Last December I wrote in this column about the importance of adopting a systems approach to corporate social responsibility, aligning and integrating it not only with the Sustainable Development Goals and ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) issues but also with the overall organisational strategy. (This is despite concerns that neither the SDGs nor ESG incorporate a systems approach!)

More recently, I facilitated a workshop for the African Population and Health Research Centre (APHRC) that wished to identify the linkages between the objectives in the five-year strategic plan it developed.

Good for them, as this systems-thinking approach is such a minority sport among strategy developers. Yes, they identify key objectives, along with the performance indicators, the who’s-got-to-do-what-by-when, the budgets, the risks and so on, but it’s rare that they worry about cause-and-effect relationships between the objectives.

APHRC is one of the few that apply a systems approach to how they operate. During our workshop, they identified linkages like those that will create more synergy between research teams; ensure deeper collaboration between their researchers and their advocacy and communications people; and accelerate the development of multi-disciplinary talents – within individuals and collectively.

The framework adopted for their plan was the Balanced Scorecard, first with the linkages between its four standard pillars of products, services and customers; our people; systems and processes; and financial sustainability.

The whole reason for the development of the Balanced Scorecard was to show how the “lead” factors in the first three pillars impact each other and the consequential “lag” factor in the fourth pillar, the financial one.Equally evident is that unless funds are available to invest in the lead factors nothing will happen. And so on.

Similar cause-and-effect relationships exist between individual objectives within and between the pillars, and the way to identify these is by developing a “strategy map”, a hierarchy of how objectives impact one another.

So, we placed financial sustainability at the base, with products and customers at the top and the other two in between.

Then alongside each of the four-pillar headings, the team placed the objective statements that had been identified within them.

Now the fun began: they drew arrows to map out the relationships between objectives. Then, whenever I and my colleagues lead this exercise we are amazed not only by the number of arrows that are drawn but also by the variety of directions of the arrows – sometimes both ways, as I mentioned above.

The consequences of defining these linkages are profound. For they show where collaboration must take place, and why silos are counter-productive.

Having representatives from all parts of APHRC in the room participate in the development of the strategy map was vital, as then everyone understood how and why these linkages are important. They own the linkages they authored, and are motivated to work together.

Collaboration becomes the norm, the culture of the organisation, “the way we do things around here”. Involving external key stakeholders is also important.

The spirit of collaboration is also embedded as a key element in APHRC’s performance management system, from the overall through to the individual level.

It is this mindset that is identified as systems thinking, ensuring that everyone’s on the same page – the opposite of those blindfolded folk around the elephant, each describing the part of the animal that they are touching.

Where this leaves the organisation’s leadership also becomes clear. They must be like orchestral conductors, bringing their players together as they help each section of the orchestra, each member, to contribute to the harmonious whole.

No gaps or clashes, with musical conversations between the players that appeal to the ear.

To help us appreciate the power of systems thinking is to appreciate how the brain relies on endless linkages between the cells to help us to navigate and to learn and adapt.

Are there elements that suffer as unsupported “orphans”? Are there under-used and uncoordinated enablers? Link, link, link.