What is the Systemic Stairway™?

(and why is collaboration so important for creating change in complex situations?)

Systems Thinking Training - The Systemic Stairway
Learn about the Systemic Stairway™, where it come from, who created it, the core principles underlying the methodology (why it works), and where leadership and management can use it to add value, boost team performance and organisational effectiveness.

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The question we get asked most frequently: “What is the Systemic Stairway™?”. While we have boiled our answer down to a succinct paragraph that captures its essence, the Systemic Stairway™ methodology is so much more than this.

The Systemic Stairway™ is a reliable and trustworthy management methodology that helps teams and groups collaboratively make high-leverage decisions and strategies that help them better manage and create real change in any complex situation. 

Now there is a lot going on in that sentence: collaboration, decision making, strategies, management, complexity. What does this all mean, where does it come from and how is it used? In this post we will:

  1. Break down the methodology, who created it and what it was born out of.
  2. Look at some of the principles underlying the methodology and glimpse into the design and process that makes it so powerful and valuable for leadership, management, teams and projects in our organisations.
  3. Show you a variety of situations where it has been used and who uses it.

Where does the Systemic Stairway™ come from and who created it?

The Systemic Stairway™ was created by Julian Day, PhD. Julian worked for twenty years in the IT industry as a software developer, systems analyst, and project manager. In general, the IT industry struggled to implement IT systems with routine success and Julian started to experiment with new ways to address the problem. This experimentation led to further research into organisational project failure and eventually, in 2000, culminating in a PhD entitled “The Design of Collaborative Projects”. Julian discovered that project failure stems from ineffective organisational collaboration and, in particular, a superficial understanding of the complexity inherent in collaborative projects. Julian has developed a range of practical methodologies enabling diverse people to collaborate intelligently in all types of complex situations. The Systemic Stairway™ is a cornerstone methodology which enables people to find the deep simplicity in complex situations so that they can quickly become manageable. Julian has used his methodology as a practitioner and facilitator to help many organisations manage their complex strategic or operational situations and implement their projects, strategy and programmes successfully for over 20 years.

What are the principals underlying the Systemic Stairway™

The Systemic Stairway is founded on a set of principles that enable it to be reliably effective in a diverse range of complex situations, no matter the industry, size of the business, project type or strategy or change initiative.


Understanding the difference between complicated and complex situations is the fundamental building block of the methodology. Now the complex situations we find ourselves in will always involve other people and stakeholders – all with their own perspectives and opinions on the situation and potential ways forward. These divergent perspectives are in fact what make the situation complex. Furthermore, there are often positions of power and team dynamics at play which increase conflict potential and add to the complexity of the situation.

Too often organisations and teams miss the complexity inherent in their situations. They assume that their situations are complicated and so approach strategy and operational decision-making with a complicated mindset, seeking the right ‘solutions’‘answers’ and ‘recommendations’. In complicated situations there is an answer, there are rules and recipes by which the situation can be addressed and solved, you simply require the right knowledge, algorithm and or level of intelligence. Complex situations, however, cannot be reduced to rules or recipes – complexity moves beyond intelligence, it requires creative thinking. Approaching complex situations with a complicated mindset can lead to contest and conflict, lack of creativity, no belief or buy-in, and ultimately unsatisfying outcomes (upcoming insights piece on complex vs complicated coming soon).

Complicated vs Complex


A collaborative approach is required in complex and chaotic situations. The Systemic Stairway™ methodology has been specifically designed with the fundamentals of complexity in mind. It is designed as a collaborative approach to help teams and organisations making decisions in complex situations. It cuts through power and team dynamics, all stakeholder input is equally valued, without the need to ‘conflict / argue’ or ‘contest / win’. The methodology provides a structured process for helping all involved to collaboratively make-sense of their situation and reach agreement on strategic priorities and criteria for creative decision-making. Reaching agreement is the basis for collaboration.

Conversation design

Organisations are a system or network of conversationsThe better our conversations the more efficient and effective our organisations can operate and perform. The better our conversations, the quicker we can reach agreement and make decisions in complex situations. The Systemic Stairway™ methodology is a conversation design that facilitates collaborative sense-making and agreement around driving priorities in complex situations.

Agreement through shared learning

In complex situations the goal is not to win or be right, the goal is to reach agreement. People can reach agreement when they have a shared understanding of a situation. The methodology is a conversation design facilitating shared learning and enabling everyone to reach a shared threshold of understanding through collaboration. It does so by first facilitating collective sense-making of the situation before diving into decision-making. The methodology incorporates practical and efficient synthesis frameworks and systems thinking prioritisation tools which bring all involved onto the same learning curve and threshold of understanding. Great organisations are learning organisations.

Agreement through shared learning

Systems thinking

“Common-sense is the enemy of creativity” – Pablo Picasso.

If there were no variables there would be no managers. All day, every day, we manage systems of interconnected variables. In these systems, some variables have more influence than other variables, these influential variables have more leverage in the system. In order to maximise impact for the least amount of energy and resource expenditure, we need to manage the high leverage variables. Understanding this can help us distinguish between important and priority variables.  

In our team and business projects, strategies, and systems implementation, whether we are aware of it or not, we are choosing to manage some variables over others. Are you managing the priority variables? Are your strategies developed around priority variables? The Systemic Stairway™ uses systems thinking approaches that enable you to identify and reach agreement on priority variables that you need to manage for high impact. 

Systems thinking high leverage

Belief motivates commitment

Shared learning and agreement are the drivers of belief. The decisions made and new strategies developed will start off with belief and negate the need to get ‘buy-in’ and ‘sell recommendations’. Belief drives commitment which drives action. When we are able to secure belief, we increase the likelihood of implementation and realising change and results. The methodology establishes belief and provides a framework for securing the commitments necessary to drive action and implementation.

belief drives commitment

Mind shifts drive creativity

Often our common-sense is the thing that got us into the situation in the first place, or it has prevented us from overcoming our challenges and moving forward. Shared learning and agreement are necessary but not sufficient for belief. Your team and organisation also need to believe that the decisions made can bring about real change and results. Challenging our common-sense and mindsets is a difficult task, many do not even know how to go about doing so. But to get creative we need to do so. The Systemic Stairway™ methodology incorporates frameworks which help test assumptions and identify flaws in our thinking – offering grounds to provoke mind-shifts and allow for creative thinking, decision making and new strategies.


The world is growing in complexity and is changing at an accelerating rate each day. You need your decision-making processes to be efficient, agile and responsive to situations as they arise. Time is money, so the quicker we make and implement decisions, the quicker we can create impact and learn from feedback. We have a saying “the quicker you learn, the quicker you win”. The Systemic Stairway™ methodology accelerates collaborative learning and decision-making in complex situations.

So, in essence, the Systemic Stairway™ is a conversation design, incorporating systems thinking approaches, that accelerate the speed at which teams collaboratively make sense of complex situations, identify and reach agreement on driving priorities through shared learning, and make creative decisions and strategies that people believe in and are committed to implementing.

… Last but not least we saved a key principle for the end

Action Learning

The reality is that often the decisions we make and the actions we take don’t quite turn out the way we want them too, sometimes they exceed expectations and other times they fall flat. We are firm believers in action learning, the ability to take on feedback and reflect on our actions and outcomes so that we can rethink our beliefs and come up with more refined decisions and actions plans… commit and implement. The cycle goes on. Successful teams and organisations are action learners, continuously trying to get onto a steeper learning curve. Successful organisations are learning organisations.

belief drives commitment

Systemic Stairway™ methodology design

The Systemic Stairway™ provides a reliable methodology for managing strategic or operational challenges. The methodology emphasises a collaborative approach to managing a wide variety of complex or ‘messy’ situations by identifying and agreeing on innovative paths forward around key priorities. The methodology has been adapted and tested for virtual facilitation with excellent results in both SMEs and large organisations. The entire Systemic Stairway™ process can be completed within 1-2 days and comprises three main steps which help you answer three questions we are always asking. 

  1. Rapid sense-making: What is going on? 
  2. Executable decisions: What shall we do? 
  3. Solid commitments: Who commits to action? 
Systemic Stairway methodology

Why is the Systemic Stairway™ methodology useful?

Organisations are collaborative enterprises that function via networks of interaction and conversation. The viability of our organisations, projects, programmes and initiatives depends on the effectiveness of these interaction and conversation networks – on our ability to collaborate.

Whether creating strategic or operational decisions, overcoming organisational challenges, or getting innovative about new paths forward, the Systemic Stairway™ methodology can be used to facilitate collaboration in all types of team and project situations that can boost organisational effectiveness. 

organisation network of conversations collaboration

Where can the Systemic Stairway™ methodology be used?

From small teams and start-ups to growing SMEs and large corporates across a diverse range of industries, the Systemic Stairway™ has been used to facilitate successful strategic and operational decision-making that has led to real change, increased performance and results in some of Africa’s top corporates for over 20 years.

Amongst others, the Systemic Stairway™ has been used to facilitate and boost the effectiveness of these key interactions and conversations in organisations:

  • Problem-solving and decision-making
  • Project goal setting and prioritisation
  • Strategy and change management prioritisation
  • Systems and project implementation
  • Crisis management
  • Team and department performance and collaboration

These are a few examples of situations we have helped facilitate team and organisation collaboration:

  • Corporate L&D director: Given our culture survey results, how do we build a culture of trust in the organisation?
  • Corporate management team: Given that we continually fail to deliver on some critical expectations and promises to our resettled communities, how do we deliver shared value, improve lives and build ongoing trust in our resettled communities?
  • Corporate business development team: Given the disruptive events during 2020 and uncertainty about the “new normal”, how do we land and deliver new and repeat business that is deeply appreciated by our clients?
  • SME executive team: Given our good progress recently in stabilising the business and remembering the valuable lessons learned, how do we achieve a top-line growth target of 10% EBITDA?
  • SME management team: Given our disappointing operational performance and given that we want to excel in the digital space, how do we become an international player with excellent operational performance and innovative digital services that add massive value to our customers?
  • NGO Founder: Given the lack of resources, how can I run a sustainable organisation?

Interested in trying the Systemic Stairway™ and us to facilitate a session for you? Contact us here

Can I learn the Systemic Stairway™ methodology?

Yes. We have provided capacity building and training in the Systemic Stairway™ methodology to core teams in the SME (and NGO) sector and on leadership and management development programmes in some of Africa’s top corporates and business schools. We have trained team leaders and created high-performance teams. We have also launch our Facilitator Certification programme for those who would like to become a Certified Systemic Stairway™ Facilitator

You will find immense value in learning and being certified in the  Systemic Stairway™ if you have any of these roles or responsibilities: 

Project managers, team leads, Scrum Masters, programme managers, senior managers and leaders, department heads, independent consultants, professional facilitators, executive and business coaches, Organisational Development practitioners, Learning and Development practitioners, IT practitioners, and executives.

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