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A Missing Piece

In the world of business, leaders who actively cultivate meta-systemic thinking consistently represent a competitive edge over organisations who lack this progressive advantage.

Effective responses to global challenges require an advanced level of cognition, not just a more conscious and inclusive approach. The crises and problems that are confronting leaders cannot be understood and cannot be solved without a cognitive capacity that enables the management of complex systems and processes. The conventional model of analytical/rational cognition cannot do this.

True systemic cognition is currently almost non-existent. Most ‘systems thinking’ is done with mental/rational representations and cognition that represents an attempt to reduce phenomena to a collection of relatively unchanging objects that interact according to known rules. Post-modern cognition is incapable of rigorously modelling complex systems because it fails to encompass the role of context, and the fact that in the real world, it is more accurate to describe objects as processes.

Conversely, meta-systemic cognition enables leaders to analyse, model, and understand the interrelating systems affecting the world today — conceptualising the interaction of social, political, governmental, and economic forces.

Such thinking is more comprehensive and fluid than the linear and rational logic of analytical thinking which produces only limited conclusions, viewed in isolation rather than as part of the complex systems surrounding any given issue. Yet most of us are not even aware that another mode of perceiving and processing information, as a means to navigating complexity, exists.

Consider these examples. An executive has devised a strategic plan, but his attempts to introduce it are subverted by a handful of self-interested senior managers. Thwarted from within, the executive is at a stalemate unable to see that the managers are operating within a system that rewards them for ‘protecting their patch’. In this case, the system actually places them in opposition to the interests of the organisation as a whole. Or perhaps, a CEO exhorts the values of a culture that innovates and takes risks, but does not see that the system in which its employees operate does not in fact incentivise risk or innovation.

Meta-systemic thinkers can perceive such connections to factors outside the immediate operating environment. Their thought processes are fluid and far-reaching, comprehending that external systems are in constant flux, requiring businesses to achieve the same state of adaptability. Consequently, meta-systemic thinkers can predict outcomes and foresee opportunities others cannot — and shift strategies accordingly.

These higher cognitive capacities are already essential in the upper echelons of government, as well as in multinational corporations. Strategists at these levels must be able to navigate their organisations through an extraordinarily dynamic and complex global environment comprising co-evolving economic, regulatory and political systems. These higher capacities are currently in very short supply, and many who are in positions that demand higher cognition are simply incapable of delivering it. They are completely out of their depth. Most of the few leaders who possess these capacities to any degree only exercise them intuitively, unaware of how their higher capacities actually operate. Because they have not built these abilities consciously and systematically, they are unable to transmit their capacities to others or explain cogently how they arrive at their insights.

Fortunately, progress is being made in understanding how to intentionally train such capacities in our leaders. ‘Early-adopter’ corporations that implement these new methods to foster meta-systemic thinking in their executives will reap a decisive competitive advantage in our increasingly complex world.

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