Changing Change: Influence What You Cannot Control

Newton’s First Law of Motion:  A body in motion remains in motion and a body at rest remains at rest until acted upon by some unbalanced force.

Newton’s First Law has informed—and misinformed—social change theory for at least 100 years. Following this law, we have assumed that the best way to change an individual, a team, an organization, community, or nation is to apply force on it from outside. This fundamental assumption has led us to practices in management, education, political science, economics, and health care including:

  • Incentives and motivation
  • Punishment
  • Feedback
  • Coercion
  • Interest-based negotiation
  • Uses of power
  • Colonialism
  • Change management
  • Totalitarianism

Principles based on external force and power work just often enough for us to continue to apply them. When they don’t work, we blame circumstances or incompetent execution and try again. In the complex contexts of today, principles and practices based on Newtonian mechanics fail more often than they succeed. Wise practitioners look for alternatives. Intuition or trial and error generate new practices, but we clearly need a more robust and realistic theory of change.

In the same way that Newtonian physics is giving way to nonlinear dynamics, it is time for Newtonian social science to give way to human systems dynamics. We need a new theory of change that works when boundaries are fluid, diversity is extreme, and communications are fast and uncontrolled. Under these conditions, change is driven by the tension of differences within the system, rather than force imposed from outside. Such change is called self-organizing, or emergent change. You can see evidence of self-organizing change in:

  • Creative tension
  • Innovative breakthroughs
  • Conflict
  • Learning
  • Team building
  • Physical development
  • Chronic illness
  • Relationship building

In each of these cases, a difference emerges, tensions build around it. At some point, the boundaries and structures either absorb and dissipate the tension, or they break through because they can no longer contain the force from within.

The differences between causes for social change in the old and new sciences are relatively simple to talk about, but not so easy to implement in the complexity of real systems. The field of human systems dynamics exists to explore this dynamical theory and to develop practices that leverage a new kind of power and intentionality. The following table summarizes our principles.

Newton's First Law of
Simple Change
Human Systems Dynamics of Complex Change Tactics for Effective Change in Human Systems
Inertia keeps systems from changing Systems are always changing, whether we see the change or not Engage in Adaptive Action:
  • What?
  • So what?
  • Now what?
  • Next what?
External force causes change Internal accumulation and release of tensions that emerge from the differences in the system cause change Focus on differences that make a difference and leverage Interdependent Pairs
If you know the force and the current state, you can predict what happens next No matter how much you know, the future of the complex system is unpredictable Stand in Inquiry to:
  • Turn judgment into curiosity
  • Turn conflict into shared exploration
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Turn assumptions into questions
Change happens at a single scale Change is happening at many, interdependent scales at the same time Use the CDE Model to think in Pattern Logic
System boundaries are singular, stable, and knowable System boundaries are multiple, variable, and massively entangled Play both Finite and Infinite Games

You can experiment with these complex laws of motion as you lead or manage your own personal and professional change. Ask yourself and others:

  • What are the differences that make a difference right here and right now?
  • So what options do we have to either contain and disseminate the tension around these differences or to amplify the tension, break through, and get unstuck?
  • Now what will we choose to do, and how will we learn from that action?

Try it. Let us know how it works for you. Most important, though, stay in this conversation, so that our emerging tensions can continue to feed your learning and practice!


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