Zooming in on Conditions to Shape Patterns

In today’s complex and fast-moving landscape, we need tools to help us imagine new, unique responses in each new challenge. We hear from clients and participants in our courses that HSD models and methods help them do that.

Interdependent Pairs help them make better decisions about tensions in their challenges. The Four Truths model or method helps them understand and navigate multiple perspectives. The Landscape Diagram shows them how and when to create stronger constraints and when to relax constraints in their systems.

One question we sometimes hear is how to use the CDE model and method to best leverage work that needs to be done. Most people understand how the CDE model/method represents the conditions that shape how quickly patterns form, set the focus of those patterns, and influence the ways those patterns move through the system. But, admittedly, it seems more abstract and more difficult to see ways to use the CDE to shift patterns. I know that in my early learning about HSD, it was more difficult for me.

First, let’s remember what the CDE is. In Glenda Eoyang’s research into how to see, understand, and influence patterns, she identified three conditions that shape patterns in a system. She often uses this formula to represent that relationship:

It means that these three conditions are necessary to shape a pattern:

  • C represents the Container or the boundaries that hold a system together as a pattern emerges. Identity, like an affinity or work group; physical space, like a room or building; psychological connections, like friendship or commitment; and time, like allotted meeting time or shared time are all examples of ways parts of a system can come together to create new patterns or to influence existing patterns.
  • D represents Differences that exist inside that container. Differences emerge in kind, like differences in gender, age, role, knowledge, race, etc. They can also show up in degree, as more or less in any one set of differences—older and younger, more or less knowledge about a topic, or more or less experience in a given role. Because every system holds too many differences to count or name, we focus on the differences that matter most in a pattern we are exploring.
  • E represents Exchanges that help carry information and other resources in the system. Most often we think of the verbal exchanges that characterize our interactions. This use of Exchange includes that, and it goes far beyond to include the many ways parts of a system connect. The existence of information, payments, rules and expectations, vision statements, friendship, and shared activities are all examples of ways different types of energy and resources can be moved across a system.

So when we talk about using the CDE as a model of what happens in our worlds, it’s relatively simple to think about and use as a reference point. The CDE, as a model, can help categorize what you see in collected data. It can help you visualize and understand which factors shape your world.

What was more difficult for me, in the beginning, was understanding how to use the CDE, as a method, to influence the patterns around me. Then, Glenda and I worked with a client, using the CDE to assist an ad hoc group in identifying, understanding, and choosing relevant and effective options for action.

Years ago, we were asked to work with a group that had come together as an informal coalition of three entities: local schools, government regulatory and support agencies, and healthcare providers. Their purpose was to begin to address a particular issue: student immunizations in grades Pre-Kindergarten-12th Grade.  Each of the agencies had very specific, and separate, roles to play in their current handling of their shared issue. The data at that time showed that low percentages of school-aged children had received the state-mandated immunizations. Related data about targeted illnesses showed increasing incidents among school-aged children and adolescents. A group of community leaders, concerned about those increasing data points, came together in an informal coalition to try to shift the pattern of low numbers of immunization. 

We did several interviews to get a solid picture of what was happening and then used the CDE model to help us visualize some options for them. The model at the right reflects what our interview data showed us in general. We also reflected that a large percentage of the group felt their work was complete because they had, in fact, changed the data. We offered them 4 options for future action: 

In Option #1: We let them see two paths for moving forward. The first part was to celebrate that their work was done. They had accomplished what they had intended and had built organizational and professional relationships. They each had a deeper understanding of how individual agencies could shift internal policies to contribute to the results they wanted. So one option they had was to disband this particular ad hoc group. The other path involved their considerations of our other recommendations.

In Option #2, we offered examples of how it might impact their work if they shifted the Container size to change the pattern.

Decreasing the Container could create a stronger focus: 

  • Focus on fewer groups (Maybe focus on Preschool through 6th Grade, rather than all youth.)
  • Reduce the number of people/agencies involved (Schools could take the work, reaching out to others as needed.)

Increasing the Container could involve a greater portion of the community:

  • Focus on more health issues (Include mental health or other areas of health.)
  • Involve more agencies and individuals (Include parents, churches, and youth-serving agencies.)

In Option #3, we offered examples of how it might impact their work if they shifted the Differences to change the pattern.

Decreasing Differences could change their focus slightly: 

  • Reduce the number and focus of the agencies on the working group (Bring fewer people together to track data, but not as decision makers.)
  • Reduce the factors to explore (Look only at those students who don’t have regular health care.)

Increasing Differences could expand their reach:

  • Increase the issues to address (Look at health issues beyond immunization.)
  • Increase the number of people/groups involved. (Consider active roles for additional agencies.)

In Option #4, we offered examples of how it might impact their work if they shifted the Exchanges to change the pattern.

Decreasing would limit their reach, but focus resources: 

  • Decrease active collaboration (Make one agency/group responsible for all messaging, with input.)
  • Decrease the work to be done (Gather, analyze, and share fewer data points less frequently.)

Increasing Exchanges would expand their reach:

  • Get the word our to more people in multiple ways (Enlist other agencies in sharing information and data in the community.)
  • Create additional collaborative efforts (Bring in additional agencies, based on needs of various communities in the system.)

Because of the active role I had in working on this and thinking it through, I have come to rely on the CDE as one of my go-to models/methods. I don’t always use it explicitly, as we did with this group. It is, however, always playing “in the back of my head” as an awareness that influences my actions. Additionally when I do talk about it, I try to make the language fit with the client’s language. Evaluators use “Boundaries, Perspectives, and Interrelationships” rather than “Containers, Differences, and Exchanges”. We have built a different tool called Radical Inquiry, which helps people think about these conditions as they explore particular questions. Glenda uses a model called CDE Configurations to represent these same ideas.

I invite you to play with it, and be in touch with us with insights, questions, and learning!


Join a global network of learning about HSD!
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.