Hexagoning: Helping a group listen to their own social system
by Doug and Judy Hall
January 22, 2010
Sometimes a group of people who are grappling with an issue that is relevant to all of them need to be able to “see” their issue in a clearer way, to hear their own system speak. Judy and I often use a facilitated group brainstorming technique called hexagoning to help achieve that. The process is called hexagoning because one of the primary tools used in the exercise is hexagon-shaped.
Hexagoning: a facilitated open mapping process used to develop the conscious thought process of a group to understand complex systems, to create shared vision, and to identify systemically derived and thus aligned action plans.
Briefly, hexagoning involves evoking all the variables everyone can think of around the topic or issue at hand. There are always many, many variables that people can think of, usually at least 40. One group had 300! The more variables, the better picture they get of the interrelated complexities of the issue. But the multiplicity of variables soon becomes overwhelming to the group. To address this complexity we have the group put the variables into categories so they can better deal with them. As each category is named in a way that reminds the group of all the variables it contains, and written on a board for all to see, the group soon has a pretty good visual picture of the larger issue it is addressing. We find that usually this shared vision has been invisible to the group before this exercise, or if not entirely invisible, it has never been well defined. This process brings it out where all can see it.
At the Emmanuel Gospel Center, we have done hexagoning sessions at least a hundred times with many different kinds of groups in different cultures, in both urban and suburban settings, in large and small churches, with community groups and leadership teams, with gatherings of people interested in a common goal, and on a wide variety of topics. It seems to work effectively with all groups, and serves to surface ideas that are aligned with living systems.
I will take a few pages just to introduce you to the process. If you are interested in using it in your setting, you will be able to learn more at our website or from other sources.
What’s the question?
The first step in the hexagoning exercise is to come up with the one key question that you plan to present to the group. If, for example, you have been asked to help a church leadership team clarify their goals for neighborhood outreach, you would meet with some of the church leaders to try to understand the problem from their perspective and draft the question. You might suggest a question such as, “What are the greatest felt needs in our neighborhood?”, and allow the leadership team to help refine the question to best elicit the kinds of responses that will help reveal what the group collectively thinks.
Some questions I have seen used in the past are:
What are the really good things about this ministry that we don’t want to lose?
What can be done to produce racial reconciliation among Christians? (The group was also asked to respond to this: What are the hindrances to producing racial reconciliation among Christians?)
How can we work together as a team? (The group could also respond to: What hinders teamwork in our organization?)
What would an ideal youth ministry look like here at First Congregational Church? (This question was first asked of the church leadership, and, at a later session, of the youth themselves.)
Initial large group hexagoning process
Next, meet with the entire group in a comfortable setting, perhaps around tables, and where everyone can see a white board. Write the question down where all can see it. Give time for everyone to respond, first by insisting that each person, working on his or her own, write down three responses to the question on paper. Once everyone has had time to write, then start to go around the group, letting each person verbally give just one answer. The secretary or scribe for the exercise will write each response in a summary or headline form on a single hexagon. Hexagons are available in a magnetic form suitable for dry erase markers and adhering to a magnetic white board, or in a Post-it® note format which you can write on with a marker and adhere to the wall or chalkboard. The designated secretary will put a consecutive identifying number at the top of one of the points of the hexagon, and place it on the board or wall.
If the group is processing both negative and positive answers, keep those separate from each other, putting all the positive responses in one place and the negative in another.
Depending on the size of your group—and we find this works with groups from ten to sixty people—go around more than once, possibly three times, so that everyone speaks several times. This method helps to encourage those who might not offer answers in an unstructured discussion due to shyness. After everyone has shared, ask if anything is missing. Give suggestions. When everyone is satisfied, the next step is to organize the responses.
Group the hexagons into categories
The facilitator leads the group in putting all the answers into categories. Ask participants to call out which numbered hexagons are related. Someone will say, “Number 3, mutual respect, is like number 35, respecting differences.” The secretary or facilitator will move those two hexagons together so that one side from each is touching. Continue the process of combining similar thoughts and ideas until there are four to eight clear groups or clusters of hexagons.
Next, ask the participants to name the clusters. The name should be a short action phrase with a verb that describes the dynamic of all the items in that cluster, not just a topic heading. For example, a cluster might be called “Holding boundaries,” or “Being flexible,” or “Celebrate interracial reconciliation,” or “Unwillingness to move out of our comfort zone.” Circle the clusters and write the label directly on the whiteboard. When everyone is satisfied with the results, then make new hexagons with the names of the clusters, and move those to a clean space.
Interrelate the clusters; infer causation
Ask the group, “From these new hexagons, what comes first? What causes or leads to what?” Move the hexagon categories around as people explore the causal connections. When the group is fairly sure of the connections, draw arrows on the board showing what causes what, how the categories interconnect in their causal interactions. Look for causes, not logical connections. You may have more than one arrow coming out of or pointing to a category, as relationships are complex.
What you now have is the beginning of a causal loop diagram. The causal loop diagram will provide an entry point for where to begin to take action. If you start at the right place, one event causes the development of the next.
Meet with your learning team
Take the results of this exercise back to the learning team. Verbalize the “story” as represented by the arrows in your initial interrelated diagram. Adjust the relationships until every point in the loop contributes to a coherent story. The whole interrelated diagram should make sense overall. If there is anything that seems to be left out, feel free to add additional cluster names to make sense of the story.
The next step we take is to identify and number the loops and determine which ones are “balancing loops” and which are “reinforcing loops.” Explaining these is beyond the scope of this book. But this is a process to determine how the causal momentum moves around the diagram. Then we isolate the key topics, generally the ones with the most arrows coming in or out of them or which appear to be leverage points. We limit the variables in the final loop to seven or fewer.
The learning team may then explore biblical parallels to our narrative of the interrelationships, and write this up. We then describe the practical implications of what we have learned thus far. And finally, we report back to the initial group for feedback. If done well, this total process produces social revelation showing how the social system itself operates to get a task done.
Indeed there is much more to this process, but hopefully you get the idea. Over time, the learning team can reduce all this learning into its simplest form so that it can be remembered and applied by everyone in the system.
To learn more, search for hexagon thinking and systems thinking on the web. You may find other helpful articles, such as this one: https://thesystemsthinker.com/hexagons-from-ideas-to-variables/. There are also online stores offering pads of self-adhesive hexagon-shaped notes such as here: http://www.thinkingtools.net/category-s/1829.htm.