More than teams: we need system-seers and system-influencers

Louie-e1306418193266-232x300We are hardwired – born to categorise. They say it is to support our survival – to help us differentiate from those who are like us (assumed to be safe) and not like us (assumed to be unsafe). And so what we see all around us is the unwanted consequences of our default patterns of differentiation – of amplifying otherness rather than seeking to reveal what unifies us. Polarising differences as better or worse rather than discovering the complementarity that makes shared endeavour possible. So we get conflict. Violence. War. Genocide.

Instead, what we could have – if we rise beyond the labelling and categorising that judges and separates – is wholeness. Synergy. Togetherness. Co-creation.

Blessings come in strange packets. Recently I found myself in a foursome, organising and delivering a learning event in Holland. I had never delivered with any of these people before. I knew the lead organiser moderately well; one less well than that and the other, not at all. Two had known each other for some 15 years and their families had a strong bond held together by mutual love and respect. Three of us were in a supporting role. Two men; two women. One British born in Africa; one Israeli born in Hungary; two Dutch – one mixed race of African ancestry, born in Holland; one simply Dutch born and raised. Our differences heritage, life-experience, expertise and life pathways were equally diverse: one started out as a chef; one became a professor of mathematics; one started working in the world of public sector sports management and the other in corporate life; all converging to this point: a learning experience in human systems dynamics (HSD).

The month it took to make this happen had a momentum driven by one, with the others following the flow. Bumps and rapids along the way were opened up, laid on the table to be spoken about; each person adapting to what was revealed – making their own decisions about whether or not to stay engaged. We practised what we were about ‘teach’ – adaptive action within complex adaptive systems. We had climbed aboard and aboard we remained not knowing if the event would actually take place.

It was billed as ‘HSD Live!’ And in this title the pattern was set. The plan set the intention and had an assumed trajectory and a defined end point. Beyond that, the wider human system that ultimately gathered in the room took over and played itself out, following an overarching single arc from late start to early end; and embedded within that arc, were multiple pathways hurtling towards stuttering differential points of equifinality. People came; people played; people left – not at a single closure but at many of their own choosing. The gathering ended and the learning continues to unfold with future gatherings to be arranged. WE were the human system dynamic aLIVE! We were it and in it and no single one of us had overall control of what played out. A room full of facilitators and consultants each exerting influence – a complex adaptive system in full unstoppable flow.

Tensions rose and fell; confusions abounded and insights sparked and fizzed as we surrendered to a potent, explosive, exciting exposé of what it means to be truly alive in a human system. This is magic. This is the alchemy of reality. To me there is nothing more amazing, astounding and fulfilling to be a human system in one’s own right, and simultaneously in one, amongst others. Glorious complexity at play. And far from easy to be at ease within it.

The four of us held the whole – each tending to smaller clusters which formed around shared questions and experiences. Smaller containers/ groups opened up the space for deeper questions, different paces and more intimate exchanges. And as each cluster reached its point of resolution, they moved on and out.

Through the shared endeavour, we four came to be a team. We took responsibility. We did not know this path and pattern would unfold. Had we allowed ourselves to fall headlong into our hard-wired human tendency for unconscious categorising, we would doubtless have defaulted into patterns of blame and accusation. We would not have been able to hold the complex manifestation that emerged in this group experience. It was because of our differences that we could meet what arose; it was because of our similarities that we had a shared language for framing and understanding the human system dynamics unfolding around us; it was because of the respect, trust and love that had imperceptibly grown between us that rather than separate, we were able to stand together and pull together; sharing, holding and caring for each other, everyone in the group – and the group as a whole.

The intensity of the experience needed us to be more than a functioning Team. And we rose to the call: becoming system-seers and system-influencers, truth-tellers, co-creators, accountable peers. We forged friendship and familial-like bonds – foundations for so much more to come. Blessings do indeed come in strange packets.

Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) is a field founded by Dr Glenda Eoyang of the HSD Institute of which Louie Gardiner is an associate.

Louie Gardiner is a regular contributor to the3rdimagazine.

4 Comments on More than teams: we need system-seers and system-influencers

  1. Very interesting Louie. Was it the general culture and nature of the individuals or the technique/style of the event that encouraged such open interaction do you think. In my experience, encouraging people to act outside of standard judgement and behaviour traits is always the key to genuine respectful exchange but can often be the hardest environment to create.

  2. Inspriring article Louie. I love the fact that you have illustrated only too well how differences do not have to come between us but in fact, in the resulting disruption, great things can emerge.

  3. I read your article immediately after I’d read Phils and one thought arises. Phil raises the need for a leader in a team if there is an outcome required from the team. Can a free-flowing team as you suggest only work well if there is no pre-set aim. That is where the group, of four in this case, comes together to facilitate a larger group for no predefined purpose but rather to allow free ranging conversation a leader isn’t needed. Had your group of four needed to reach a resolution of a known issue would a leader have been required? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts

    • While writing, so much details came up, I need more time to self-edit. Basically, leaderSHIP is an emergent property of groups exchange. It is produced together with any other result, and to easily attributed to “a leader”. When this happens, a leader may become (involuntarily) identified with the group, becomes a “pars pro toto” and in the end “the groups purpose”. This is also a bodily experience, as “a leader” will sit or stand more straight, produce more testosterone etc. . So it can become a self-fulfilling process: “groups need a leader”, as the participants mirror more or less involuntarily “the lead”.

      I’ve always assumed it is a-causal: a team needs an outcome (hmm, you use “outcome” and not “results”) and thereby produces a leader; a leader connects the group with its outcome and “comes out” of the group. Our brain needs an explanation, needs understanding and figures one out. It also tends to cover-up that human process are not-causal and assumes people are “just things”. (I mean: when you kick a stone, it will fly a causal path; when you kick a dog, it can flee, act surprised, attack or starting to beg or …; when you say something to a human being, the responses can be “as if being kicked”.) . Also, the cover-up is covered-up, because when questioned, we will deny that we assume human beings are “things”.

      In the actual meeting, leadership became “stuck”, as a it usually does in a Complex Adaptive System, then it builds tension and is released. Just as Smith and Berg describe it in “Paradoxes of Group Life” (p 223): resistance, exploration and repetition. We usually experience repetition as the problem to be overcome, yet in this case it was the path of learning, making repetition no longer necessary. They write:
      “The concept of group release is based on the observation that energy in groups is catalysed (this is the counter part of facilitated – jan) when that portion of an idea, emotion or action that has been split off from itself in the service of managing the existence of contradiction is reclaimed or brought back”.

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