Stretch and Fold: Build Resilience in Trying Times

We talk about change as an orderly sequence from past through present and into future. That is not how most people experience change, though. The concept of ‘stretch and fold” is a better mirror for our experience of change in human systems. In this week’s post, Glenda explores the emergent nature and living paradox of transformation in complex systems.

Ambition has one heel nailed in well, though she stretch her fingers to touch the heavens. —Lao Tzu

Mathematicians call it the Baker Transformation.

Biologists call it respiration.

Physical therapists call it exercise.

Artists call it inspiration.

Teachers call it learning.

Learners call it cramming.

Musicians call it melody.

Bakers call it kneading.

The context changes, but the process is the same. First, stretch to bring in new resources and explore possibilities. Then fold to integrate the new into the old and find a moment of rest.

Note: I spent a good part of 2022 working with Maria Wang and her team at IOC-OD in Shanghai, As we prepared for their annual conference, we reflected on the challenges of 2022 and opportunities of 2023. She observed in her community—and we observe in ours—the complex interaction between external stressors and the internal capacity to cope. We explored all the HSD models and methods to see what might be most useful, as she, her team, and their clients built adaptive capacity in the turbulence and uncertainty of the present moment. We agreed that Stretch and Fold held most resonance and promise. She asked me to share what I had written about this most flexible of HSD models and methods. I was surprised to discover that I’d never really written much about it at all. I hope this blog post fills that gap, and also expresses my gratitude to Maria and her community for the many lessons they have taught me this year.

A traditional view of change involves motion through space and time. Change moves you from here to there and then beyond. That is a good enough picture when you’re dealing with simple systems, where boundaries are clear, differences are known and constant, and interactions are few and direct. Change is quite a different thing in a complex system. Change in a complex system means that the system’s boundaries change—expanding and transforming. Differences in the system can shift tensions everywhere. The interdependent nature of a complex system means that change in one part can create large and insignificant changes across the whole. Change in complex systems is much more than a situation of here-to-there. It is, rather, a process of “stretch and fold.”

In a stretch, the boundaries of the system expand. Sometimes they expand in many different scales and levels at the same time. Some connections get stronger. Others loosen, and others are created or broken. You see this process of stretching when:

  • New Year’s resolutions take us to the gym to bring stiff muscles back to life.
  • The sculptor’s dream emerges from a lump of clay.
  • A balloon is pulled across the neck of a Coke bottle.
  • Sunlight and chlorophyl drive the chemical reactions of photosynthesis.
  • Children and their teachers play with words and skills and ideas and each other.
  • An orchestra holds the tension of tone and time.
  • Loving hands work the dough for a holiday loaf.

At some point, a stretch reaches the extreme, and the folding begins.

In fold, new resources merge with old. Structures shift to accept whatever the stretch welcomed into the system. Order emerges from momentary madness, and the system relaxes into the comfort of rest. You see the signs of fold when:

  • The runner “cools down”, and the overzealous exerciser recovers.
  • The artist, with a sense of completion, knows the latest stroke was the last.
  • Pressure is released, and the balloon collapses again.
  • In the cool of night, a forest releases oxygen as waste from life-giving photosynthesis.
  • Lightbulbs come on after a time of cognitive dissonance and confusion.
  • The dominant chord resonates through the hall, and every listener breathes differently.
  • Scent of baking bread fills the air with comfort and anticipation for the next stretch.

Like the stretch, the fold can be seen as the completion of a cycle, and it sets the system for the next cycle to begin. Each stretch requires a fold, and every fold demands the next stretch. This is the nature of change in a complex system. Forces within and beyond the system drive it to expand or contract. Other forces –within and without—balance those to incorporate the past and the immediate present into possibilities for future.

This stretch-and-fold process of complex change holds wisdom for our chaotic times. It invites us into patience and inquiry. When our external environments demand a stretch, we respond with curiosity and courage. When our internal tensions threaten to overwhelm, we choose to fold and find solace in what we know most surely and value most highly. Such a rhythmic and conscious process is how we define resilience for individuals, teams, organizations, and communities. In these most challenging times, we can dance with the stretches and folds within us and beyond and find, in any moment, the response that will create a future of greatest possibility and growth.

Where are you in your stretch and fold cycles?

What forces are urging you to stretch?

What opportunities do you have to fold?

What signals prompt you to shift from one dynamic to the other?

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