Change at the Speed of Thought: Coping in a Complex World

In our electronically networked world, change is constant. Everything from day-to-day experiences to global upheaval touches our lives and brings new challenges and opportunities. How do you cope in a world where it sometimes feels like there’s nothing you can count on—except change? In HSD we help people understand the nature of complex change and build capacity to move forward when they can neither predict nor control the future.

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” —John F. Kennedy

Change happens. Sometimes it is simple and clean, but most often it is turbulent and messy because it emerges from the complex nature of the world. In my high school science classes and then later when I studied leadership, what I was taught about change never seemed to fit my reality. I observed and experienced changes in my world that couldn’t be explained by the common understanding. When I asked questions about it, the mismatch was generally explained away by talking about the difference between theory and reality.

More recently, scientists, researchers, and practitioners have learned more about the complex nature of life. Because of their work, we’re better able to talk about the differences between the traditional understanding of change and the reality of complex change. In human systems dynamics (HSD), we understand the difference in terms of the characteristics of change.

The table below list some of the characteristics of complex change, differentiating it from traditional understandings of change.

When the world around us changes at the speed of thought, this understanding of change helps us move forward and find our best fit in each new moment.

Most of us intuitively recognize the characteristics of complex change in our lives, but we don’t always know how to respond. What I wrestled with as a student and in my earlier career was a recognition that the tools I used and the perspectives I held just didn’t quite work. I always had the sense that I was working in the dark, trying to know what to do next. Now, I realize that understanding complex change can help me respond more effectively and with greater confidence.

In today’s post, I offer some things I have learned in the past 20 years about complex human systems. Using the characteristics of change, here are 5 patterns I try to live out in my daily life.

  • Stand in Inquiry – In the uncertainty of complex change, I rely on the Inquiry practices that we include in our HSD Simple Rules:
    ♦ Turn judgment into curiosity
    ♦ Turn disagreement into shared exploration
    ♦ Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
    ♦ Turn assumptions into questions

    I am no saint, and I am not perfect at standing in inquiry. But I am lucky enough to have people around me—family, friends, colleagues—who help me remember. They sometimes gently ask me where my curiosity has gone, or what button has been pushed to trigger a reaction.
  • See patterns that matter – My world changes constantly, bringing me new ideas, challenges, opportunities, irritations, and celebrations. This emergent nature of complex change creates a sense of overwhelm, sometimes, with so much coming at me at one time and continuously over time. I try to remember that it can’t all matter all the time and stop to consider what really matters right now. Am I playing in the weeds when the trees are falling all around me? Or is this a time when the trees can take care of themselves, and I need to pull a few weeds?
  • Consider the beyond – I often need to remind myself there is a world beyond my current view. When changes in that broader world have an impact on me, I can waste energy on fixing or shifting to manage what is right in front of me. On the other hand, when I remember—or when friends, colleagues or family remind me—I can look beyond the immediate to understand more about forces and events that shape my current reality.
  • You cannot step into the same river twice – I love the idea of the world being perpetually unique and I am often frustrated that the world is perpetually unique. It challenges to me to think I know what to expect, and then that’s not what happens at all. I carry with me a culmination of experiences, learning, impressions, and observations from my entire history. In this moment that shapes my perspectives and my choices. Those choices, however, bring me new experiences and learning, and I am no longer the same person I was before.
  • Leverage connections – Human systems are interconnected. What I do has an impact on you, and your actions influence my world. What I have learned in my past shapes how I see the world today and the choices I make about tomorrow. What happens half-way around the globe can change my experience in ways I cannot imagine. Because my world is interconnected, I cannot predict what might happen in the next instant. It’s impossible to know what I need to know without making connections that help me access information, resources, and support. I collaborate across silos. I seek new ideas and perspectives. I engage others through questions.

Complex change, as I said earlier, is messy. It’s also frustrating and surprising and joyful! It helps me learn, informs me of what I don’t yet know, and reminds me that there is much I will never know. These five patterns of action and decision making, however, help me cope with the mess. They give me confidence that I can move forward and find my best fit in each new moment.

Be in touch. Let me know how these patterns play out for you. I look forward to hearing from you.


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