in my mind that I can deploy in almost any work setting. Indeed, I’ve even used it to help my decisions in the system dynamic that is my family. Systemcraft requires application as an iterative dance, rather than strides in a linear process. It has five dimensions for action to create change, and these are:

  • Organise for collaboration ie. Build coalitions; enhance formal and informal architecture to enable different actors to coordinate efforts. Hold a mindset that change with any meaning, durability or scale is collective.
  • Set the direction ie. Align goals, create milestones, mobilise resources. Create enough direction collectively for the next (few) steps.
  • Make it matter ie. Create a compelling collective story about the future that connects with different actors’ concerns, lived realities and galvanises action.
  • Change the incentives ie. Create mutually reinforcing interventions that change formal and informal incentives, and influence behaviours.
  • Harness collective intelligence ie. Enable ongoing learning about how the system is functioning and changing. Ensure information flows through the whole system and reduce asymmetries of knowledge.

When I’ve used these five dimensions for action, I seek stronger collective and adaptive capacity across the system I’m focused on. For instance, on the final point ‘harness collective intelligence’, if high quality information flows more equally between a set of actors in a system, together the system has more capacity to respond effectively and is more likely to be able to generate a collective response. Conversely, building and hoarding new knowledge within any single organisation will not unleash wider systemic change.

Of course, there are systems approaches beyond Systemcraft with great potential. I value Systemcraft because it has been developed iteratively through practical application: from partnerships supporting agricultural transformation and countering violent extremism in Africa; to helping the NHS in the UK; to helping global public private partnerships on climate and water; to improving leadership and adaptability in the London Metropolitan Police. Practical people have found it helps them think and act differently with problems they have faced often for some time.

Big and complex challenges are often daunting and managing the effects of Covid-19 on societies are among them. A systems mindset and practical tool can help. I’m comforted by the words of Nelson Mandela given the deep system challenges he overcame as he said, “it only seems impossible until it is done”.

Systemcraft is open source at

Alex Rees

Alex Rees has twenty years of leadership in the international development field inspiring and influencing change in policy and programmes and collaborating with others to build evidence of what works to reduce poverty. His current role, as Strategy and Portfolio Lead at Wasafiri Consulting, enables him to steer multi-stakeholder partnerships and sector reviews, overcoming complex challenges in food systems and inclusive growth, predominantly in Africa.