Four Principles of Change in Human Systems: Tension

Human systems are complex and adaptive. They are open to multiple forces that interact in unpredictable and interdependent ways to shape patterns of interaction and decision making. At any moment the number of differences in the system is infinite. And in human systems, each individual and group has its own set of memories, experiences, and expectations that shape choice and action. In systems that are so open and entangled, how can you hope to bring about change that is sustainable across time and space?

TensionHuman Systems Dynamics (HSD) offers a way to see, understand, and influence the patterns of interaction and decision making that shape your world. Over the coming months, Change the World will offer four principles about bringing about lasting change in a complex system, offering 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. (This month’s offering)
  2.     Change at a global level depends on change at the local level. (October)
  3.     A short list of simple rules increases system-wide coherence. (November)
  4.     Adaptive change happens through iterative cycles of Adaptive Action. (December)

Principle 1:  Human systems change in response to system tension.

You live in a diverse world where differences create the potential for change. You experience this potential as tension in the form of conflict, excitement, fear, or other types of patterns that emerge as people navigate the differences in your systems. This tension comes from the degree of fitness you experience at all scales of the system. Fitness is defined as the ability to thrive in the given environment. Do your words and actions align (fit) with each other and with what is important to you? Does the work of a team match (fit) the needs of the greater organization, and does the work require (fit) the skills and available resources of the team? Tension emerges as the degree of fitness decreases, and tension dissipates as fitness increases. We say that something is “fit to purpose” when there is a balance of tension that keeps the system moving forward and functioning productively.

Consider an organizational or community group or team, working together toward a common goal. The tension can exist on several scales. Tension at the individual scale would ask you to consider personal alignment. Team members, as they work together, express the tension that emerges from fitness at the group level. If the team is working within organizational expectations toward organizational goals, tension is reduced at that scale.

Tension, by definition, is neither naughty nor nice. It just exists, and, in fact, some level of tension is necessary for you to live a healthy life. On the one hand, functional tension fuels your work of living, growing, and sustaining. On the other hand, too little or too much tension creates dysfunction. You experience too much tension as over-constraint and limitations. Too little tension leaves you under-constrained, without cues or feedback you need to maintain productive, healthy connections in your environment. In human systems, generally, tension has many sources, but we propose to address tension emerging from three sources. Each source can contribute to functional tension (increased fitness) or as dysfunctional tension (decreased fitness).

Tension sometimes emerges as a result of memory. You recognize a difference between your current reality and what you remember. If patterns you remember from your past are unhealthy, painful, or not productive, the tension you feel emerges from your desire to change those patterns or to avoid them in the future. On the other hand, you may remember earlier experiences as simpler or enjoyable, and the tension you feel emerges from a desire to re-create those past times.

Consider the team example again and think about what happens when a new member of your team has just left a particularly competitive situation. That individual will experience tension as she becomes acclimated to the difference between your collaborative team and the competitiveness she remembers. That tension is resolved as she comes to recognize and participate in the more collaborative interactions in your team. On the other hand, she may prefer the competitiveness, and tension emerges as she yearns for what she remembers as a highly charged and motivating culture.

There is tension that emerges as a result of your knowledge or information base. That tension comes from the difference between what you know and what you need to know in a given current situation. The questions to ask about the tension are 1) whether or not you have the knowledge or information you need and 2) how the knowledge you do have can further inform your actions to shape or influence the patterns toward greatest fit. Sometimes this is referenced in the literature as the “knowledge gap” or “skills gap”.

Say that the team is faced with the challenge of implementing a full-blown change initiative. With each new cycle of Adaptive Action, they ask themselves two kinds of questions. First they ask how they can learn what they need to know about the change? Second they ask themselves how their work can take full advantage of the information and intelligence at their disposal.

Finally there is the tension that results from imagination, or the difference between what you are experiencing and what you can imagine. Considering the patterns that currently exist, how do they compare to the best hopes or worst fears that come from how you can imagine your future? What action can you take to move toward those best hopes? What action can you take to avert those worst fears? This tension lies at the heart of the organizational vision and purpose.

Employees in an organization work toward the corporate vision. Individuals work toward personal aspirations. A sales team works toward sales goals. Innovative groups imagine a different future and then create what they need to move toward that difference. The tension that organizations, groups, or individuals feel as they compare their present situation against goals and aspirations is dissipated as they take action to move toward that imagined future. In some cases, the tension comes from the fear they have about their imaginings about the impact of failure or defeat.

Tension emerges from differences in the system and provides the energy or impetus needed to bring about change. HSD provides models and methods that help you see, understand, and shift the tension you feel as you set conditions for sustainable, healthy patterns of interaction and decision making. The attached model provides questions that can help you consider the tension in your system as you engage in Adaptive Action.

Be in touch and let us know how you sense and use your own tension to bring about change in your world.

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