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.

Leadership

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.

The Psychology of Design

Part III: Contextual and Antecedent Dynamics

For those of us who were teenagers in the 1980s, the teen comedy classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, was a classic movie for many reasons. As teenagers, we could relate to the stifling school environment that Ferris Bueller sought to escape from, and we all wanted a day off …. anyone, anyone?  Ferris worked hard and he worked smart to engineer a great day off school.  We admired his relaxed approach to adventure, his skilled use of gadgets and computers, and his ability to get along with everyone. Ferris also offered us his simple version of mindfulness, illustrated in the classic opening and closing lines to the movie:

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

My kids certainly appreciated the sentiment when we watched the movie recently.

Indeed, life moves even faster these days. Information outputs and exchanges have accelerated. The number of apps and gadgets and ‘systems’ we use to manage information complexity and life challenges is mind boggling.  Mark Zuckerberg’s philosophy of “move fast and break things” seems strange to those of us who grew up in households where our mother reminding us regularly ‘not to break things’.  And the manic pace of ‘disruptive technology’ design seems, well, a little disruptive – and certainly a world away from Ferris Bueller’s relaxed approach to life design.

Well, in this blog series, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, system design work isn’t easy.  It’s not easy because system design work requires systems thinking, and systems thinking takes time.  Some people say that the era of “move fast and break things” is over.  Thank God, I hear my grandmother say! But is it really over – really?  We need to stop and look around.  In reality, it’s not easy to slow down and design better systems when everyone around you is running around distractedly looking for ‘new ways to be disruptive’.  The drive to “move fast and innovate” is ever-present — even if you think you’re not breaking things.  Perhaps what we really need is more speed and less haste.  Perhaps, as we make the move from ‘breaking things’ to working cooperatively to design quality systems, we can keep in mind the words of Mitsuyo Maeda: “Slow is smooth. Smooth is Fast”.  A quality system design process might seem slow, but it’s much faster than one hasty mess after another. A critical mass of people need to slow down together for the era of “move fast and break things” to be truly over.  This involves culture change, and culture change takes time.

As we mentioned in the previous blog post, the (slow) learning and application of systems thinking design methods can help groups. And group facilitators can help groups. Facilitators can help design teams with the application of systems thinking methods and the group dynamics involved in the application of these methods.

Good, we can debate this further, but slowing down is often a good start. It allows groups to experience something akin to the ‘extended now’ moment Eckhart Tolle talks about. Now, at least, the design group can begin to embrace the reality that societal systems are complex – there are many elements that need to be considered. This seems obvious when we think about it – particularly when we embrace the systems thinking process – but, still, people are reluctant to slow down and put aside the time needed for systems thinking design work.

We’ve mentioned the excellent book by Michael Jackson, Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity, and all the systems thinking methods a group might use to get a handle on technical complexity (e.g., Operations Research, Systems Engineering), process complexity (e.g., the Vanguard Method), structural complexity (e.g., System Dynamics), organisational complexity (e.g., Organisational Cybernetics and the Viable Systems Model), people complexity (e.g., Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, Interactive Planning, Soft Systems Methodology), and coercive complexity (e.g., Team Syntegrity, and Critical Systems Heuristics).  Another method we can add to this list is Interactive Management (IM), an applied systems thinking method developed by John Warfield. We have used Warfield’s method in number of projects, including technology design projects. We’ve also combined IM with scenario-based design methods, and, as mentioned, we recognise that methods are not ‘separate’ from one another — they can be usefully combined. We recognise that group facilitators need to continue learning new methods and help design teams think through an optimal synthesis of methods to support project work. 

There’s great joy in trying out new methods. Of course, this joy manifests – even if only for brief moments – in the context of complex groups dynamics.  Let’s enter this complex space now.

Enter the Group, Enter the Dynamics  

Given the quality of communication and collaborative action required, the application of systems thinking design methods often involves working with small groups (e.g., 5 – 20 people). However, methods can scale to larger groups (e.g., organisations, communities) and the influence of systems thinking design projects can scale to global level impacts.  Regardless of what you think of their products, it’s worth nothing that the “move fast and break things” community are often, at their core, comprised of relatively small design teams, but when they push their designs out into the world, the global impact of the designs — as my granny might say – ‘can be a little disruptive’.

Regardless of the system design methodology selected, it’s important to note that groups will have varying levels of past experience working together and regardless of the size of the group working together, their {small group dynamics} are always embedded in {larger group dynamics} that influence their functioning and societal impact. 

From a group facilitation perspective, given the process focus of systems thinking and design work, we make a distinction in our paper between {proximal} and {distal} group dynamics, that is, dynamics that play out in the proximal interactions between group members during the systems thinking groupwork phase (located in a central position in Figure 1), and the broader antecedent, contextual, transition and post-session group dynamics within which systems thinking groupwork interactions occur. 

As we move to talk about group dynamics, I want to make something clear: Michael Jackson’s book, Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity, is a brilliant book.  I can’t recommend it enough. But you may notice an interesting gap as you read – the book says less about how to facilitate groups in the use of systems thinking design methods.  Yes, I hear you, this is the type of ‘interesting gap’ that perhaps only a group facilitator would notice.  While often ignored, the role of the group facilitator is important.  Now this varies across approaches, but the application of systems thinking methods in a group design project generally involves working with a facilitator, and sometimes, a facilitation team.  The facilitator(s) work closely with the expert and stakeholder group, helping them apply methods in a way that is fit for purpose.  From our perspective as group facilitators following Warfield’s method – and we are strict in this regard – the facilitation team focuses exclusively on method and process, and thus we adopt a curious, reflective, and neutral position in relation to systems thinking content.  In other words, the ‘content’ of system design work is exclusively the product of the stakeholder and expert group.

While most of the skilled engagement of the facilitation team centres on supporting groups in the application of systems thinking methods, facilitators also need to understand, monitor, and manage the proximal groupwork dynamics that play out within the group during the application of the method. And facilitators need to understand, monitor, and manage more distal group dynamics. This includes the antecedent, contextual dynamics that influence how systems thinking sessions are brokered and organised in advance of groupwork. It includes the transition dynamics that influence the coming together of a group and their initial productive functioning.  And it also includes the post-session group dynamics that influence the ongoing systems thinking and design process and outcomes.  

We’re going to talk about all these different phases of work as we move forward here. The main reason for this wide lens of analysis and engagement – where we focus on distal group dynamics in addition to proximal group dynamics – is because, very often, facilitation teams are embedded as part of a project for an extended period of time.  As such, the facilitation team needs to maintain a focus on group facilitation in a principled and informed manner and in a way that serves the productive and successful workings of the group.  Overall, this implies understanding distinct but overlapping aspects of group dynamics during different phases of working with a group.  While these phases can vary depending on the method used, systems thinking project work tends to have a duration that extends from months to years, and even decades in some cases (Broome, 2006). 

Our group dynamics framework is presented in Figure 1.  The relevant scientific literature for educational programme designers can be accessed across a variety of textbooks (e.g., Forsyth, 2014, 2018; Levi & Askay, 2020). I’ll include a few hyperlinks in the flow going forward, but they are largely for illustrative purposes and to give you a sense of where analysis and exploration can take you in your group dynamics adventures. My advice is to begin by reading the textbooks – they’re ideal for reflective thinking and as a prompt for context-specific analysis work. 

Antecedent and Contextual Dynamics

Let’s begin by noting a few key considerations in relation to Antecedent and Contextual Dynamics, located to the left of Figure 1.  The key aspects of group dynamics we focus on here relate to (a) Inclusion and Identity, (b) Power, and (c) Structure.  It should be noted that we are doing two things as we work.  First, we are analysing the existing empirical group dynamics literature to understand the types of dynamics that have been observed across different study contexts.  Second, 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. 

In simple terms, in advance of inviting a group to engage in a systems thinking design session, we need to do our homework and engage in some advance planning.  A curious, reflective, and neutral stance in relation to all aspects of engagement, analysis, planning, and simulation of groupwork is sustained throughout, in advance of working with a group, while working with a group, and in follow-up work with a group.  To begin with, we need to understand Inclusion and Identity dynamics. This often begins with a process of mapping the stakeholder and expert ecosystem.  This is essential if you want to design a process that is truly collaborative and cooperative, including and engaging key stakeholders and experts.  In this context, the group facilitator needs to understand the effects of inclusion and exclusion on group behaviour, the influence of group identity on behaviour, and inter-group interdependencies including in-group and out-group dynamics.  Key questions you might ask here include:

  • Have you a clear understanding of the stakeholders and stakeholder groupings for whom the problem you are addressing is directly relevant? 
  • Do you have an understanding of the key expert groups and domains of knowledge and skill that are relevant to address the problem?
  • Do you have an understanding of how different group identities influence the perception of the problem situation?
  • Do you have an understanding of how people with different group identities perceive one another and behave in relation to one another?   
  • Do you have knowledge of the history of inclusion and exclusion of different stakeholder and expert groupings in the context of past efforts to address the problem, and the impact of inclusion/exclusion dynamics on current experience and behaviour within and across groups?
  • Can you perceive and anticipate inter-group interdependencies that are important for modelling both the current state of the system, and future transformations of the system?

Also critical for brokerage and planning of systems thinking groupwork is an understanding of Power dynamics, including the group dynamics linked to status, compliance, and power use and sharing within and between stakeholder and expert groups. While systems thinking facilitators need to manage and monitor equality of input and influence during groupwork, they also need to understand how power dynamics influence group activity and productivity throughout the whole lifecycle of a project.  Key questions here include:

  • How are status and power differences between group members likely to influence their communication and collaborative engagement during a systems thinking session, and during follow-up system design implementation work?
  • Do you have an understanding of compliance histories between groups and members, and can you simulate how past and present dynamics will influence future power use and power sharing dynamics that are proposed as part of system change? 

Importantly, a comprehensive understanding of inclusion, identity, and power dynamics cannot be achieved without an understanding of group Structure, including the roles, norms, and network structure of groups. Immersion in the working context of groups is needed to understand the specific dynamics at play.  Members of the facilitation team will often use the word ‘immersion’ in this context, as it highlights both the depth of reflective engagement — and time — needed to develop an understanding of groups and their organisations in advance of bringing stakeholders and experts together. 

Systems design project work is often initiated on the assumption that partnerships across stakeholders, experts, and implementation teams will be established. From a naïve point of view, they might be assumed to be ‘a given’ — but these partnerships play out across multiple group structures and organisations, which often operate with different norms, across a diverse role landscape, and with a collection of stronger and weaker network ties within and across groups and organisations.  Understanding the overall structure of groups across this landscape is important for effective group facilitation. 

None of this is easy, and indeed, it’s only the beginning.  In the next post, we will consider the transition dynamics, as we seek to facilitate groups to work productively together – assuming we can get them to the design room in the first instance!  

References:

Broome, B. J. (2006). Applications of Interactive Design Methodologies in Protracted Conflict Situations, in Lawrence Frey (Ed.), Facilitating group communication in context: Innovations and applications with natural groups, pp. 125-154, Hampton Press.

The Psychology of Design: Reflecting on Methods

Part II: The group is greater than the method

System design work is not easy.  Sometimes, when you’re out walking or cycling your bike, or maybe simply pouring a glass of water while taking a break, an idea or aphorism might arise in your mind. For example, I was pouring a glass or water this morning and the following idea popped into my head: the pathway to success is through method.  I was thinking about many methods that same day – the research methods my students are using for their project work, the method the builders would be using when they arrived later to fix our leaking roof, the online teaching methods teachers have been using recently when working with our kids, the methods young career researchers would need to master to progress and succeed in academia.  But I was also thinking about systems thinking methods and the broader challenges we face in working together collaboratively to address societal problems.  Indeed, as noted in the previous post, there are many methods we can use to help with our systems design work.  We mentioned Harry Stack Sullivan and Jeffrey Masson, and the problem of ‘psychiatry’:  how to design a system of interpersonal relations that helps people adapt to various problems in living. In a loose narrative, we suggested that the capacity of the system to empathise and help is a critical issue, and we wondered how to approach the design challenge.  My water-pouring aphorism, the pathway to success is through method, prompts further reflection in relation to the design methods we might use. 

The Magic of Methods

I read an excellent book recently, which I will recommend at this point. The book is written by Michael Jackson, and has the weighty title: Critical Systems Thinking and the Management of Complexity.  The book showcases a range of systems thinking and design methods for working in the context of technical complexity (e.g., Operations Research, Systems Engineering), process complexity (e.g., the Vanguard Method), structural complexity (e.g., System Dynamics), organisational complexity (e.g., Organisational Cybernetics and the Viable Systems Model), people complexity (e.g., Strategic Assumption Surfacing and Testing, Interactive Planning, Soft Systems Methodology), and coercive complexity (e.g., Team Syntegrity, and Critical Systems Heuristics). 

Of course, these methods are not ‘separate’ from one another — they can be usefully combined.  For example, when thinking about ‘the problem of psychiatry’, looking in particular at long waiting lists for mental health services and the poor operating capacity of the health service in your region, you might apply the Vanguard Method to understand and optimise the process of referral, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up; and you might apply Strategic Assumptions Surfacing and Testing to understand potentially conflicting assumptions regarding service delivery from the perspective of different stakeholders. You might build upon your Vanguard analysis and use methods from operations research to mathematically model queuing, inventory, allocation, replacement, and coordination problems; and you might use system dynamics methods to analyse the financial and human capital requirements into the future, modelling the impact of demographic changes. Looking more closely at infrastructure and specific organisations across your region, you might use a viable systems model lens to map and reflect on the viability of organisational structures and operational activities in collaboration with front-line staff, management, and regional and national mental health leaders working to optimise viable organisational deigns.  Working with others across a series of interconnected design projects, you might engage in what Michael Jackson calls Critical Systems Multimethodology, that is, where you apply multiple methods as needed to redesign your mental health systems and services.  Or you could engage in some loose thinking, or ‘follow the leader’ behaviour, where you introduce some changes that few people have considered deeply.  This can even include the type of loose thinking where leaders advocate system-wide changes in mental health services based on the evidence from a set of ‘promising’ randomised controlled trials coupled with a vague implementation framework that frames practice considerations across a narrow set of contextual variables. 

It might seem a little scary at first for psychologists, who generally have little or no disciplinary training in any of these methods, but critical systems multimethodology is open to learning.  Indeed, we can begin this methodological training in our undergraduate psychology programmes.  Across multiple programmes, at the group level, we might naturally begin to see cumulative growth in the range of methods available to us.  Prompted by Harry Stack Sullivan, we might argue that the design challenge requires engagement from many different ‘personalities’, in particular, different people possessing a variety of different methodological ‘skills’ and associated ‘behavioural repertoires’.  Naturally, these ‘personalities’ are not – and should not be — isolated from interpersonal relationships with one another. Together, as their methodological skill set grows, they have the potential to design ‘psychiatry’ as a system of interpersonal relations that helps people adapt to various problems in living. Ultimately, their system design methods shapes their implementation and operational methods – their practice on the ground, the way they help people in need of help. 

The group is greater than the method

It seems like a simple vision, but the usual problems arise: the disciplinary training is too narrow; the disciplines operate in silos using different methods; and transdisciplinary systems methods, including those described by Michael Jackson, have no home in any of the disciplines, and ramble about the houses looking for friends and partners. Meanwhile, the stakeholders wonder what we’re doing and what progress we’re making.  Psychology as a discipline, much like other disciplines, simply needs to broaden its horizons a little; and then, with growing confidence and skill, we can collectively experiment with Critical Systems Multimethodology.  It will not take us long to see where it all fits together – we will see the natural extension of our critical thinking abilities and our capacity for skilled tool use.  We will see the group rather than individuals alone.  We will see synergies and new opportunities for partnership.  We will see the potential to advance our collective intelligence and collective capacity to address the ‘problem of psychiatry’ and other, related societal problems. 

Of course, as we expand outward, we will also see the context in which we work. We see more than the ‘problem situation’ itself – now we see all the people operating within, across, above, and beyond the problem situation.  We see the deeper truth in relation to method – the action of our multimethodology takes place within the operation of our group dynamics.  The field of group dynamics rises to prominence.  And so we turn our attention now to the group dynamics, but please, continue to learn more about the systems thinking and design methods, because our aphorism still holds true — the pathway to success is through method – only now we know that methods only function to the extent that the group using the method functions.  The group is greater than the method.  

The Psychology of Design

Understanding the interpersonal dimension of the design process

As a young teenager rambling around my house in the 1980s, back in a time when there was nothing on TV and no internet, I recall coming across a copy of Harry Stack Sullivan’s book, Conceptions of Modern Psychiatry.  Our house was peppered with thousands of books that caused my mother some difficulty every time it came to repainting.  I was more of a browser and less of a reader back then – more content moving the stacks of books for my mother, weeding the garden, waxing the car, climbing trees, anything active. But Harry Stack Sullivan immediately struck me as interesting and I paused for a time to read. Indeed, browsing had exposed me to many ideas, and I never took to the intrapsychic focus of Freud. In the opening section of his book, Sullivan pointed urgently to important truths, specifically, that ‘personality’ cannot be isolated from interpersonal relationships and that the field of ‘psychiatry’ is the field of interpersonal relations under all circumstances in which such relations exist. 

Being Irish, I agreed immediately.  Deep in my bones, I always viewed ‘personality’ as our distinctive behaviour in interpersonal contexts, and it made sense to me that ‘psychiatry’ should be defined as a system of interpersonal relations designed to help people adapt to various problems in living, particularly when they present to the community as suffering or struggling in some way. It was only later I realised, but it was interesting to discover that Harry Stack Sullivan had Irish parents too, although he himself didn’t experience the best of Irish community life, growing up in the anti-Catholic neighbourhoods of Norwich, New York, where he struggled as a consequence of the interpersonal milieu.

There’s no doubt, we all struggle at times and another book that struck me as interesting as an undergraduate studying psychology was a book by Jeffrey Masson, Against Therapy.  The book offered a critique of therapy, and psychiatry more generally, noting the fundamental problem of imbalanced power relations between the ‘therapist’ and the ‘patient’.  While offering no alternative to the systems of therapy and psychiatry on offer at the time, Masson somewhat vaguely alludes to the value of peer support systems.  A reasonable suggestion perhaps, even if no reasonable societal design was proposed by Masson. 

Alas, Masson’s book was essentially a critique of existing systems. And you might say that a critique of existing systems is an important catalyst for system design work. Sure, and few will disagree in principle – the voice of dissent, critique, and ‘opposition’ is fundamental to the political process — but you still have to engage in design thinking, and you have to further implement and evaluate your new designs. 

When faced with the inadequacies of societal system designs, poor infrastructures and poor support systems, it’s perhaps too easy for the bulk of our energies to be directed at a critique of the system, and the danger here is that this leaves us with less energy for system redesign work. A balance needs to be struck. We simply need to be aware of our limited energies and proceed as best we can.

The Work Required for System Redesign

What would a reasonable system of ‘psychiatry’ look like – that is, reasonably feasible, impactful, sustainable?  Some initial thoughts may come to mind while you’re talking with others. For example, you might say it needs to have capacity to empathise and help address many different forms of suffering and struggling that community members present with.  Indeed, observable empathy and help are needed as a signal to community members that they can present to the community without fear of stigma or rejection, and they will indeed be helped.

In conversation with others, we might expand upon the idea of ‘capacity’ and propose that ‘requisite capacity’ implies that there be a set of practices, norms, roles, tools, methods, medicines, and patterns of interpersonal relating that fundamentally help members of our community who are suffering and struggling. That may be more of a system specification than Masson provides in his book, but it’s clearly not enough.  A vague wish-list is not a system.  Of course, the conversation has to start somewhere.

Notwithstanding the challenge of simply identifying a set {of practices, roles, methods, etc…} that help community members (e.g, by drawing upon the evidence from randomised controlled trials), requisite capacity, even in a system that abolishes the problem of power relations, implies requisite capital {finance, assets, infrastructure, etc…}. In an ideal world, the capital investment is considered a public good, and thus the funds used are public rather than private funds, and there is no ‘for-profit’ dimension in the public good. 

But we also need a form of human capital that not only delivers on a system design, but fundamentally takes ownership in innovating and reengineering the set of {practices, tools, medicines, patterns of interpersonal relating, etc…} the community is using, in a way that sustains a reasonably feasible and impactful operating system over time.  The broader community and group dynamics are important here, and it’s not just power relations that need to be considered in the overall design.  The financial and human capital investment is significant.

Principles That Shape the Design Process

And thus you might ask, what principles will shape the system design process?  An academic might excitedly jump in, following John Rawls, and say, well, the system should be designed in a way that empowers its members, but that the liberty of any one member should not infringe on the liberty of others; differences in socioeconomic status across members of the community, if they cannot be eradicated completely, should be transformed in a way that is beneficial to the community as a whole – and any inequality that does exist should have no bearing on the potential political power of any one member of the community.  Some people in the design room may nod their head knowingly, others may smile kindly and quizzically and ask the speaker to repeat the statement, and others may look upon the speaker with mild scepticism or even mild distain, perhaps, because the principles voiced are too abstract, do not match the reality, are insufficient for transformative design work, or simply don’t go far enough. So, how far will the community go, what will the community do? 

Perhaps it’s useful to return again to Harry Stack Sullivan’s starting point, and ask how we — as a collection of ‘personalities’ with our distinctive behaviour in context — can establish a system of interpersonal relations that allows us to design a feasible, impactful, sustainable system that helps us to adapt to a host of different problems in living.  Over the next six blog posts, I’m going to return again to a focus on systems thinking and collective action capabilities needed to address societal challenges.  I’m going to expand on a recent paper we wrote and focus on system design project work, and more specifically, the importance of understanding the group dynamics and interpersonal relations that shape project work. I think it’s useful to note as we proceed that it’s somewhat understandable from a historical, and indeed evidential, perspective why communities, groups, and teams are not often very skilled in managing their own group dynamics.  We don’t have a long history of integral enquiry in this domain — the basic research we have access to often simply provides a basic understanding, which in turn needs to be negotiated in any implementation effort.  At the same time, if we want to enhance our collective intelligence and system design capabilities, we need to do our best to understand, monitor, and manage group dynamics during system design project work.  We need to start the conversation.

Given the nature of systemic societal challenges focused broadly on issues of well-being, sustainability, productivity, and innovation, in some of the work we have previously published in this area we have argued that educational training focused on group process facilitation should be included as part of broader, integrated programmes focused on applied systems science and the management of complexity (Hogan, Harney, Broome, 2015; Hogan and Broome 2020).  When thinking about the group dynamics that play out in system design projects, our recent paper suggests that it’s useful to consider the proximal interactions between group members in their efforts to understand the system they are operating in and the type of system redesign they would like to see; but it’s also useful to consider the broader group dynamics within which project work unfolds over time.  This implies understanding distinct but overlapping aspects of group dynamics during different phases of working with a group.

There are many different methods we can use when approaching the challenge of systems thinking and system design work, but these methods are applied in the context of exceedingly complex group dynamics. Our ability to understand, monitor, and manage group dynamics will always be limited and constrained in certain respects, but we can usually work constructively within these constraints and limitations. One way or another, in order to facilitate groups and help them along the path to the design of better systems, we need to immerse ourselves in the process and speak openly about the dynamic waters in which we swim.

References

Hogan, M. J., Harney O., & Broome, B. (2015). Catalyzing Collaborative Learning and Collective Action for Positive Social Change through Systems Science Education. In: Wegerif, R., Kaufman, J. Li L (eds). The Routledge Handbook of Research on Teaching Thinking. London: Routledge.

Hogan, M.J., Broome, B. (2021).  Facilitation and the focus on process. Systems Research and Behavioral Science. https://doi.org/10.1002/sres.2639

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