Adaptive Change: More than “One-And-Done”

Life is a constant adaption.
—Carlos Gershenson

The HSD Institute live virtual workshop on June 6, 2019 offered insights about leveraging the complexity inherent in our lives to bring about personal change. It was intriguing, and the chat space was very busy, rich with comments, questions, and observations. In the time since then, I have been thinking about my own personal change efforts in different times in my life. I have also been reflecting on conversations I have had recently, exploring personal change; addiction and recovery; and long-term, deep learning. In the context of HSD, colleagues and I are exploring some basic concepts about these areas.

The complexity of life makes change difficult—and glorious.

Each of us is a complex individual, and we live and co-exist in complex systems. Schools, organizations, communities, regional, national, and even international systems create the complexities that shape the pattern of our lives. Sometimes it helps just to stop and consider the conditions of life that make it so complex:

  • Our lives are influenced by political, social, and economic forces every day. We have been shaped by these forces since birth. Sometimes forces are indirect, and we may not recognize their impact. Social change may happen hundreds of miles away and not directly affect us. Those changes, however, can have impact on prices and availability of items we need. Continuous stories of violence or starvation can trigger us in way we may not even recognize.

    Since I can’t control or even attend to all the forces I encounter, I must deal first with those I can touch and that most powerfully shape my life.
  • Our lives are characterized by extraordinary diversity. Differences in age, gender, or ability might be obvious, while differences in beliefs, experience, and aspirations may be less visible. Every day we are bombarded by ideas, news, and data that vie for our attention.

    In the midst of that diversity, I have to identify which differences matter to me, focus on the ones I can shift, adapt to the ones I must, and ignore those that are beyond my reach.
  • We live in a non-linear world. Interdependencies, constant change, and uncertainty make it impossible to find direct cause-and-effect relationships in complexity. Every person we meet brings a unique history and aspirations. Actions have intended and untended consequences. Over time, we learn and grow, and our actions tomorrow may be different from what we plan today.
    This level of complexity means that tomorrow is both unpredictable and uncontrollable, so I must respond as I can to find my best options in any given moment.

So in the midst of this complexity, we must learn to adapt. In every moment, each of us has the opportunity to manage our own patterns of interaction, reaction, and thought to create the lives we want to live.

Change is not about a place we are going.

It’s about the day-to-day journey and the moment-by-moment choices we make. In the midst of this continuous change and complexity, we set our grand aspirations. We say, “I want to become a master knitter.” “I want to be strong and healthy.” “I want to live happily ever after.” We make a plan and begin to take action to move toward those aspirations.

Along the way, however, we find that the world this year is different from the world last year. I knit the best sweater I ever knitted and find an even better pattern the next day. I am faithful to a health-building regimen, then I find that I have a chronic health issue that requires daily attention. I find that a happily-ever-after life requires negotiation, patience, and change.

My only option is to adapt as I regroup, examine what is, make sense of it in light of where I want to be. Then I change my course and continue to move forward.

Change is not about solving the problems in our lives.

It is about seeing our own patterns of behavior and action that limit our abilities to adapt to the complexity that is a constant in our lives. Describing the challenges we face, the opportunities we have, and the aspirations we hold is an important first step, but it’s not enough. When all we can do is name the things that are pushing us forward or blocking our futures, we can get stuck. We can only see that there are problems to be “solved.” 

In HSD I have learned to see problems only as patterns to be shifted. We can recognize that our challenges are external patterns we face or personal patterns of thought or behavior. When we see that as the challenge, then we can explore the conditions that shape those patterns and make choices to create change. In HSD, we explore those conditions through a simple, yet elegant process we call Adaptive Action. It consists of three questions:

  1. What? We describe the current situation by asking questions to identify patterns:  What patterns exist right now? What are people doing? Saying? Responding? What patterns are in the available data? What is the goal? What seems to be in the way? What patterns would work more effectively?
  2. So what? We explore the implications of those patterns and identify viable options for action. We ask: So what does that action accomplish for individuals and groups? What conditions are shaping the patterns that exist? What actions might shift those conditions? What actions are most available? Which are most viable?
  3. Now what? We choose an action, move forward and then review its impact. We ask: Now what should be done, and who will do it? Now what will “success” look like? When should results be evident? Now what is my next “What?”

I use Adaptive Action continuously to build my own adaptive capacity and to keep moving and learning. It’s an iterative cycle of observation, meaning making, and action that is the only way to move forward in complex environments. It works because the complexity of life requires me to move beyond the myth that complex change is a “one-and-done” event. That level of ongoing, intentional change is what we call “adaptive change.”

How about you? What are your adaptive change challenges? On June 25th, 26th, and 28th, 2019, Glenda Eoyang and Laura Williams are offering the next event in our series of online Adaptive Action Labs. Register now and join them to learn how HSD offers Three Tools to Accelerate Change.

In addition to the many friends and colleagues who think with me about change, I want to specifically thank Rachael Roberts, Rick Wellock, Leslie Patterson, and Glenda Eoyang for the ongoing conversations that continue to fire my imagination about adaptation and change.

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