Systemic approach to organisational development in a nutshell

Organisation as a living system

The systemic approach is about understanding organisations as living systems. Like all living systems, they can be vital and healthy or disturbed and blocked.

When the organisation is healthy, you can experience it as a vibrant place, where the energy flows, where there is enough strength to pursue its goals, where the purpose is shared and leaders know exactly what their role is to make the system move forward.

When this is not the case, you can feel the tension, confusion, struggle, and sense of being lost. In this kind of a system, very often there is a complete breakdown in communication, there is resistance to change, separation in parts, many things are whispered instead of loudly said, and it feels like leaders do not really know how to handle this situation.

Systemic principles in working with organisations

All organisations develop certain patterns in their functioning. Sometimes, these patterns serve them well, and at other times they stand in the way. What is common in both cases is the fact that people within the system are not fully aware of the existence of these patterns; somehow, they do not see them anymore or just believe ‘that’s the only way; it always was and will always be’ in here. From a systemic point, these patterns are nothing more than reactions to a certain systemic need. In other words, problems are solutions. As Antoon de Kroon would say: “problems are not there to be solved, but to be understood”. Only when these problems are systemically understood, we are in a position to make the right interventions.

In addition to that, every system is part of a bigger system; organisational system is a part of the market, state, region, and very often the patterns from the larger system reflect to the smaller system. This could happen between a larger system and organisations within it, but also between the organisation and its individual departments and teams. The systemic question is: where do we need to look in order to understand the reasons for such dynamics, in other words, how much do we have to zoom out the system?

The statement ‘Every system is more than the sum of its parts’ can be traced back to Aristotle. It means that the system as a whole develops certain unique qualities when the parts get together. For example, it might happen you have wonderful colleagues in your team and with each of them individually you have a good relationship. However, when the whole team meets, it becomes a nightmare. In a way, the whole can behave differently than the sum of its parts..When planning organisational change, it is always important to consider whether we need interventions to address the Whole or only the Parts? Perhaps, it is an illusion that the sum of small interventions organized for the parts could eventually change the Whole?

hands and post it notes


Some other important characteristics of the organisation as a living system are related to the certain systemic needs. The first one is that every system wants to be complete; everyone and everything that belongs to the system must have its place.

Systems want to be connected to its origins and to their destination. Indeed, vital organisations remain connected to their past and open for change. Systems also like to have clarity in their internal order, so they do not waste energy on renegotiation .

Unlike families, there are several types of orders in organizations that need to be in place. One states that each person should be in the right place, the second is about valuing both the ones who have come to the company earlier and the ones who are bringing it forward today, and the final one is about the order in leading principles.

It is about being clear about what we are trying to do for the world; what comes first, second and third. For example, there would be one type of police who would be there to “serve” first and then to “protect”. The other one would “protect” first and then “serve”. These would be two essentially different organisations, due to the different order in their leading principles.


Systems are not static; they are constantly in motion. Even if you wish to stop them, they would still continue to move. In the systemic language, this is called the evolutionary force; a force that is driving the change and helping the system reach its destination.

It is felt like the future that is approaching us, no matter what. The ability to hear and anticipate it in its early stages differentiates the leader in innovation from the followers; the ones who can adjust quickly will strive; the others will have a much harder time.

people working on a whiteboard


Finally, systemic approach means developing systemic leadership within the organisation. These leaders should be aware of what is going on in the system; they need to dance at the dance floor, and at the same time see themselves and the whole system dancing from the balcony.

By using their systemic awareness and systemic intelligence, these leaders can hear the messages of the system, better understand its needs, and find the right moves that the organisation has to make in times of change and transformation.

The systemic work with leaders and organisations involves the use of proper tools to help them gain valuable insights and understand their systems better. As Jan Jacob Stam would say: finding the systemic solution for the problem that you are facing goes via detour – it starts with the question: What is this problem a good solution for?