Monday, February 7, 2011



In discussing the benefits of understanding small groups as complex systems, I suggest that one must first identify what types of groups he or she wishes to discuss. Groups of what are we talking about – diodes, resistors, and transistors playing music in an iPod; computer mainframes joining in parallel to solve quantum equations; or maybe a Navy task force of unmanned ships, planes, and submarines accomplishing a mission of national security? Any complexity associated with technology derives not from the technology itself. Even the most complicated technology represents only simple components working together in pre-determined fashions. One can see this, a priori, in the fact that people with no more than high school educations (or less) operate, maintain, and repair the most technologically advanced equipment in the world. Therefore, even when reduced to a discussion of technology, at this point in the evolution of civilization, one must still evaluate the human factor when considering systemic complexity.

The complexity of human systems derives from the virtually limitless number of variables involved, sometimes working together and other times working at odds, all of which influence human decisions and outcomes. These variables include not only those that answer technical or “what” questions, like equipment systems do when on their own – that’s simple. No, human systems present as complex, because they pose additional questions resulting from ideological “how” and cultural “why” variables, as well (Schein, 1992; Tichy, 1992). By design, machines run in an “if, then” environment. If the temperature becomes too hot or cold, one needs merely to adjust the thermostat to the acceptable range and the equipment, if not damaged from the temperature spike, then returns the temperature to nominal levels. Conversely, by design, human beings only “run” in a similar situation at a micro level. If the temperature becomes too hot or cold, one may adjust the thermostat to the acceptable range, put on a sweater or take off a jacket, or say “to heck with it” and leave the building. The decisions he or she makes result from a complex system that includes interpreting physical and behavioral artifacts through perceptions, influenced by his or her values and assumptions. These, in turn, derive from experiences and genetic predispositions.

The primary challenge for research: Too many variables exist to allow for researchers to isolate generalize-able cause and effect, especially at the macro level, by using empirical, positivist and post-positivist analytic reductionism. One must arguably use a holistic approach to see the “big picture,” but even then, difficulties arise because of the adaption and dynamism associated with human systems (Arrow, McGrath & Berdahl, 2000).

The primary challenge for leadership: Who really possesses charge? Who really retains ultimate power, the exempts or the non-exempts, the guards or the prisoners, the dominants or the submissives? Through the answers to these questions, a huge challenge for leaders seems to emerges: Leaders must come to understand that the true mission and ultimate outcome of any endeavor that involves people, must necessarily regard personal relationships as an end, rather than as a means to an end.

Arrow, Holly, McGrath, Joseph, and Berdahl, Jennifer. Small Groups as Complex Systems. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

Schein, Edgar. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Tichy, Noel. Managing Strategic Change: Technical, Political, and Cultural Dynamics. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1992.

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