Grandmothers, Teachers, and Systems Thinking Facilitators

Do we even need systems thinking facilitators (or grandmothers or teachers)?

Posted Jul 09, 2019

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading the brilliant new book by Scott Page, The Model Thinker. Page describes many models we can apply to data in efforts to understand our world and address complex problems. The book made me think about work we are doing facilitating systems thinking in teams. We use Warfield’s systems thinking method, one component of which involves facilitating a team in the mapping of relations between elements in a matrix. The completed matrix can be viewed as a graph (i.e., a systems model) — a model that represents the logic and systems thinking of the team. We have worked with many teams across a variety of projects, and we continue to evolve our methods. 

Notable when facilitating systems thinking is the fact that individual team members import knowledge from an array of sources and draw on data and information that is unique to their perspective.  

As such, team-based systems thinking using Warfield’s method involves the integration of these multiple perspectives. The reasoning underlying proposed relations between elements in a system involves a synthesis of many models.  Facilitating the dialogue and deliberation of teams in this context can be challenging.  At the same time, in the push for data, more data, and big data, it seems that the role of the systems thinking facilitator can be easily overlooked.  This is worrisome.

Page points to a distinction between data, information, knowledge, and wisdom, which is important for teams to consider.  Although it seems like Big Data provides us with ready access to knowledge and wisdom, this is an illusion. Individuals and groups can fall prey to this illusion, and my sense is that the ‘Big Data’ illusion resonates with many other illusions of the awestruck.  Big Data is impressive in size, but it is meaningless without the application of human intelligence

Facilitating collective intelligence and systems thinking in teams is hard work.  For example, in the pathway from ‘gathering’ data to ‘using’ data to address complex problems, a team needs to consider how to name and partition data to create meaningful, organized categories. In this first creative act, the team converts data into information. With this initial meaning established, the team can work to develop knowledge, reflected in an understanding of correlative, causal, and logical relationships that further organize information.  This knowledge generally manifests in the form of models, which help us to explain and predict some aspect of our world. Finally, to exercise wisdom, a team needs to identify and apply models — often a collection of models, says Page — that are most relevant in addressing a specific problem.  This is where science and management meet human systems design, in the nexus of our collective knowledge and wisdom.

Many models shape the current landscape of human systems. Our ongoing efforts to be knowledgeable and wise are often directed at the (scientific) design and management of systems, many of which are common across the governance structures of nations — where teams work to design education systems, health systems, financial systems, military systems, and so on.  The models that inform human systems are constantly changing.  As such, teams need to update their understanding of systems, particularly if they seek to enhance the design and management of systems.  This is hard work for teams. The quality of teamwork needed to understand, design, and manage complex systems is difficult to achieve (Hogan et al., 2018). To be effective, teams require an experienced facilitator who can help them to clarify their goals, generate and structure ideas relevant to the particular issue they are addressing, and orchestrate the implementation of appropriate systems thinking and systems design methodologies.

Unfortunately, the role of the facilitator has been neglected, and this is reflected in the design of education systems, where team facilitation is largely absent from the curriculum (Hogan, Harney & Broome, 2014). Kanne (2018), for instance, laments the fact that he received no training in how to facilitate teams as an industrial engineer. In the workplace setting, Kanne needed to cultivate team facilitation skills in order to design and manage complex systems, and he faced a steep learning curve.

The idea that teams can engage in systems thinking without facilitation is akin to the idea that children can develop knowledge without guidance from teachers. Systems thinking methods are increasingly valued in modern society, and there are many excellent books describing these methods (e.g., Jackson, 2000), but it is unclear from reading these books how to facilitate systems thinking using these methods — the facilitator role is fuzzy, in the background, or ignored. This poses a problem, similar to the problem of having no teacher in a classroom, because teams, like school children, can perform poorly if left to their own devices (Broome & Fulbright, 1995; Salas, Sims, & Burke, 2005). 

Central to systems thinking is a process of careful deliberation.  In order to build a systems model (e.g., using John Warfield’s method), a team needs to map relations between elements in a system.  This is cognitively taxing, and team members commonly gravitate towards heuristic, quick-fire judgments when mapping relations. The systems thinking facilitator needs to maintain a curious, neutral, and reflective stance, and ‘slow down’ the deliberation process of the team, in particular, to prompt for relevant knowledge and balanced reasoning.  Unlike a teacher, the facilitator does not contribute content knowledge — instead, they facilitate the process of knowledge exchange and reasoning, such that team members generate a systems model that reflects their best possible thinking process. 

Embracing systems thinking implies embracing complexity, and while teams often value variety and diversity (e.g., knowledge diversity; Mannix and Neale, 2005), the associated complexity is cognitively taxing (Sweller, 2011).  The lure of salience (i.e., what people consider ‘most important’) constantly pulls teams toward simplicity. Systems thinking facilitators can help teams grapple with what is salient, using methods that open the team to variety before they select what is most salient to a specific system. Our biological inheritance makes this type of teamwork challenging (e.g., our preference for fast heuristics over slower thinking processes; Kahneman, 2011).  Our cultural inheritance can impose other barriers. For example, modern definitions of intelligence remain squarely focused on the individual, and the narrative describing paths of development is largely centred on the individual (the hero, the founder, the entrepreneur), at least in Western culture. Teamwork and systems thinking facilitation may not resonate with this cultural view.

It may help to view human life history from the perspective of the grandmother.  In this view, the longevity of modern humans developed because grandmothers supported patterns of sharing and caring that served to amplify interdependencies, helping us to develop social capacities that are the foundation for cooperation (Kim, Coxworth & Hawkes, 2012). This is nicely explained in the following short video (even if grandmothers are only briefly mentioned!).

If we adopt a ‘grandmother view’ of the facilitator role, we see the importance of facilitating team members such that they cooperate in adaptive ways to address problems that arise in their environment.  Just as the grandmother helps to sustain the cooperative group, the systems thinking facilitator helps to sustain the cooperative efforts of teams in their application of systems thinking methods.  The role and niche of the systems thinking facilitator become clearer — the facilitator directs team attention, team communication, and the culture of teamwork, all of which are essential to the successful workings of the team.

Although it’s currently non-normative, we can conceive the path of development that prioritizes teamwork coupled with systems thinking capability. While teams can learn to facilitate their own application of systems thinking methods, this will require training (Harney, Hogan, & Quinn, 2017), and it is likely that in most teams we will need to rely on expert facilitators, at least for a time. One way or another, we will need to build an educational infrastructure that disseminates the methods and cultivates the facilitation skills.  As noted by John Warfield, there is a niche for the facilitator in societal systems (Warfield, 1976).  Like teachers and like grandmothers and grandfathers, we simply need to recognize the importance of facilitators and the contribution they can make to successful design and management teams. Building upon Warfield’s vision, we hope to shine a light on what is necessary in order for teams to transcend individualism and engage more fully in collaborative design processes.


References and Relevant Readings:

Broome, B. J. (2002). Participatory planning and design in a protracted conflict situation: Applications with citizen peace-building groups in Cyprus. Systems Research and Behavioral Science, 19(4), 313.

Broome, B. J., & Fulbright, L. (1995). A multistage influence model of barriers to group problem solving: A participant-generated agenda for small group research. Small Group Research, 26(1), 25-55. doi:10.1177/1046496495261002.

Harney, O. M., Hogan, M. J., & Quinn, S. (2017). Investigating the effects of peer to peer prompts on collaborative argumentation, consensus and perceived efficacy in collaborative learning. International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning, 12(3), 307-336.

Hogan, M.J., et al. (2014). Consulting with Citizens in the Design of Wellbeing Measures and Policies: Lessons from a Systems Science Application. Social Indicators Research: 1-21.

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., Hall, T., & Harney, O.M. (2017). Collective Intelligence Design and a New Politics of System Change. Civitas Educationis, 6(1), 51 – 78.

Hogan, M. , Broome, B. , Harney, O. , Noone, C. , Dromgool‐Regan, C. , Hall, T. , Hayden, S. , O’Higgins, S. , Khoo, S. , Moroney, M. , O’Reilly, J. , Pilch, M. , Ryan, C. , Slattery, B. , Van Lente, E. , Walsh, E. , Walsh, J. & Hogan, V. (2018). Integrating Content Expertise and Methodological Expertise in Team-Based Settings to Address Complex Societal Issues—A Systems Perspective on Challenges. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 35(6): 908-915.

Jackson, M. C. (2000). Systems Approaches to Management. Springer US.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow.

Kanne, A. (2018). The art and science of team facilitation. Industrial and Systems Engineering at Work, 50(5), 39-43.

Kim, P. S., Coxworth, J. E., & Hawkes, K. (2012). Increased longevity evolves from grandmothering. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, 279(1749), 4880-4884.

Mannix, E. and M. A. Neale (2005). "What Differences Make a Difference?: The Promise and Reality of Diverse Teams in Organizations." Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 6(2): 31-55.

Page, S. E. (2018). The model thinker: What you need to know to make data work for you. Basic Books, New York.

Salas, E., Sims, D. E., & Burke, C. S. (2005). Is there a “big five” in teamwork? Small group research, 36(5), 555-599.

Sweller, J. (2011). Cognitive load theory. In J. P. Mestre & B. H. Ross (Eds.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Vol. 55. The psychology of learning and motivation: Cognition in education (pp. 37-76). San Diego, CA, US: Elsevier Academic Press.

Warfield, J. N. and A. R. Cárdenas (1994). A handbook of interactive management. Ames, Iowa, Iowa State University Press.