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Second of a series of 3 pieces on Systems Thinking

As we become more effective in seeing systems and learning to think in new ways about human behavior—attending not only to the individual but also to the larger systemic and interactive dynamics between people— it is helpful to identify a set of questions applicable to many group systems in order to allow you to notice some critical systems concepts as they come to life:


ROLES/DECISION MAKING: These questions speak to the notion of each group having a control and power structure.

  1. What roles are various individuals playing in the group?
  2. Who is placating whom?
  3. Who has the power in the group?
  4. How do decisions get made in the group?
  5. Who gets time and how is that negotiated among members?
  6. Other than the leader’s direction, how is it decided who talks and what is discussed?

COALITIONS/BOUNDARIES: Boundaries can be tight or loose, depending on the needs of the group. An example of boundaries is the admission criteria for a group setting. Who gets into your group? What are the criteria? A Church meeting open group may have a loose set of criteria whereas an intensive coaching group for executives may have a strict set of entrance criteria.

  1. Which coalitions have formed?
  2. Who is aligned with whom?
  3. Which alliances have formed temporarily and permanently?
  4. Which members are in conflict with one another?
  5. Are the boundaries within a group open enough to allow new information to enter the group?

COMMUNICATION/INFORMATION:These questions try to get to an understanding of how each group  communicate and share information.

  1. How do members communicate with one another?
  2. Are the lines of communication clear and direct?
  3. Where do members direct their attention when they speak?
  4. How is information exchanged among group members?
  5. How did people share what they know with one another?
  6. Who was excluded or ignored?
  7. Which data were accepted and rejected?
  8. What critical information was neglected?
  9. How was the information synthesized?

PATTERNS/RULES: These are the ones such as “make sure you don’t say anything about fat people or you will make the leader mad.”

  1. What norms have developed in the group that regulate behavior?
  2. Which rules were established by the leader versus which ones emerged covertly by members?
  3. What are the metarules (the rules about rules) in the group?

CONFLICT/FEEDBACK: Each group has a unique way to deal with conflict and disagreements. These question try to understand that style.At the same time, during conflict there will be group members who try to downplay or squash the conflict.

  1. How are conflicts resolved?
  2. Who doesn’t like whom?
  3. What are the ways that members try to sabotage or undermine one another or the leader?
  4. How do members show their disagreement with what is going on?
  5. So who tries to make things better?
  6. Who squelches the conflict?
  7. Who tries to create distractions?

This is just a sample of questions that could emerge from system thinking applied to groups.

Obviously an individual’s behavior in a group is influenced not only by what others are doing in that system but also by players in the outside world, from the person’s family of origin as well as from how that person feels that day. As the infamous Stanford prison experiment reminded us so eloquently, even ethical or social behavior that we deemed very personal are our choice in a much less extent than we would like to think…

There are no free-riders. We are all products of the systems we inhabit.The invitation of systems thinking is to be aware of the systems around us and to understand their impact better.

What could you accomplish with a deeper, systemic understanding of the problems you are trying to solve?