Dancing With the Butterfly II — Leading and Working in Complex Human Systems

Sections of this topic

    Working with Human Systems

    In my last post, I emphasized the importance of complex human systems–we live and work for our whole lives in and as part of them. I suggested model building, practice, and reflection on our practice as effective ways to understand them more effectively. Finally I described how the model we will be reviewing here evolved.

    Our framing questions are: What are human systems? How do they tend to behave? What are their key elements and how do these elements tend to interact? How can we work in and with human systems to increase their business and human effectiveness?

    We will now begin to address these questions by reviewing The Butterfly Model of Complex Human Systems, walking through its various sections, and referencing associated approaches and tools.

    The Never Ending Story

    Before we begin this journey however, one cautionary note: Models are helpful, but they are only models. They are helpful in that they enable us to clarify and communicate our thinking and focus our acting. They are “only models” in that all models are incomplete. So, in thinking about human systems, we are on a journey that will never end. We will never reach a state of fully understanding the complex systems around us. The work is about the ongoing learning journey and never about finding “the final answer.” To paraphrase Sisyphus, “the journey itself is enough to fill a person’s heart.” If we forget this cautionary note, we start to engage in creating doctrines and continually justifying them rather than in learning. To put it another way, “The problem is not in having models. They can be very helpful. The problem occurs when we forget that our models aren’t true!”

    The Butterfly Model

    Click on this link to see the Butterfly Model.

    Figure 1 is a graphic of The Butterfly Model of Complex Human Systems. What does it suggest about them?

    The Butterfly:

    First and most obvious, the overall model is shaped like a butterfly. We shaped it that way to symbolize that, through our work with systems, there is always the possibility for them to transform themselves from what they are to something better, something more beautiful, as the caterpillar transforms into a butterfly. What we do as systems consultants is be with a system and help it see itself and how it is currently working/not working. In so doing we create a container (analogous to the chrysalis in which the caterpillar transforms) in which the system can transform itself.

    Three Major Sub Systems:

    Secondly, note that the model has three major sections–the two wings and the body. Each of these depicts one of the major sub-systems that comprise a human system. Those are the Face-to-Face System, the External System and the Internal System.

    • The Face to Face System consists of what happens in the room, in face-to-face interactions, for example, the conversations we have, the actions we take, the way we organize our work, and how we manage ourselves as teams.
    • The External System is our larger outer world—our organization, the business we do, and our environment (marketplace, economy, etc.)
    • The Internal System includes the thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and deeper stories we all have inside us.

    The algorithm for leading in human systems is 1=3. In any human system, all three of these sub-systems are in constant interaction. When you are working in a human system, be it leading, coaching, or consulting, although you are usually focusing primarily on one sub-system, aspects of all three are present, interacting, and exerting influence on what happens and upon the outcomes the you and the system create.

    In my next post, we will talk about ways we experience these three subsystems and how we can learn to “see” them more clearly.

    If you want to explore leading and working in humans systems further, feel free to contact me.

    Meanwhile, good journey…


    Steven P. Ober EdD
    President: Chrysalis Executive Coaching & Consulting
    Partner: Systems Perspectives, LLC
    Office: PO Box 278, Oakham, MA 01068
    Home: 278 Crocker Nye Rd., Oakham, MA 01068
    O: 508.882.1025 M: 978.590.4219
    Email: Steve@ChrysalisCoaching.org

    Steve is a senior executive coach and consultant. He has developed and successfully uses a powerful approach to leadership coaching, Creating your Leadership Story, which enables leaders to make deep, lasting improvements in their leadership effectiveness in short periods of time. He and a group of partners have created a breakthrough educational program, Coaching from a Systems Perspective, in which you can significantly enhance your abilities as a systemic leadership coach. See http://SystemsPerspectivesLLC.com