Plan Across Your Landscape: Different Faces of Adaptive Action

We all know how to plan, right? You figure out what you want to do. You map out the steps to get it done. You take those steps. You check to be sure you are finished. Easy!

Except in the complexity of real life, you can’t always just march through those steps. Sometimes in the midst of planning you find barriers you never expected. Or you find that you are out of sync with those around you. Or you find that you have a bright and shiny new multi-phased strategic plan that never got implemented. Or you find that the plan you devise has too many gaps or questions left unanswered. It’s frustrating and defeating, and it might make you wonder why you should try to plan at all!

Adaptive Action

What you are finding, actually, is that the constraints and complexities you consider in your planning don’t always match the constraints and complexities in the realities of your world. The Landscape Diagram demonstrates the impact of constraints on a system. It gives you a “map” or picture of how those constraints influence patterns of stability, activity, and decision making across the whole system. The Landscape Diagram helps you see, understand, and influence the conditions that create stability for individuals, groups, and communities.

Under certain conditions, a complex system can be stable and predictable. Change the conditions, and it becomes unpredictable and unstable. A happy marriage can be stable for years, then a life crisis shifts it into patterns of instability. A team or organization can be reliable and high performing, and a change in membership, goal, or requirements make it unpredictable and unstable. High stability can be a problem, too. When tradition stifles innovation, when habits interfere with health and wellbeing, when standard operating procedures interfere with good decisions in the moment, then you know your system is too constrained to do its work.

How you plan and what you consider in your planning should help you address these variations  and the tensions they create—for good or bad—in the system. The tension you perceive in the system helps you decide whether you want to increase or decrease constraints.

The Landscape Diagram (below) demonstrates the impact of constraints on a system. It gives you a “map” or picture of how those constraints influence patterns of stability, activity, and decision making across the whole system. Using two variables that move from “most constrained” to “least constrained” you can think about your own current challenge. You consider the constraints that hold the patterns and how you might shift them to  toward greater fitness. In working on the Landscape Diagram, you constantly ask yourself whether the constraints at any given time allow for responsiveness and adaptability that is fit for a given function.

Landscape Diagram

The two axes represent critical dimensions of human interaction.

The “X”, or horizontal, axis represents the degree of certainty in the system. It describes a continuum from close to certainty (representing a high degree of predictability) to far from certainty (representing little or no ability to predict how the system will behave). A system that is close to certainty allows for greater control and clearer understanding of what is happening. The system is tightly constrained to minimize surprise .

The “Y”, or vertical, axis represents the degree of agreement. It describes a continuum from close to agreement (representing strong consensus), to far from agreement (representing little or no commonality). When agents are close to agreement, they see things in similar ways and respond to stimuli in the same way other agents in the system respond. The system is constrained in such a way that disagreement is minimized or eliminated.

And as you consider activities on this Landscape, you will see different system responses and behaviors in different areas (zones).

Stable ZoneClose to Agreement and Certainty – This zone is predictable and constrained. Governed by procedure, rules, and policies, it is where organizational operations reside .

Emergent ZoneFurther from Agreement and Certainty – This zone represents constraint that allows patterns to emerge. Constraints are strong enough to bound the agents together, yet loose enough to allow the system to respond and build fluid, robust connections. Examples of activity in this zone include learning, relationship, creativity, and innovation.

Unstable ZoneFar from both Agreement and Certainty – This zone is characterized by disconnected weak signals that may or may not have meaning in the system. This zone has few, if any, system constraints, so there are no discernable patterns. It is an area of random activity, unpredictability, and surprise.

When you consider the “zone” where you are planning, you can easily avoid the kinds of frustrations and challenges that have made planning seem so difficult in the past.

The following image reflects some considerations for planning in each of the zones.

In the Stable Zone, you can use simple traditional planning cycles to move forward. You set clear expectations and limit outside impacts. Then when those expectations are clarified and communicated, you follow up to check for compliance and regulation.

In the Emergent Zone, you watch for tends and patterns that represent your system’s fitness and sustainability. You focus most specifically on differences that matter most, exploring and adjusting connections to ensure best fit. You accomplish this by engaging in varying cycles of Adaptive Action to ensure deep reflection and responsiveness in your planning.

In the Unstable Zone, you look for best fit in the moment, focusing on a minimum of differences. You create connections where you can and explore multiple scales of the situation.

Each of these Zones requires planning that is fit to the constraints in the system.

  • In the Stable Zone, constraints are high. Because it is less complex and more predictable, planning in the Stable Zone can take more traditional forms, or you can use simple cycles Adaptive Action.
  • In the Emergent Zone, the system is less constrained. Planning activities must be more fluid and responsive. Fewer constraints make the system more unpredictable and uncontrollable. Adaptive Action, with its iterative cycles of observation, reflection, and action, is the way to move forward In the Emergent Zone, Adaptive Action helps you influence existing patterns or shape new patters as the emerge.
  • In the Unstable Zone, where there are few constraints, you have to be able to respond to surprises as you look for greatest fit. Short, responsive cycles of Adaptive Action allows you to take informed action in these highly volatile and surprising situations.

The table at the end of this document offers these reminders in a concise, consolidated form.

Using these tips, you can find more responsive ways to plan, finding a better way for you planning to fit with the requirements of the task. Try it out and let us know how it goes.

There are other opportunities to learn about using HSD in your work and in your community. Check out HSD events for your learning and development:

  • Patterns, Not Problems: HSD Meets OD This face-to-face introduction to HSD is taught by Griff Griffiths, and offered in London. The date is June 7, 2018. For more information, follow this link.
  • Leadership and Adaptive Action: Set Conditions for Success Glenda Eoyang and Jennifer Jones-Patulli join forces to teach this 3-session, online course on June 22, 26, 27, 2018. For more information, follow this link.
  • For more information about all HSD Institute’s Learning Opportunities currently available to the public, follow this link. Check them out and join us to build your own Adaptive Capacity.

Looking forward to connecting with you soon. Be in touch.


Plan Across Your Landscape

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