Systems Thinking, Systems Leading

Highlights from the Major Projects Association* event

27th September 2022


‘A system is a set of things – people, cells, molecules, or whatever – interconnected in such a way that they produce their own pattern of behaviour over time.’

Donnella H. Meadows, ‘Thinking in systems – A Primer


Systems engineering and systems thinking

  • Systems engineering is a vital technical discipline within complex projects and programmes.
  • Systems thinking is a much broader activity whose benefits include helping practitioners deal with the interconnections and interdependencies in the wider ecosystem within which the programme is delivered.


Leading in the system

When we think about systems, the default can be to focus on technology and software rather than the whole programme ecosystem. Leaders must strive to understand the interconnections and interactions between the system elements, how that affects the behaviour of the whole system and how the system responds to their actions. In major projects and programmes, key individuals, technologies and practices will emerge from all this complexity, and a skilful leader will identify and harness their influence in pursuit of the programme objectives.

Leaders need to be able to use the insights provided by systems thinking as the basis for active and continuous engagement with people at all levels of the enterprise. They also need to nurture a culture in which personal relationships flourish across the silos. This can build up the connective tissue of the project and generate the feedback leaders need if they to understand what matters and what can and should be measured to guide decision-making.

What are the competencies and characteristics of a systems leader?

Recurring characteristics included humility, honesty, curiosity, visibility, openness to challenge and the ability to generate a shared sense of purpose. A systems leader is not a hero who shoots from the hip.

In terms of competencies, a systems leader:

  • Uses systems thinking to identify and prioritise the elements of the programme that have the greatest impact on outcomes.
  • Develops and deploys the collective intelligence of the leadership team and the wider enterprise. This means recognising the importance of inclusivity as well as diversity so that voices are heard and valued. It also means being able to deploy the right balance of technical and behavioural competencies at the right time and in the right place.
  • Creates an environment of safety and trust across all the organisations that are collaborating to deliver the programme.
  • Facilitates transparency and personal connections across the many silos that emerge in a major programme.
  • Balances curiosity and willingness to question with the ability to maintain velocity.


*The Major Projects Association (UK) is a community of practice for organisations engaged in the initiation and delivery of major projects, programmes and portfolios. ​ Membership comprises organisations engaged in a wide variety of commercial and public enterprises. They operate in a wide variety of fields including: manufacturing, construction, defence, transportation, IT, government departments, consultancies and law, as well as those engaged in the academic study of major projects.

Date: Oct 19, 2022
AUTHOR: Nicky Fell
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