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Leaders in systems rather than leaders of systems

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: People and culture

We believe that systems thinking should be at the heart of policy design and delivery. We think it can generate policy that is easier to deliver, better value for money and improved outcomes for the public.

This requires both strong leadership and strong systems leadership.

We asked 3 systems leaders in the public sector what it means to them. 

Kate Josephs, Director, Funding Directorate, Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), Department For Education

“I became a civil servant because I care about  making a difference to the citizens of this country and that means citizens with complicated lives and complicated challenges.

When you talk about systems leadership there's an assumption that it means that we, as national civil servants in Whitehall, lead a system.

Whereas I like to think about it as accepting that we are leaders within a system and therefore understanding that system is completely critical to making a difference.”

Jerome Glass, Director of Prison Policy,  Ministry of Justice (MoJ)

“Think system don't think stakeholder. Don't think about an individual person that you need to influence. Try and view it from the perspective of the user. What sorts of things do they have to do? Who do they have to interact with? Those people they interact with are all part of that system.

And try and think of bringing the system together overall rather than having a group of stakeholders, a group of people who notionally have it in their job title. That's the first.

The second is patience. The biggest thing I've learned in trying to be a systems leader is stop trying to solve problems on day one.

These are problems that have taken years, decades to create. We're not going to be able to solve them in one day, we're not going to be able to solve them from behind our desks.

Quite often, actually, it's not whizzy ideas that make real progress in this space, it's slow fundamental relationship building over a long period of time.

I use the phrase 'fall in love with the problem'. Make sure that you fall in love with the problem before you start thinking about what to do about it.”

Deborah McKenzie, Chief People Officer, People Directorate, Public Health England (PHE)

“There are so many challenges that we can't solve as a single organisation.

So it matters to me that we're working cross-organisation. It also matters that we're putting the citizen right at the heart of it, and rather than us come up with a beautiful solution, we're saying to them, what would you want us to be able to do for you? And then working with them to see how much of that can we achieve.

I just think it's the way that we need to be working in the future.”

We are just starting out on our journey to promote systems thinking and systems leadership in the public sector. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below. We encourage debate, constructive feedback and tolerance. Please observe our community guidelines.

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  1. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    Nice to see people talking about the reality of systems thinking and how it helps them. The idea of not seeing a 'system' as an external thing to be managed is a good one, as that often allows senior decision-makers to ignore themselves and their own thinking and behaviour.
    It might be interesting to hear how those three in the blog post have got to that place of understanding. What did they go through to get to that thinking?

  2. Comment by Ivan Mactaggart posted on

    This is very refreshing to hear. Complex problems are complex for a reason and thinking about the problem as a system - Systems Thinking is a powerful way of helping to model, analyse and to better understand complex situations and their emergent properties and potential unintended consequences that are often overlooked.

  3. Comment by Ian Glossop posted on

    Two really good things about the views expressed here: 1) the civil servants - including those in leadership positions - seeing themselves as parts in the system and not separate from or (worse) 'above' it and 2) the recognition that systems - and problems - transcend, traverse and transgress top-down imposed organisational boundaries.

    Sounds like Systems Thinking methods of boundary critique, conceptually experimenting with different system boundaries (in models) and tracing cross-boundary interactions should all be on the learning agenda.

  4. Comment by Anna Smart posted on

    Hi all,

    It's exciting to see these videos and hear that other people in the public sector are interested in systems leadership/thinking approaches.

    In addition to what has been said above, I would say it's important to distinguish between 'thinking about systems' and 'systems leadership', as in taking action on the system. A strong systems leader needs be emotionally intelligent, tenacious, humble, a good questioner, a good listener and willing to question their own assumptions.

    I think to further promote systems leadership it would be helpful to give some tangible examples of how these approaches have been applied to improve citizens' lives.


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