Purpose of Purpose in HSD

In this week's HSD blog, Glenda Eoyang talks about purpose, change, and the complex interactions that contribute to organizational evolution.

Everyone knows that purpose is an important factor in human systems. In times of chaotic change, purpose is transformed. It becomes both more important and more difficult to capture. Single-minded, long-term purpose statements can lock us into behaviors that are maladaptive. They can blind us to emerging threats and opportunities. We observe this pattern of lock-in in all kinds of fanaticism, in obsolete products and organizations, and in individuals who refuse to adapt to change.

Over the past few years, we have recognized and responded to the threat of purpose lock-in at the HSD Institute. For many years, our purpose was to “develop theory and practice in human systems dynamics.” Over the past two years, we have seen how this singular pattern caused us to focus internally, on research and development. Our theory and practice have evolved. Our clients become increasingly conscious of the chaos and uncertainty they face. As a result, we have chosen to re-purpose our purpose. In the process, our understanding of purpose and its role in decision making and action taking has evolved.  I want to share that evolution with you and to invite you into a dialogue about purpose, as it emerges in human systems as complex adaptive systems. 


Early in our exploration of human systems dynamics, we avoided the idea of “purpose” altogether. We understood the uncertainty of emergent processes and self-organized criticality in complex change, so we rejected the dominant view that purpose was the end-point of a well-planned journey. Others expected that community, organization, or individual could name a purpose, and that statement would cause the entire system to move in the same direction, toward the same point. The expectation was that purpose would function as a Point Attractor Pattern in the system, setting conditions for alignment of thought and action. We rejected this view of purpose, and chose instead to focus on simple rules that would invite individuals across a system into behaviors that created shared, systemic patterns in an imagined future.


A coherent pattern did emerge in our community from our short list of simple rules.

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

Around the world, people followed these rules, responded to their local conditions and needs, and played into a pattern that was shared and infinitely varied at the same time. We did not propose a singular purpose for the whole. Each learner and client was responsible for discerning their own goals and intentions, while using the Simple Rules to guide their choices.

What emerged was a pattern that was bounded, but infinitely varied. In chaos theory, this is known as a Strange Attractor Pattern. All HSD Associates, events, and projects took on a kind of family resemblance, but no two were ever the same. Replacing purpose with Simple Rules posed both benefits and risks.

  • Individuals were free to create their own paths, but they had to accept responsibility for that freedom.
  • Those who dove deep into HSD found richness and depth, but it was hard for new-comers to find an entry point.
  • Possibilities were endless, but it was impossible to predict when a transformative moment would occur.
  • Training events and consulting engagements would set conditions for innovation, but each one required creative investment.

These patterns served us well for the early phases of development in HSD.  As we became stronger, and the world become more uncertain, we needed to make a change. We recognized a need to create a pattern that would be clearer and more accessible. The pattern should retain the characteristic patterns of human systems dynamics, but also mitigate the risks and expand the benefits.

We revisited our vision of purpose and vision.

Based on our discipline of Pattern Logic, we understand that three conditions influence emergent patterns in complex adaptive systems: Containers, differences, and exchanges. We know that these conditions constrain the behavior of agents at all scales of the system. Over time, the conditions influence patterns that emerge across the whole, part, and greater whole.  When the conditions are more constrained, the patterns emerge faster, and they are more distinct. Looser constraints result in slower evolution and messier patterns over time.

We realized that our HSD Simple Rules had set conditions for a rich and vibrant pattern, but one that was diffuse and hard to articulate. For our next stage of development, we needed to set conditions for faster and more compelling patterns in our community. We wanted to maintain the diversity and increase the coherence at the same time. We needed to strengthen our Strange Attractor Pattern without collapsing it into a closed, low dimension Point Attractor Pattern.

We needed a purpose that was rooted in our Pattern Logic.


A group of Associates came together and called themselves Thrival. Together, they followed the three-step Adaptive Action process to explore patterns inside and outside of the Institute.  The process was rather messy, with false starts and safe-to-fail experiments, but these are the steps that led us to our current conditions for shared theory and practice.

What? What are the current patterns of success that have emerged over time for the field, Institute, and community of HSD?

So what? So what are the containers that are most robust? Which differences make the greatest difference to our success?  What exchanges are full of energy and opportunity?

Now what? Now what can we say that will amplify the patterns of success and move us into our most productive future?

The result is a new purpose statement that works within our Simple Rules. It distinguishes among the Institute, the field, and the network of HSD Practitioners, so the container is smaller and more clearly bounded. It focuses on the differences that make a difference to us and our clients. It prescribes the kinds of exchanges that, we believe, will accelerate the effectiveness and diffusion of HSD for individuals and institutions.

The HSD Institute uses Adaptive Action and Pattern Logic to facilitate Laboratories where people see, understand, and influence patterns to respond to their most intractable issues.

This purpose statement guides our individual and collective actions. It generates patterns of who we are and what we do. We hope the pattern is clearer and more accessible to individuals and institutions that need to leverage the uncertainty in their organizations. And, that is the purpose of “purpose” in HSD.

How is this approach to purpose similar to and different from your understanding of the term?  How would the HSD conception of purpose playout for you, your organization, team, or community? What would help you discover and articulate the purpose that will move you into your most productive future?

Be in touch!  Thanks. G

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