The Systemic Impact of Systems Leadership Programs on Different Levels of Organisational Systems: A Case Study of Better Future
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Due to the rising complexity of today’s globalised business environment, leaders need new mindsets, skills and capacities to meet the systemic nature of its global challenges. To equip leaders with these necessary capacities, the emergence of systems leadership programs, and more specifically Theory U, has been a promising development. Whereas Theory U is widely praised by organisational change and leadership practitioners, existing literature in these fields lacks critical assessments of the practical outcomes of Theory U, and specifically if it gives rise to systemic change required to meet global challenges. Hence, this research aimed to better understand the value of Theory U in practice by researching to what extent leadership programs inspired by Theory U give rise to systemic changes in organisational systems. To do so, this study applied a qualitative, abductive research design, in which insights from an empirical case (Better Future) were systemically combined with insights from existing theory on systems, leadership and organisational change. Results indicated that Theory U mostly affected people on an individual level, as well as the way those individuals interact with others both in their team and organisations as a whole. Moreover, it was observed that organisations set several steps towards achieving their new goals and purpose defined during the U-process. Despite these achievements, the program did not facilitate systemic change, because changes were mostly actor-focused, did not sufficiently address system structures and the changes implemented across different system levels were not aligned (enough) with each other and with the overall goal of the system. Overall, this research contributed to existing literature on systems and organisational change by being first of its kind to (1) research the impact of Theory U on all three organisational levels, (2) study how the impacts across these levels interact and how they affect the overall success of the change process, (3) to link these outcomes to systems theory and (4) provide an analytical framework to for doing so. Moreover, findings confirm the importance of deep systemic interventions, which authors often state as the most effective way to change systems, however also indicate that such interventions should be complemented by congruent changes in system structures, feedbacks and parameters. As this research could not encompass the complexity of facilitating systemic change, additional research is necessary to understand the complex dynamics of this endeavour. Regarding Theory U, additional guidelines are required for the processes on the right-side of the U.