Principles of Change: Still Relevant Today?

In the last decade, we have experienced unprecedented change. Our world has increased in ambiguity and uncertainty. Progress in such a world must be based in Inquiry. But in the face of such complexity, how can you even know the questions to ask? In today’s blog post, Royce offers suggestions for Inquiring directly into the complex nature of your world.

There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. —J. Robert Oppenheimer

It has been a long time since 2014, if you think about all that has changed over those years. We have seen COVID close us down and then threaten repeat appearances around the globe. New technology has brought us advancements in AI, e-commerce, an explosion of social media, and continuing improvements in biotechnology. New leaders around the globe, geopolitical shifts, and global warming have continued to generate complexity. Our world has increased in ambiguity and uncertainty.

In 2014, before all that change, I wrote a series of blog post about four principles of complex change. In general the principles explain something about the nature of change and what HSD has to offer to help you respond to change in healthy, more fit ways. I have continued to use those principles to think about the nature of change in human systems but haven’t thought specifically about the blog posts in a long time.

Then, one day this week, a colleague talked about that blog post and how he uses the principles to talk about his work. His comments made me curious, so I went back to explore these four principles for myself. I wanted to see how I think about them now. What have I learned? What has shifted in my thinking about them? How might they help me make sense of the changes we’ve experienced in the past few years? What next wise actions might they point to?

First, the principles explain how change happens because of system tension. When differences emerge in a system, tension is generated. If, over time, the difference is not resolved, that tension builds until something has to shift (Change Principle 1). The system changes. It’s not always a bad thing. Some tensions can be quite nice—building a new friendship relieves the tension that emerges from the initial differences you notice. The tension between what you have accomplished and what you want to get done drives you to completion on a challenging project. Even learning something new can reduce the tension between what you know and what you want to know.

Then, as a shift occurs, that change doesn’t have an impact only at the point you can see. There are other places, other people, other situations that can feel the impact. In the same way, you can sometimes feel the impact of changes that occur far away from you (Change Principle #2). A deadly virus creates a pandemic by spreading from one point of origin to all parts of the globe. In the midst of that virus, one person doesn’t cover his/her mouth to cough or sing or yell at a ballgame, and it’s possible that hundreds of people can become ill.

We exist in families, communities, organizations, and even countries, so it’s helpful if we share some basic agreements about how we live, work, and play together. When we don’t have that, the resulting tension from all our difference can create patterns of division, partisanship, and even violence.  When we have those agreements, we are likely to be less surprised by others’ actions and decisions. The differences are reduced, and less tension is available in the system (Change Principle #3).

Complex systems are constantly in flux, responding to interactions and tensions In HSD, we believe the only way to thrive in a world you cannot predict or control is to use short cycles of Adaptive Action (Change Principle #4). Consisting of three brief questions, it is a simple process of seeing your system, making sense of that system, and using that sensemaking to take informed wise action. It is simple; however, it is not always easy.

Having re-visited the principles, I reflected on how I see them differently now. What lessons have I learned about them in the eight years since I wrote them? What do they help me see differently in this post-Covid world, with its warming climate, geopolitical partisanship, and increasing love-hate relationship with technology. Here’s what came to me in that reflection.

It reinforced for me that shepherding successful change in a complex system is not so much about what you know or can do about any of these realities. The Principles, themselves, are open to interpretation and perspective. They speak to a wide band of diverse situations and possibilities. They are interdependent on each other. You cannot know enough to answer all questions, to predict outcomes, or to control what is happening.

To live in a world where these principles shape our day-to-day existence, we have to stand in Inquiry. We must use inquiry to help us make sense of our world in the context of these four principles. Inquiry in HSD consists of four practices that, when followed, can reflect an attitude of questioning across all parts of your life. Those practices are:

  • Turn judgment into curiosity
  • Turn disagreement into shared exploration
  • Turn defensiveness into self-reflection
  • Turn assumptions into questions

Taking these practices into the context of the principles, I reflected on the kinds of questions I might ask to understand a situation more deeply, more broadly, and more fully. The attached table represents some of the questions I came up with. (Please note that these questions are about a group or team. You can consider similar questions for individuals or families.)

What kinds of questions would you ask?

Be in touch and let me know what you are thinking about this.


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