Applying SCT in Organizational Development

SCT offers a systems view of organizations. The theory, concepts and tools can be applied in organizations to help groups and individuals manage conflicts and meet their goals.

Key Concepts

Below we describe some of the key concepts as they apply to organizations. To learn more, visit the Training page to explore SCT training opportunities.

  • Role, Goal and Context

SCT introduces the idea of “role, goal and context.” Each context, like a particular meeting or team, has a goal. Each member of the meeting has a role. As one changes context, the goal changes and so does one’s role. By attending to their goals in a given context, individuals, teams and organizations find it easier to be clear about the role responsibilities and behaviors needed to reach the goals. Try this for yourself.

Think of a context you work in. What are the goals of this context? What is your role in this context? How does your role relate to the goal of the context?

Then, what are the goals of your role? How do the goals of your role align with the goals of the context?

Now consider a force-field analysis, Lewin’s idea that there are always things that are helping move towards achieving goals and ones that are getting in the way. What do you do that helps you take up your role? What do you do that gets in the way? Identify the easiest restraining force to weaken. Make a plan on how you can weaken it.

  • Phases of System Development

The phases of system development serve as a map for coaches, consultants and leaders to guide its work with teams. Each phase has a predictable pattern of communication that moves the team forward as well as those communication patterns that prevent the team from developing and getting their work done.

SCT emphasizes that the consultant or leader’s role is to help weaken the communication patterns that are getting in the way of development. The leader does this by introducing the technique of functional subgrouping. In addition, the consultant is mindful of what is the easiest pattern to interrupt considering the level of development. So, in the earlier flight phase the consultant or leader encourages team members to stay in the present by separating observable facts from speculations about the future and ruminations about the past in order to build a reality-testing system. In addition, helping to shift communications from vague conjectures and generalizations to the specific enables teams to establish a data-oriented language essential for problem solving. A team weakens “flight” patterns by recognizing that speculations are fueled by uneasiness with uncertainty and that reality-testing with observable data reduces the normal worries that surface when contemplating the unknown.

Resolving “flight” communications provides a reality-based climate for the implicit fight phase to emerge when team members wrestle with different points of views. SCT sees the fight phase as a natural progression from flight. The work here is to understand, through functional subgrouping, how to harvest the information in “fight” and integrate it into the team learning so that differences can be used as information resources rather than suppressed, converted or pushed out by scapegoating. For more, see Gantt, S.P., & Agazarian, Y.M. (2007). Phases of system development in organizational work groups: The systems-centered approach for intervening in context. Organisational & Social Dynamics, 7(2), 253-291. Available with permission of publisher.

  • Think Systems, Not Just People

"Organizational behavior is more heavily influenced by the system that has been developed in the organization than it is by any of the individuals that are working within it." (“Overview of the Theory of Living Human Systems and its Systems-Centered Practice” in SCT in Action: Applying the Systems-Centered Approach in Organizations, Gantt & Agazarian, 2006, p. 2.)

An Example:

John and Mike are members of a senior executive team. They are known rivals. Colleagues joke about the tension between them, which often flares during meetings. On the surface, this looks like a classic personality conflict, probably driven by differences in style. But is it?

While style may play a part in the difficulties between John and Mike, a view from a systems perspective suggests something else might be at play. It turns out that as the head of sales, John is held accountable for generating revenue. Mike is the head of manufacturing. He is held accountable for costs.

From the perspective of sales, the best strategy is for the company to have as many products as possible, so that they can offer customers exactly what they want. From the manufacturing perspective, the goal is to streamline operations as much as possible, in order to keep costs down. Streamlining means offering a limited number of products that can be manufactured in bulk. Given the differences in their roles and their goals, it's not surprising that they are often in conflict. So is their clash merely a personality conflict, or is it something more? Seeing it from a systems perspective suggests different interpretations, and importantly, different possible solutions.

  • Integrating Different Perspectives and Resolving Conflicts

SCT introduces the method of functional subgrouping that helps group members explore multiple facets of a given topic without getting stuck in debates that so often characterize organizational meetings.

Some Research:

In testing this method, researchers from Kennesaw State University found that groups who were taught to use the method of functional subgrouping had conversations that were more "organized and reached more sophisticated understandings of the issues, with useful final recommendations that attended to the concerns of both [sides of the issue]."

The study involved 180 participants. Participants were divided into groups. Some groups were taught the SCT method of functional subgrouping for managing differences. Other groups were taken through a more typical ice-breaker activity. Groups were then asked to discuss a controversial topic and make a decision. All groups were videotaped for the study.

The researchers concluded that groups who followed the SCT approach had more effective conversations, reaching conclusions that had strong buy-in and support from group members. Their discussions and conclusions also appeared to take into account more of the nuances of the topic at hand.

Groups that were not taught and did not follow the SCT approach had discussions that were "chaotic" and "involved substantially more hostility between members." For more, see Parks, E. (2002). Subgrouping and conflict management in a problem-solving group. Systems-Centered News, 10(2), 6.

  • Organizational Development Training

Start with organizational development (OD) training or with a Foundation level group. An important premise in SCT is that you become fluent using the methods with yourself before you start applying them with others. To learn more, visit the Training page to explore SCT training opportunities.