Change Your Narrative: Change Your Patterns

In human systems dynamics (HSD), we define narrative as the essential message that sets forth patterns of discourse, decision making, and action for individuals, families, communities, organizations, and institutions. A clear narrative informs action to help create a path through uncertain and turbulent times. Read how the HSD narrative helped us navigate the challenges of lockdown and re-emergence in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In organizations and institutions, in communities, in families, and even for individuals, narrative is the language of coherence.                 —Anonymous

Recently I’ve noticed interesting patterns in the work that Glenda Eoyang and I do as leaders of the HSD Institute.

Much like almost every organization in the world, planning for the lockdown 18 months ago called for several decisions. There were no guidelines. There were no past experiences to inform action. Our future was no more certain or predictable than other organizations, regardless of size or sector. And yet, as choice points emerged, we considered them, made decisions, and moved forward without drama or panic.

  • Inside the Institute, we talked about the nature of emergent barriers, gathered information from those who could provide it, explored implications of patterns we wanted, identified options that opened in that exploration, and moved to action.
  • Some decisions had to be discussed with our Board of Directors. We engaged them in similar ways. In quarterly meetings, we laid out challenges and opportunities; explored implications and possible pathways; and developed plans to guide our action forward.
  • Many decisions created potential impacts for others in the network. We engaged those individuals in the same ways. We talked about patterns they saw and patterns we saw, considered implications and possibilities, and worked with them to take action.
  • Sometimes members of the community contacted us to explore opportunities and/or barriers they faced. In those cases, we explored their questions with them; considered implications we saw together; and, with them, we mapped out viable next steps. Sometimes we were involved in those actions; sometimes we were not.

Now, we step into the last half of 2021 and begin planning for 2022. Much of the world is opening and exploring how to thrive in a world where a receding pandemic still threatens. We hear about “New normal” and “What’s next?” We engage about political, economic, and social changes that emerged in the past 18 months. We share our hopes and fears for the future. In all this, I notice that we continue to engage in that same cycle of Adaptive Action, where we 1) Look at what is; 2) Consider implications and possibilities; 3) Take informed action; and 4) Go back to #1 to see what has emerged, beginning the cycle again.

Across the months, we remained busy. We stepped into new work, increased enrollment in Adaptive Action Labs and HSD Professional certification programs, and engaged people around the globe in ongoing inquiry. While we didn’t come through totally unscathed, we continue to move forward to create the path as we walk it. That path has seemed relatively straightforward and clear. Difficult and complex decisions got made with relatively little need to back up and start again. It has not been an easy journey, but, because we have been privileged to have the resources and connections we have, it’s one that did not destroy us. It may, even, have helped us become more resilient.

WHAT makes the work we do together seem so straightforward and clear?

As I look across the past months, I see a common thread running through our decisions. For each one, we relied on the HSD Vision to consider possibilities and on the HSD Simple Rules to inform our actions. These two elemental documents stand out as the narrative that guided our work in those months, and that continues to inform our future planning.

There is much being written today about narratives—different definitions, applications, processes, and products. In human systems dynamics (HSD), we think of narrative as the essential message that shapes discourse and action. We believe this definition fits for individuals, teams, communities, organizations, and institutions. We believe effective narrative works because it: 1) Describes current and aspirational patterns (WHAT?); 2) Explains underlying dynamics of those patterns (SO WHAT?); and 3) Informs action toward a desired outcome (NOW WHAT?).

Consider our narrative in the HSD Vision and Simple Rules.

HSD Vision
People everywhere thrive because we
see patterns clearly,
seek to understand, and
act with courage to
transform turbulence and uncertainty into
possibility for all.

HSD Simple Rules

  • Stand in inquiry
  • Find the energy in difference
  • Zoom in and zoom out
  • Connect through stories and impacts
  • Search for the true and useful
  • Celebrate life

SO WHAT shapes such a simple, yet powerful, narrative?

The strength of the HSD narrative lies in the clarity it provides about the patterns we want and the actions we will take to shape them. This vision accomplishes the three steps as it:

  • Describes a pattern: People everywhere thrive. . .
  • Explains the dynamic: Because we see clearly, seek to understand, and act with courage . . .
  • Informs our actions: To transform turbulence and uncertainty into possibility for all.

That vision, then, gives rise to the HSD Simple Rules to inform us as we set conditions to shape those patterns. Together the HSD Vision and Simple Rules frame a basic foundation for discourse across the HSD community. This two-part narrative informs individual action, as well as operational and strategic decisions. It bounds our public and private projects, research, and explorations.

Why is this so powerful? We believe that a narrative that shapes productive discourse and informs wise action addresses the deep complexity that shapes our lives. Such a narrative:

  • Emerges out of curiosity and courage. It requires both curiosity and courage to explore and challenge our assumptions, to look into current and future uncertainty and turbulence, to be open to the possibilities we see, and to acknowledge the impact of forces we can neither control nor predict.
  • Names and leverages the power of difference that enables change. In a complex world, we experience more differences that we can count. We need a narrative that helps us select the differences that matter. Powerful narrative reminds us how to leverage differences that matter to shape the patterns we seek. We listen to voices that we sometimes ignore, to hear the wisdom in their contributions. We ignore differences that don’t really matter in our emerging future. We find ways to damp differences that create toxic patterns.
  • Shapes a future that you can live into today. No one can predict the future. No one can change or “undo” the past. All we have is this moment to observe, decide, and act. Powerful narrative is finely honed to provide enough of a touchstone to remind us what we’re about and to inform our next step to create that future in this moment.

NOW WHAT can you do to explore a possible narrative for you, for your community, or for your organization?

The HSD narrative emerged through a process we undertook in the year before the lockdown. That process was a thorough exploration intended to create long-term ideas about the role of HSD in the year 2051. What would HSD look like as it moved into a world none of us could predict or control? The HSD Vision and Simple Rules emerged from that year-long conversation. Little did we guess that more immediate challenges would create the need for that narrative in such a short time!

In the time since, we have used that narrative with confidence it has the potential to continue to serve the field of HSD into the future. Based on what we learned in the futuring process and what we are learning through recent experience, we are even more convinced that HSD has tools, models, and methods that can help you build a narrative that:

  • Emerges out of true curiosity and courage
  • Names and leverages the power of difference that enables change
  • Shapes a future that you can live into today

Thanks, and be in touch!

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