Fractals: A Lever to Change the World

In re-reading Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown, Royce was reminded of the way fractal behaviors shape patterns at all scales in human systems. In today’s blog, she reviews the HSD Simple Rules and suggests tools that can be used to help frame and live out the fractals Ms. Brown describes.

How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests two things: one, that there are shapes and patterns fundamental to our universe, and two, that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.
Adrienne Maree Brown. Emergent Strategy (p. 54).

I am re-reading Emergent Strategy, by Adrienne Maree Brown, and I am struck, once again, by the clarity of her exploration of fractals. Beyond a basic definition:
“patterns of the universe that repeat at scale,” her description points to ways human experience can be identified, described, categorized, and recognized by particular patterns that emerge across time and space. Fractal patterns emerge as a system iterates within a given set of rules or principles that inform the behaviors of the system agents at all scales.

In nature, branching occurs as trees grow and rivers flow. In humans we see branching in family “trees” and in the spreading of information beyond the point of origin. Wonderful ideas and amazing creations can branch out from one core idea.

Consider the branches of history and science that emerged over time after John F. Kennedy said that humans would walk on the moon. One of those branches brought us a new understanding of the science of our Universe; another of those branches brought us Velcro! And each of those branches emerged through the iteration of a set of principles and ideals President Kennedy pointed to in a speech in Houston Texas on September 12, 1962:

  • There is new knowledge to be gained, and new rights to be won.
  • They must be . . . used for the progress of all people.
  • The goal (of going to the moon) will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills.
  • The growth of our science and education will be enriched by:
    • New knowledge of our universe and environment
    • New techniques of learning and mapping and observation
    • New tools and computers for industry, medicine, the home as well as the school

Those principles were engrained in the work of going to the moon, and generated fractal patterns of creative innovation; useful, real-world applications; attention to documentation and measurement; emergent learning; and intentional service to the progress of all people.

Brown’s exploration of fractals’ repetitive patterns and how they emerge at all scales is an interesting study in the dynamics of human systems. She talks about how birds flock and how fish “schoal”, following a simple set of “principles” that help them move together safely and productively.

I am reminded of the Simple Rules that we use in HSD. They provide the foundation or formula that iterates to shape the fractal patterns that characterize our work, as described in our vision statement:

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

Whether fractals are described in her poetic, almost lyrical, storytelling or in the brief, more concrete statements in the HSD Glossary, the messages are similar and the meaning is clear. I took a few minutes to list the HSD Simple Rules and particular tools that help us maintain the HSD fractal patterns.

  • Stand in inquiry.
    Glenda Eoyang, the founder of the field of HSD, reminds us that answers have short shelf lives in a world we cannot control or predict. Except for the very most basic “facts” of life, what we see and what we know can shift in a moment, making today’s answers useless in tomorrow’s challenges.

    Standing in Inquiry requires that we live out four very specific practices:
    ♦ Turn judgment into curiosity
    ♦ Turn disagreement into shared exploration
    ♦ Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
    ♦ Turn assumptions into questions

    ​In HSD we stand in inquiry, using questions to understand the context, to build meaning, and to make informed choices in the moment. Then we start again. In HSD, inquiry is not an activity; it is a way of life. And it is the only way to see and make sense of the patterns—fractal or not—that help us understand the world.
  • Find the Energy in Difference.
    In her work, Ms. Brown describes tensions that drive her work. Tension emerges when people are marginalized. Injustice and hate that separates and creates social and political barriers creates tension that drives her to the streets and ballot boxes to create a movement.

    In HSD we recognize tension as the result of differences in the system. It may be the tension learning or the exquisite tension in a new love relationship. Differences also create tension that emerges as bias and hatred, or protest and anger. To make sense of those differences and move to better-informed action we consider Interdependent Pairs. It’s a tool that helps us name competing forces that threaten to overwhelm us. After they are identified, we can explore their impact and timing. We see that it’s not an “all-or-nothing” choice. We can shift attention as we need to and take action to work through seemingly unresolvable issues.
  • Search for the true and useful.
    In life, we encounter facts, information, or situations that we believe are true—the equation for translating Celsius to Fahrenheit; the distance from Poughkeepsie to Redwood City; or the price of wheat in Sao Paulo. In most situations, many of us won’t find those facts all that useful. At the same time, we may find some ideas or concepts useful, even when they may not be completely true. We might use gossip or untrue stories, for instance, to get what we want.

    In HSD we seek both criteria. What is both true and useful? As we ask for that clarity, we recognize that truth may be more or less relevant, or meaningful, to different individuals. We use the Four Truths to help us sort out whether the truth we are talking about is evidence based, subjective to one person, or normative across a group. Then we have the freedom to work with others to agree about which of those three truths becomes most useful at any given time. We can move forward, even when we can’t fully agree.
  • Zoom in and zoom out.
    Ms. Brown says, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale.” This helps us recognize that when we fight bias or climate change in our own backyards, we contribute to the global fight against existential challenges we face. Zooming in and zooming out reminds us of the need to look at the patterns that are closer to home and the patterns that emerge in the greater whole. We have to remember to attend to the more local, finite challenges, as we look to the more infinite world that holds those challenges.

    We depend on the Finite and Infinite Games tool to help us remember that what we do locally can shape global change, and that what happens at a global scale impacts us locally. It also reminds us that what happens today influences the future, and that what we want—or don’t want—in the future can inform our decisions today.
  • Connect with stories and impacts.
    Our words are important! They carry weight and can help to build our dreams. They can also be used as carelessly as wasted air and have as little impact. Ms. Brown’s storytelling uses words, inference, and timing to make her message compelling. Her stories talk about impact and meaning in creative and captivating ways. In HSD we recognize the impact of our stories, and use newsletters, podcasts, blog posts, courses, our website, and social media to share stories about the impact when we use HSD in the world.

    In times of interpersonal conflict we use Conflict Circles, a tool we adapted from the work of Landmark Education. This tool invites people in conflict to share their stories about the conflict and its impact on them, personally. They ask each other questions and respond to others’ perceptions. Through that process, individuals are able to be heard and to recognize that there is more than one side to any story. That frees them to seek shared resolution.
  • Celebrate life!
    This final HSD Simple Rule reminds us that all life is important and should be cherished. It reminds us of the mystery in life that invites us to stand in Inquiry. It asks us to celebrate differences that shape the patterns of our lives. We recognize the truth we seek is one that works best for all life—at all scales as we zoom in and zoom out. Finally we celebrate life when we share our stories of lives changed—and even saved—when HSD Professionals use these tools and practices in their local contexts around the globe.

We offer these Simple Rules to anyone who is interested in stepping into HSD as they see, understand, and influence patterns in their own lives. As more and more people continue to embrace HSD and what it has to offer, the fractal of the vision shaped by these Simple Rules becomes stronger. Join us as we work to shape these patterns around the world.

Share your story and its impact with us. Be in touch!


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