First: Find a Place to Stand

Consulting is a many-faceted job, particularly in the complexities of today’s organizational landscape. For good consultants, every call brings a new, unique challenge. Each organization has its own assets and barriers. When every situation is so unique, where can you start?

”Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin

Consulting is a many-faceted job, particularly in the complexities of today’s organizational landscape. Politics, social issues, economic roller coasters, and burgeoning technology create a different scenario in each consulting role. For good consultants today, every call brings a new, unique challenge.

When every situation is so unique, where can you start? When you don’t know what you’re looking at, how do you know what’s needed? When you can’t predict the impact of your actions, what can you do?

In Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) we face these questions. As HSD-trained consultants, we find our next wise actions in the theoretical and practical foundations of the field. Those foundations can be captured in a short, simple list of actions that give you a place to stand, a way to see, and actions to be taken.

First find a place to stand. As an HSD consultant, you step into a helping role knowing that where you stand and how you see the system’s challenges is the first decision you make. And you make that decision using Pattern Logic.

If your stance is to look for problems, that’s all you’ll see, and they point you down a dead-end road. Problems that emerge in a system are actually just the symptoms of whatever is not working. Problems limit performance and block success, but they don’t really provide insights into what’s shaping the systemic challenge.

On the other hand, if you take a stance that allows you to look for and see patterns, you can see beyond the problems. You make sense of the patterns in ways that point to wise action. You can help your clients use the power of some patterns to shift other patterns. You can help them use the dynamics of the system to create new, more productive patterns. 

Second, be careful what you look for. In HSD you choose Inquiry as a primary tool for engagement. When you step into the new challenge as a consultant, you are not looking for something specific. You have to look at everything you can so you can see what’s there. Inquiry helps you do that, by getting your expectations and perceptions out of the way.

Inquiry is most useful when it becomes a way of being present in the world. Four practices guide you as an HSD consultant:

  • Turn judgment into curiosity.
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration.
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection.
  • Turn assumptions into questions.

These practices of Inquiry help you see the world around you. They help reduce the distortion caused by the blurred lenses of ego or fear or anger.

Third, use adaptive action. As an HSD consultant, you know that change is not just for the sake of change. You see patterns of interaction, flow, and response between and among elements inside the system and in its external environment. You know that systemic change should enable all segments of the system to leverage assets and overcome barriers that threaten its health and functioning. You know that the shifts you work on help the system be more adaptive, as it responds to its less-functional patterns.

Adaptive Action is the tool you use to do the work. It is a three-step, iterative cycle that moves the system toward healthier patterns. You engage members across the system in using multiple cycles of adaptive action to ask:

  1. What patterns do I see across the system?
  2. So what sense can I make of those patterns to find a next wise action to shift the system?
  3. Now what action will I take to move the system toward greater fitness, and how will I know if it’s successful?

Then, because it’s an iterative cycle, you go back to Step 1 to ask yourself what you learned in the first cycle and what needs to be done next. As an HSD consultant you engage in Adaptive Action to facilitate similar cycles across the system.

Finally, work on what you can touch. As an HSD consultant, you know that the system is a Complex Adaptive System that holds an infinite amount of difference. Each person is unique. Each client is unique. Multiple functions and factions make up the network that shapes the work of the system. And all those different parts of the system are massively entangled. No one person can create system-wide change alone. A new leader’s mandate cannot make that happen. A merger will not, by itself, create a new, unified system.

You use HSD models and methods to find ways to catalyze the system’s energy into action that will shift the systemic patterns. Just as no one can do it alone, no one can do someone else’s work. You look for patterns of tension in the system that will help you connect people who need to work together. You help them see the ways their day-to-day actions contribute to or detract from their long-term vision of success. You help them build coherence so that patterns in one area coordinate and align with patterns in other areas.

Those are the basic steps that leverage HSD’s theoretical foundations to create powerful action. Each of us uses those steps in our own way, building our personal Praxis as we weave together the theory and practice that is HSD. Join Tamela Handie and me in our next Adaptive Action Lab, Consult in Complex Times: Help Your Clients Navigate the Turbulence. Build your HSD Praxis as we will explore four fundamental patterns in organizations and use HSD-informed tools to address them. Come be a part of this engaging and practical Lab.

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