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How to address complex challenges through systems leadership

Reos Partners
June, 2024


There is no one-size-fits-all solution to solving complex issues such as climate change, access to healthcare, and racial inequalities. Transforming a complex system requires coordinated action by people with different viewpoints from across sectors who work together toward a common goal.

Systems change is an important goal, but how can we achieve it?

When it comes to driving a change initiative, a strategic leadership approach is neededone that is focused on empowering and inspiring collective action among individualsto achieve impact. 

Rather than dictating and controlling the action, the most effective leaders can inspire and empower others to join in collective action. These individuals are known as systems leaders, and they are becoming increasingly recognised for their ability to bring about change on an increased scale. 

In this article, we introduce Reos Partners’ approach to building systems leadership capacity.

Read on to learn how to navigate and respond to complexity by supporting diverse actors in collaborating through a creative process that can bring innovative solutions and approaches into organisational settings, project work, civil society, and beyond. 

Understanding the role of systems leadership

Systems leadership is a set of skills and capacities that any individual or organisation can use to catalyse, enable, and support the process of systems-level change. This requires an understanding of the nature of complex challenges and how to respond, a creative process for how to bring something new into the world, and how to support diverse actors to collaborate through these processes.

Systems leaders help coalitions create a shared vision, build trust and relationships, foster collaboration, and empower people to take ownership and accountability for their actions. By taking a systems leadership approach, change initiatives can be more holistic, sustainable, and effective in achieving their desired outcomes.

To lead and facilitate change, systems leadership requires that you understand the following approaches:

  • Systemic approach: How to act from the whole
  • Creative approach: How to innovate/bring something new into the world
  • Collaborative approach: How to support diverse actors to talk, listen, and collaborate

Combining these systemic, creative, and collaborative approaches is necessary to effectively adopt systems leadership and reap its benefits. Additionally, drawing from these approaches enables organisations to address varying levels and types of complexity. Let’s explore further how systems leadership applies to complex challenges.

Navigating challenges of varying complexities

Today’s societal challenges are dynamically, socially, and generatively complex. They are multidimensional, continually evolving in unprecedented and unpredictable ways, and involving multiple trade-offs and divergent interests. As such, they cannot be solved piece by piece or through pure reliance on conventional planning and experts and authorities. There are no silver bullets. ​

These challenges require a systemic, collaborative, and creative approach that considers a diverse array of perspectives. Utilising a systems leadership framework allows your organisation to form the partnerships it needs for systems-level change.

Each type of complexity has its own defining characteristics. Let’s walk through them:

  • Dynamic complexity: Cause and effect are far apart in space and time and interrelated. This type of complexity requires a systemic approach.
  • Social complexity: Actors have different and divergent perspectives and interests and are interdependent. The problems can’t be solved by any one actor on their own. This type of complexity requires a collaborative approach.
  • Generative complexity: The future is unfamiliar and undetermined. Old solutions are insufficient or obsolete. This type of complexity requires a creative approach.

Unlike straightforward technical problems, complex societal challenges do not have a quick remedy. They require a nuanced approach. As Ronald Heifetz said, “The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

For this reason, it’s important to differentiate the two types of challenges: technical and adaptive. Technical problems are easy to identify, and solutions can be implemented quickly. On the other hand, adaptive challenges' problems are difficult to identify, and solutions require experiments and new discoveries—which can take significant time.

Understanding complexity types, approaches, and the nature of adaptive challenges is integral to recognizing the potential of systems leadership to make change. By encompassing all aspects of a societal issue, systems leadership is applicable and effective across challenges and contexts.

Framework for building systems leadership capacity

Developing systems leadership requires an intentional process. At Reos Partners, we walk organisations through preparation, in-person workshops, and application phases to deliver the most useful outputs. This process helps us understand the core principles and frameworks that underpin the complex challenge an organisation wants to address. Eventually, we can uncover how to facilitate transformative change and apply the learnings. Effective systems leadership requires an understanding of the different types of complexity at play in the challenges we are addressing. This awareness of what’s needed now and the capacity to move between the approaches is what sets systems leaders apart.

We combine the systemic, collaborative, and creative approaches key to achieving systems leadership. We dedicate time and attention to each approach during the process.

Now that you have an overview of these approaches, let’s dive deeper into how we move through each one.


Three types of complexity and two types of challenges by Reos Partners

Diving into the systemic approach 

Acting from the whole—rather than working piecemeal—is an essential component of the systemic approach. In other words, this approach requires continuous searching for high-leverage ways to shift the entire system.

To take this approach, it’s helpful to consider the historical legacies and contemporary realities that contribute to the current challenge. Your organisation can also determine where the dynamic complexity of your work lands on a continuum from low to high. Thinking through these components of the approach can help your organisation respond in a systemic way.

Exploring the creative approach

Multistakeholder collaboration is a critical component of systems leadership. To form these partnerships and overcome system challenges, Reos Partners utilises a creative process for navigating complexities.


From the Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al

The process includes three phases, which are outlined below:

  • Diverge: Begin by seeking to identify a shared goal to provide collective direction. This phase should welcome diverse points of view during a prolonged period of time. A facilitator should ensure they ask the right questions to spur open innovation. Ideally, this phase should continue until everyone agrees on a vision. 
  • Emerge: This is often seen as the messy, uncomfortable phase, and it’s fittingly referred to as the “groan zone.” However, this phase is also where new and creative solutions emerge. Your organisation will integrate varying ideas and needs to see a goal clearly. Sometimes, this involves looking for themes or experiments to learn more.
  • Converge: After identifying a shared goal, this phase is focused, structured, and typically includes time constraints. It involves evaluating alternatives, summarising key points, arriving at conclusions, and may require quick decisions on prioritisation. 

Uncovering the collaborative approach

Collaboration is necessary for complex societal issues and critical to our everyday productivity. We all have to learn how to operate in conflictual settings where we do not have control. To help organisations achieve effective partnership, the systems leadership framework embraces "stretch collaboration," which refers to an approach developed by Adam Kahane, that involves discord, experimentation, and co-creation. 

Stretch collaboration is different from conventional collaboration. Conventional collaboration focuses on the harmony of the team, agreement on the problem and solution, and it aims to change what other people are doing.

Alternatively, stretch collaboration:

  • Embraces conflict and connection between collaborators
  • Advances work by experimenting with the way forward
  • Requires participants to recognise themselves as part of the system

Let’s dive into each of these phases of stretch collaboration.

Stretch #1: Embrace conflict and connection

The first stretch asks you to alternate between asserting your position and engaging with those who may hold different perspectives. In situations where stakeholders’ perspectives and interests do not align, engaging with both the connection and conflict present in the system enables a deeper understanding of the current reality and new pathways forward.

Stretch #2: Experiment to find a way forward

The second stretch challenges your assumption that there is one answer to your problem. Instead, you should acknowledge that there are a variety of promising ideas. You should co-create a way forward by trying different actions.

Stretch #3: Recognise your role in the system

This third stretch is all about understanding that you are a part of the problem. Without this recognition, you are unable to be a part of the solution. Moreover, you will need to accept that you cannot make others do what you want. You are only in control of yourself.

Embracing systems leadership for impact

Addressing complex challenges through systems leadership is crucial for effecting meaningful and sustainable change in our world. By embracing a systemic, creative, and collaborative approach, individuals and organisations can work together to navigate the complexities of societal issues, foster innovation, and build partnerships for systems-level change. Understanding the diverse nature of complex challenges, recognizing the difference between technical and adaptive problems, and developing systems leadership capacity are all essential for creating positive impact. 

Building capacity in systems leadership is a necessary foundation for achieving systems change. By improving collaboration and complex problem-solving skills, your organisation will be better equipped to address societal problems. The process starts with making an investment in your organisation’s systems leadership education.

Ready to build systems leadership capacity in your organisation? Click below.


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