In this blog article, Glenda Eoyang looks at the process of hysteresis and its relationship to complex change.

Complex change is messy. It doesn’t jump from one stable state to another. A child doesn’t go from nonreader on one day to reader on the next. An organization doesn’t change culture overnight. Teams don’t pass through simple steps of “form, storm, norm, perform.” Even physical systems don’t change in a moment. When water is freezing, it goes through a slushy stage, where parts are freezing while other are melting. Every phase shift—cognitive, cultural, social, physical—goes through a confusing state where past and future exist side by side.

The technical name for this process is hysteresis. You can find a technical definition of it at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hysteresis . Simply put, though, hysteresis explains that the state of a system depends on its history. The past overshadows the present as a change process goes forward. The word comes from the Greek hysterein, which means to be late. While this term and its concept may be new to you, the experience surely is not. Hysteresis helps us explain some of the most frustrating and perplexing aspects of change in human systems.

Why is forgetting an important step in learning? Some learning is incremental and doesn’t require complex change. You can add facts to your lexicon, tools to your toolbox, and skills or language to your repertoire in a controlled and predictable way. Learning that drives a paradigm shift, though, is different in kind. As you move from one fundamental world view to another, as you break long-standing assumptions, the path is not at all straightforward. You see in a new way, then you forget. Things come together—in theory or in practice—then they fall apart. Then they come back together again. Over time, this cycle of forgetting and remembering speeds up. Ultimately, the new idea becomes an embedded part of your past, and you are firmly set in the knowledge of the new. You have made a phase shift. You have probably observed this in yourself and others as you develop new cognitive and behavioral competencies. Hysteresis is the reason that “practice makes perfect.”

Why should we not despair when a culture springs back to old behavior? As an agent of change, you experience many moments of frustration. Whether you coach individuals, support organization change, or work in community development, you know the meaning of backsliding. You celebrate success, and at the next meeting you are back at step one. What if you saw backsliding as part of the path to success rather than as failure? What if backsliding is a natural and necessary part of the change process? What if it is a sign of hysteresis? For me, when I understand these dynamics of complex change in human systems, I am more patient, less frustrated, and prepared to support each and every case of forgetting to remember. No blame, no shame, just a next wise action into the next cycle of learning.

Why do many addicts relapse multiple times before they recover? Patterns of addiction are deeply layered and embedded. Brain dynamics, physical sensations, social relationships, behavioral habits are all locked into a collective pattern of addiction. No matter how good an intervention is, these patterns do not all change at the same time. They leap and lurch. One moves ahead and others lag behind, so forgetting may dominate early in the recovery process. Later, with appropriate support, new patterns set in. Over time, they begin to dominate, and old patterns recede into the background. The historical patterns may never go away, but the patterns of health are strong enough to control or mask the historical patterns of dependence, and the recovery becomes stable.

Why are some conflicts intractable? We can think of the shift from peace to conflict or from nonviolent conflict to violent conflict as phase shifts. Fundamental affective, cultural, social structures are transformed. Peace continues to hold in specific places or moments, as conflict erupts at others. The same is true as the system moves back across this boundary. In times of conflict, there can be moments of peaceful collaboration and personal connection. This tendency for peace and conflict to co-exist is a natural feature of complex change, but we usually expect something different. We assume a state of conflict or peace to be pervasive. We think of the passage as crossing a line from one to the other. How would our interventions change if we imagined a transition state where peace and conflict exist together? How would we respond if a situation in conflict were merely a moment of hysteresis in the journey toward peace?

Why is Adaptive Action the only option for change in a complex system? Because of hysteresis, you do not know when or where the system will go as it crosses the messy territory of complex change. You cannot predict when and how the system will slide back into old behavior or when it will jump into the possibilities of the new. To support the change, you must be willing and able to see what the current state of the system is, to understand that state in the context of history and hope, and take appropriate action to nudge the system into its new state of being—again and again. As a teacher, as a community developer, as a palliative care professional, or any other agent of change, to support complex change you must continually ask and answer the three questions: What? So what? Now what?

Why do we learn HSD in community? Human systems dynamics, as both a theory and practice, challenges many long-standing assumptions. (See a full discussion of the paradigm that is the foundation of human systems dynamics as a way of seeing and functioning in the world.) In our courses, learners and practitioners spend a great deal of time in the territory of complex change. One moment Pattern Logic is perfectly obvious, and the next moment it might disappear behind years of experience with logics of other kinds. We understand that hysteresis is a necessary and natural part of the learning process, so we prepare for it. We give tips and tools; we have a robust website; we write and record. Most important, though, we learn in community. If we are moving through the learning journey with others, we are always supported by people who are at different places in the hysteresis cycle. I forget, and you remember. You forget, and I remember. Together, we have the support we need to reach the stable state on the other side of the paradigm shift.

So, the next time you feel frustrated and defeated when the system slides back into old patterns, don’t despair. Remember that the next leap forward (and the next sliding back) may not be far away!

Glenda Eoyang

Join a global network of learning about HSD!

As a member of the network, you will receive weekly notices of events, opportunities, and links to blogs and other learning opportunities. Additionally, you will have the option to unsubscribe at any point, should you decide to do so.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.