It Depends

Most of my answers begin with, “It depends.” That means that the next question is usually, “On what?” Then the conversation gets really interesting. When we are working on a particular sticky issue, it depends on the specifics of that situation. Insights and actions rely on the patterns we are aware of in the “here and now.” Every situation is unique. Every set of interdependencies is different, but we have developed some general rules that help us see which relationships are most important and what we should pay attention to.

Of course, we always remember that the system is complex. It may be dependent on things that are invisible to us. Nevertheless, we have to make choices and move forward. We must base our next wise actions on what we do know and what we can see.

All HSD models and methods are designed to help answer the “on what” question.

  • Landscape Diagram: Does it depend on the relative stability of the system?
  • Four Truths: Does it depend on the diverse perspectives among players?
  • Three Kinds of Change: Does it depend on how predictable and controllable the system is over time?
  • CDE Model: Does it depend on the patterns of constraints that influence the self-organizing processes in the system?
  • Conflict Circles: Does it depend on competing stories about who did what to whom?
  • Radical Inquiry: Does it depend on who we are and how we come together for shared work?

Each of these models, and all of the others you can find on the HSD website, surfaces a particular kind of tension in the system. Like the hot air in the balloon or the the different temperatures and densities of the clouds, they all capture some set of differences that hold energy and set conditions for change. In human systems, we depend on more stable and less; my truth or yours; smooth arc of change or breakthrough; clear or ambiguous boundaries; my story and my reality; me alone or as a member of a group.

As we understand the dynamics of human systems, these tensions hold the potential for both understanding and action. Tension comes from difference and leads to change. When we see the differences, we have some understanding of what is the current state of the system and we can imagine what it might be in future. As the system holds the difference, potential energy builds and tension accumulates until it breaks a threshold, and the system shifts into some new

So, when I say, “It depends,” I always mean it depends on tension in the system at this moment. I try to focus on the most important differences in the system, the tensions those are creating, and the option for action to convert the potential energy into patterns of possibility.

When we talk about it in this general way, difference and tension may sound abstract, but they are not. In fact, nothing can be more basic and concrete. No matter how messy a situation may seem, you can always ask yourself two questions:

  • What are the differences that make a difference?
  • What are the tensions I perceive in this moment?

However you answer these questions, you are launched into the rest of your Adaptive Action cycle to explore:

  • So what is the meaning of these differences? So what is the potential power in the tensions?
  • Now what can I do to influence the pattern and release its potential energy?

Here are some recent examples of how we apply these principles in projects at the HSD Institute:

  • A health services network talked about trust and conflict, and we saw differences in expectations and incentives. These tensions can be released through shared stories and hopes.
  • A child protection agency talked about staffing and equity, and we saw differences in understanding of child development. These tensions can be released in training and coaching.
  • A provincial services institution saw ambiguity and competition, as we saw differences in roles and responsibilities. Those tensions can be released in formal negotiations.
  • A team saw one member with aggressive mental health issues, and we saw differences in individual and collective resilience to respond. The tensions can be released through empathy and compassion for self and other.

So, it depends! If you are curious about differences and tensions in your system, how they define your wicked problems, and how your action can release the potential energy locked inside, then join us for one of our Adaptive Action Labs. Come with your issues, and leave with a new appreciation for differences that make a difference. You will be prepared to uncover tensions that open new possibilities and to discover a plan of action to address the complex challenges you face.

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