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Systems Dynamics in International Teams

The article below was originally written by Marilyn Davison, Principal at Marilyn A. Davison Consulting.

International teams offer internal dynamics challenges as well as the innovation and creativity that come with diversity.

A Systems view of team dynamics provides an excellent lens to view the internal dynamics, mental models, and behavior in an objective non-judgmental way.

From my experience working with teams, both in the US and in my 20 years based in France working with teams in Europe and China taught me that team leaders and members usually cannot see their own system, because they are part of it. They also cannot hear consultant analysis and suggestions for change. Deeply embedded mental models over ride analytic and listening skills. Team members often reflexively blame cultural influences for difficult dynamics in teams.  It would be naïve to say that cultural influences do not impact the processes of teams and their work. However, the cultural differences are at the top above water level of the familiar iceberg symbol (events, trends and below water structures).

Critical structural influences are in play at the below the water level.  However if the key elements of trust, respect and safety are present at the structural level, cultural differences as manifested in meetings (a key flashpoint) and in the approaches and process to a team’s work become inconsequential and can be addressed in a safe environment. Multiple studies on teams show that trust, respect, and safety are the key differentiators in the most innovative and productive teams.

Expressing the observed dynamics of a team in the systems dynamics language of “loops” enables teams to see their system in a graphical form. People quickly understand the system visualizations.

A large percentage (80%) of people are visual learners. Other visualizations of team situations, for example, Mind Maps and Graphics, also illustrate current state in a universally understood visual form without language or vocabulary nuances faux amis or other often-subtle misinterpretations.

A client story about a French pharmaceutical company illustrates the power of systems dynamics, how the assessment of the team’s current reality was presented and how the team and especially, the CEO went from denial of their situation to engaging with the creation of initiatives for change.

The CEO engaged my consultant team to work with his management team. A brilliant scientist who was CEO of a mid-sized pharmaceutical research firm, he was very frustrated with the effectiveness of his management team. He had tried replacing (demoting) the team members, as well as constantly telling them that they had to take more initiative and responsibility. He hoped that consultants could find a way to “fix” the current team before he once again began changing the team. He managed the work of the organization very effectively without consulting his team; finding it faster and more efficient to ignore the team.

We began a thorough assessment of the organization, eventually interviewing 32 management level people. We did two hour long open deep listening interviews; we interviewed some people multiple times testing our hypotheses as they evolved.

The narrative we uncovered was a familiar one; and we had solid data upon which to base our recommendations.

When we reported the results of our assessment to the CEO we reported that the problem was not with the management team but with him and his management style. We reported that (as he knew) the organization referred to him as “God”. He could, and often did every job within in the 300-person organization. He even went into the lab to fix malfunctioning equipment. We recommended that he move back and empower his team so that they could exercise and build their experience and expertise, even if they did not perform perfectly.

The CEO reacted very negatively and told us that our assessment was totally wrong, that we obviously had not interviewed the right people. He said he would just like to start over (again) with yet a new management team.

We asked if he would be willing to look at systems view of what we had seen in his organization. As scientist with a Cartesian and analytic mindset, he was skeptical but also curious and was willing to see what our systems dynamics analysis looked like.

We carefully walked him, and later his team, through the view of his organization presented in the systems diagram below.

Note: Systems analysis should never be presented in expert “tell” mode as a complete diagnosis, but as a conversation starter as you walk people through the loops. The systems analysis is never complete and never has all the possible variables. Its power is that it engages teams in viewing the current state, and the possible leverage points and places to break the unproductive reinforcing loops (vicious) and to reinforce the productive (virtuous) ones.

The driving narrative behind the diagrams below was this pharmaceutical firm’s effort to be the first to develop a complex vaccine.

The pressure for speed in development (variable) lead to (+ link) the CEO managing very effectively from the top (variable) which lead to a lack of management resource/skills among teams and peers which lead to (+ link) a lack of risk taking and fear of criticism (variable) which lead to (- link) a lack or capacity for building management know how (variable) and lead to (+link) a lack in the ability to meet deadlines (variable) which lead to (+ link) a greater pressure for speed in product development(variable).

Note: Systems Loop diagrams express causality unlike  Process diagrams of the process (plan do act) form.


The CEO and his management team held a conversation about this visualization, and admitted that it did express the dynamics at play in the organization. From that point of viewing their reality in a objective format, they quickly engaged with how they could break the unhealthy vicious circle loops and where they could leverage new initiatives. Eventually they added 20 initiatives directly related to breaking the negative dynamics.

With our guidance they also constructed virtuous loop diagrams showing the great strengths of the organization and how they could leverage them.

The success of this consulting intervention was that the clients actively engaged in both understanding and changing the unproductive dynamics that were effecting their work.

Note: there was no judgment or blame, but the realization that the team was caught in an unhealthy systems dynamic that was spiraling out of control.

The loop below shows the initial efforts to break the loops.

As this story illustrates, Systems Thinking helps individuals and teams to see the less visible patterns and structures that drive behavior in a system. Structure impacts performance – if you want to change performance, you need to alter the structure.

Understanding structure enables a team to recognize where in the system they can have leverage and greatest impact on performance

Without dealing with structure, a team is more likely to take actions that either just address the symptoms or create unintended consequences.

When working with systems dynamics, it is imperative that teams themselves work with the system’s language and tools themselves.  After about two hours of systems dynamics skill building, we give a team a template and ask them to fill in the situations (variables) that they see in their team. Very simple templates like those above with reinforcing loops or others with actions leaving to unforeseen consequences are easy to use and engage teams in creating their own future state rather than being the victim of a default future driven by negative dynamics.

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