Turbulence as Opportunity

What do falling in love, a summer thunderstorm, and an election have in common?

They are all turbulence in search of resolution.

What is turbulence, and why would Ramsey Clark call it an opportunity? The dynamics of complex adaptive systems can answer these questions and generate other questions to help you love the turbulence you are in. 

Turbulence is life force. It is an opportunity. Let's love turbulence and use it for change. —Ramsey Clark

Turbulence always occurs at boundaries because they hold the tension of difference, and difference holds energy for change. Sometimes the turbulence is constructive and generative—like falling in love. Sometimes it can be destructive—like a summer thunderstorm. And sometimes it simply distributes power or public will—like a political election.

Two things determine the nature of turbulence at a particular boundary. When you know the dynamics, you don’t have to be afraid. You can find the opportunity in turbulence whenever it appears.

Difference shapes turbulence. How much difference is there? How important is the difference and to whom? How long has the difference been held, and how stable is it today? Is the difference explicit or implicit? Does everyone see it the same way? Do the differences spark values and/or emotional reactions? What stories do people tell themselves or each other about the differences? What is at risk, and what is to be gained?

Questions like this help you get a handle on the amount of potential at the boundary and whether the turbulence is likely to lead to positive or negative outcomes. They can also help you consider options for action to tip the turbulence scales in a direction that is more productive for the patterns you want to create.

Exchange shapes turbulence. How many possible paths of connection exist? What is flowing through the system, and what is stuck? How fast is the flow? How is the flow controlled and by whom or what? Are the exchanges shaped by old habits or are they new discoveries? Who wins and who loses in each exchange? Who keeps score? What is the point where the exchange may shift quickly and radically to a different path or speed?

These questions help you understand the pathway for change. They help you see levers to delay or redirect the turbulence.

Seeing patterns of difference and exchange clearly can help you find opportunity in turbulence, but they cannot give you power to predict or control it. The system is complex, so no single boundary—and no particular turbulence—is isolated. While you focus on one boundary, differences in other parts of the system may generate turbulence when and where you least expect it. That turbulence, too, can bring opportunity, but only if you learn to love it!

How do you see, understand, and influence turbulence in your life and work? We’d love to hear your stories. Glenda

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