Finding Fit for Function: The Tension in Complexity

Every day we experience tensions that are driven by the diversity of our complex lives. What are those tensions, and where do they come from?

The presence of tension is a defining characteristic of complex human systems. It emerges from differences inside the system. Complex systems are open to forces that operate both inside and outside their boundaries. Multiple forces create tension as they compete to influence processes of growth and change. Tension emerges in the rich diversity exists in the system. We often think of tension as a negative reality, but tension is neither naughty nor nice. It just is, and it is a necessary reality for healthy, responsive systems.

We experience tensions in these uncertain days. The pandemic, economic instability, global climate change, and social unrest all contribute. Still, people experience joyful tension in new love. They share the tension of gratitude in their shared support of first responders and essential workers. Tensions emerge in connections across digital platforms.  

There is a price to pay when tension remains high over time. It doesn’t matter what the source is. It is not healthy for a system to experience prolonged periods of pain, loss, or insurmountable challenge. Nor is healthy for a system to live perpetually in a state of unbounded excitement and stimulation. In uncertain times, it becomes more important than ever to understand sources of our tension. And it’s important to build the capacity to deal with that tension. That capacity enables us to make conscious choices about how to manage and respond to tension.

Tension emerges from difference in the system. Tension is the fuel for change. When significant differences exist unchecked in a system, tension builds. At some point, one event will break the dam. When that happens, built up tension erupts in unpredictable and often surprising ways.

  • The murder of George Floyd released tension. The resulting responses continue to reverberate, changing the social fabric around the globe.
  • Political and social differences trigger tension between individuals and groups. This tension has spilled out in widely differing responses to the pandemic. The tension shows up in public confrontations about the wearing of masks. It shows. up in conflicts about freedoms to engage in large social events.
  • The tension between social isolation and the need for connection shows up in many ways. It fuels the creative ways we honor those who serve the public good. It triggers communal singing from individual balconies in the streets of Italy. It’s visible in the burgeoning use of digital platforms to celebrate with family and friends.

So how do we respond most effectively to the competing forces that generate tension in our lives? Often, basic intuition and past experience are not enough to inform our actions. In unprecedented times, how can we take informed action? How do we relieve tensions in the current landscape of uncertainty, ambiguity, and turbulence?

In HSD, our vision calls us to find new ways to respond to the challenges we face.

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

Living inside that vision, HSD practitioners continue to look for models and methods that help us see patterns of tension in the world. We seek to understand the sources and impacts of those patterns. Ultimately, we take action, using those understandings to move our systems toward greater fitness. Landscape Diagrams help us understand how levels of certainty and agreement impact tension and constraint that allow for healthy functioning. Four Truths helps us explore how people see the world. We understand the resulting tension that can emerge as conflict or group think. The Decision Map helps us explore how decisions are influenced by how individuals and groups see and experience the world.

In this month’s Live Virtual Workshop, Glenda Eoyang will explore one of the most powerful tools we have for seeing and understanding tension in the system. She will talk about using Interdependent Pairs to manage the tension of uncertainty.  

Please join us for this free lively and important discussion on Thursday, September 3, 11a-12p CDT. If you have registered in the past, you will receive a reminder before the session. If you have not registered in the past, register here for this and future Live Virtual Workshops.

We look forward to seeing you there. Be in touch!

Join a global network of learning about HSD!
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.