The Gestalt Wave as a Map to Understanding “Groove”

The field of System Dynamics gives us a solid base and a fine language to conceptualise how systems operate and self-regulate in general. It is a framework and an integrated view on all levels of analysis – from the mico to the macro. What System Dynamics doesn’t do is provide insights on the specific functioning of human interaction, the patterns that emerge from the way we as humans are “wired”. To add to this understanding it may be helpful to take a look at the field of social psychology and therapy.

Source: Zinker (SAGE)

In the 1970s, Joseph Zinker and colleagues at the Gestalt Institute of Cleveland proposed an extended version of Fritz Perls’ “Cycle of Experience” – a wave model describing the process of self-regulation around the central Gestalt concept of “contact”. I will illustrate the six stages of this model with the classic analogy of eating an apple:

  1. Sensation: stimuli from the (internal or external) environment form an experience. For example: I have a strange uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. 
  2. Awareness: the stimuli are pieced together to a meaningful whole (a “figure” or “Gestalt”[1]) from which a need surfaces. I recognize the sensation as hunger and I feel the desire to eat.
  3. Mobilisation of Energy: in a build-up of tension the need gets energized and fuelled towards action (at this moment the individual is in maximal disequilibrium). I heighten my senses and actively scan my environment for food.
  4. Action: the energy is focussed and used to move towards a solution. I reach out and grab the apple on the table in front of me.
  5. Contact: as the solution gets realised, a part of the environment is assimilated in a healthy “act of aggression”. I bite, chew and swallow the apple.
  6. Withdrawal: The need is satisfied and a state of equilibrium is reinstated. The apple is gone and my sensation of hunger vanes.

An interruption of the cycle (be it accidental or habitual) leads to “unfinished business” – a state that ties a lot of energy. Gestalt therapy has identified a number of ways the cycle of experience may be disturbed or interrupted: deflection (preventing sensing and awareness), introjection (swallowing without chewing), projection (interpreting the inside as outside), retroflection (pointing aggression inwards) as well as confluence (blurring the boundaries between inside and outside) are some of them. One of the key interventions of Gestalt therapy is to aid clients in their struggles with such disturbances in order to walk through the steps of the cycle with more ease, establish real contact and self-regulate to a state of equilibrium.

The model has not only been applied to individuals, also to the dynamics within families and groups (described here as the “Cycle of Interaction”). Edwin Nevis built on these ideas focusing on decision making processes in teams and organisations. In his foundational work “Organisational Consulting: A Gestalt Approach” he describes patterns and pathologies of collective cycles and proposes organisation development interventions to aid the fruitful application of all stages in the cycle.

Nevis describes several classic wave constellations in teams: Figure 1 shows the “ideal case” – a synchronised activation pattern: team members become aware of a need for action more or less simultaneously, mobilize energy and act in synch. Figure 2 shows an unsynchronised pattern: everyone gets excited and ready to act at a different time. Figure 3 (top right) shows a pattern of resistance (or less judgemental of “multi-directed energy”): One person’s timing counters the wave of the remaining group. Finally, figure 4 shows a weak activation pattern across the group, i.e. low energy leading to lacklustre action.

When I first came across Nevis’ charts, they made immediate sense to me. They give a clean visual representation and a fine framework of sense-making for what is and what should be going on in teams. Nevertheless, they can be misleading: Group dynamics are not merely the sum of individual dynamics and they are not easily captured in a static image. The systemic and iterative nature of interactions effects interferences of individual dynamics, creating complex patterns that may become characteristic for a group but are hardly predictable at the outset. If person A always activates first and “hogs the impulse stage”, B and C may fall into a pattern of resistance. A may get frustrated with this situation, so will B and C and finally the whole team ends up in a state of depression – a low activation pattern “because nothing good comes from bringing up new ideas here anyways”. The resulting constellations hold more information than visible at first sight.

Let’s go back to the ideal case – alignment. In most current definitions of self-organisation, team alignment relates to shared objectives and coordinated action plans. In the aligned state, rather than looking in all kinds of directions, the team is jointly oriented like iron shavings in a magnetic field. This “state of alignment” is important and has been proven to be a relevant factor of high team performance; however, it is nothing spectacularly new. Throughout the entire history of leadership and HR, people have been concerned with the question how to align individuals with collective or corporate goals. If everyone is aligned with the leader or the company (be it by incentives, pressure or inspiration), individuals in teams are consequently aligned with each other. Conceptually this vision is not very far from a totalitarian one. Everyone aligned under one cause, rallied to one flag, wearing the same uniform. What’s missing here is the idea of autonomy. How can alignment work if we honour everyone’s need and right to be themselves and bring their individual strengths and perspectives to the table? Spotify has coined the term “Aligened Autonomy” – in an animated explainer video that went viral in the interested scene, Spotify agility coach Henrik Kniberg challenges the idea of a continuum between alignment and autonomy to form a two axis diagram: low alignment and low autonomy signify a micro management culture. Alignment without autonomy means that leaders are communicating the cause and directing the solution. Low alignment paired with high autonomy in turn implies teams are free to do whatever they like. In the high alignment high autonomy situation leaders focus and frame the issues to be solved but let teams decide how they are going to deal with them.

In my eyes the most interesting part of alignment is a team’s ability to create alignment when there is neither a carrot, a stick or a charismatic leader around – the self-regulatory “process of alignment”. This ability to create alignment “from within” is a central ingredient of self-organisation. It is about timing, about fluid roles of leadership and followership and about finding a groove to move through the cycle of interaction in synch. Obviously, eating the cake is sort of the point while baking it is merely the means. But baking the cake is the actual art. High performance teams are not about eating a great cake but about baking it.

A Story of Alignment

2018 marked the 20th anniversary of our consultancy SOCIUS, a moment of looking up proudly surprised as an established player on the scene. The year also was to become the watershed of a long and cumbersome process of profound change in our team dynamics. 

SOCIUS was founded by our most senior partner, Rudi, an entrepreneurial spirit with great drive and a magic sales pitch. Our growth throughout the years crept along organically: in the first decade, 4 of us joined, then another 4 in the 10 years to come. That is slow cooking! An exploration phase of setting up SOCIUS teams in three other cities was ceased after two years as communications went over our heads. We realized that we actually never aimed to get any bigger than a group sitting around a kitchen table for lunch – a ritual we practice quite consciously till today. We like it small and agile. 

As a team we always modelled the dual core dilemma: We cherish the autonomy and freedom of each member and share the ideal of a partnership of equals – yet, there is a heroic atmosphere in our founding story and for a pretty long time we got along quite all right with a concentric power and leadership structure. With the pioneer as an enterprising figure, there was a centre of gravity, sometimes a source of inspiration to follow, sometimes a turbulence to collectively get irritated or annoyed with. It was the perfect double bind, most likely for both sides. Such a state can go on for long, but is not sustainable forever – as in most pioneering constellations, things needed to widen up. We were all clear that something more profound than merely switching co-director titles and talking about generation change had to happen. We needed a new self-concept and we had to discover how to bring our ideal of a self-organising collective to full life and practice. After a row of deep and strenuous soul-searching, Rudi took a step back. First, embarking on a months-long journey to the woods, after that, largely abstinent from the stage of internal development, he opened up space for the new emerging dynamic. Given that the co-management roles we had distributed were decidedly not about replacing the old heroic leadership model, the stage was somewhat empty. 

In this moment, alignment was painfully missing. What was supposed to feel like a rebirth, a magic honeymoon, suddenly opened the view on our differences and on our insufficient experience to self-synchronise. Our resonance with each other was low. “Post heroic” seemed to imply “post focus”. Whenever someone came around with an idea or a development impulse, the reflex was to cautiously step on the break or to discover a counter impulse, effecting collective frustration and stagnation. Things felt wobbly and as the vacuum grew to become more painful, nostalgic thoughts about the good old times crept in – the hero never leaves the story. 

It took us half a year and many struggling hours to find a groove. When we found it, it suddenly seemed like a new day. The consensus to establish and practice a model of self-organisation based on shared leadership and decentralised authority was established quite quickly. The tools and practices to make it happen keep us on our feet to this day, but we are on the way and we keep learning. All of us together.

In my eyes, the most crucial competence we acquired in this process as a team, is the ability to synchronize and create alignment in micro cycles of development. What constitutes this ability? And how – if at all – can it be trained and supported? Let’s revisit the Wave.

Training to Surf

I believe that every step of the “cycle of experience” commands a certain skill. Just like an individual, a group needs to be able to sense, become aware, mobilise, act, make contact and withdraw (and in turn can be disturbed in any stage of this process). These skills can be supported by practices or substituted by formal process. If the process prevails without an organic practice to fill it, the skill will atrophy like a muscle that is not used. We know this from so many settings: if money is offered to donate blood, the intrinsic motivation to donate is reduced, if you stay too long on your crutches, your muscles will be weakened and its had to walk without them; if a kid gets pampered, it doesn’t learn to stand on its own feet. We know it, yet it is hard to really act on it. We still rather want the structure than the process. 

  1. Sensation: Sensing is physical. For a group to sense internal or external stimuli, it needs to shed some of its “knowing” and trade it for experiencing. Part of what makes a group attractive is the stability it offers. You are not on your own out there in the rain, but in the sheltered base of a collective. You know your team mates, you know what to expect from them, you know they know you. This comfort zone can become a trap, especially when the knowing is generalised to the group’s environment (“we know what to expect”). Sensations start with weak signals – if we want to catch them, we must short-wire our filters of perception and unlearn our knowing. We must open ourselves to experience. This is most of all an individual practice.  An important aspect of this is where to look. Some teams are quite introvert and are mainly concerned with their internal dynamics. Others are very much outward oriented and sense a lot more in the environment than in their “intestines”. Whatever the case, it is important to be attentive to both aspects to distinguish what actually is an internal issue and what is external: is my vision blurred because there is fog out there or because my glasses fogged up? Extrovert teams tend to project internal issues to the environment. Introvert teams tend to take things personal that are actually just “out there”. To make a sensation collective, there needs to be open communication and contact. It is no use, if only one person has a sensation and doesn’t share it. Sharing a sensation that has not yet become a collective awareness is something quite tricky: is it real? Is it relevant? Does it fit in? if we want to encourage collective sensing, we need to establish a positive bias on these questions. Everything you sense is real. Everything you sense may be relevant. Everything fits in, because in the end: nothing actually really fits in.  The formal practice to substitute sensing are routines of scanning internal and external environments. Formal scans, such as market research, benchmarking and strategic field analysis are helpful routines. If they become a “once a year we hire consultants to do this” kind of practice, they can become dangerous.
  2. Awareness: Group awareness forms within fields of resonance. For a team to collectively become aware, there needs to be a practice of sense making, a frame to interpret and assign common relevance and meaning to an issue. Whether or not this practice has a formal or informal frame doesn’t matter. Important is, that it is not something that you need to continuously organise. It has to become a second nature, something that happens routinely and with ease. If collective awareness is not on the menu for whatever reason, people that have an idea what a specific writing on the wall could mean need to step forward and propose a path of action. The words “need to step forward” are a soft imperative based on the realisation that groups depend on individual drive and courage to step up. Otherwise all we are is a flock of birds.
  3. Mobilisation of Energy: Collective mobilisation entails building commitment. Evidently, a managed decision to deploy resources and people to a cause has a different effect than people discovering they want to commit themselves. In a team alignment process this phase is characterized by situative leadership and emerging followership. Both of those roles require courage and need to be learned and practiced without becoming fixed roles. Followership is an underappreciated art. One of my favourite clips that I frequently show at leadership and OD trainings is “First Follower – Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy”. In this 3 minute clip Derek Sievers dissects a scene at a festival … The questions asked from a sender perspective during the sensing stage (relevant, fitting in…), are of course equally valid to be asked from the receiver’s side: Is this impulse relevant and does it fit in? Or is it just a freak event, a disturbing whim that will pass? Again, the bias should be towards trusting, while at the same time not losing sight of what’s really relevant.
  4. Action: In the light of the Gestalt distinction between action and contact, collective action is not about implementation but rather about the decision for a course of action. Choosing the right response to a stimulus is not trivial. While the awareness of an issue and the readiness to act on it may be in alignment, the direction to move in often is not. This is where situative leadership and the ability to deal with conflicting impulses become relevant. Self-organisation is often illustrated by the image of a fish swarm or a flock of birds. The idea transported here is the absence of leadership: everyone is a follower at all times. Changes in direction are not attributed to a wilful or creative act of any individual but are purely reactive – a turbulence, an outside enemy, an obstacle in the environment cause a collectively intelligent reaction. This is a rather sad image of self-organisation. It neglects the possibility of a creative impulse and development drive of individuals that is embraced by the collective. 
  5. Contact: If the collective wave has been smooth and in synch to this point, “doing it” can be a true flow experience. The act of implementation – writing the position paper, organising the clean-up event, hiring the new administrator – always effects a change of boundaries: take a bite and bring it in. Biting requires teeth. The reasons why in many organisations teams are quite good at making decisions but very bad at implementing them is that their mouths are already full. If you are chewing on your daily business, taking another bite to develop something new is not going to be very promising. The skill to learn here is to quickly shift focus from the daily activity portfolio to a development task and to get it done, be it in a forceful push, a carefully planned sprint or a disciplined ongoing practice. There is a lessons from martial arts here – a focus of breath that establishes a striking power way beyond the regular performance. This is all about practice.
  6. Withdrawal: Even in a VUCA world of continuous adaptation, a development move should have a signified end point. While withdrawal in the is not so much an active step but rather a state of resolution, this too requires a practice within the team: In order to share individual perspectives, a joint review of the cycle and its outcomes is helpful. Working groups should be thanked and disbanded. Successes, as well as disasters, should be celebrated. If the issue is resolved for everyone, the team can now go back to business as usual. If the Gestalt is left open (because implementation was stalled, the contact-phase did not happen in a satisfactorily manner or individual members are not on board with the outcome), energy will be drained from the team. To move out of a wave as a team is quite a vital part. The final picture can be the defining image that rests with us when remembering the cycle. 

What comes after withdrawal? The Void. A blank canvas. It is this moment of Stillness that we need to learn to embrace. It this moment that is crucial for a new Gestalt to emerge.

[1] As Gestalt theory formulates it: “A figure emerges from the ground.” To understand the figure-ground concept, it is helpful to understand the Gestalt term: Gestalt is a meaningful whole, a figure that is complete but at the same time dynamic as it forms and vanes against the background of an experiential field.

Layers of Organisations

A Systemic Map of Culture, Structure & Strategy

The great and confusing thing about maps of social reality is that there is a million of them and they are all accurate[i]. Unlike categorization models, which seek to explain and predict the world, social reality maps can be understood as frameworks of sense-making[ii]. Just like a common language, a shared sense-making framework is helpful to facilitate joint action.

The map I use to make sense of what happens within organizations is a simple one: It has three layers and three sectors. You can imagine it like our Planet Earth. 

The innermost layer is the “Core”. In our planetary analogy we might think of it as a ball of boiling hot matter containing the passions, deeper values, beliefs and basic assumptions about the world that form the organization’s magnetic field. Often the Core is coined at the founding moment of the organization, but it may shift and develop with new important people joining and meaningful events imprinting on the Core. It hardly ever is a homogenous matter and while this can be strenuous, it is not necessarily a problem. The most exciting organizations I know are powered by conflicting forces within their Core that create tension and drive development like the poles of a battery. The most tragic ones have forgotten about their Core and can’t “feel” themselves.

Wrapped around the Core there are several coats of rock – formal arrangements that make up the “Codex” of the organization. Here we find statutes, configurations, strategic plans, rules and operating procedures – the hardware and operating systems that provides the more or less stable shape and profile of the organization.

The third and outermost layer is dynamic. It hosts the organizational equivalents of water, organic matter and lifeforms which we may call “Organizational Behavior”. This surface layer interacts directly with the environment and is as much influenced by external factors as it is by the inner forces and deeper layers of the organization. It comprises both, people following formal routines and people “doing their thing” to form what Stacey calls the “Shadow System”3.

The three layers are compatible with Ed Schein’s model of organizational culture: Artefacts (effects and traces of culture we find on the surface in the daily life of organizations) mostly belong to the layer of Behavior. Espoused Values (formal value statements and written commitments of cultural conduct) are part of the Codex. Underlying Assumptions (the deeper, partly unconscious beliefs and value systems) in turn lay within the organizational Core. 

The sector dimension of the map focuses on the triangular relationship of Organizational Culture, Structure and Strategy. The three subsystems divide only the Codex and the Behavior layers with the Core building the common base of all three sectors. As there are many ways of conceptualizing Culture, Structure and Strategy it may be helpful to provide a set of working definitions here. 

The subsystem of Culture in our model relates to the way relationships are made up in the organization – the “soft side of how things are done”. Organisational culture is rooted in social beliefs and philosophies (Core), formalized in value statements and guidelines on issues like leadership and collaboration (Codex) and lived out in the very concrete practices of everyday social interactions (Behavior). 

The Structural subsystem determines how the workflow and decision process are organized – the “hard side of How”. Its foundations are again deep seated beliefs and norms related to work and social development (Core), its formal manifestations include organizational charts and operational routines (Codex) while the outer layer is represented by informal structures and real life processes (Behavior), including the many shortcuts and micro-political tactics taken on a daily basis. 

Finally, the subsystem of Strategy defines the organization’s goal orientation and mode of generating impact – the Why and the What. Strategic elements of the Core are passions and deep level theories of change, formal elements of the Codex are strategic plans and business models while the layer of Behavior is represented by the actual portfolio of (useful and senseless) activities and projects the organization is engaging in.

Organization development can step in at all three layers and all sectors. In many cases the initial focus of a development process will deepen and shift and other sectors will come into view. Sometimes, working on the outer layer of one sub-system will reveal more deep seated issues in the Core which in turn effect other sub-systems. You cannot merely drive a new strategy or install a new functional structure without considering how this fits with your organizational culture (the famous quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast” is expressing nothing less[1]). The same issue is highlighted in Tychi’s metaphor of the “Strategic Rope”, which describes the intertwining of subsystems, which stabilizes the organisation, while at the same time inhibiting change within the overall system. We need to look at our organizations holistically but sometimes we need to untangle and dissect their subsystems in order to initiate development. Let’s take a look at different approaches to working with the three layers.

Working on the Core

It is pointless to work on an outer layer of the organization if a problem is rooted in mental models and belief systems within its Core. Unfortunately, it is very hard to get to the Core. Sometimes it erupts, spills out to the surface, burns down a village and then hardens as a strange black mass, but usually it works invisibly through the other layers from within[iii]. To get to the Core we need a heat suit and a deep diving protocol such as Glasl’s U Procedure (later taken on by Otto Scharmer to inspire Theory U) or deep dialogue techniques that tap into the narrative and the collective subconscious. Following the Discrepancy Analysis, we can also deduct the inner make-up of the Core by tracing the misfits between the Behavior and the Codex: If a value statement says to trust people with responsibility, however, the dominant decision practice is top down, something might be off in the Core (e.g. fundamental beliefs on peoples’ capabilities such as McGregors Theory X)[iv]. In fact, it is not too rare that the Codex will contradict the Core as it is often used as a means to drive deeper change: If we write on the office wall that we all love and respect each other, maybe it’s true; more likely it is something we wish for.

Working on the Codex

Working on the Codex is the classic business of designed change. It involves developing statutes and plans, shaping structures and processes and formulating guiding principles. In the traditional organization development approach, this process involves a diagnostic sequence (what is the status quo and how is it working out?), a targeting sequence (how would we like things to be?), a planning sequence (what could this look like in detail?) and – after a formal decision – an implementation sequence (how do we get it into practice?). In many OD processes the implementation, which reaches into the behavior layer of the organization, is wildly underestimated. Change agents often believe that once a new structure or plan is ratified, behavior will change with it – especially if the development process was somewhat participatory. In reality, this is when the actual work starts.

While the diagnose-target-define-implement choreography still is dominant practice, agile development approaches are quickly gaining traction. They incorporate quick loops of assessment, planning and implementation within a trial and error mode, thus keeping the Codex lean and flexible. The far end of this development is a Codex which is reduced to a set of principles that sit close to the Core and help the system continuously self-organize without further mediating structures and plans. It must be noted here that such “minimal-structuring” does not equal the absence of structure. Principles are high level frames in which organization behavior is oriented. Organizations that fail to provide such high level frames are in danger of being absorbed with the internal consequences of creeping disintegration. 

Working on Organization Behavior

The first unsexy aspect that comes to mind when thinking about working with organisation behavior is regulating and policing: We have rules so let’s make them stick. If people are not conforming to them, let’s motivate them with incentives or sanctions. A somewhat nicer but no less ambivalent analogy may be gardening: If we want the “right” plants to have space and light, we need to weed the “wrong” ones out; if we want a fruit tree to be sustainably productive and healthy, we need to prune it and remove branches that suck energy and prevent light and wind from going through. Strategically sorting out what an organization does, is not much different: A portfolio analysis can effectively help to sort out activities that are non-productive, both, in the sense of mission and overhead contribution. However, how can we best assess this contribution? How can we tell the “right” plants from the “wrong” ones? If the only guideline for weeding is, whether or not something conforms with the plans and regulations, we kill innovation, we kill emergence and we kill learning. Therefore, it may be very wise to turn the relationship: Yes, agreements should be kept and patrolled (otherwise a group is a crowd and an organization is just some lines in the sand). The true art is, to craft agreements that are rooted in patterns of behavior and that are reviewed as often as these patterns change with the needs and circumstances they reflect. In simpler words: instead of making people conform to structures, how about making structures conform to people? The next chapters will spell out some ideas and approaches of how this can be done.

[1] Wether it actually originates from Peter Drucker seems to be under debate (how can that be?)

[i] The constructivist would be more generous here: currently there is actually 7 billion of them… and counting. Unlike models, which are all wrong (while some remain to be helpful)

[ii] In the words of David Snowden, the ingenious father of the Cynefin framework: in a categorisation model the framework precedes the data (which is good for exploitation), while in a sense-making model the data precedes the framework (which is useful for exploration).

[iii] I apologize for the improper geology at this point – clearly it is the magma of the mantle that erupts

[iv] Such a conclusion has to be taken carefully though, as any behavioral pattern can also be an effect of external factors such as dominant sector practice or expectations by partners and clients.

Understanding System Dynamics

Self-Regulation and The Hidden Power of Feedback Loops

“You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”
Jon Kabat-Zinn


At the age of 16 I spent a hormone laden high-school year in La Jolla, California. It turned out to be one of the more dramatic rollercoaster rides in my personal development, in large due to the stark contrast between the old order of the sheltered Hamburg liberalism and the flashy cocktail cherry life of the nouveau riche in Southern California. It was a good year with many strange fruits to taste. Digesting the experience, I spent hours in the Cove, simply gazing at the Ocean with its mighty waves rolling to shore and the surfers on their boards waiting to catch the next big one. I never had the aspiration to become a skilful rider in my limited time there, but the scene certainly left an impression on me – the immediate relationship of surf and surfer has a fascination that still lingers. It represents a strong symbol of the Sense and Respond mode and – within some boundaries – a fine metaphor for process work.

If we want to ride the dynamics of an organisation, it is imperative to get a feel for its underlying currents and patterns of development. As these patterns tend to be complex, at times even chaotic, a purely analytic approach will not get us far here. High focus attention, the sharp observing eye and categorizing mind that is classically associated with intelligence, can easily fail to catch the bigger picture. Rather, we need to be gazing – observing with open awareness, a state that David Gelernter calls low focus consciousness in his work “The Tides of Mind”. It is not just the eye that judges the size and angle of the oncoming wave; it is not just the feet in the water that feel the swell; not just the sense of balance that detects the backdraft of the board; and not just the frontal lobe that counts the rhythm of small and large waves and determines the timing for the next move. It is all of the above, melted in a trance like state of sensing – open awareness. We experience this state very naturally a couple of times a day as we move up and down the high focus-low focus continuum. And we can train the zoom in-zoom out motion between these states like we can train a muscle. Meditation helps. Sitting quietly observant in a turbulent environment helps. Regarding a piece of art or a familiar face with a shifting mode from examining detail to experiencing the whole will train the muscle. 

When I go into an organisation to accompany a process I don’t start with a firework of smart and stirring proposals or the big bang of a process kick off. I start with some very quiet talks and observations. I gaze. I put my feet in the water, sense the drafts from underneath, take in the rhythm of communication and sense the oscillating swing of competing values underneath everyday business. Of course I play my role in setting up the process, but I try not to disturb the organisation in its existing patterns quite so quickly. I don’t believe in an initial pattern breaking intervention, a big shake up to unfreeze the system. I don’t think it is helpful or sustainable for a profound development process. Sometimes this makes people nervous and anxious. They want to be unstuck and get on with it. They want revolution or divine intervention to open a blocked road or a new strong hand to lead the way. That’s not my style. I believe that every pattern and every dynamic holds the key to its own development – feeling the pattern and sensing the nature of this key comes first.

Of course, there is an analytic part in all of this as well. In order to make sense of the patterns we observe, we need to be fluent in the universal language of system dynamics. This part is about understanding the functioning of flows and stocks, feedback loops, buffers and delays. It is universal in the sense that all open systems run on these mechanisms. Using the system dynamics language, we can try to describe the individual make-up of the system we intend to ride. Let’s take a look.

The Basic Language of System Dynamics

One of the great works to advance my understanding of organisational dynamics is Donella Meadows’ “Thinking in Systems”. Meadows was a system dynamics geek at MIT. In her lectures she would draw out wild models with multiple nested feedback loops to explain such diverse things as perfectly tempered bathtubs, jealousy in relationships or the world trade in petrol. A scientist at heart, she made sure the models were lean enough to provide an X-ray view of very complex issues and comprehensive enough to avoid oversimplification. Paired with that scientific rigor was a glowing passion for a sustainable world (actually, as the lead author of the Club of Rome initiated report “Limits of Growth” in 1972 she may be one of the most influential but least known figures in the history of sustainability). Unfortunately, Meadows never saw the publication of “Thinking in Systems” as she died unexpectedly in 2001. Tankfully, Diana Wright of the Sustainability Institute put things together in the years to come.

The foundational idea of system dynamics is beautifully simple and yet may lead us to stunningly complex considerations. Let’s start with the basics: In Meadows’ words, “a system is an interconnected set of elements that are coherently organised in a way that achieves something” (Meadows 2015, 11). This something is what we call the “function” of the system, in case of human systems it may be called “purpose”. Random elements in proximity to each other (e.g. sand scattered on a road or a crowd waiting on a train platform) don’t match this definition – even if some parts may be interconnected, the elements don’t have a common function or purpose. Functions, in Meadows’ terms, are not defined by a stated goal, but by the actual operation of a system. If a company’s mission statement proclaims sustainability but all deals are made without regard to environmental impact, the system’s true function is most likely maximizing profit rather than sustainable business. In the Planetary Model, it would thus be the layer of Organisational Behaviour that gives away the true purpose of an organisation, not its Codex. Nonetheless, it is the Core that holds the purpose, and of course behaviour is attributed as much to the make-up and pull of the inner layers as to environmental factors. But let’s leave this thought aside for a moment and follow Donella Meadows.

System Dynamics assumes that all systems self-regulate to maintain their integrity. They effect both, a healthy target level of key parameters (relative stability or dynamic equilibrium) while continuously adapting to their environment (constant change). It is the interconnections, that play a key role in this process. We are a lot more used to seeing elements rather than interconnections. Interconnections are marked by flows – physical flows, flows of information or communication (in social systems). The mechanisms regulating these flows are called feedback loops. When looking at self-regulation in systems, we can distinguish two kinds of loops: balancing and reinforcing feedbacks.

The balancing loop will decrease a key parameter once it exceeds a certain target level (and vice versa: increase it, when it has fallen below that level). Let’s take the body as an example of a self-regulating system: Sweat is the body’s reaction to heat in order to keep its temperature at a healthy level around 37 degrees Celsius. Shivering in turn is the body’s intervention to regulate upwards if its temperature drops too low. Another classic example is the self-regulating nature of populations in ecosystems: Once there are too many predators in an ecosystem, the prey population will be decreased, in effect decreasing the predator population as it runs out of food. The balancing feedback loop – without any single member of either population consciously acting on it – is keeping the ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium (i.e. the sum of inflows equals the sum of outflows). This is how sustainability is built into the system (until it gets messed with). 

In organisations we find this kind of balancing feedbacks around parameters that need to be maintained within a certain range for strategic or cultural reasons: for example, if the organisational culture is built on harmony, any looming conflict will be subject to a balancing feedback loop that quickly defuses heat and resolves tension. A more complex version of this balancing mechanism comes into play where competing values make up an organisation’s core (take the classic freedom vs. commitment dilemma as an example). In this case most likely, we will find a balancing feedback loop to either side of the equation: if one side grows to become dominant, the other one will rise up and reinstate a “healthy” balance. In many cases this will lead to a pattern of oscillation, a pendulum move between the two value states (obviously: this oscillation is not always the best and most sustainable way forward). Systems can get stuck in the pendulum swing. In that case, the balancing feedback loop puts a break on transformation.  We will come back on how to deal with this.

The other kind of feedback loop is the reinforcing loop. In this mechanism the increase or decrease of a core parameter is progressively enhanced in the same direction and can escalate to effect dramatic change or break down of the system. Classic case: The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. Erosion is another example of a (negatively) reinforcing loop: plants are taken away, soil erodes, even less plants can grow. In organisations we find a number of such reinforcing mechanisms: Most prominently, power has a reinforcing nature: The one in power can access more resources in effect furthering his/her power. This, by the way, is what fuels the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” described by the sociologist Robert Michels. Equally, organisational cultures and frames are built around strong reinforcing feedbacks: Where there is a dominant interpretation, there tends to be a filtered perception, thus stabilizing the dominant mental model. We know what we see – but we only see what we know. A dominant mind-set, just like a strong organisational culture can quickly become a trap.

So how do we work with these loops?

  1. Don’t fight a balancing loop: One of the classic experiences in organisation development is the push back of a system that gets pushed. The stronger you navigate to one side, the more forceful the system resists and veers to the other. The mechanism underneath this puzzling effect is the balancing feedback loop protecting one side of the Core Value Equation. If you are pushing for commitment, the freedom side will push back. If you are pushing towards decentralisation, the centralisation impulse will gain strength. And rather than pushing on with more force, which in turn will produce more counter-pressure, it may be wise to step back and address the underlying equation. Is it still valid? Is it applied correctly here or projected with distortions? And are there ways beyond the either-or continuum? (Syst’s Tetralemma solutions seem a way forward here). As long as you fight a balancing loop on the surface, you are fighting yourself.
  2. Use the swing of the pendulum: Earlier I talked about the oscillating nature of development swinging back and forth between competing values. Oscillation can be annoying. As soon as you think you are on track, things suddenly swing backwards. One answer I find to this in my process work is the hibernation strategy. If I know the backswing will come and go, I can simply sit it out. Every time the pendulum swings in the direction I want to move, I use the momentum of that swing. While things swing the other way, I simply take a breath and step back to observe. I know, the pendulum will come back around. This is different from not taking things seriously. It is simply a way to work with them. 
  3. Keep an eye on the reinforcing feedback loops: Reinforcing loops can be your friend in effecting change and getting things unstuck. The Arab spring could not have happened without the reinforcing feedback built in the architecture of social media. Online, attention breeds attention in an exponential way. From a revolution standpoint, this is great. From a systems operations standpoint this is deadly. Reinforcing loops may destroy a system, if an accelerating dynamic gets out of hand. If your agenda is reform and not revolution, you may want to put some padding on the reinforcing loops. 
  4. Factor in delays: A development process takes time. Between deciding on a strategic move and its actual implementation, several months may pass, in some large and bureaucratic structures even years. This delay time impacts the self-regulation of the system and may lead to further oscillation. Here is a progression I see a lot: A team recognizes an internal collaboration issue and jointly agrees to tackle it. An agreement on a new way of doing things is made with everyone on board. Of course, unlearning old behaviour takes time and requires practice. The new conduct does not magically happen overnight – things move slowly. Some people get impatient, they call for even stricter rules and sanctions as they feel the first agreement was too lax. So new, tighter rules are made. By this time, all movement towards the initial agreement is depreciated. Those that were sceptic but willing to go along, are frustrated. Commitment is revoked, the agreement collapses and things are worse than before. From here, the story starts over again. This oscillation, caused by delays and subsequent overshooting, is quite similar to the classic shower experience (the hot water faucet is turned on but doesn’t deliver hot water immediately, leading to a further opening, which, as the hot water arrives, turns out to be an overshoot, i.e. the water is too hot, which is then compensated by turning the hot water off, thus effecting an undershoot, i.e. the water gets too cold etc.). Sometimes all it takes is a patient, steady hand.
  5. Read the true purpose: As mentioned above, a system’s function is revealed not by what is written on the package but by its actual behaviour. Most of the puzzling patterns in organisations have to do with a discrepancy of formal and informal system layers. Discrepancy analysis is a powerful tool to reveal these rifts: Balancing loops that make no sense in the light of the stated values; reinforcing loops that counter the official compass needle; once we decode the true purpose of a system, these weird behavioural patterns suddenly make sense and in turn the codified formal layers seem off – we realise, it is the Codex that needs attention. In my experience these realisations are break through moments in a process.
  6. Strengthen the system’s ability to self-regulate: As consultants and facilitators (not to mention leaders) we often take on the responsibility to regulate a system, especially, when its ability to self-regulate seems to be impaired. This can become a trap. The more we substitute internal with external regulation, the less likely the system will build up the ability to self-regulate.