Systems: Friend or Foe?


You probably fall in one of two camps – you either love them or hate them.

Your personality type usually dictates your gut reaction to systems (A-types love them, free spirits hate them) but your experience speaks even louder about perception of systems.  I’ve encountered A-types who hate them because of a bad experience and free spirits who love them because of a good one.

As the leader of your organization, department or ministry area it’s up to you to help everyone (including yourself) see the value of good systems.

Here are a few critical things that I believe you as a leader need to understand in regard to systems:

1) Systems must be scalable.

Don’t you just love the quaintness of small towns?  Life moves smoothly.  Everyone makes way for another.  You’re lucky if the roads have stop signs or painted lines… somehow it just doesn’t seem that necessary.  But picture yourself in the crazy streets of New York City with no traffic signs or crosswalk lines.  Lack of systems would be a disaster in that setting.

The systems needed in a large organization are rarely needed in a small one.  That’s why young, small organizations pride themselves in not being bureaucratic.  You don’t have bureaucracy because you haven’t needed it yet.  You haven’t needed a bunch of systems to manage work flow because you simply yell over the cubicle wall or across the Starbucks table.

Systems have to be scalable.  What works now with 2 employees won’t work later with 20 or 200.  It might be fine that you’re averse to systems now, but don’t hurt your organization by being resistant to them when they are necessary later.

2) Systems Need to be Strategic

Systems should streamline and organize the normal, mundane, routine work of your organization.  Systems create a structure for the “necessary evils” of the job.

Without good systems for routine, your team works in circles.  You feel perpetually behind.  Small things are inadvertently missed.

That’s why systems need to be strategic.  Systems should solve the constant, recurring issues.  You don’t need a system for everything.  You need a system for the right things.

Systems for the right things:

  • Clarify expectations
  • Create accountability

3) Systems Enable Creativity

Because systems address the normal routine, they free up your team for focusing on the new and creative ideas that need to be developed.

If you feel like you never have time for creativity, perhaps there are some systems you need to create to manage the busy work.

One Word of Caution:

The greatest danger of systems is that they can squash relational interaction.  Too many systems can hinder good communication.  If you have a system for everything, you inadvertently keep your team from talking and working through problems.  Not everything needs a system (point #2).  As the leader, you must discern where you want to leave some un-systematized tension so that you force your team to work together to solve an issue.

Systems have the potential to create enormous value in your organization.  I believe they are necessary and it’s a huge part of a leader’s responsibility, but the grey leadership tension that you must manage is: enough vs too much.

How has a system helped your team succeed?  Where has lack of systems hindered you?

You may also like


  • JennyRain February 28, 2012  

    There is such a tension when it comes to systems. I have a love hate relationship with them… when they are not organizationally in place, I’ll find a way to create them… but when they have become so institutionalized that they challenge opportunities for growth, I work to redesign them. I think it is the stabilizer (StrengthsFinders/Core Clarity) in me 🙂 Great article Jenni! And welcome back from your trip – hope you are feeling better!

  • Joshw February 29, 2012  

    I think we often create systems instead of just making decisions. That’s one area where we use a “system” to avoid tough conversations, etc. I obviously love a good system 🙂

  • Chris Denning February 29, 2012  

    Great post! I’m a big supporter that systems allow us to be more creative. Sometimes, if we’re left to create with no structure or supporting framework (system), then we’ll either be frozen in the broadness of the area given or we’ll get distracted with trying to build a framework. Having a good system in place will always allow us be more and more creative. Thanks, 


  • Anonymous February 29, 2012  

    Right on as always, and very appropriately timed for me 😉 Good stuff!