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The Geometry of Systemic Modelling


Recently I attended an art course at West Dean College called Colour, Tone and Division. I was imagining we’d get lots of lectures about each of these three subjects, but that was not the way it worked. Instead, the tutor, Matthew Collings, got us to make three paintings, each bringing to life an aspect of one of the three themes, and for the third one, division (aka composition), the challenge was to make a painting which featured some organic shapes and some geometric shapes.

I loved this challenge. I had just been looking at an image of this painting by Georg Muche and then I went for a walk in the beautiful gardens at West Dean and did some quick sketches of plants and geometric structures then came back and started my painting – it’s the one at the top of this post.

It really got me thinking about the relationships between geometric and organic shapes and how these overlap - in gardens in particular. Look around indoors and most shapes are geometrical. Go into the countryside and it’s almost all organic. But in gardens we create structures – railings, paths, fences, archways, walls, pagodas, benches and so on – and the natural leaves and blooms of our trees, plants and flowers contrast with these geometric shapes, creating a great deal of interest and enjoyment for us as we wander through them.

Different times, cultures and needs have produced different styles of gardens / gardening based on different structures and planting choices – which in turn produce different effects for us humans as we experience them. For example:

  • A key feature of Japanese gardens involves creating vignettes that can't be viewed all at once; a winding path may lead your eye past a stone pagoda and invite you to speculate what's around the next corner.
  • A garden may be structured and planted to create a calming space, perhaps with a walled space with a water feature and a bench, alongside simple planting.
  • A maze – with the organic matter tightly confined to fit the maze structure - can offer physical exercise and mental stimulation as you try to work out how to navigate it successfully.

Since returning from the art class, my mind has turned from the geometry of gardens to the geometry of Systemic Modelling - and how does this geometry affect our human experience… For example, in face-to-face contexts we aim (if at all possible) to arrange all the chairs in a circle, making sure there’s equal distance between them, with the facilitator sitting in that circle as one of the group. If there’s a flipchart, this also has a space within the circle (i.e. it takes the same amount of space as any of the chairs), although it will be slightly set back so that everyone can see it. This arrangement – along with some facilitation principles such as giving each participant equal time / attention – encourages equal participation.  

In From Contempt to Curiosity, Caitlin Walker PhD relates how different meeting structures create different effects. She describes how she mapped out the geometry of the interactions in three different types of meetings:

1. Pinball

“In dull and boring meetings, the chair would ask one question of a specific person, who would answer. The questioning then stopped. Someone else in the group might ask a closed question of a specific colleague, that colleague would say yes or no, then the interaction stopped. There were some people who made no contribution at all.”

Caitlin describes the geometry of this style of meeting as being like a ‘lacklustre pinball machine with no bounce’.

2. Command & Control

“In a few dire meetings with a very strong chair, there was a very different shape. All interactions went from the chair to a specific person and back. Everyone answered directly to the chair.”

Caitlin calls this geometry ‘command and control’.

3. Systemic Modelling Star

“In lively meetings, nearly all the comments went to the centre of the group and at least three people would comment on each topic. Everyone contributed in an equal way and as the meeting progressed, any problem or issue was put to the whole group. A number of people would propose ideas or ask questions to build up a sense of what was going on and what could happen differently. By challenging one another or asking for clarification, a strong network of attention was formed. Everyone spoke, not only to specific people but to the group as a whole.”

Mapping these interactions created a completely different shape on Caitlin’s pad:

She calls this pattern the Systemic Modelling star, which features on the front cover of her book. Systemic Modelling is all about creating that network of attention.

What difference does it make to know the geometry of a meeting?

Caitlin says, “With this new model - describing the geometry of a meeting as pinball machine, command & control or star - I could observe any meeting and map out the dynamics and assess whether the shape of the meeting was fit for purpose. If the purpose of a meeting is to give out information and control staff – then command and control is fine. But if the purpose is to bring together experts to share knowledge and design collaborative solutions then a star meeting could be a better form.”

Caitlin conducted this research in a company 9 months after some people in the company had received 3 days training in Systemic Modelling and was curious to discover why some of the meetings were lively star-shaped meetings, while others were pinball or command & control types, and why some people behaved differently in different meetings. (The same person could be dull, disengaged or belligerent in one meeting and fun, chatty, collaborative and taking responsibility for getting things done in another.) She discovered that in the lively star meetings, 50% of the people had attended the training, while in the others fewer than 50% had attended. “It seemed that when enough trained people got together it changed the shape of the attention in the group.”

There is a definite geometric structure which fosters organic interactions within that space - like my art class - like well-designed gardens - the presence of one enhances the beauty of the other.

About Marian Way

Marian Way's avatar

A highly skilled facilitator and trainer, Marian, who founded Clean Learning in 2001, has developed and delivered training across the world. She is the author of Clean Approaches for Coaches, co-author, with James Lawley, of Insights in Space and co-author, with Caitlin Walker, of So you want to be… #DramaFree.

Marian is an expert Clean facilitator, an adept modeller, a programme writer and an inspirational trainer. She has a natural ability to model existing structures, find the connections between them and design new ways for people to learn. Marian was a leading innovator within the Weight Watchers organisation, which included developing the “points” strategy, a local idea that went on to become a global innovation. She is a director of both Clean Learning and Training Attention CIC, world leaders in clean applications for corporate, educational and community development. She designs our programmes and workbooks, leads workshops and teaches on all our courses. She’s trained people in Great Britain, Russia, Sweden, Germany, Australia, Japan and the USA. Marian is also a recognised Clean Assessor.

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