What is the Systemic Stairway™?

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

Written by Mattieu Theron • 2 February, 2021

The question we get asked the most: “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 collaboration methodology that helps you to make high-leverage decisions and strategies so you can better manage and create real change in any complex (challenging) situation (project).

These complex situations can be at an organisational, team or even individual level. Furthermore, it does not matter what industry or context the situation is based nor the size of the team or organisation.

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. We will breakdown where the methodology comes from and what it was born out of.
  2. We will look at some of the principles underlying the methodology and break it down into the various components and steps that make it so powerful and valuable in the business world we operate in today.
  3. We will show you a variety of situations where it has been used and who uses it.

Where does it come from?

The Systemic Stairway™ was created by Dr Julian Day. 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. In 2000, his research culminated in a PhD entitled “The Design of Collaborative Projects”. Julian developed a practical methodology for enabling diverse people to collaborate intelligently in all types of complex situations. One of the cornerstones of this methodology is the Systemic Stairway™ 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 successfully for over 20 years.

Principals underlying the methodology


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 makes 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 post on complex vs complicated coming soon).

Systemic Stairway - priority variables for building a successful online course and virtual training


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 conversations. The 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 in complex situations.

collaboration conversations

Shared learning

In complex situations the goal is not to win or be right, the goal is to reaching 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 prioritisation tools which bring all involved onto the same learning-curve and threshold of understanding. Great organisations are learning organisations.

Collaboration accelerates shared learning


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.

what collaboration can lead to belief

Creativity and mind-shifts

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

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 that accelerates the speed at which teams make-sense of complex situations, reach agreement through shared learning, and collaborate in creative decision-making that people believe in and are committed to implement.

Methodology design and process

The Systemic Stairway™ is a collaboration methodology used to facilitate strategic and operational decision-making, overcome challenges and get innovative about new paths forward. This is a breakdown of the process followed in workshop sessions. The process can be facilitated in person or virtually, both methods are equally effective but differ in timing and structure. The entire process takes between 12-18 hours.

facilitating collaboration in complex situations

1. Establish scope with a boundary question

  • Every situation has a context. Over a phone call or videocall with key stakeholders and commissioners we listen and gain insight into this context and your situation.
  • We help you convert the situation into a boundary question that gives the correct scope for the workshop. This boundary question must be agreed on by all stakeholders involved, if needed adjustments will be made to the question. Reaching agreement on the boundary question is the firs step in facilitating the collaboration.
  • All relevant stakeholders and participants will then have an opportunity to provide their perspectives and to identify factors they think are important in answering the boundary question. Contributions are anonymous and hold equal weight.

2. Rapid sense-making

  • Guided by synthesising frameworks and tools we assist participants in collaboratively synthesising all the perspectives and identifying the critical variables that need to be managed in the situation.
  • Using systems thinking and prioritisation tools, all participants collaboratively find and agree on the high leverage drivers that must be managed excellently to improve their situation.
  • By the end of this session the whole group will have learnt about other perspectives and will have reached agreement on their priorities, the current state of these, and established criteria for decision-making.

3. Executable decisions and testing assumptions

Making decisions is the hardest step in the process and is a key hurdle to most team and organisational situations. Making decisions is a hard thing to do. Especially coming up with new and hopefully creative decisions to persistent problems or challenges.

  • We have a framework and process for enabling teams to test their assumptions, challenge common-sense and provoke mind-shifts that facilitate creative decision making.
  • Furthermore, we have a framework for turning broad decisions (hopes and dreams) into detailed executable decisions. So that implementation is planned and has a roadmap.
  • Throughout this step we will provide technical feedback to ensure that the correct process has been followed and to resolve any misunderstandings or quality issues.

4. Commitment management

What is the point of making decisions and developing strategy if it doesn’t get executed?

  • To guarantee strategy execution we have developed a reliable process and framework for managing commitments.
  • This is a disciplined and rigorous process that secures detailed and solid public, irrevocable and documented commitments from relevant participant as to how they personally are going to implement various aspects of decisions agreed on.

… 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.

action learning and collaboration

What are you doing to speed up learning and ultimately performance and success in your team and organisation? Why not try something new and get us in to facilitate a collaboration session for you?

Summary of the methodology and process

The methodology design will enable you to achieve these 10 outcomes during the action learning process.

Who uses it and where/how has it been used?

From small teams and start-ups, growing SMEs, to large corporates the Systemic Stairway™ has been used to successful facilitate strategic and operational decision-making that has led to real change, increased performance and successful results for over 20 years. We have also provided capacity building and training in the 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.

Enabling collaboration at all levels

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 of to our customers?
  • NGO Founder: Given the lack of resources, how can I run a sustainable organisation?


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