09 May 2014

Systems thinking and generative leadership

Nursing leadership has a significant role to play in sensemaking and supporting development of learning for the purpose of strengthening global health care systems.

Through understanding of system dynamics and interaction patterns over time, a leader’s influence and impact on positive organizational change can be strengthened. Such influence requires attention to the five disciplines of a learning organization: personal mastery, ability to discern and make mental models explicit, co-creating with others a shared vision of a desired future that is contrasted with a present state, and team-learning that supports an ongoing cycle of action-oriented systems thinking. Working intentionally in systems that aspire to become learning organizations requires development of personal mastery, based on one’s strengths and professional purpose-management.

Personal mastery requires dealing with paradox, ambiguity, and holding the creative tension of opposites, especially when people have competing or contrasting mental models or worldviews. Being open, honest, and direct supports exploration of mental models. Having a vision supports a generative—as opposed to remedial—mind-set. Understanding how the parts of a system influence each other aids sensemaking. Finally, building a shared vision requires contrasting a present state of affairs with a desired future state.

The gap between here and now, and there and then, sets up a creative tension that activates generative leadership. Navigating and negotiating tensions between compliance and commitment result in shared visions in service of greater purposes in the context of an organization’s mission, vision, and contribution to the social order. Consider exploring the world of systems thinking to enhance your leadership skill set.

Archetype learning
For some years now, in leadership courses I teach, I challenge and engage students to analyze situations and experiences through positive and negative system archetypes. The results are always fascinating. Students gain new and surprising insights into system dynamics they need to negotiate. Through systems thinking and sensemaking, students realize there are creative and generative solutions to seemingly intractable problems.

Archetype learning and systems thinking require perspective taking and a “balcony view” that reveals patterns that are often tacit. Systems thinking helps make these patterns explicit. Mapping and representing system dynamics help one visualize the balancing and reinforcing loops, as well as the delays and unintended consequences, of system dynamics. Being able to discern one’s own mental models, as well as those of others, requires reflection, inquiry, and advocacy. Mastering techniques of systems thinking, inquiry, and advocacy is essential to insight and action.

Negative archetype dynamics can easily be identified in health care scenarios today—for example: limits to growth, shifting the burden, eroding goals, escalation, success to the successful, tragedy of the commons, fixes that fail, growth and underinvestment. Knowing the early-warning signs of each of these negative archetypes can activate a management-leadership principle that will help in the resolution or remedy of the negative system dynamic, in service of one that is more positive.

Knowing the negative archetype dynamic is useful in terms of thinking of its opposite. Positive archetypes include: plan for limits, strut your stuff, collective agreement, invest for success, fixes that work, bite the bullet, stay on track, cooperative partners, win-win, and be your best! System archetypes are held in place by actors, policies, and procedures that may be in competition with espoused beliefs, values, or intentions.

Systems thinking is an essential knowledge management or leadership skill and supports integral understanding of the interconnectedness of all parts in a system. Systems thinking, generative leadership, and sensemaking are skills that nurses possess. It is our systems thinking and generativity, as well as our sensitivity to negative and positive system archetypes, that provide insight and direction for the nursing leadership crucial to strengthening global health care systems.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International. Comments are moderated. Those that promote products or services will not be posted.