John Bush: Small Groups as Complex Systems

Since human beings are social animals it is obvious that a great deal of their interactions and relationships are found in groups. For over one hundred years, social psychology has studied groups to identify, analyze and understand the dynamics that govern group behavior. Many different schools of thought have arisen from these research efforts. In the book Small Groups as Complex Systems, Holly Arrow describes thirteen differing approaches to the study of small groups. Each of these schools has added to a growing body of knowledge about groups.

In recent years, a new body of approaches and disciplines has rapidly moved to the forefront in scientific research. These new approaches are often called The New Sciences and include quantum theory, chaos theory, complexity theory and game theory. A distinguishing characteristic of each of these theories is the rejection of the Newtonian clock-like universe and recognition of nonlinearity, diversity, interconnection and randomness in every element of existence.

It is not surprising that the disciplines of the new sciences have been applied to the study of small groups. In Small Groups as Complex Systems, the first sentence reads, “This book presents a general theory of small groups as complex systems.” Ralph Stacey, in his book Complexity and Creativity In Organizations, writes, “In this book I invite you to explore with me how the newly emerging science of complexity might provide us with a more useful framework for making sense of life and organizations than the approaches that currently dominate our thinking and therefore our acting.”

Complexity Theory and Small Group Dynamics

What is complexity and how does it apply to small groups? Professor Scott E. Page in The Teaching Company course Understanding Complexity, tells us that to describe something as complex, we mean that it consists of interdependent, diverse entities, and we assume that those entities adapt – that they respond to their local and global environments. A system may be considered complex if its agents meet four qualifications: diversity, connection, interdependence, and adaptation. In addition, complex systems have the ability to produce large events, or emergence. Emergence is when small actions or interactions create large results, not just in size but in kind.

Stacey and Arrow both view groups as complex adaptive systems. Arrow writes: “What is genuinely new, we believe, is the development of a comprehensive theory of small groups that adapts, transforms, and integrates concepts from dynamical systems theory in a way appropriate to thinking about systems that are themselves composed of complex systems – members whose actions are guided by goals, intentions, perceptions, and preconceptions that also change over time.” Stacey asks how we can make sense of our experience of life and organization, and answers that we need a new framework which is to be found in the science of complexity.

A small group meets the description of a complex system in that it is composed of individual members who are diverse, connected through their group membership, interdependent on each other for the work of the group, and adapting as the members and the group learn and evolve. In this regard human groups share characteristics and dynamics of other complex adaptive systems. Flocks of birds and schools of fish are an example of such a system. The individual members are able to move in intricate and ever-changing forms without running into each other.

Human agents and the group of which they are members are engaged in a ongoing process of discovery, choice, and action. This process creates feedback loops, both positive and negative, which affect behavior of individual members, the behavior of the members as a group and the structure of the group itself. The results of this feedback process may be linear or nonlinear in its effect. Stacey describes it well: “The interaction of the agents creates and continually re-creates an organization as a whole, and that organization in turn influences the groups of which it is composed and the manner in which those groups are continuously re-created. This process of re-creation is what is meant by learning.”

Small Groups as Complex Adaptive Systems

Human systems differ from other types of complex adaptive systems in that human beings have internal structure whereas agents in other systems do not. Stacey identifies four ways in which human systems differ:

  1. Human agents are affected by positive and negative emotions.
  2. Human agents are able to choose their own individual mental purposes rather than shared ones.
  3. Human agents are affected by power differentials, i.e., leader-follower dynamic.
  4. Human agents are capable of systemic thinking, taking up the role of both participant and observer.

These unique traits of human individuals add a level of complexity to human systems that does not exist in other complex adaptive systems.

Complex systems, including human ones, exist on a continuum from highly ordered to highly disordered. A highly ordered system is stable and in equilibrium, while a highly disordered system is on the edge of chaos. The highly ordered system is marked by rigidity and lack of change and learning. Systems theory tells us that learning, change and evolution occurs in systems in the disordered zone at the edge of chaos. indeed, Stacey maintains that creativity only occurs at the edge of system disintegration.

I find the complex adaptive systems approach to small groups compelling in three ways. First, the complex adaptive systems approach seems to more adequately describe the actual life and operation of a small group. Second, my own experience with small groups leads me to agree that change, learning, and creativity occur in the more disordered phase of group life at the edge of chaos. Third, the observation that it is difficult, if not impossible, to forecast and predict the future in small group dynamics is congruent with my own experience.

A New Perspective on Small Group Dynamics

Most of the research and schools of thoughts about small groups have been done within what Holly Arrow calls, “the positivist-reductionist-analytic paradigm.” In this approach the laboratory experiment is the idealized strategy. An attempt is made to identify dependent and independent variables, holding other aspects of the group constant and ignoring other factors. In addition, this approach looks at the group as a single entity removed from its larger environment and contexts. In contrast, the complex adaptive systems approach to groups recognizes the rich dynamics, contexts and states of order and disorder that exist within every group. If we attempt to examine only parts or limited dynamics, we are no longer dealing with a real group.

Small groups that are rigidly organized and in equilibrium often seem dead. A high emphasis on stability, on “not rocking the boat,” leads to a group that does not change, learn, and grow. As a group moves toward disorder, rules become less important and feedback increases because the relations between members and between members and the group as a whole become more dynamic. Stacey calls the situation “messy,” and this is often an apt description. This is the phase in which group membership becomes more rewarding for its members and where new outcomes and results are to be found. Stacey writes: “The creative process in human systems, therefore, is inevitably messy: it involves difference, conflict, fantasy, and emotion; it stirs up anger, envy, depression, and many other feelings. To remove the mess by inspiring us to follow some common vision, share the same culture, and pull together is to remove the mess that is the very raw material of creative activity.”

Small groups as complex adaptive systems contain rich dynamic relationships and complex feedback loops with nonlinear effects. Added to this is the continuum from highly organized to highly disorganized structure and it becomes clear that we cannot make long-term forecasts and predictions in small group behaviors. Arrow writes, “Complex systems whose behavior depends largely on interactions among local elements are predictable only in the short run and these predictions are for global variables, not local variables.” In other words, we can forecast large general trends, but not specific instances. Stacey agrees and points out that long-term outcomes are unknowable at the edge of chaos.

Both Arrow and Stacey point out that there is a great deal more research and exploration necessary to expand our understanding of small groups as complex adaptive systems. I believe that we are on the beginning of a wave of understanding that will enrich our knowledge about all aspects of the life of small groups.


Arrow, Holly: Small Groups as Complex Systems, Sage Publications, Inc, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Page, Scott E: Understanding Complexity, The Teaching Company, Chantilly, VA.

Stacey, Ralph D.: Complexity and Creativity in Organizations, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco, CA.