Systems approaches in the margin, where they don’t belong.

A gap between demand and supply, discourse and reality.

Philippe Vandenbroeck
The shiftN Papers
Published in
3 min readFeb 15


In this short piece I’d like to flag an issue that is becoming a serious headache to people in our kind of professional practice.

We like to see ourselves as consultants working in an enabling niche of a much larger professional field that is often operating in a relieving mode. We don’t trade clients’ problems for deus ex machina quasi-solutions. We see it as our task to co-create learning journeys with clients, and their partners and stakeholders, who are wrestling with complex, fuzzy front-end questions. So we enable them to build up internal capacity — new language, strategic frames, organisational routines, relationships — to work their way through these issues. Typically this kind of work is co-creative. It cannot be completely outsourced. Client organisations have to invest internal resources to really benefit from it, in the short and in the long term.

Over the past years the demand for this kind of services has grown. Increasingly our clients frame their questions in terms of complexity. They signal a desire to switch to ‘systemic’ approaches. I see the following drivers behind this rising demand:

  • increasing turbulence in organisations’ operational and strategic environment;
  • increasing evidence of failing traditional management recipes;
  • a trend to upframe organisational missions to cater for more foundational needs, leading to more complex offerings and theories of change;
  • an increasing buzz around systems approaches, fueled by new entrants in this niche market, social media reinforcement and easy access to online information.

However, while clients profess to have an appetite for these kinds of collaborative learning processes, their real-world ability or willingness to engage in this kind of work seems to be shrinking.

It seems to me there are three key reasons behind this phenomenon:

  • People may have unrealistic expectations about systemic approaches. Some expect or hope it to provide push-button insights and solutions; then they discover it places considerable demands on their time and attention. The dissonance may take a while to dissolve.
  • Intrapreneurs see the value of experiment-driven learning but many organisations continue to operate in a traditional managerial mindset of ‘more with less’. As a result internal champions are often torn between conflicting demands, overstretched and unable to muster the time and attention needed to bring these efforts really to fruition.
  • The pandemic has led to the normalisation of online collaborative work. It is a very mixed blessing. There is no doubt that it offers a degree of convenience and efficiency. But constraining deep collective learning to remote 3-hour workshops simply doesn’t work. We miss out on the deep, sustained, humane interaction that is necessary to get to a point where we are willing to leave entrenched positions and embrace something other and new.

I’ve visualised the tension between the demands associated to systemic approaches and the time, attention needed to bring them to fruition in a compact causal loop diagram. On the left are the drivers that spur the demand, on the right the elements that constrain the resources.

I want to underline that my colleagues and I have enormous respect for what leaders at all levels in organisations try to achieve. Their intrapreneurship deserves our full and unconditional admiration.

Nevertheless we experience the tension between expanding discourse and constraining reality as very acute. Potentially it is an existential threat to our profession. How to turn the tide? How to persuade clients and partners to create space for the hard work of capacity building? How to convince people to trust and invest in the messy process of collective inquiry? I am eager to hear opposing voices and wise counsel.



Philippe Vandenbroeck
The shiftN Papers

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?