Who Can Change a Pattern? A Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens

Margaret Mead said it first, and we see it play out all around us in today’s landscape. Small groups of committed people who are willing and empowered to step up are changing patterns of interaction, decision making, and action around the world. In HSD In HSD we think of these as daily shifts in patterns of economy, society, and politics.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. —Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead’s iconic statement is being played out all around us in today’s turbulent and uncertain global landscape. Small groups of committed people who are willing and empowered to step up are changing patterns of interaction, decision making, and action around the world every day.

  • A committed group of Ukrainian citizens stand against the larger, more aggressive Russian army to defend the sovereignty of their country.
  • A young woman from Sweden began when she was a teenager to unite people in protest against the dangers of climate change. At the young age of 20, she stands as a world leader in that work.
  • Groups of individuals in communities around the globe are bringing about changes in policy, governance, and decision making. Some move toward more conservative patterns, and some advocate toward more progressive patterns.

In many situations, change is shaped by individuals and groups who do not necessarily represent perspectives of the majority of people who are affected by those patterns. Sometimes, changes are being influenced by people who have less formal power than those they stand against.

In HSD, as we talk about complex change, people sometimes ask us to explain situations where self-organizing processes threaten, rather than sustain, life. How can “small groups of committed citizens” influence emergent change to shape the future they want?

To respond, we go back to the foundations of human systems dynamics. In the roots of complex adaptive systems we can see how  “small groups of citizens”  can take action to “change the world”.

A “small group of citizens” can function as a Complex Adaptive System (CAS). Kevin Dooley defines a CAS as a group of individual agents who interact with each other, such that they generate systemwide patterns.[i] Those systemwide patterns then influence future interactions between and among the agents. 

Consider that definition:  A “small group of citizens” who are “committed and thoughtful” come together to work toward an agreed-upon goal or ideal. Their actions generate over-arching patterns of behavior and interaction. Even though they do not predict or control the system, they may have powerful influence.

In other words,

  • If this small group of people commit themselves to thwart an invading army, their shared patterns form a powerful defense.
  • If the commitment is to influence global responses to climate change, their patterns will look like activism and organizing.
  • If they commit to bring more conservative, nationalist policies and governance, their patterns consolidate power and resources in the service of their exclusionary ideology.
  • If they commit to more progressive, democratic principles, their patterns become more broadly inclusive and diverse.

A second tool that helps us navigate in turbulent times is Adaptive Action (AA). In iterative cycles, it helps people work together toward a shared goal in a complex system. Cycles of observation, reflection, and action move them toward their shared goal. They look around them and respond to their local contexts. What are the patterns they see around them? So what do those patterns mean, and what options for wise action are possible? Now what action will they take to move toward their goals? As the cycle ends, they are moved to ask their next question: What impact did their action have? What is happening around them now?

In other words:

  • If the small groups are working to defend against an invading army, their Adaptive Action cycles are focused on protecting their homes, banding together, and building powerful alliances with others around them. 
  • If they commit to influence global responses to climate change, their Adaptive Action cycles will focus on sharing information about the impacts of climate change, engaging people to act, and pushing for policy change that reduces the human impact on the climate.
  • Whether the groups are committed to conservative or progressive political principles, their Adaptive Action cycles will get more people to support their aims and engage ever wider circles in furthering their political agendas.

HSD also offers a number of tools that 1) Help people see and understand the patterns around them, and 2) Suggest options for action to move toward the patterns they want. The HSD website holds hundreds of resources that can help small groups of thoughtful, committed citizens. Here is a short list of some of the most foundational tools:

  • Pattern Logic helps you deal with the intractable issues that appear in complex change by going beyond traditional cause-and-effect explanations to provide surprising options for action. 
  • Inquiry is about questions. It is approaching every interaction, every situation, every opportunity with questions about what can be learned in this moment, in this situation, with this person. In the emergent, unpredictable world of complex systems, inquiry helps you find ways to move forward.
  • Pattern Spotters help you see the patterns around you. Some people have a gift for seeing patterns in chaos. They make great artists and politicians and parents of two-year-olds. Pattern spotting does not come naturally to others, they look at a mess, and see only the mess. In HSD, we depend on being able to see the deep simplicity that hides under the surface of chaos, so Pattern Spotters support this core competency for HSD practitioners.
  • Interdependent Pairs allow individuals and groups to explore the paradoxes that emerge from the complexity in their systems. The challenges that have you stuck are often the result of no clear, one-way decision. There are choices you have to make when either choice is helpful. You are forced to consider which one is most appropriate at a given time.  
  • Four Truths help you understand different perspectives that influence individual and group action. When you recognize and consider the possible perspectives in any situation, you are better able to navigate the differences that limit open dialogue and free action. The Four Truths help you consider multiple perspectives and then identify the one that is best fit to your purpose.

What is it you want to change in the world? How can you use HSD to help you leverage your hopes and dreams into action that can shift the patterns in your world?

The HSD Institute offers Adaptive Action Labs, where you can learn the foundations of HSD as you apply that learning in a specific area of exploration, using the challenges you face. Later in March, we are offering “Tame the Chaos at Home, Work, or Play: An Intro to HSD”. This introduction to the foundations of HSD is useful whether you are new to HSD and want to learn more, or if you use HSD and want a refresher. Check it out and join us for this learning adventure! For more about the HSD Introduction, in particular, follow this link. For more information about all our HSD Labs follow this link.

Be in touch and let us know what you are doing to change the world!



[i] Dooley, K.J. A Complex Adaptive Systems Model of Organization Change. Nonlinear Dynamics Psychol Life Sci 1, 69–97 (1997).

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