How Collaboration Enables a New Way for Bold Change

Ever wonder about the difference between strategic thinking and systems thinking and impact of collaboration? I quickly learned that these concepts have more in common than different. This led me to the conclusion that integrating strategic thinking, systems thinking, and collaboration together produces a powerful approach to bold change. Collaboration is a key ingredient to produce the new beliefs and thinking needed to support the desired change. In addition, systems thinking provides both the context and a testing mechanism for strategic thinking in order to develop a robust strategy for change.

One source of commonality between strategic thinking and systems thinking comes from Jeanne M. Liedtka who developed a model for strategic thinking. In her model, Liedtka includes systems thinking as one of the five identifiable characteristics of strategic thinking (see—Dip-Gov-Policy-Development/3%20Liedtka.pdf). Therefore, Liedtka views systems thinking as a subset of strategic thinking. Liedtka summarizes the strategic thinker as follows:

‘The strategic thinker remains ever open to emerging opportunities, both in service to the defined intent and also in question as to the continuing appropriateness of that intent . . . Firms who succeed at embedding a capability for strategic thinking throughout their organizations will have created a new source of competitive advantage. Their whole (holistic) system perspective should allow them to redesign their processes for greater efficiency and effectiveness. Their intent-focus will make them more determined and less distracted than their rivals. Their ability to think in time will improve the quality of their decision-making and speed of implementation. A capacity for hypothesis generation and testing will incorporate both creative and critical thinking into their processes. Intelligent opportunism will make them more responsive to local opportunities.’

Liedtka’s inclusion of systems thinking as a subset of strategic thinking is in alignment with my personal research on strategic thinking. I interviewed 4 corporate executives at a multinational organization with a well-known reputation for strategic thinking to understand how to develop my own capacity for strategic thinking. One strong theme that emerged from the interview findings was the critical importance of breadth of experience across the organization to be able to think more broadly about the role of your function or group in the organization.

A second source of commonality between strategic thinking and systems thinking comes from Mark Hannum from Linkage who sees them as complementary (see Hannum describes that the purpose of systems thinking is to understand context and the purpose of strategic thinking is to develop competitive advantage. Hannum also points out that you can’t develop a sustainable competitive advantage without the proper context so systems and strategic thinking are inextricably linked.

A third source of commonality between strategic thinking and systems thinking comes from work by six scholar-practitioners (David F. Anderson, John M. Bryson, George P. Richardson, Fran Ackermann, Colin Eden, and Charles B. Finn, see Anderson et al found that as a mix of scholar-practitioners in the areas of strategic management and systems thinking, they had two primary things in common. One was that the focus of each other’s work was to discover, refine, and implement needed change with their clients. A second was placing high priority on engaging stakeholders because of the unique and value-adding contribution to client outcomes. Engaging stakeholders is a form of collaboration that Anderson et al found to be valuable in both strategic thinking and systems thinking.

Peter Senge also spoke to the value of collaboration to systems thinking and strategic thinking. Senge identified systems thinking as one of the most important of the five disciplines for learning organizations (see Learning organizations have the disciplines needed to be able to face external pressures and capitalize on opportunities to remain competitive and thrive in the business environment. Remaining competitive is a key goal of strategic thinking as mentioned previously. Senge’s book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of Learning Organizations (1990), focuses on group problem solving using systems thinking. Group problem solving is another form of collaboration. Therefore, systems thinking, for the strategic purpose of remaining competitive, through collaboration, can help organizations change in ways that benefit organizational performance over time.

Members of the U.S. Army War College provide examples of how strategies informed by linear thinking led to unintended consequences, both desirable and undesirable, in their 2009 paper on systems thinking for strategic leaders (see They explain: ‘Strategic thinkers and statesmen often begin their analysis by assuming a linear cause and effect relationship similar to a move/countermove exchange in chess. Although such linear formulations are a useful starting point for strategic leaders, they can be misleading. Systems thinking provides an alternative that highlights the limits to linear reasoning.’ They further explain: ‘For centuries the basic approach of science relied on linear logic and a belief that the best method for understanding any phenomenon was to break that phenomenon into parts that could be studied independently. Doing so was thought to simplify a problem, thereby making it more manageable for the scientist. The approach assumed the whole to be studied was simply equal to the sum of its parts.’ The authors explain that the scientific approach to analysis has also been applied to strategy but this breaks down for a social system because the whole is different than the sum of the parts due to the complex interactions between the parts.

Daniel Aronson explains that systems thinking is the opposite of traditional analysis (see Specifically, Aronson explains that the meaning of the word analysis comes from ‘analyein’ which means to break up. So traditional analysis is about breaking up what is being studied into constituent parts to understand the subject better. On the other hand, systems thinking focuses on how what is being studied interacts with other elements that together produce a behavior or function. Thus, traditional analysis isolates smaller and smaller parts of the subject being studied, while systems thinking expands the view to take into account larger and larger numbers of interactions between the subject and other elements. Essentially, systems thinking is a ‘zoom out’ approach while traditional analysis is a ‘zoom in’ approach to improve understanding and inform action.

Strategic thinking, systems thinking, and collaboration used together form a powerful basis to tackle bold change. Systems thinking has been identified as a subset of strategic thinking and as a way to help avoid unintended consequences in a social system. Social systems differ from mechanical systems in that their whole is different than the sum of the individual parts because of the complex web of interactions between the parts. Systems thinking has also been found to be a powerful tool for group problem solving in organizations. Consequently, the recommended path to develop a great strategy is to view your organization with a systems lens and identify all key stakeholders to involve through collaboration in developing the strategy. In addition, across those stakeholders, use a facilitated process to engage a mix of strategic thinkers, systems thinkers, and linear thinkers to provide input to the strategy. Finally, apply the system lens to the proposed strategies to test for unintended consequences and refine as needed and as more is learned during the implementation of the strategy.

With systems thinking, you can bring people together to develop new ways to tackle long-standing challenges. For example, the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation (CBEI, formerly the Energy Efficient Building Hub) has applied systems thinking to develop new strategies for accelerating building energy retrofits through collaboration with market stakeholders. Collaboration harnesses the power of human connection to tackle any challenge. Contact Valerie at 412-742-9675 or for help or to learn more.