Opening the Curtain: Options for Sharing HSD

“How do I help other people use the tools and perspectives of human systems dynamics (HSD) if they’ve never heard of it, or if they do not know much about Pattern Logic or complex change?“

I believe that life is chaotic, a jumble of accidents, ambitions, misconceptions, bold intentions, lazy happenstances, and unintended consequences, yet I also believe that there are connections that illuminate our world, revealing its endless mystery and wonder.

                               —David Maraniss

“How do I help other people use the tools and perspectives of
human systems dynamics (HSD) if they’ve never heard of it,
or if they do not know much about Pattern Logic or complex change?“

This is a question we often hear from newly certified HSD Associates or from people who have recently learned about an HSD tool they like to use. It is a valid question. As a field of study, there is a rich, theory-based foundation that supports our work in HSD. Working fully in that foundation requires a perspective grounded in understanding Complex Adaptive Systems and other approaches to complexity. It requires a lifelong stance of Inquiry and Adaptive Action, using Pattern Logic.

When people are introduced to the depth and theory of HSD they tell us how profoundly it shifts the ways they see the world and respond to challenges and opportunities. They also wonder how to best share their HSD experiences and insights with others.

For decades we have shared HSD. We have also listened to stories from others as they share HSD with their friends, clients, and colleagues. This is what we’ve discovered: The theory is important when you want to use HSD flexibly and talk about it with credibility. The theory isn’t so important when you want to use the models and methods to shift patterns in your own complex systems. 

In between these two extremes, we see three pathways for engaging the power of HSD:

  • Keep the theory “behind the curtain.” Use HSD to frame your questions and make sense of your observations.  
  • Begin to “pull the curtain aside” by using the images and protocols of HSD without talking about where they come from or the deeper theoretical grounding.
  • Take the deep dive to “throw the curtain open” to engage others in inquiry about the sources and roots of HSD theory and practice.

“Behind the Curtain” refers to how we use HSD without sharing the specific frames of thinking about HSD. It happens when we use the HSD perspectives and tools to frame questions or to inform our sensemaking. My client or customer doesn’t always need—or even want—to know the specifics of the tools that guide me, so engage in conversation without the technical jargon. For example, if I see:

  • An inability to decide, with people waffling back and forth between possibilities, I might ask questions about competing forces that cause headaches for them (Interdependent Pairs).
  • Patterns of decision making or control that over-constrain needed innovation or effective changes, I might talk with them about shifting constraints (Landscape Diagram).
  • A lack of coherence in how people make decisions or interact across a system, I might talk with them about shared, system-wide agreements (Simple Rules).
  • People who don’t really know what they want. Often they just know that something is not working. I almost always ask those people to name at least five individual words they believe will best describe their challenge. That gives me a sense of the major patterns that are important to them. Then I can inquire into those patterns to make sense of their challenge and begin to formulate a next step with them (Pattern Logic).

The point here is that people take actions every day that influence patterns in their systems. I use that understanding as my foundation to help me see and understand patterns my clients are shaping. Then I can engage with them, through questions and activities, to support them as they influence and change those patterns toward greater fitness.

When I “Pull the Curtain Aside,” I am often engaged in a conversation with someone who is asking for some help or advice. Generally this would be in more informal situations, but I sometimes use this approach in formal proposals to potential clients.

Whether it’s in a personal conversation or in a formal RFP, I notice patterns they describe as they ask for help. Then I describe a particular tool I believe may be helpful. I include the HSD Institute’s branded image of the tool in more formal settings, like in a proposal. On the other hand, if we are sitting together over a cup of coffee, I might draw it on a napkin. I have even “pulled the curtain aside” on Zoom calls. I draw the model and hold it up to the screen for them to see. Or I ask them to draw it for themselves as I describe the contents. The description I share about the tool is always based in the challenges and possibilities they have shared with me. There have been times when the first tool I show them holds no energy or interest for them, so I try a different one.

I use this approach when the client expresses an interest to move toward greater independence in using some of the tools we offer. It is also a more useful way of working with individuals and groups for whom challenges are more complex and may require more ongoing support. So, again for example, if I see:

  • Long-term conflict over differences in perspective, I might share the 4 Truths to help the client understand those differences.
  • The client is stuck in a toxic culture and wants to change that, I might use the Complex Adaptive System model. This tool helps them see how their own actions or expectations create the patterns they want to eliminate. Then they can talk about the kinds of patterns they want and begin to work toward those, using the idea of Complex Adaptive Systems to explore culture challenges as they emerge.
  • Teams or committees that are stuck and can’t seem to move their work forward, I might introduce them to the STAR Diagram. Then the team can self-diagnose as they work on their challenges, continuing to adapt interactions to maintain high productivity.
  • People not listening to each other or judging each other, I would share the idea of Inquiry with them. I would focus on the specific practices that help them stay in inquiry with each other. Or I might invite them to the Inquiry IS the Answer sessions that they can attend for free each weekday.

This approach allows them to use the model with me as they learn about it. After this first introduction and practice, they can use the model in different places and situations in the system.

Finally, sometimes I “Throw Back the Curtain” altogether and invite clients in for deeper exploration. This is what I do when the client asks what makes HSD work, or why I recommended a particular tool for a situation. One thing I know from years in education is that people can’t really hear or process an answer until they have asked the question. So when they ask, I might respond in different ways:

  • I can talk with them about patterns and setting conditions for the patterns they want. I may introduce them to the CDE, helping them see those conditions in their current challenges and how the particular tool(s) I have suggested address those underlying conditions.
  • I might invite them to participate in an upcoming Live Virtual Workshop that may address their current challenge. Or I might refer them to a particular recording of a Live Virtual Workshop that can inform their work. We can then talk about their insights and questions.
  • If there is an Adaptive Action Lab scheduled that may be helpful, I invite them to consider signing up for that session. If there is a whole team or group to engage, we might design an Adaptive Action Lab to offer as an in-house event.
  • If there is keen interest in learning about the foundations of HSD to use the principles throughout their organization, I invite them to consider one of our public HSD Certification courses. And if, as we do with the Adaptive Action Labs, there is an interest in broad range of individuals learning to use HSD, we work with them to design and deliver an in-house Certification program that focuses more specifically on their challenge.
  • Sometimes I recommend one of our books that can inform the ways they see, understand, and influence change in their complex adaptive environments.

So the next time you want to support others using HSD, consider the level you believe will be most effective. If you are an HSD Professional who has been through the HSD Certification course, use these approaches to decide how deeply you want to go with an individual client. If, on the other hand, you are a leader looking for support, consider how deeply you want to go to address your challenges. Frame your questions and your request for support according to these levels.

I look forward to your comments and questions about my “curtain” approaches to supporting others, whether it’s through coaching or consulting, or just in spontaneous conversations. Be in touch and let me know what you think.


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