Nothing is Intractable: You Can Change the World

In Human Systems Dynamics Institute, we say, “Nothing is intractable.” We chose that bold statement to express our belief that you can always find an option for action, no matter how difficult the challenge.

We do get questions about the choice. “Really?” they ask us. “You believe that nothing is intractable?” Then they name some of the world’s greatest challenges and ask if we believe that HSD can “solve” those challenges—world peace, poverty and hunger, injustice, etc.  We answer that we cannot solve those issues. No one can. We can, however find a path of action that will make a difference in those issues. We can help change local patterns of interaction and decision making that shape those larger challenges in the moment in the places where we stand.

First, let’s examine the word. defines intractable as:
     not easily controlled or directed; not docile or manageable; stubborn; obstinate:
          an intractable disposition.
(of things) hard to shape or work with:
          an intractable metal.
     hard to treat, relieve, or cure:
          the intractable pain in his leg.

World peace, poverty and hunger, injustice, and other global issues, indeed, appear to be intractable. They are stubborn, obstinate problems that won’t go away. They are complex issues that cannot be controlled or directed. They are not, however, impossible to navigate as we experience them in the moment.

Consider what makes the challenges in human systems so complex

First, human systems are open. The challenges we face are influenced and shaped by multiple known and unknown forces that compete with each other. As you look at each issue, consider how economic, social, geopolitical, and cultural forces—pressures or tensions—in different areas of the globe influence those challenges. Even from one part of the globe to another, the forces shift. What is perceived as the social or cultural norms in one part of the world can be very different from those norms in another location.

Second, human systems are highly diverse. For instance, differences in perspective, experience, response, and expectation help shape how these challenges emerge. These differences shape how we perceive the challenges, both individually and collectively. As an individual, you may hold one set of perspectives, experiences, or expectations. The combinations of these factors shape your personal response to a situation or challenge. At the same time, your culture—shared background, assumptions, beliefs—shape the responses of your community or organization.

Third, human systems don’t exhibit direct cause-and-effect outcomes. There is not always a “root cause” in a human system. Whatever is happening at this moment may be influenced by anything that has happened anywhere in the system before. And any given point in time is different from any other point in time. Each moment is a unique outcome of the forces, differences, histories, and aspirations that are present in that moment.

Finally, these conditions in human systems are interdependent. Open boundaries, diversity, and indirect cause and effect create unique situations at each time and in every place in the human system. The challenges that emerge in this complexity are what we refer to as “intractable” challenges, and they cannot be resolved by using traditional decision-making and problem-solving approaches.

If those four points are true, then how can the HSD Institute claim also be true? How can we take a stance that “Nothing is intractable” and mean it? How can we transform intractable problems into patterns of possibility?

We recognize that when people come together to live, work, and play, they will always create complex challenges. It’s the nature of human systems. So, so the best you can do is adapt to the complexity that is and take action to shape the complex nature of the system in the future. You do that by engaging in Adaptive Action.

Three simple—yet complex questions—help you.

  • You ask, “What?” to see what is happening around you. What patterns do you see? What players are present, and what do they bring? What patterns do you want? What are the tensions that exist across the system?
  • You ask, “So what?” to make sense of the patterns you see in the context of the complex systems around you. So, what do these patterns tell you about the history of this system? So, what is the impact of the tensions you feel? So, what would happen if you shifted those tensions one way or another? So what if you chose different areas of focus? So, what would happen if you connected with others in different ways? So, what are your options for shifting this system’s patterns?
  • You ask, “Now what?” to take action to influence the conditions in the future of the system. Now what action will you take? Now what will you and your partners do to contribute to the change? Now what measures will help you assess your success?

The system responds to your action, then you start over with the next cycle of Adaptive Action. By engaging in this iterative, ongoing cycle of inquiry and action, you work alone and with others. You build a path to address the next barrier in the intractable issue you face. You leverage the opportunities to make a difference. And then you move to the next barrier or opportunity. Over time you build resilience and coherence in the face of complex challenges. You learn to deal with the short-term challenges as you work toward the longer-term rewards. You learn that, while some challenges cannot be solved forever, you can use HSD and Adaptive Action to make a difference in a world where nothing is intractable.

Be in touch and let us know what you think!

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