Chaos to Coherence: A Self-Assessment

Human systems seek coherence, a sweet spot where the parts work together to help the system find productive equilibrium and balance with its environment. We have created a self-assessment to explore seven characteristics that describe coherence in your system.

We are coming to understand health not as the absence of disease, but rather as the process by which individuals maintain their sense of coherence (i.e. sense that life is comprehensible, manageable, and meaningful) and ability to function in the face of changes in themselves and their relationships with their environment.
—Aaron Antonovsky

I was tired, and my head was aching. This day-long, multi-family ski trip had been a bad choice from the get-go. I just kept thinking to myself that everything was too “higglety-pigglety”! It was a mess. From a blown-out tire, to a 5-year-old’s bout with carsickness, to a day of skiing cut short by a snow storm, to figuring out we couldn’t get to the lodge where we had reservations because of the snow storm, to 15 people trying to stay in a 2-bedroom condo because that’s all that was available in the middle of this snow storm. It was just . . .higglety-pigglty! (It’s a great word I learned from my grandmother, and it means, “everything around is out of place, out of time, and out of patience.”

The other day I heard a someone talking about a change effort in her department that sounded miserable. Nothing seemed to be going right, and everything was in disarray! As a result, people were angry with each other. They were making up their own plans and working on what they thought needed to get done. They were ignoring agreements about who was supposed to be doing what, unclear about what needed to be done next, and not being very nice with each other along the way.

As I listened to that really tired and frustrated manager, for some reason, that long-ago ski trip came to mind, and all I could think was that this woman’s team was all higglety-pigglety. But this time I had some questions to ask her to help her explore options to calm the system and find a path through the change process.

In human systems dynamics (HSD), we know that systems seek coherence, a sweet spot where the parts work together to help the system find productive equilibrium and balance with its environment. Another way we talk about it is “fit for function”—Is the system operating in a way that is fit for function for the work it has to do? Several years ago, I asked Glenda Eoyang, founder HSD and Executive Director of the HSD Institute, to help me know what it meant to be “coherent.” From her research, she was able to name 7 characteristics of a coherent system. As I talked with that manager, I turned those characteristics into questions she could consider to identify her next wise action.

Here are those questions, and I wonder how useful you might find them the next time things feel a bit higglety-pigglety around you:

  • Is everyone ultimately going the same place? Coherent systems have shared goals. Everyone is in agreement about where they are going. They know why they want to go there. They know what they will all look for to indicate when they get there or when they have gotten off the path.  
  • Is this “trip” important to everyone in the system? In a coherent system, there is a sense of shared meaning. People either don’t use jargon, or they use jargon that everyone in the system knows. They share expectations for how the work should be done and who should be doing it. There is a shared appreciation for the importance and urgency of their work to support the greater whole. People take shared accountability for working together and contributing to the greater whole.

  • Do people “fit in” within reason? This is not about people becoming little bots who only do what they are told to do. It is, however, about people working together according to system norms. Similar patterns of behavior and engagement help members of the team feel more comfortable and included. Work gets done more smoothly with fewer surprises.

  • Does everyone know they count? High functioning systems build processes and practices that work together well. They complement each other. Every job counts in the larger work of the system. There’s enough redundancy to prevent things falling through the cracks, and enough differentiation to prevent overwork. People know how what they do fits into and contributes to the functioning of the whole.

  • Are you wasting energy? When systems work with the least destructive friction, they expend the least energy. People know what they are assigned and have the training, resources, and support they need to do their work. People feel empowered to make decisions they need to make inside the appropriate levels of regulation and expectations.

  • Are there too many cooks in the kitchen? Coherent systems deploy resources in ways that make sense and reduce destructive tension. Too many people trying to do the same work, just wastes time and creates competition. People receive the feedback they need to improve continuously and aren’t afraid to take reasonable risks. When things go wrong, there are lessons to be learned rather than blame to be laid.

  • Can people adjust and adapt? The final attribute of coherent systems shows up in the ability to adapt to changes, challenges, surprises, and opportunities that emerge. Whether those pressures emerge from the external environment or from the internal workings of the system, the people, procedures, and practices are able to respond in robust and responsive ways. People watch for and respond to trends and changes.

As I look at this list, I have to giggle to myself about that long-ago, misbegotten trip. I honestly think that the one tiny example of coherence we shared that day was that we all were headed to Ruidoso, New Mexico to ski. Otherwise we had different reasons for going, different sets of norms across families, individual problem-solving techniques and answers, entirely too much tension in the system, and too many cooks in the kitchen. As a result, we didn’t do a terrific job of adjusting and adapting. We were more focused on reacting and avoiding the next challenge.

So I hope this list of questions and the self-reflection form that comes from it are helpful for you in these days of unpredictable change and uncertain conditions. Be in touch; let me know what you find!


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