We’ve mapped and tracked any number of systems as a way of coming to understand the world around us. From circulatory systems to computer systems; from biological systems to solar systems and beyond.

We can do, and have done, the same with human systems. It helps us to understand, and it can help us to predict.

A human system?
Simply put, a human system is any group of two or more people focused around a shared intention.

They might come together for an hour, for a blues improv night. Or they might last for generations, like many of the prominent world religions.

Product development teams are human systems – nested within larger human systems called companies, nested within larger human systems called industries, overlapping with other human systems called countries…all in the service of the greatest human system…humanity itself (although some may argue that we’ve yet to agree on a common intention at that level).

The neat thing about human systems is that, if you study them carefully, you can see how, with empathy and caring, a facilitator is able to optimize the outcomes that a human system is able to achieve. There are rules for going about this sort of work (and they are sprinkled all over this site, as well as many other places), but it is possible. It is akin to Greenleaf’s practice of “Servant Leadership”, except, of course, the facilitator is very different from the leader.

As a facilitator, if you are hoping to engender honest, multi-dimensional conversation and collaboration in the service of an intended future state, you need to follow certain principles, you need to provide a clear intention, and you need to bring the best “you” possible to the occasion.

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind about human systems:

1)      Human systems are incredibly wise.

This is one case where the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Human systems are capable of developing much more useful plans and outcomes than are individuals – if the intention is clear and there is a high degree of trust around the intended future state. This last bit is important. Participants don’t need to trust each other per se, but they do need to trust that each is working honestly in the service of the same intended future state that they are. It’s a form of situational trust – more on that later.

Social science has repeatedly shown that groups can be much more creative, more accurate, and more productive than individuals. When you walk into a room to facilitate, always keep in mind that the human system in front of you is far, far wiser than any individual working alone.

2)      The people who make up the human system want to do good work.

Most people, save for the pathological few (and they are very few in number), do NOT wake up in the morning, kick the dog, and then wonder whose life they can enjoy messing with today. They want to do good work. They want to succeed.

When the human system under your care is struggling, question into the struggle with open curiosity. Chances are, there’s a very sane reason they are unable to move forward. Perhaps they are scared out of their collective wits at the thought of failure – or of success. Perhaps there is some element of the puzzle that, from their point of view, is absolutely insoluble.

An individual human mind is capable of brilliance. Even a rudimentary collaboration of a human system is capable of so much more.

Be curious. Be open. Be humble. Always believe that the human system you are working with is intensely wise, and that it wants to do, and is capable of doing, incredible work. Use all of the tools and techniques that are available to you, and brilliance may prevail.

Just remember that the sum of the parts is always greater than the whole. And enjoy the elegant play of engaging with a complex human system.