Nested Social Change

January 3, 2013 Leave a comment

|Photo by Libby||

A number of months ago, I posted something on what I called “The Dimensions of Social Space,” the gist of which was the proposal that we are called to tend to different dimensions of our social being in our change work – the autonomous/individual, the communal/collective, and the transcendant/”divine.”  When I wrote that post, I was thinking of these as three interlocking circles in a ven diagram.  I have since evolved my thinking to see them as systems sitting in nested fashion, going from the lesser (individual) to the greater (divinity) in terms of complexity.  Much of this development owes to the field of living systems thinking and the mentoring of Carol Sanford.

Carol in particular calls our attention to each of these levels by referring to the different “lines of work” required for responsible change leadership. The first line of work is to tend to personal development and integrity, the second to organizational evolution and wholeness, the third to greater systemic health that assures true value contribution and long-term survival and flourishing.  The nested nature of systems helps us to understand that fragmentation and separation at one level have ramifications for and reflections in others, and so the call to practicing wholeness becomes that much more compelling.

The test of our leadership is to be able to hold these different perspectives simultaneously and understand what it means to work towards integrity in and across dimensions.  This includes identifying existing patterns that cut against health and wholeness, and understanding how practices such as leading with values and value creation, creating deeper and more direct connections, storytelling, designing for emergence, and engaging greater systemic diversity can serve us all.  More to come as this all continues to evolve . . .

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  • Nice distinctions among the kinds of work based on context. I’m less convinced about their being perfectly nested, though. Yes, I am part of a couple, family, culture, but I am also part of a professional group, bowling team, alumni organization, van pool, political party, etc. Each of them may be more relevant than my nested set at any given time or situation.

    Though this massive entanglement makes things seem more complex, we see it as critical to understanding human systems dynamics of change. Massive entanglement (in many dimensions) can shine light on butterfly effects, unintended consequences, self-organized criticality, and complex (if not strange) attractor patterns.

    If you acknowledge these phenonemena, how do you see them arising from simply nested patterns?

    Thanks for this and all the deep and useful work you do at IISC.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Glenda, for your comment! I don’t see phenomena as being cleanly nested, but I would say that in nature there is such a thing as greater and lesser degrees of complexity and that this is very informative – to understand how the greater systems of which we are a part impact us and set certain terms and constraints, and how we are being impacted by the lesser systems that comprise us (organs in bodies, individuals in collectives, for example). And yes, there will be different “nests” of more relevance and interest in different situations, and yes, they are entangled. How fun! The phenomena you mention I see emerging within and across nested patterns, and therefore very difficult to predict (as you point out). The power of nestedness for me is to create new frames to help us see certain (but certainly not all) patterns arise. It also resides in how it frames “responsibility” in terms of our contributions to greater wholes, something about which we have too often been ignorant.

  • Thanks, Curtis. I, too, think levels and their interactions are central to theory and practice in the coming decades. Along these lines, you might be interested in a little video I did in response to the question, “What is the greatest challenge of the 21st century?” You can see it here

    We have a kind of simple-minded way in HSD to deal with this issue in practice. One of our simple rules is “Attend to the whole, the part, and the greater whole.” Then, it doesn’t matter what level you’re in or whether there are nests or not, you can consider three contexts and their interdependencies without blowing your mind or sticking your practice.

    Scale-free networks are also related here somehow, but I’m not sure how you think about them either. Thanks for opening this strand.

  • Curtis says:


    Thanks for sharing the video. I will take a look for sure. I also like that rule of attending to the whole, the part, and the greater whole.” It’s actually how I’m setting up a leadership development program with a colleague for a rural area with an emphasis on network development (makes me think of June Holley and how it might be good to reach out to her on this). And as long as we are swapping videos, you might be interested in this recent production that highlights one of the longer term pieces of consulting work we’ve been doing in CT – One of the ongoing challenges is how to bring this complex adaptive systems work to multi-organizational initiatives for change (some call it “collective impact”). If you have any thoughts or writings on that front I’d welcome them.



  • ST Coach says:

    As a systems thinker and a coach, this recognition of the various intertwining levels is important for me too. When working with someone, it’s so important to be aware that what you are presented with is just the end result of many complex factors. That way you don’t oversimplify what’s going on or expect that you can change everything on the individual level with just you and that client since so many other influences are involved.

  • Right from the Start is really inspiring. Great video. Thanks for sharing. Like ST Coach points out, the patterns of health and learning have to be at every level–individual, family, institution, community, bureaucracy. Until we find ways to work across boundaries horizontally and across levels vertically we won’t be able to harvest the rich resources hidden deep in our communities. I’m always thrilled to see such wonderful work. Convinces me that we’re all on the same team and that winning is possible. Thanks.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Glenda. I agree that until we learn to work across those boundaries we will fail to see or cultivate abundance. Good to have you as a teammate!


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