The Psychology of Design: Part 4 – Leadership and Transition Dynamics

When we reflect on the many different local and national responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, the significance of unfolding group dynamics and the impact of leadership in particular rises to prominence. On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, and leaders around the world responded. The systems put in place and the nature of the collective intelligence and collective action that informed system designs varied significantly from nation to nation.  We can contrast the response of New Zealand under Ardern with the response of the U.S. under Trump. Ardern and her team clearly perceived the severity of the threat and moved swiftly to implement a national lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, establishing a set of initiatives to support the people of New Zealand. Ardern’s leadership style balanced direction-giving, meaning-making and empathy, and her approach to communication and public deliberation recognised the complexity of the situation and the need for collaborative action. Overall, Ardern’s response demonstrated a masterclass in crisis leadership. While New Zealand has seen recent outbreaks and is slow ramping up their vaccination programme, as of today (24 August 2021), the WHO reports 2,698 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 26 deaths from coronavirus in New Zealand.  This stands in stark contrast with the 37,408,329 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 622,459 deaths in the U.S.  Central to the tragedy and ongoing crisis in the U.S. was a fundamental failure of leadership in the months following March 11, 2020. Not only did Trump fail to perceive the severity of the COVID-19 threat, under his leadership the administration attacked and undermined health experts. There was a fundamental lack of direction-giving, meaning-making, and empathy; the complexity of the situation was not openly embraced, voices were suppressed, conflict was rife, and collaborative action was limited.

Working together to cope with COVID-19 clearly requires a sustained group effort and a focus on the collaborative group dynamics that support adaptive responses and ongoing system redesign work. Leaders, stakeholder representatives, experts from a range of different disciplines, group facilitators, systems engineers, and a range of public and private partnerships are needed to coordinate collective action.  In the broader societal context — as it plays out in both large group and small group dynamics — leadership is very important.  But it’s also important to recognise leadership as one element amongst many elements that influence system design work. The broader group dynamics are complex.  This focus on group dynamics and system design is central to this blog series. This is a long blog series and it’s very important to read the first three blog posts before moving forward.  Here are links to the first, second, and third posts in the series.

Central to our blog series is a simple idea: we need to understand group dynamics if our goal is to facilitate groups engaged in system design work.  We have argued that this is an important pillar of systems design education.  It seems like an obvious idea, but systems thinking practitioners are sometimes a little too consumed by their own interpretive powers, the wonders of their big data, the magical allure of their systems thinking methods, or any number of other ‘distractions’, and they simply neglect the group dynamics that are central to system design work, and the complexity of the people they are working with.  As noted in blog post 2, the group is greater than the method.  There is no system design without the group.  Indeed, there is no human system without the group dynamics.

Our short framework paper, which is the basis for this blog series, argues for a stronger focus on group dynamics in system design work. Our framework highlights different aspects of group dynamics that are important during different phases of system design project work. In our previous blog post, we focused on Antecedent and Contextual Dynamics, located to the left of Figure 1.  Here we talked about the dynamics of Inclusion and Identity, Power, and Structure.  We identified a number of guiding questions that will influence your preparation as a group facilitator, in advance of engaging in systems thinking and design groupwork. Here, in our fourth blog post, we will focus on Transition Dynamics. Central to transition dynamics is a focus on leadership.

Figure 1. Our group dynamics framework

The transition

As a group facilitator, working with multiple groups across a variety of different projects, you need to get comfortable with transitions.  For those of you who have experience working on projects, it’s easy to appreciate the scenario – we are always on the move, in transition from one activity to the next.  You may find yourself working simultaneously on three or four major projects, each of which is unfolding at a different rate, at a different point in the overall project timeline.  Projects move forward and you move forward with the group. As a group facilitator, you facilitate the group’s movement and you help guide the group to desired outcomes.

Imagine a three year project where you’re working with stakeholders and experts, across six countries, and your design challenge is to develop an open data platform that allows citizens and public administrators to make good use of open data while addressing a variety of different national and local problems.  Your goal is to facilitate the group as they engage in system design work.  In each country, a team needs to come together to understand the design challenge they face and specific requirements for an optimal system design.  In our group dynamics framework, the key transition we are referring to here involves movement from a point in time when you have developed an initial understanding of the design challenge and knowledge of the people you will be working with, [……..] to a point in time when you will meet with a group of stakeholders and experts to facilitate their systems thinking design work. During this transition, the group facilitator builds upon their understanding of Inclusion and Identity, Power, and Structure dynamics (see blog post 3), to a new level of group dynamics understanding, specifically, by focusing on (1) Leadership, (2) Group Formation, and (3) Influence dynamics.  

In this blog post, I will focus exclusively on leadership dynamics and the ways in which group facilitators can come to understand leadership dynamics in their efforts to help guide the group to desired outcomes. My reflections here represent my own perspective and experience.  Again, a reading of the empirical literature on leadership is important, and close consideration of leadership dynamics is critical for every group facilitator working in their own unique contexts.  I offer only a sub-set of my thoughts on leadership and transition dynamics in this context, and I value ongoing dialogue with other group facilitators and the knowledge I gain from reading the scientific literature in the area. 

Transition dynamics involve the move to productive groupwork, and this varies across groups, contexts, and design problems. However, leadership is always important.  Every group facilitator and every group leader brings something unique to the table in terms of their personality, which we characterised in blog post 1 as our distinctive behaviour in interpersonal contexts.  The leader’s interpersonal behaviour (i.e., their ‘personality’) also has a profound effect on the group, and, of particular interest to the group facilitator, the way in which a system design project unfolds.  As we’ll see, when facilitating systems thinking and group design efforts, the facilitator must adopt a very specific set of behaviours that extend far beyond the interpersonal domain of ‘performing the steps involved in their method’.  System design projects unfold over months and often years, and the core systems thinking and design work is one small phase of this project work (e.g., typically involving 2 days of intensive workshop activity, after which a report is generated to provide a basis for project implementation work).  Across the full time span of the project, a broad set of interpersonal behaviours are important for successful group workings. When it comes to system design project work, the leader can either support or impede these behaviours.


As mentioned in blog post 3, when working with groups we sometimes use a systems thinking and design method developed by John Warfield, Interactive Management (IM).  It’s important to mention John Warfield’s book here, Societal Systems: Planning, Policy, and Complexity, which is an absolute masterpiece.  Warfield published Societal Systems in 1976, and he was ahead of his time in terms of his core focus on collaborative system design. Indeed, without Warfield’s vision, we would not have developed our applied systems science curriculum for University students and we would not have developed our group dynamics framework.

In his book, Warfield draws our attention to three ‘functions’ of system design teams and 12 ‘elements’ central to these functions.  Given our focus on leadership, it’s useful to note how leadership is positioned in Warfield’s set of 12 elements.  The three functions we need to coordinate in system design work are (I) enabling, (II) implementing, and (III) managing.  What follows is a brief description of these three functions, coupled with a listing of the 12 elements that need to be coordinated.  

  • The ENABLING function, says Warfield, is critical for establishing (1) the team that makes use of a system design approach, and a specific (2) methodology to address a societal problem. This enabling function involves (3) a sponsor who controls (4) funds, and who has sufficient interest in (5) the ideas related to a specific (6) societal issue
  • The IMPLEMENTING function, says Warfield, involves coordination between (7) the stakeholders in the societal issue and (8) the doers who decide to act and carry out the proposed actions based on (9) the results of system design work. 
  • Finally, the MANAGING function involves (10) leadership in identifying issues to focus on and (11) planning and designing a scenario for the future, where ultimately, “Through (12) brokerage among the sovereign entities involved, including the sponsor, the team, the stakeholders, and the doers, plans that incorporate the results of exploration of the issues are translated into results in society” (1976: p. 34).

In summary, Warfield argues that addressing societal problems involves the synergistic sum of 12 elements. Immediately, we anticipate the coordination challenge, and I’ve always found fascinating Warfield’s specific commentary in 1976.  In particular, Warfield notes that some elements are ‘abundant’ in society [sponsors, ideas, funds, issues, stakeholders, doers, planning], and some elements are ‘in short supply’ [teams, methodology, leadership, brokerage, and results]. 

As such, leadership is in short supply, says Warfield. This is an interesting observation. Think about your own project work, your own organisation, region, and even your nation as a whole – what, from your perspective, is in short supply?  Does your list of elements ‘in short supply’ resonate with Warfield’s list drafted in 1976?  

Warfield’s list of elements in short supply certainly resonated with me when I first read his book.  Over the past decade, I have focused quite a lot of attention on methodology and teams, and over time I’ve come to learn more and more about the importance of leadership.  As a group facilitator, it’s important to work closely with leaders and foster a productive working relationship.  Leaders will have a unique understanding of the team they are working with, but they will not necessarily have any understanding of systems thinking methodologies. In the first instance, a group facilitator will often serve as a teacher/educator in explaining to sponsors/brokers/leaders what can/will be done and how much time will be required for system design work.  As the group dynamics needed to optimize collective intelligence, systems thinking and systems design work are quite specific and not necessarily consistent with the project management approach adopted by leaders in their organisation, a natural tension between group facilitators and group leaders can arise.  Indeed, central to a productive working relationship with leaders is the cultivation of a natural, cooperative and open, reflective tension in relation to group process facilitation.  Leaders and facilitators may naturally clash as they navigate through the project work together with the team.  I’ll try to explain a little more as we move forward here.

As noted by Warfield, there is no system design without leadership.  The role of leaders in supporting system design capabilities and collective action is critical. For the group facilitator, understanding the behaviour of leaders is critical. This includes the relationship that leaders have with their group, their specific leadership style and skill, leader-follower exchanges, co-leadership dynamics, and the vision and goals the leader communicates in leading their group.

In the transition to working with a design team, group facilitators need to meet with leaders as part of the process of brokerage.  You’ll recall brokerage as one of Warfield’s 12 elements.  Brokerage involves a number of activities, including (1) reflecting with leaders on the issue the group seeks to address, (2) clarifying system design objectives, and (3) discussing different systems thinking and design methods that may be useful to support group work.  

As noted in our second blog post, systems thinking design methods are many and varied. Group facilitators need to be able to describe the procedural details of each method in turn and weight up the pros and cons of different methods. It may take time for leaders to understand and appreciate the methods, and they will naturally be sceptical in relation to methods and the amount of time, planning, and resource investment needed to implement methods. As such, brokerage is often hard work.  But it should be hard work, as it always requires the practice of due care and diligence in selecting and optimizing methods that are fit for purpose in each project context.  It’s also hard work because facilitators need to empathise deeply with the group members they are working with, including leaders. Empathy here refers to perspective taking in relation to all relevant issues, and immersion in the world of the group.  Facilitators also need to reflect deeply on the challenge of leadership itself, as it manifests in the local problem contexts they are working. 

As mentioned previously, we are always doing two things as we work: we are analysing the group dynamics literature to understand the types of dynamics that have been observed across different study contexts; and we are analysing our local problem situation in an effort to understand group dynamics that are operative, while also working to anticipate and plan for the different group dynamics that may play out when groups come together to engage in collaborative project work.  When it comes to leadership in particular, it’s also valuable to monitor cultural trends and variations. Awareness and perspective in relation to the broader historical context and research on leadership is important.  While historical shifts in the definition of leadership can be observed in the literature, for example, with Mumford (1902, p.221) emphasising “the pre-eminence of one or a few individuals in a group in the process of control of societal phenomena”, which is later transformed into the behavioural focus of Cartwright and Zander (1953, p 538) emphasising “…the performance of those acts which help the group achieve its objectives”, in recent decades, the relational and cooperative aspects of leadership are increasingly prominent.  However, at the core of almost every definition of leadership in an emphasis on influence – which may involve mutuality, for example, as Rost (1993, p. 102) describes it, “an influence relationship among leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes”.  And sometimes we see mention of group facilitation, for example, as Yukl (2013, p. 7) has it, “the process of influencing others to understand and agree about what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives”.

Of course, the role of the group facilitator is very different from that of the group leader.  Facilitating teams using applied systems tools and methods is challenging work that requires a sophisticated understanding of the role of the facilitator, acquired both through training and learning from the experience of working with different teams and different problematic situations. During their training as facilitators, we emphasise to students the distinction between context, content, and process, which are always clarified with system design teams in advance of any project work:

  • Context: A system design team are working in a particular context and focus on a particular issue and have specific goals
  • Content: The primary role of core design team members (i.e., stakeholders and content experts) is to provide ideas relevant to the context and the particular issue they are addressing
  • Process: The role of the facilitation team is to manage the flow of activities, including the implementation of various methodologies that allow goals to be accomplished. Facilitators do not contribute ideas or make judgments about the content of participants’ ideas.

In our role as group facilitators we adopt a unique stance.  While we work with leaders and other team members to clarify goals and manage workflows in a way that supports shared understanding, systems thinking and the production of system design products, we do not seek to influence the content of the group in any way.  We stand outside of the content the group is focused on, and we focus instead on the group process and the implementation of the group system design methodology.  As such, on the face of it, the group facilitator may have certain things in common with the group leader, for example, a shared focus on project and team facilitation.  But the group facilitator is not a group leader, much like the leader is not a group facilitator in the way in which we define the facilitation role in our work.  This will become increasingly clear as we move forward.

Another key difference between facilitators and leaders is that, while leader might naturally be interested in the specific behaviours of facilitators, once methodologies are agreed and a plan for system design sessions put in place, the leader’s focus on the behaviour of the facilitator is not a significant requirement for the implementation of the systems thinking process.  Conversely, the group facilitator pays close attention to the behaviour of the leader, along with other members of the group. 

Notwithstanding differences in the style or skill of leaders across different contexts, the specific objectives that leaders voice, and the influence that leaders exercise, needs to be understood by systems thinking facilitators.  As noted, during the process of brokerage, the facilitator will seek to clarify a variety of issues related to project goals, the nature of the design challenge, the stakeholders and experts involved, key group dynamics at play in the broader design context, and so on.  These initial meetings will always include group leaders and sometimes a number of co-leaders and stakeholders.  The issues clarified during these initial meetings will invariably be coupled with further reading and analysis of problem situation reports that have been disseminated to the facilitation team.  (Reading problem situation reports and studies in the domain area is very important, as facilitators need requisite knowledge to support reflective dialogue, and to understand the language and factual/technical details that are likely to be communicated in collaborative exchanges between stakeholders and experts in a system design session.)  But the core focus in terms of managing group dynamics in brokerage meetings is to ensure clarity in relation to system design objectives, the nature of leader influence in pursuing these objectives, the impact of leader style and skill on the group they are leading, the specifics of leader-follower exchanges, and any co-leadership dynamics that are critical in shaping objectives and influence dynamics. 

Throughout this process facilitators need to maintain a curious, reflective, and neutral stance in relation to all aspects of groupwork, and on occasion, if the leader influence is too dominant or dysfunctional for groupwork, the facilitator will provide feedback on the conditions that need to be in place to maximize group intelligence and collaborative systems thinking and design work. Sometimes, the facilitator will politely decline further work on a project if these conditions cannot be achieved.  The decision to engage in system design work is not taken lightly, nor is the decision to disengage – and in either case the facilitator should seek to make a useful contribution, drawing upon their methodological, process, and group dynamics knowledge and skill. 

Using Warfield’s language, it is important that brokerage prompts an active, constructive, and hopeful process, where, in the long view, systems thinking and design work is oriented toward “plans that incorporate the results of exploration of the issues that are translated into results in society”.  This sense of hopefulness also runs throughout all subsequent stages of groupwork.  For example, a group dealing with difficult issues will sometimes become discouraged, and a facilitator’s understanding of what can be accomplished through continued groupwork becomes critical. Supporting a sense of hopefulness can encourage the group to continue in the face of difficulties.  This hopefulness needs to be coupled with resilience in order to make it through the tough times. As we have noted elsewhere, when a facilitator demonstrates steadfastness in the face of adversity, this can help a group through difficulties.  This also acts as a form of additional facilitation support for leaders, who can sometimes struggle to maintain resilience in the face of challenges their group or team is facing.  In the overall process of system design work, the relationship between facilitators and leaders – although contentious at times – is very important in efforts to overcome challenges. While facilitators will make mistakes along the way, by reflecting on these mistakes and by staying true to the core principles and best practices of system design work, facilitators will learn over time how best to work with and support leaders.

As noted by Warfield, funds are needed for system design work (recall the 12 elements above), and leaders will often play a central role in securing funds and in the related brokerage of activities linked to spending. In this sense, by the time a group facilitator is invited into the process, leaders are already invested in the project.  They are naturally concerned that time, funds, and collective energy invested in the system design work bears fruit and is useful in supporting team goals.  But levels of ‘investment’ vary from project to project and facilitators are primarily interested in maximizing the investment of their time and energy by achieving the greatest possible success for the group in terms of collective intelligence and productive outputs from system design sessions. Direct and intensive engagement between the group facilitator and group leader is needed to understand the leader’s levels of motivation, influence, problem-specific knowledge, and history of project work in the area.  The group facilitator may prompt the leader to focus attention on particular areas (e.g., communicating goals more clearly to team members, circulating problem-specific reports to support knowledge growth in advance of the session, emphasising their collaborative role with team members to transform influence dynamics in advance of system design work, and so on).  

In a situation where a leader commits to the application of systems thinking methodologies to support group project design work, in principle, they are agreeing to empower collective intelligence and pass over a degree of influence to experts and stakeholders in the overall system design and implementation process. However, it is important for facilitators to understand that, depending on the political and organisational context, leaders can maintain varying levels of influence that shape project implementation of the outputs from system design sessions.  In efforts to uphold freedom as non-domination for the purpose of maximizing knowledge sharing, collective intelligence, and design thinking, as noted, the group facilitator operates in a state of natural, cooperative, and open tension in relation to any domineering influence.  But the facilitator must also recognises that their influence in this regard is primarily operative in the core groupwork phase (i.e., during the facilitation of group dynamics at stage 3 in figure 1).  This groupwork phase is the phase during which systems thinking and design methods are implemented with the team in a workshop setting. We will return to those dynamics in a later blog post.

However, it is worth noting here that this state of natural, cooperative, and open tension in relation to any domineering influence, including that of the leader, is sustained throughout the whole project — from beginning to end — to maintain and uphold the integrity of the design process. The way in which leaders respond in this situation varies, and facilitators must operate with mindfulness and resilience and adaptability throughout, that is, in their efforts to maintain a curious, reflective, and neutral stance in relation to all aspects of groupwork.  This is a difficult stance to maintain – it requires requisite reflection and rest throughout cycles of engagement – and behavioural adjustments in response to the consequences of facilitation behaviours are invariably needed.  Fundamentally, the facilitator is oriented to the issue, the team, their methods, and their group process.  In this context, the facilitator recognises the leader as one member of the group – an influential member in the overall group dynamics and in the ultimate success of the project.

We’ve mentioned that transition dynamics include not only a focus on (1) Leadership dynamics, but also (2) Group Formation, and (3) Influence dynamics.  The formation of groups for the purpose of system design thinking is somewhat unique. Facilitators need to understand key group formation dynamics: joining, affiliation, attraction, and membership dynamics. Influence dynamics extend beyond the influence of the leader to the set of influences across the whole group. We’ll talk about these influences in more detail in the next blog post.

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