Patterns for Change Part 1October 7, 2010 6 Comments
What do you do when you cannot control or predict? For many people I’m sure this question raises just a little bit of anxiety. After all, having some sense of autonomy and mastery is reported as being key to our mental well-being. And yet increasingly we find ourselves in complex and changing situations that are beyond our grasp and where the outcome is very much uncertain. Of course this is not the case with everything. Some of our work falls within the ordered realm. But how do we work outside of this tidy zone?
I’ve been enjoying Influencing Patterns for Change, a primer on human systems dynamics, which offers up some insights for how would be change agents can influence what otherwise may appear beyond their control. Authors Royce Holladay and Kristine Quade build upon the work of their mentor Glenda Eoyang to illustrate practical ways of working with complex human systems. First they differentiate between what they call the organized and unorganized zones of human systems (see image above). The first refers to those areas of activity where there is agreement and a high degree of predictability (think the payroll process). The latter refers to those areas that are more random and surprising (for example, when a new team comes together for the first time). In between lies the self-organizing zone, where the system begins to sort out and respond to its environment.
The sustainability of a system (organization, community) is characterized by the degree to which it can achieve some fit with its environment. In order to fit with more organized conditions, a system requires greater constraints to streamline and monitor activity and make it highly efficient. Rules, regulations, policies, and procedures conserve valuable energy. Activity in the unorganized zone must be met with fewer constraints, to make sense of new information and trends and to activate new thinking. In the self-organizing zone, to the extent that constraints are in place they aid with making meaning of and adapting to new conditions.
What all of this means is that it behooves change agents to consider where a situation falls on the landscape and therefore whether greater or fewer constraints would be more beneficial for the group, organization, community. But how to increase or decrease constraints especially in a situation that does not lend itself to control or predictability? That’s where paying attention to and attending to patterns comes in. More on that tomorrow.