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An Executive Course in Critical Systems Thinking for the Management of Complexity

The Enlightened Enterprise Academy is delighted to announce we have been working with Dr Michael C Jackson OBE, author of Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity to create the world's first executive education course in Critical Systems Thinking.

Few leaders are equipped with the skills needed to deal with the ‘messes,’ and ‘wicked’ problems they encounter today. They rely on management theories, methods, and tools designed for an era in which problems were relatively ‘tame’.

Michael C Jackson, the founder and former Dean of Hull University Business School, makes the point clearly in his book:

“What help can decision-makers expect when tackling the “messes” and “wicked problems” that proliferate in the age of complexity? They are usually brought up on classical management theory that emphasizes the need to forecast, plan, organise, lead, and control. This approach relies on there being a predictable future environment in which it is possible to set goals that remain relevant into the foreseeable future; on enough stability to ensure that tasks arranged in a fixed hierarchy continue to deliver efficiency and effectiveness; on a passive and unified workforce; and on a capacity to take control action on the basis of clear measures of success. These assumptions do not hold in the modern world, and classical management theory provides the wrong prescriptions.”

The labels Tame and Wicked are used to describe two quite different types of problem. Tame problems have causes that are easy to understand and they can be solved on the basis of prior experience or simple analytical methods. Wicked problems feature high levels of both systemic and people complexity. Systemic complexity relates to the interdependency of problems, which makes it impossible to solve them in isolation, and to environmental turbulence, which means solutions are out-of-date before they are implemented. People complexity refers to the pluralism of stakeholder perspectives which invariably surround social and organizational issues, and the different evaluations and conflicts that occur as a result. Wicked problems have to be managed using critical systems thinking.

Increasingly, in the modern world, people governing and managing enterprises are confronted by wicked problems. This is the case in the business, government, public and the not-for-profit sectors. With greater levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (summarised in the term VUCA), more of the problems they face exhibit systemic and people complexity. Few are tame.

There is, nevertheless, evidence some leaders can enable their organizations to survive and thrive in the twenty first century, even in the face of increased complexity and frequent crises. The PwC Global Crisis Survey, 2021, says, “20 percent of organisations report the crisis had an overall positive effect on their business.” Whilst acknowledging “some of that success is sector driven,” they conclude: “Every crisis presents its own challenges — particularly a once-in-a-generation disruption. But with clear eyed self-evaluation and a willingness to change, an organisation can build resilience to weather any kind of crisis and emerge stronger on the other side”.

Boston Consulting Group, in its research into “corporate vitality”, found similar evidence and reaches the same conclusion. They discovered some businesses are able to survive, recover quickly, and go on to thrive in times of crisis, earning lasting competitive advantage. These organisations have a quite different approach to governance and leadership. In particular, their leaders seem to have the ability to think systemically over the long-term.

Leaders who have been successful have had to reject traditional management theory in favour of new ways of thinking and new approaches. Critical Systems Thinking seeks to refine the systems thinking and practice skills of leaders and managers who are already successful and to enhance the capacity of those wondering how to meet the challenges posed by increased complexity. The Enlightened Enterprise Academy believes Critical Systems Thinking is a vitally important capability for today’s leaders and should be considered an essential element of good governance and management.

Critical Systems Thinking embraces and builds upon those complexity theory and systems thinking approaches that are based on solid research and have proven the most valuable in improving problem situations in the face of complexity. The word “critical” in Critical Systems Thinking is used in a positive sense, meaning to understand the strengths and limitations of various systems thinking approaches in relation to particular types of complexity found in problem situations. Critical Systems Thinking advocates using different systems approaches in combination to navigate the multi-dimensional complexity posed by wicked problems. It provides a comprehensive evaluation of outcomes and suggests what needs doing next to ensure continuous improvement. The pluralistic nature of Critical Systems Thinking corresponds to the type of leadership needed today. It fosters expansive thinking to help leaders get a fuller understanding of the range of issues they are dealing with, rather than advocating that all problems should be viewed through any single lens, systems-based or otherwise.

As Founder & CEO of the Enlightened Enterprise Academy I am proud and delighted that, in association with Professor Michael C Jackson OBE, an internationally recognised authority in the field, we can offer pioneering, up-to-the-minute, online executive education courses in Critical Systems Thinking. These are available to a global audience as an open enrolment program, or as a private program for corporations.


Enterprises are more ‘enlightened’ if they adopt Critical Systems Thinking. They make better decisions, dissolve more problems, innovate better, are more resilient, create more value, manage risks more effectively, and contribute to greater levels of sustainable widely shared prosperity, measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing. This is what the Academy argues all organisations must focus on to ensure their own long-term success and to be part of building a better world.

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