Quotable Mumford
A collection of insightful & memorable offerings from the work of Dr. Mumford.

Home: Editorial
Key Learnings: Bridging Creativity and Systems Thinking
The Work: The Assessment and Development of High Level Talent
Book Review: Pathways to Outstanding Leadership
Book Review: Leadership 101

Bridging Creativity and Systems Thinking



The work of Dr. Mumford is particularly relevant to my interest in organizational creativity, complexity, change, and improvement. Dr. Mumford’s work in the area of social innovation connects system thinking with organizational change. The explicit description of organizations as complex social systems and seeing the relevance this has to discussion of organizational change has opened a new line of inquiry for me. I now see the focus of my interests lie as the intersection of creativity and systems thinking. Systems thinking accounts for and offers tools intended to uncover and highlight the interrelationships that contribute to the complexity that makes the implementation of organizational change initiatives challenging.

The examination of my key learnings will focus on organizations as complex social systems, the implications of this to organizational change, and the importance of mental models in understanding organizational change from a systems perspective. Additionally, mental models are an important consideration for any discussion teams and collaboration.

Systems Thinking

Before looking specifically at Dr. Mumford’s work, some systems thinking principles will provide useful background information. Systems thinking uses multiple levels to offer a view of reality. Events are what we encounter in our day-to-day activities. Patterns are the trends we observed or measured over time. Structures are the how the parts of a system are organized (Kim, 1999). Table 1 offers more details on system thinking levels.

Table 1
Levels of Systems Thinking

…complexity arises from four characteristics of social systems and peoples’ interactions within social systems. First, multiple parties having multiple, potentially competing, goals are involved in any social system. Second, multiple streams of action and interaction are occurring within social systems. Third, the actions, and likely success of these actions, on the part of one party are contingent on both the actions of multiple other parties and the demands imposed by the environment—an environment itself subject to dynamic change. Fourth, these multifaceted, multi-party interactions occur in dynamic context where change is common and ambiguity high.

(Marcy & Mumford, 2010, p. 124)



Defining Question


Events Snapshots in time.
Situations we see and react to.
What is happening now? We React
Patterns Accumulated memories.
Trends or changes over time we detect or measure.
How has it played out over time? We Adapt
Structure Responsible for generating patterns and events. Underlying causal drivers. What are the drivers?
How are they related?
We Create

For organizational change to be sustainable, it must occur at the structure level. Too often we see changes implemented only at the events level. Inevitably these will result in unintended consequences that undermine the effort.

While Mumford’s work does not specifically refer to the events, patterns, and structure, it does offer a perspective that is consistent with the need to approach the type of complex organizational change he describes as social innovation at the structure level.

Leadership and Complex Social Systems

Systems theory defines an organization as a collection of subsystems that operate together to provide products and services and to meet the goals of various constituencies and stakeholders (Katz & Kahn, 1978). Mumford, Zaccaro, Harding, Jacobs, and  Fleishman, (2000) states that systems theory points to three significant contradictions of organizational life.

First, organizations must balance the tendency toward stability, brought about by prior investments, interdependencies among systems, and people’s habits, with the need for change to cope with shifts in the environment, technology, and available resources. Second, although they might work together to bring products or services, the loosely linked subsystems may not agree on goals or strategies for coping with changes. Third, organizations must not only cope with objective performance demands and the bottom line, they must recognize the unique needs of the people who comprise the subsystems. (p. 13)

These contradictions describe the competing challenges I have experiences during my career. Mumford et al (2000), looks at the leadership skills that are required to address the complexity brought on by these contradictions and outlines a framework based on the idea that organizational leadership is a “form of skilled performance” (p. 26). This takes a cognitive perspective that argues that effective leadership requires the capability to formulate and implement solutions to complex social problems. The skills required include creative problem solving, identifying problems, understanding the problem, and generating potential solutions; the social judgment skills needed to refine potential solutions and to establish implementation paths; and social skills to motivate and direct others (Mumford, et al., 2000).

When we take this framework and introduce systems thinking tools and skills we see that causal analysis can be a critical component. Marcy and Mumford (2010) expresses it this way:

Drawing from this research, it would appear that varying quality of mental models amongst leaders could play a significant part in their subsequent performance. If, in fact, a superior mental model provides an expert with a richer, more efficient, and more accurate representation of their area of expertise than someone with a less superior mental model, and if this representation has a strong relationship to their subsequent performance as experts, then it stands to reason that a leader with a superior mental model might also have these respective strengths in relation to the socio-technical system in which they are exercising influence, and this should ultimately affect their overall performance as leaders. With a superior mental model, a leader may very well be able to more accurately and efficiently determine where and how to exercise influence in their respective organization than someone without a superior model. (p. 3)

Organizational Change as Social Innovation

Looking for reasons why some organizations (social systems) are able to implement changes that allow them to adapt to their environment while others are less successful at doing this, the Caughron, Shipman, Beeler, Mumford (2009) suggests the focused and informed application of mental models is a key factor. This is critical to the sensemaking and problem-solving actives in the model. Specifically it is the ability to develop a shared mental model that accurately reflects the current situation and therefore can be the basis of idea generation and the evaluation of potential solutions.

Caughron, Shipman, Beeler, and Mumford (2009) looks at social innovation using a cognitive problem-solving approach which emphasizes the application of mental models, case-based knowledge, and causal analysis.  The cognitive problem-approach is presented in a conceptual model that defined by the sequence of problem recognition, sensemaking, problem-solving, and implementation planning. The article steps through the conceptual model and offers insight into important considerations throughout the process. These are presented as 22 propositions.

The conceptual model of the cognitive process underlying social innovation directly parallels the CPS: Thinking Skills Model (Puccio, Murdock, & Mance, 2007). The emphasis in this relationship is specifically on the thinking skills. Social innovation is an extended process, not a typical CPS session, but the cognitive and affective skills relevant to the TSM are the same that are required throughout the social innovation cognitive process. The explicit recognition of the cognitive and affective skills provided by the TSM is a strong contribution to understanding and applying the conceptual model presented in this article.

When we recognize the importance of system thinking tools such as behavior over time graphs, causal loops, and mental models to the Problem recognition, Sensemaking, and Problem solving activities of the conceptual model of the cognitive process underlying social innovation, and we see the parallels of this process to CPS:Thinking Skills Model, we see the systems thinking tools as part of the CPS toolbox.

Marcy and Mumford (2010) provides insight that helps identify the priorities for addressing causes during problem solving and implementation:

1) Work with causes that can be manipulated
2) Work with causes that influence multiple outcomes
3) Work with causes that have large effects
4) Work with causes that can be controlled
5) Work with causes that have synergistic effects
6) Work with causes that work together
7) Work with causes that have direct effects

Dr. Mumford’s work corresponds to my perspectives and informs my thinking. It consistently recognize the complexities of the real world of work that I know while also reflecting the highest standards of scholarship. The real world complexities are at the heart of the relevance to me of Mumford’s work in social innovation. It provides a well conceived framework to understand the challenges of organizational change.

My thoughts on Caughron, Shipman, Beeler, and Mumford, (2009), while specific to that article, offer themes that are consistent with my thoughts about much of Mumford’s work. There is a common sense to the propositions, some of them seem obvious, but the article provides substance and context in support of the propositions.  The article clearly articulates a formidable theory that is abstract enough to be widely applicable, yet specific enough to detail specific requirements of the cognitive process of social innovation.

The Conceptual Model of the Cognitive Process Underlying Social Innovation has the same strengths as the article, widely applicable framework, but it also highlights the specific cognitive skills needed.

My research into the work of Dr. Mumford has proven to be fundamental important to furthering my perspective on creativity and organizations. The explicit description of organizations as complex social system has resulted in Mumford’s wok acting as a bridge  between creativity and systems thinking.