Identifying System Archetypes to Build High-performing Teams

Over the past few years, I have had the pleasure of attending NAIS’s School Leadership Team Experience. The event brings together teams from schools nationwide to address pressing challenges their institutions face. During the course of the program, teams have an aha moment in which they realize the challenges they are addressing are actually symptoms. They must dig deeper to identify the root cause. Once they identify that underlying cause, the team is much more successful in making progress on the challenge. This in turn improves team dynamics and embeds healthy structures to build on. Identifying structures that inhibit progress can be essential in helping teams to overcome challenges. One of the lenses that can be very helpful in this process is system archetypes.

Systems Archetypes

Systems archetypes are underlying structures that produce behaviors across a system. Over the years, researchers and theorists have contributed to the list of both negative and positive archetypes that affect organizational outcomes. Independent school leaders will certainly see many of them at play currently in their schools. By understanding these archetypes and their potential outcomes, teams can shift their perspectives and more readily identify levers for change.

The most common and well-known of the negative archetypes is “Fixes that Fail.” We all know it well: A challenge arises, we want to solve the problem as quickly as possible, and we often go to the most obvious fix. In most cases, this is a short-term solution and, over time, the challenge returns, often worse, because the fix addressed a symptom, not the root cause.

In education today, we can see this archetype playing out when a school faces a budget crisis. Often, a major donor steps in to solve the immediate financial crisis, but, of course, the fix is short-lived—the problem is deep-rooted and can’t be solved through one gift. By the time the financial crisis inevitably returns, school leaders have lost crucial time to pinpoint the real issue and make changes to return the system to financial health. How does a team break this pattern? In “System Archetypes Basics: From Story to Structure,” authors Daniel Kim and Virginia Anderson suggest following these disciplined steps when challenges arise:
  • Define the problem symptom. For example, a symptom for a school in a budget crisis may be declining demand.
  • Examine past “solutions” to the problem as well as current and planned ones. By bringing the team together to discuss past solutions and potential new ones, it can begin to map out the various mental models for pursuit.
  • Map unintended consequences. In this step, the team can fill in each other’s blind spots. For example, one team member may suggest changing the school’s marketing messages to attract new markets. This may have a positive effect, but it could also drive students to the school who are not mission-aligned or whom the school is not equipped to serve. This could, in turn, affect the school’s reputation in the community, further eroding demand.
  • Identify the dynamics that created the problem symptoms. At this step, the team can begin to identify the root causes. In this case, what has led to a lessening of demand for the school? Changing demographics? New competition in the market? Program offerings not relevant? Some combination of all of the above?
  • Look for connections between the unintended consequences and the fundamental causes of the problem symptom. This step can highlight how behaviors have been entrenched in a system thus creating a reoccurring negative pattern. For example, has fundraising become an ongoing crutch for meeting budget shortfalls, both large and small, so much so that it has become the only solution explored? Or is marketing always the go-to solution? Do these quick fixes cause more of a downward spiral for the school?
  • Identify high-leverage interventions. These are changes that a team can make to the underlying structure that can begin to alleviate the problem. For example, has the team conducted an analysis of cost per student of various programs? There may be programmatic areas that have a high cost because the demand is quite low. Eliminating these programs could ease pressure on the budget without affecting demand. Alternatively, NAIS’s parent research could assist in identifying some easy interventions that could begin to increase demand.
  • Map the potential side effects of any proposed intervention. Teams will want to ensure this step becomes part of their processes to avoid negative consequences.
  • Cultivate joint understanding of the archetype. Understanding how this way of thinking that has been embedded in the school can lead to new insights for different ways of operating in the future. These are the moments when a leadership team truly becomes a learning team.
Here are some other system archetypes that researchers and theorists have identified over the years. I urge school teams to identify which ones resonate and follow the steps above to see how you can break out of patterns of behavior that can be unhealthy for your school.
  • Limits to growth. Growth of any kind usually does not go on forever, but organizations tend to ride growth too long, often with tragic consequences. At some point, the system will work to even it out and then the bubble bursts.
  • Tragedy of the commons. A shared resource will inevitably get exploited by someone wanting individual gain. When many seek to maximize benefit, intense competition and exploitation arises to the detriment of all.
  • Escalation. Competition is a part of many systems, but when people begin “one-upping” each other, fighting for limited resources, all can end up losing.
  • Eroding goals. When goals aren’t met, the desired outcomes often shift downward, eroding quality.  
  • Addiction. We can become addicted to an eternal force to maintain the system while ignoring the internal systemic issues.
  • Exponential success. Success can drive a winning-at-all-cost mindset, thus eroding teamwork.
  • Race to the bottom. Competing by low-cost alone can drive quality to erode as an industry competes on volume alone (think the airline industry).
  • Shifting the burden. A decision made to fix something in one part of a system inadvertently shifts the burden to another part of the system.
  • Intensity to action. This is a positive archetype in which an action motivates all to work for a collective good, often seen when people work together in a natural disaster. How can we replicate this in good times?
  • Regenerative relationships. This positive archetype happens when a system shares resources in a way that is regenerative and collaborative, such as the effects of professional development on an entire system.
Can you identify other archetypes at work in your school? Once you name them and identify both the associated negative and positive behaviors, you can clear the way for more effective team performance.
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Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.