Frequently Asked Questions About Tools and Patterns of HSD

What are Complex Adaptive Systems?

Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS) are dynamical, self-organizing and continually changing. They are made up of “semi-autonomous agents that interact in unpredictable ways such that they create system-wide patterns.” (The diagram represents the definition.)

Let’s break this definition down: 

Semi-autonomous agents are the parts (for example, individuals, teams, groups) that make up the system. They operate within some constraints, but they are free to make their own choices about how they interact with each other and in the environment. 

Because these agents are free to choose, their behaviors are unpredictable. While you can anticipate patterns of action over time, you cannot predict what any one agent will be doing at any particular moment. 

The people in the organization interact in ways that create system-wide patterns. We may see these patterns as the culture or climate of an organization. When people interact in ways that respect diversity, for instance, you will probably see patterns of trust and openness and exploration of new ideas. The patterns may or may not be obvious across the system as a whole. 

As a system-wide pattern emerges, it influences (reinforces) the behavior of the agents in the system. So, over time, the pattern becomes stronger and stronger. For instance, when the prevailing patterns in an organization are about respect and diversity, then the climate is one of acceptance and trust. These patterns then amplify (recognize and reward) individual behaviors that contribute to the patterns of respect. At the same time, those behaviors that are not contributing to the patterns of respect are damped (negatively reinforced), and the behavior disappears.

A Landscape Diagram is one way to describe what is going on in an organization as it operates in its day-to-day work. The two factors the Diagram considers are:

Certainty—how sure an individual is that he or she knows what is to happen. For example, three people might all have different ideas about what is to happen, but each is certain that his or her ideas are correct.

Agreement—the degree to which they agree about what is to happen. In the example above, even as certain as the three were that they knew what was to happen, they were far from agreement about what was actually going to happen. 

When people in the organization are close to certainty and close to agreement, things are organized. Think about a payroll department. People know the payroll cycle; they know the procedures; they know when they are going to turn in forms and get their checks. There is high certainty that they are all on the same page. They also agree on what to do...procedures are clearly established...there is high agreement. In every business it is critical that those operations that “run” the business be maintained in this organized landscape. At the same time, random and unpredictable events happen - storms prevent deliveries or new groups of customers show up or an outbreak of flu depletes the workforce for a week. Even in the day-to-day life of the organization, individuals interact in unpredictable ways. One person’s mood, another person’s illness, someone else’s excitement - these small differences can cause unpredictable consequences. At these times, people are far from certainty and far from agreement. Because there are no patterns; everything appears as a single event, and this landscape is unorganized. For example, on any given day it is difficult to predict when and who might call in sick for work. 

Other times people interact with each other and respond to the patterns of challenges and opportunities that come along. There is some degree of certainty in their work, and some agreement, but it is not specifically predictable or controlled. A leader can say, generally, how employees will behave, based on past patterns. That same leader, however, cannot say specifically from moment to moment what any individual will do. This landscape is self-organizing, and this is where creative things happen. It is also where relationships, risk, and growth take place. 

The Landscape Diagram describes all degrees of agreement and certainty as valid in organizations. In any organization all of these landscapes will be present, with the focus of the action shifting from one landscape to another; departments operating more specifically in one than the other, and people moving between the landscapes continuously. It is important to remember that each dimension requires specific leadership styles and actions. 

  • Organized work requires a leadership style that is controlled and precise, with clear, unambiguous rules, regulations, policies and procedures.
  • Self-Organizing work requires leadership that looks for patterns and is able to influence and establish productive relationships.
  • Unorganized work requires leadership that watches for patterns, while maintaining flexibility in dealing with challenges that arise.

What are Patterns?

“Patterns” are behaviors or events that repeat themselves over time and space. Patterns in time may be seen in cycles of economic growth, changes in customer requirements, and shifting sources of competition. Patterns in space may appear when teams in different places work together on a shared project or when information is accessible to part, but not all, of an organization. Different types of patterns influence organizations in different ways.

Fractal patterns are repetitive patterns that emerge at different levels of the organization. Triggered by repeated application of a single idea or set of ideas at one level, they play themselves out to generate similar patterns across the remaining levels of operation. Culture is an example of a fractal pattern. Behaviors of the leader will often be reflected in the actions of mid-management and among line workers. 

Attractor patterns are established by key events or points within the organization or for the organization as a whole.

  • Some attractor patterns are periodic, as in the retail boom of pre-Christmas sales in US markets.
  • Point attractors, form around a central point that seems to draw people together, as a charismatic leader does.
  • Strange attractors occur when something seems bounded in a finite way, but there is infinite variation within the boundary. (Strange attractor patterns are fractal.) A loosely stated rule, such as, “Be good,” is one example of a strange attractor pattern. The rule may set boundaries on behavior, but there are infinite variations of what one can do inside that rule.
  • Some attractor patterns are random, and the interplay of forces is so complex they cannot be seen, even when the observer steps back and looks at the whole picture. 

Multiple patterns play themselves out across the organization, through structures that are established for functions like operations, communication, decision making, and accountability. Leaders and consultants who identify, observe, and learn from patterns are better equipped to establish conditions for successful adaptation within the organization.

What are Simple Rules?

Simple rules are spoken or unspoken guides for behaviors across a complex adaptive system. The metaphor comes from computer simulations of events in nature. One such simulation describes three rules that seem to govern the flocking of birds as they fly together. When computer models are given these three rules, figures on the computer screen light up in patterns that resemble the behavior of flocking birds. Those rules are simple and concrete. 

  • Fly toward the center of the flock.
  • Match the speed of the others.
  • Avoid running into other birds. 

When humans are together, we can imagine that they obey simple rules when their group behavior is coherent. For example, queuing up at a counter and moving to the right edge of the sidewalk are unspoken, un-posted rules that most of us obey without thinking. 

Simple rules establish fractal patterns in a system (see “Patterns”, page 10). When one “core” set of expectations guide the behavior at all levels of the organization, the patterns of interactions established by those expectations are just one example of a fractal pattern. 

In an organization, simple rules can function as guides that inform behaviors, helping individuals know how to function when there are no formal, specific rules. Policies and procedures guide behavior in organized work. Simple rules guide behaviors in self-organized work and may be at play in unorganized work. Mostly unspoken and unrecognized, they can be identified from the patterns of behavior that make up the culture. For example, if the simple rules in an organization are about protecting turf and self, they give rise to observable patterns of distrust and competition. 

Leaders often espouse a set of core values, then bemoan the fact that they are not evident in the day-to-day actions of individuals. Simple rules make those core values actionable. They make it clear what behaviors are expected and what will be rewarded. A leader who develops and implements a short set of simple rules based on core values is making those values accessible to each individual in the organization.  HSD Institute operates with the following short list of Simple Rules:

  • Teach and learn in every interaction
  • Search for the true and the useful
  • Give and get value for value
  • Share the HSD Story
  • Attend to the part, the whole, and the greater whole
  • Engage in joyful practice

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