Three Kinds of Change

When someone asks me for a one-sentence description of what I do, I generally say I help people and organizations deal with the challenges of complex and rapid change. And that is what our models and methods do. They help you see, understand, and influence patterns of decision making and interaction, so that you can take informed action to respond in your changing world. The models and methods of HSD help you in many ways. Some of the models and methods help you see and interpret the patterns we see. Some help you understand the impact or potential impact of your actions. And others help inform your decision making about what actions to take. There is one model, however, that helps you understand the kind or type of change you face so you can take action to find the best fit for your challenge. There are three “types” of change, and while one is no better or worse than the others, there are times when each one is the better fit for your purposes. The three types of change are: static, dynamic, and dynamical.

ChangeWhen you look only at the “before” and “after” of a change, you are considering it as static change. In this perspective, you look at change as a one-dimensional shift. A situation or object was one way, and now it is different because some outside force acted on it to make it change. In the illustration that’s attached here, static change is represented by a soccer ball--an object “waiting” to be acted on by some outside force. People who talk about reward and external motivators see change this way. Models that talk about “unfreezing and refreezing” as a process of change are talking about this type of change. When you think about evaluating the success or failure of static change, you use a checklist or large-scale measures of completeness. It’s a simple way to think about change, and it works when the change you are experiencing is simple and uncomplicated. Your best path when you are dealing with this type of change is to have a clear picture of where you are starting and a clear picture of where you are going, and plan just the steps you need to take to move from one to the other.

In the illustration below, the soccer kicker represents the concept of dynamic change. This definition considers change as movement along a predictable, measurable arc from one point in time or space to another. Just as the soccer star can judge wind speed, direction, and distance to plan the winning kick, people believe they can move through dynamic change in predictable, controllable ways. They believe that planning the series of actions that will move them toward the pre-determined goal. Strategic plans that set long-range goals, accountability systems that depend only set processes and expectations, and project management are all approaches that see change as dynamic. When you evaluate the success or failure or dynamic change, you assess steps taken along the way. You look for achievement of pre-determined measurable goals and objectives. You track the path you have taken to assess fidelity to a pre-determined plan of action. Your best plan of action here is to know as much as is possible about the planned change, create a plan for moving there, and then monitor and assess each step along the way. You may have to make small adjustments as you go, but you always stay with the overall predetermined plan. This way of thinking is closer to the reality of change than the idea of static change. It can quickly become complicated if you try to predict or control the many variables you encounter in human systems that are neither predictable nor controllable. For a long time, however, it was the best way we had to think about change.

Close your eyes for a minute and think about a large room with 30 six-year-olds. Now someone tosses 20 soccer balls into that room. Can you predict what will happen? What will that room look like in 5 minutes? In 15 minutes? In 30 minutes? You can’t know. In the first moments, it will probably be pretty chaotic as kids and balls bounce around the room. Over time, patterns will begin to emerge and then shift as play groups find each other and games begin and end. Friendships will form and fade. Individuals tire. New games and activities will emerge. That ongoing, unpredictable, interdependence is what we refer to as dynamical change. It is the ongoing processes of self-organization and emergence that characterize human systems. Adaptive Action finds ways to account for the many facets of human interaction as they respond to change. Success is measured by the degree to which the system has the capacity to adapt and respond in sustainable and resilient ways. This level of adaptive capacity is the sign of the system’s strength. It’s only in the past few years that the technology of change has had the theoretical grounding to help us understand and work with change in this way. This image of change helps us consider our systems in realistic ways. It helps us understand the impact of multiple forces, high degrees of diversity, and the human tendency to rely on memory and imagination as they encounter their worlds. In dynamical change, the only way to proceed is to look for and understand the patterns around you at any given point and take informed action to respond to the changes around you, seeking best fit for you and for the system. In HSD we call that Adaptive Action.

In HSD we understand the value of each perspective of change, knowing that each is more useful than others in some situations. We hope you find this useful as you consider the kinds of change in your life, and that it supports your decision making. Let us know what you find as you use this model to deal with the changes in your life. Be in touch.

Join a global network of learning about HSD!

As a member of the network, you will receive weekly notices of events, opportunities, and links to blogs and other learning opportunities. Additionally, you will have the option to unsubscribe at any point, should you decide to do so.