Dancing With the Butterfly III — How We Experience Human Systems

Sections of this topic

    Three Sub-Systems

    This post is the third in a series on Leading in Complex Human Systems. In my last two posts, we began our review of The Butterfly Model of Human Systems. The Model suggests that larger world of  human systems are composed of three major subsystems:

    1. The Face-to-Face System–what happens “in the room,” in our face-to-face interactions
    2. The External System–our larger world
    3. The Internal System—our thoughts, assumptions feelings, and deeper stories

    To view the butterfly model, click here.

    In Human Systems 1=3

    At any given time we may focus our efforts primarily on one of the three subsystems, e.g. on how a team works together (face-to-face system), but all three subsystems are always interacting and influencing the team’s effectiveness. For example, how team members interact (face-to-face system) certainly influences their productivity. The organizational context of the team (the external system) and the thoughts and feelings of team members (the internal system) also exert significant influence.

    Visible, Less Visible, Least Visible

    We experience the forces at play from these three sub-systems as visible, less visible, and least visible. For many people:

    • The face-to-face forces are most visible in that we can see a behavior, hear what is said, and observe interactions.
    • The external forces are less visible. For example, you can talk about the economy and see its impact, e.g. people lose their jobs, but you can’t actually see the economy.
    • The internal forces are the least visible, in that you can’t literally see a thought or a feeling.

    We first thought the above would be true for everyone, but what we have found in working with people over time is that which forces are most, less, and least visible can vary for different people. How we experience a system tends to be a reflection of where we sit in the system and of what we pay the most attention to. For example, I once worked with a market analyst who said, “What do you mean the external forces are less visible? To me, they are the most visible.”

    Seeing Systems More Fully

    Whatever our primary focus, we sometimes feel pushed and pulled by forces we can’t see and don’t understand. We feel tugs, but we don’t know what’s tugging us; we have a headache, but we don’t know what is causing it; we find ourselves responding in less than optimal ways, but we aren’t sure why.

    So the questions for you as a leader are:

    • What forces are most and least visible to you?
    • What are the forces you pay the most attention to? The least attention?
    • How can you broaden and deepen your view of a system so that you are able to see and understand the range of forces at play, and increase your impact?

    My work as a human systems coach and consultant is about helping leaders clarify the visible and make the less visible and least visible more visible by, in each case, creating pictures, a language, and tools that help leaders see, understand, and behave in clearer, more intentional ways in complex systems. By so doing, leaders can help a system morph itself from a caterpillar (what it is) into a butterfly (what it wants to be).

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    In future posts, we will continue our “dance with the butterfly”—our journey through human systems–by looking further at how we experience systems; by exploring in more depth the face-to-face world, the external world, the internal world, and how the three worlds interact to produce results; and by identifying how we can increase our ability to help systems create desired outcomes.

    If you want to explore leading and working in human 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: www.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