Four Principles of Change in Human Systems: Adaptive Action

Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) helps you see, understand, and influence the patterns of interaction and decision making that shape your world. Over the past three months, I have introduced and explored a set of principles that help you understand change in the complexity of human systems. These principles use the essence of HSD to offer options for understanding and taking action as you navigate change in complex systems. While HSD, as a field of study, presents many ways to think about change, these four principles establish a solid framework for affecting change in your organization:

  1. Human systems change in response to system tension. (September’s offering)
  2. Change at a global level depends on change at the local level. (October’s offering)
  3. A short list of simple rules increases system-wide coherence. (November’s offering)
  4. Adaptive change happens through iterative cycles of Adaptive Action. (This month’s offering)

Principle 4: Adaptive change happens through iterative cycles of Adaptive Action.

In today’s landscape you deal with constant change--everything from the traffic on the highway to the political and cultural climates as you navigate your world, to the physical and emotional changes of getting older. Change is, in fact, a constant in our lives that emerges from the very nature of a complex adaptive system. Early in this series, we defined a complex adaptive system as open, high dimension, and nonlinear.

Complex Adaptive Systems

Inputs/OutputsOpen systems are connected internally and externally in ways that contribute to complexity. Many older images of a “system” were of a solid, enclosed “box” that accepted “inputs” in from a given source, acted upon those inputs, and created “outputs” that were then released into the greater environment. What we know about human systems, however, is that they respond to forces from the outside and forces internal to the system.

You participate in complex adaptive systems that exist with permeable boundaries to segment the parts of the system from each other, and to differentiate your system from its larger environment. The nature of these permeable boundaries, however, allows your system to be shaped and influenced by multiple and unknown forces. These forces act on each other and on your system, leaving you at the mercy of unknown influences that have unpredictable impacts and surprising effects. Your only real course of action is to be able to identify those forces you can have some influence over, and take action to shape the impact those forces have in your system.

High dimension systems are diverse, bringing together known, unknown, and unknowable differences. At any given time in a human system, there are so many differences present there is no way to track or attend to them all.Navigating Differences

Consider your own work system, where each individual brings his or her own unique set of physical, social, cultural expectations and experiences. When they come together, those differences that are most important come to the surface to shape the interactions of the whole. The system’s dimensionality--the kinds of difference, as well as the degrees of difference--contributes to its complexity, shaping the dominant patterns that characterize the system as a whole. Your ability to navigate those differences shapes your adaptive capacity to find fitness. Your only option to move forward is to identify differences that are most impactful and negotiate their relative impact to ensure greatest fit across the system.

Nonlinear SystemsNonlinear systems build on the past. What happens today is informed by yesterday’s experiences, and in turn, shapes tomorrow’s responses. As a human, you have memory and imagination that create the tension for shaping the future. You can remember a past that was different from today, and you work to recreate the parts of that past you can bring forth. You can imagine a future that will increase fitness across your system. Your best option for taking action is to pay attention to the meaning your history brings to decision making and action to shape your future.

Adaptive Action

In complex adaptive systems where you can neither control nor predict, all you can do is take small, iterative steps, where each action informs the next in nonlinear ways. Long-range planning sets system direction, as you use Adaptive Action to make necessary adjustments in response to shifting demands and opportunities. Each cycle is designed to reduce tension in the system as it moves toward longer-range goals of greater fit. The three questions of the Adaptive Action cycle help you explore the open, high dimension, nonlinear characteristics of your system.

Adaptive ActionWhat? is the first question of the Adaptive Action cycle. In answering that question, you describe the patterns you see and the patterns you want, naming the forces at work, the differences that are important, and the contributions of past learning.

So what? is the second phase of the Adaptive Action cycle. This is where you make sense of the information you have, exploring the conditions that shape current patterns and those that can shape future patterns. Based on this exploration and meaning making, you identify possible options for action to move the system toward greater fitness. Ultimately you select one action that can move you forward.

Now what? is the final phase, in which you take action to shift the system. As you take action, you observe the impact, collecting data and gathering information. This cycles you, in a nonlinear path, into the next What? where your answers feed into your next decisions in the system.

Use this month’s tool to engage in Adaptive Action to navigate the complex change in your life. It supports the other principles of change. Your descriptions of the current tension in the system (Principle 1) are the descriptions that inform the What? and shape the So what? Adaptive Action is a cycle of inquiry that individuals at any scale of the system can use to bring about change, contributing to system-wide change at the global level (Principal 2). Finally the Simple Rules help you make sense of the current tension in the So what? and inform your action taking in the Now what? (Principle 3).

Be in touch and let us know how these Principles of Change help you move forward in your own complex adaptive system.

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