Power of Difference

One thing is the source of the greatest goods and the most vile evils. 

We see it in West Africa as people and institutions struggle against the Ebola virus.  We see it in the Ukraine where forces fight for their various nationalisms. It boils over with the death of a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri. People kill each other in the Middle East, and farmers adapt in the Andes. 

The same thing inspires music and art around the world, blesses weddings in all cultures, influences effective design and innovation, shapes healthy minds and bodies in children, creates efficient markets, and ensures environmental sustainability.

DiversityWhat is so incredibly powerful?  How can it, at the same time, shape “the best of times and the worst of times?”

This is not a riddle, it is a reality. Difference is the fuel for all kinds of dynamics in human systems. It gives us meaning and motivates action. It creates coherent patterns and splits society asunder. It is the spice of life and the bane of human existence. It is the one thing—even more than death and taxes—that is an everyday certainty for people and their communities and institutions. 

Our choice, as reasonable human beings, is not whether to deal with difference, it is how to tip the scales so that difference drives growth and health rather than death and destruction. This is an enormous and complex question. You might even call it philosophical and profound.  Experts around the world and in diverse fields spend billions of words and millions of grant dollars exploring the whats and whys of difference gone awry. 

In HSD we choose a different path.  Our goal is to turn such profound questions into practical actions.  We look for the simple, powerful models and methods that enable real meaning making and action taking in particular places and times.  We learned this approach from studying complex adaptive systems.  They teach us how local, emergent coherence, amplified at every scale and every place, is the most efficient path to global coherence. Coherence of the part generates coherence for the whole. At the same time, coherence of the whole generates coherence of the part.  If we want the global coherence to be constructive, then interactions of each of us, all the time, must be inspired by constructive use of difference. For example, when enough people understand and follow precautions, the Ebola epidemic will end.  Until then, the virus spreads. As the virus spreads, it is increasingly difficult for people to follow the precautions well enough to avoid infection.  

Consistently dealing with differences in the parts ultimately resolves differences in the whole. Not only is this approach powerful, but it is also relatively simple.  One of our most useful models and methods focuses in on difference. It establishes options for action to dissolve, shift, or amplify differences that make a difference.  Individuals or groups can engage in this exercise.

Download this month's tool where we give more detail to work through the following principles:


  1. Frame a challenge.
  2. Draw a simple, two-column table with “same” on one side and “different” on the other.
    Same   Different





     3. Brainstorm what similarities and differences relate to the challenge.



  1. Look for patterns in the list.
  2. Consider each item individually and assess.



  1. Given the patterns of the whole, and the assessments of the list, pick one thing you might do to shift the pattern. 
  2. Take the action and begin again by framing or reframing the challenge, given the new conditions created by your Adaptive Action. 


We call this Same & Different , and it is our most simple response to the most complex challenges for ourselves and our clients. As we prepare for our first HSD conference in October, Navigating Complexity: HSD in 2014, we considered Same & Different for the community of HSD friends and practitioners.  This is what we saw:

Same Different

+ Change agents

+ Curious

+ Friendships

+ Relationships

+ Complex challenges

+ HSD Simple Rules

- Locations

? Experience with HSD

+ Cohorts

+ Disciplines

+ Businesses

? Internal/external consultants

+ Cultures

+ Genders

? Ability to travel

+ HSD applications/stories to share

0 Age or gender


As a result of this analysis, we made five key design decisions:

  • Give lots of time for social and personal interaction
  • Hold the conference in Chicago, which has reasonable access to most parts of the world
  • Create introductory sessions to help provide an on-ramp for first-timers
  • Include diverse topics, speakers, and activities to appeal to diverse business applications, roles, disciplines, cultures, genders, etc.
  • Provide on-line exchanges to support and expand on the face-to-face conference

Come join us to see what patterns emerge from this generative design! But don’t stop there.

Can you imagine what might happen if this simple process were used by individuals and institutions? How might it shift patterns of infection in West Africa, control in Ukraine, equity in Ferguson, safety in the Middle East, or sustainability on Andean farms? Can you imagine how you might use it to shift differences that have you stuck in destructive patterns of belief or behavior?  Try it.  Let us know.  

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