“Transformation is an ongoing process that tends to appear ordinary, when, in fact, something extraordinary is taking place.”
— Suzy Ross

Transformation isn’t a word I use often because it is granted more power than clarity in current change and management literature. As we look toward the future, we need the power of the concept, so finding clarity for the word is an urgent matter.

I won’t claim my clarity as the only one, but we’ve found it useful as we have explored the future of HSD in recent months. We find the HSD approach to transforming both true to the science and useful in many different challenges and contexts. Here I want to explore transformation from the HSD perspective: What is it? How can we set conditions for transformation that brings productivity, health, and well-being to human systems?

What Is Transformation?

As we begin, the literal definition will be more helpful than the metaphorical one.  

Trans = across

Form = the way something appears or exists

So, to transform is to move from one form of existence to another. It is easy to see what that means in physical systems. Energy is locked in chemical bonds in a piece of wood. When ignited, chemical energy is transformed into thermal energy. In a nuclear reaction, mass is transformed to energy. In its metamorphosis, a caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly. These literal cases are easy to see and understand. When we understand them, we can anticipate them and make choices about when, where, and how to encourage the transformation. We can also find ways to impede it, when we are not prepared to use the work and power that result. A wet log won’t build a campfire, and a forest fire won’t run a steam engine.    

It is more difficult to apply this powerful metaphor to human systems for three reasons:

  1. We don’t understand how energy is stored in human systems.
  2. We don’t know how to release the energy in a conscious, careful, intentional, or responsible way.
  3. We fear the consequences of releasing something we don’t understand.

Even though it is challenging, it is urgent that we solve this riddle. These are times of turbulent change. Human energy is being manipulated and dissipated by forces beyond our control. Nationalism, climate change, economic dysfunction, violence, and corruption are all caused by (and effects of) human systems’ energy transformed unconsciously or with negative intent. In these times of turbulent change at all scales of human experience, we must build the capacity to consciously and intentionally transform the power that is locked in our human systems. We must be prepared to use that energy to feed adaptation for people, communities, and institutions around the world.

Human systems hold many kinds of energy. Emotional, physical, social, economic, creative energies are locked into human systems. Individuals hold energy inside themselves. Groups co-generate shared energy. Communities and organizations hold energy for collaborative action. In all these contexts, humans have the capacity to create, hold, and use energy for good or for ill. 

How Is Energy Stored in Human Systems?


In the same way that difference stores potential chemical, electrical, or thermal energy, difference stores energy in human systems. Physical tension, curiosity, arts, emotional states, relationships, economic status, culture and race, gender and political party, all of these are differences that hold the energy in human systems. We already know ways to balance some of these differences, resolve the tension, and release the pent-up energy. Exercise, inquiry, creativity, tears, non-violent communication, buying and selling are all examples of transactions that transform one kind of human energy into a different form.

The problem is that we do not yet know the key to transforming the most powerful kinds of human energy. The resource is locked into human systems, it accumulates tension, then it bursts out in unexpected ways. If we don’t see the tension, acknowledge its power, and tap it for growth, the tension can destroy people and institutions that get in its way.

Trauma is a great example. As I understand trauma-informed practice, some extreme experiences lock a person into a pattern of behavior. Certain things become very important and others are ignored. In responding to the experience, in finding a way to survive it, some differences are exaggerated, and others are buried. Those differences—that energy—is locked into the person’s physical, emotional, relational, and rational being, and it distorts perceptions and intentions in destructive ways. Trauma-informed practice helps the person release the energy more effectively. It also teaches skills, so the person learns to identify and find healthy ways to release the differences that hold their own locked-in energy.  

How Do We Release the Energy? 

At some point, whether we like it or not, the energy in human systems will be released. That is not the question. The question is: How we can set conditions so that the release is as safe and generative as possible?

Every field of social science has its toolkit for perceiving, analyzing, and resolving their special set of tensions. Consider the differences and methods that are used in psychology, theology, medicine, economics, sociology, leadership, entrepreneurship, education, and evaluation. Those are great as far as they go. These approaches have been effective in many situations in the past, and they will continue to be in the future. The problem is that they are not effective in our most wicked problems we face today, and they are even less likely to help us succeed in the future. We have tried to use all of these approaches to create patterns of peace, prosperity, and health. They are not sufficient. We need new ways to see, understand, and influence the differences that lock energy in human systems’ tensions.   

In human systems dynamics, we look for models and methods that help us see the potential energy locked into patterns of human systems, understand those differences in useful ways, and take action to release the energy to do real work—personal, professional, visionary. HSD is still a field of theory and practice, and it probably will always be. But, some things are clear from our research and practice.

  • The journey of transformation requires radical uncertainty.
  • Theory and practice both play their parts.
  • Community sparks transformation and can also block it.
  • Transformation crosses all scales of human systems: individual, team, community, institution, nation, globe.
  • Language isn’t the only—and often is not the best—mediator for transformation.
  • Difference and its release of tension generate energy and new order.
  • The path toward transformation is neither smooth nor predictable.

Each of these deserves its own deep dive which I will share with you over the coming months, but here is the spoiler. In HSD, three practices support us as we unlock the energy of human systems that are stuck:

  • Inquiry helps us see the current differences that encourage and inhibit transformation.
  • Pattern Logic (CDE) helps us understand the tensions in useful ways to choose next best actions.
  • Adaptive Action guides our cycles of perception, choice, and action to actualize the potential we see.

On November 7-8, 2019, we will begin an exciting exploration to find the differences and release the energy locked in the study of complexity applied to human systems. As a special feature of the Knowledge Management 2019 conference, a group of thought leaders will come together to share our perspectives, explore the differences among, and discover the complex foundations on which we all stand. The purpose is to contribute what we can, from our various practices, to build resilience and adaptive capacity for people and planet. Join us to add our voice to this exciting process.

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