Stepping Beyond an Invitation to Learn

“Hey Jen, I think you’ll love this...”

...Or, what I discovered through Human Systems Dynamics Certification


Two years ago, I received a call from a friend. She wanted to let me know about an upcoming course she thought I might be interested in. She knew I was at a place in my conflict resolution practice where I felt stuck. I was observing things in conflict that defied methods, that couldn’t be explained by the models I was using. I was well trained and experienced in mediation, conflict coaching, and facilitating groups in conflict. But I still felt something was missing, and I couldn’t articulate it.

The friend who called me was Lecia Grossman, a Consulting Associate with the Human Systems Dynamics Institute. She has a keen ability to ask the right questions and listen deeply to the needs of others. She helped me realize that it wasn’t new tools or solutions that I was seeking, but rather a new set of questions to ask.

So I did it. I enrolled in a Human Systems Dynamics Professional certification. It started in January 2014, in Texas. When I completed the course five months later, I had a whole new way of looking at my conflict resolution practice – and my life.

The first few days of the certification process were glorious. I was surrounded by 25 brilliant people from around the world. Some were educators, some were senior leaders, some were independent consultants, some were graduate students. All were new to HSD theory, and each brought a fascinating practical perspective on the tools.

Admittedly, it wasn’t long before I started feeling overwhelmed. There were so many concepts, so many models and methods. I struggled to find how they linked together. I wanted to figure out how complexity theory could be applied in my own conflict resolution practice. But trying to understand the complexity was, well, complex. There was a lot of material. A lot of work to do. And I was still working full-time.

Then it hit me. With complexity the trick is not to work harder, but to work smarter. And HSD had all I needed to do that.

It was on one of my lunchtime walks. It stopped me dead in my tracks. I realized how much I tried to control things that were not in my control. The more complex a situation looked, the more I tried to pin it down and plough a path through it. And it wasn’t working. It was making me tired, inefficient, and it was reducing my potential to influence.

This awareness came out of my work in what HSDI calls “adaptive action experiments.” We had to complete four of these experiments as part of the certification process. An adaptive action experiment asks you to look at a complex challenge you’re facing, and ask three questions: “What?”, “So what?” and “Now what?”  In other words, “What is the situation?” “So what does it mean to you?” and “Now what action can you take?”

The most important thing to know about these questions is that they’re not static. Each time you come to a “Now what?”, you have a new set of questions to ask yourself. Asking these questions is both an experiment and an iteration.

In complexity, coming to one conclusion is too static to accurately capture the situation. It’s not something you can park yourself at. What you’re seeking is a series of conclusions, not a single one – meaningful conclusions that allow you to be active in shaping the outcomes that you want, but also provide sufficient open-endedness to capture the complexity of the situation. This is entirely possible because the goal in effect is not to solve, but to influence.

By my third experiment I noticed a pattern: I was driving to a specific conclusion before I had fully explored the complexity of the situation. My conclusions were thus lacking in creativity. As a self-described creative person, this troubled me. But more important, I noticed that my need to control uncertainty was limiting my creative potential.

So the path through complexity is not direct. And neither was my walk that day. I wondered why it took me two months of course work and three adaptive action experiments to figure this out. As a cyclist I had already learned this lesson: pushing harder is not always the right thing to do, and I cannot control the outcome of a race no matter how much I train and plan. I must constantly think about energy and potential, how to best manage it and how to leverage the realities of the situation I am currently facing.

Whether I was doing the course work or bringing my new learning into my conflict resolution practice, I had to learn to shift. The shift was from controlling to creating, from deciding to designing, and from explaining to exploring. I was learning how to influence in the face of complexity.

So rather than control, I learned to influence. Controlling in situations of complexity, whether on a bike or in my practice, was wasted effort. I have to control only what I actually have control over and influence the rest. 

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