Three Big: Questions to Change the World

Adaptive Action QuestionsCan three questions really change the world? Well, maybe. Let's think about it for a minute. One thing we know about schools is that nothing stays the same for long.  Each year brings the latest "best practice." Each week brings a new procedure and its paperwork. Each day, our students pose new challenges. Each hour, the media bombards us with news about the latest crisis. What might possibly help us keep our balance as the world shifts beneath us?

Clearly, no one is in absolute control of these changes. We cannot predict what is coming, and we have to admit that we have little control over how these changes will happen. To think about our options, let's consider what scientists tell us about other turbulent and continually changing systems — systems like the weather, population growth, and the stock market. Although scientists and economists can see general patterns, they have come to realize that they can neither predict nor control individual actions in these complex adaptive systems. They also recognize that many of these unpredictable individual actions combine to generate coherent patterns across the whole system. Whether or not we like those patterns, they become a part of our reality.

In classrooms, when the actions of individual students contribute to the pattern of the whole, we talk about the class taking on a life of its own. The actions of individual students and staff members contribute to patterns that we call the "campus culture." So, in the face of continual change, how can we pay attention to these individual actions and the emerging patterns across the system to help us see some coherence and build some sense of balance?

Jennifer Isgitt recently shared a story about a mission statement she and her students created. She explained that she used a set of questions from Human Systems Dynamics to guide this work. These questions can be worded differently, depending on the audience, but they focus on the heart of all complex adaptive systems:

  • Who are we and what are we about?
  • What differences make the biggest difference to our work?
  • How do we do that work together? 

These are the three big questions that we can ask in the face of continual change—no matter where we stand, no matter what work we are doing. We can ask and answer those questions over and over again as we navigate the shifting landscape where we are working.

These are critical questions because they point to the underlying dynamics of complex systems. According to Glenda Eoyang (2002; 2013) and illustrated in the figure below, the dynamics of all complex adaptive systems are influenced by three conditions:

  • the "container" that holds the system together;
  • the critical "differences" that hold tension and energy in the system; and
  • the "exchanges" that are responsible for the transfer and transformation of energy and information throughout the system.

Human Systems Dynamics CDE Model

Actually, the answers to these questions are less important than the conversations they trigger. Ongoing dialogue about these three questions is essential. It is not enough to find answers to these questions and then post them on the website for everyone to see.  Multiple conversations triggered by these questions over time will help us see, understand, and influence learning and adaptation in our system(s). That is why these questions are the heart of professional learning communities.

If we want to be ready to adapt in generative ways to constant change, we need to be asking and answering those three questions over and over again. Of course, our answers will change as the landscape around us changes, but the questions help us keep our balance as we move forward on this ever-changing path. Maybe the title of this post is not so crazy. Maybe we can use these three questions to change the world.


Eoyang, G. H. (2002).  Conditions for self-organizing in human systems (Doctoral dissertation, Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2002).

Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.

Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical rules for schools: Adaptive action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press.

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