Purpose: A good physical demonstration of how systems act and react to changes within them. According to Booth Sweeney and Meadows, “at the core of systems thinking and system dynamics lies the premise that the structure of a system drives the behaviours we observe” (205). By creating a system themselves, participants can experience some of the characteristics of causality and systems, such as interdependence, feedback, delays, leverage points, bottlenecks and the impact of structure on behaviour as well as exogenous inputs (Booth Sweeney & Meadows 205-214)
Materials: A large space where people can move around relatively freely, 10+ people
Time: 30 minutes
Step 1: Ask for one or two volunteers to be observers for this activity. Then have them leave the room with a facilitator.
Step 2: Ask participants to form a circle in the space, facing the centre. Explain that they will be engaged in forming a simple system.
Step 3: Ask participants to silently select two other people in the circle to be their references. They will not name these people out loud or indicate who they have chosen in any way.
Step 4: When you give them the instruction, tell participants to move to a space in the room where they are equidistant (an equal distance) between the two people they have chosen as references. This activity is done in silence. The group will move around - usually slowly at first - to try to move into the space between their two references. If one person speeds up, the whole group will. This usually goes on for a few minutes and then the system will come to a natural stop. After the group is moving, have the observers come in to observer what is happening. Then ask them to leave again after a minute or two.
Step 5: Have participants come back into the circle. This time ask them to choose two reference points, but specify that everyone has to use _________ (pick a participant at random - this participant will represent a locus of power or a high leverage point so try not to pick a white male). Then specify that in addition to this condition, participants are also not allowed to use _________ as one of their references. Here you can name a person if you know the group well, or you can say ‘anyone wearing a green shirt’. The exclusionary condition will represent a low level of influence or power, so again be careful who you choose. Run the activity again, and again ask the observers to come in to observe the group.
Step 6: Another potential round or variation is to apply pressure from outside the system. For example, you could quietly tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to slow down/speed up/stop and see what happens to the group. Or you could ask someone to slowly leave the room/space and see what happens then. This is an example of an external input.
Step 7: Ask the observers to rejoin the group and come back into circle to debrief the activity.
Start by asking the observers what they saw. You could nudge them to identify patterns or principles of what appeared to be happening (remember they won’t have heard the intro to this activity). Have the rest of the group fill in the observers if they are struggling to identify the dynamics.
Ask: What real-life behaviours did it remind you of? Where do high/low influence people show up in your organisations? What can we learn about stability, systems change, and leverage points from this activity? What happened when (if) an outsider intervened in the group? How might it feel to be a newcomer to the system? What is it like to have high/low levels of influence? There is usually quite a lot to debrief with this activity, including concepts of systems change, complexity, power and privilege.