Everything changes, right? We have trouble remembering that even though we know it’s true. We tend to get stuck with our immediate experience, like having a picture of an old friend we haven’t seen in years. Even though we know the friend will be older when we meet, it is still a shock when we finally do meet.
A corollary to this is that complex systems not only change, they also age. Systems age in a way that supports their dissolution and recreation in another form. As you can see in the diagram, the adaptive cycle is a cycle, that never repeats itself, but covers much the same change territory.
When we implement a change strategy, we are interacting with a target (a complex system) that is aging more or less according to the diagram above. We often organize our change strategies in a way that minimizes the impact of the ongoing (and largely unseen) changes on the outcome we seek. We do this, for example, by using the standard individual advocacy framework of threatening a potential system change in the target in order to secure a specific change for the person we are representing. Another example is the use of a lawsuit to effect systems change. A lawsuit is a way to frame what has been going on in the past to secure an advocacy outcome. A lawsuit usually assumes that the target will remain more or less the same for the duration of the change effort.
Sometimes, the always operating process of the adaptive cycle carries the target to a place that reframes the impact of our change strategy. This change might actually improve the advocacy outcome or (more likely) undermine our outcome. But since we don’t pay much attention to the process of aging through the adaptive cycle, we see the impact of aging as largely accidental (unpredictable), and outside our change plan.
If we could have some insight into how our target would evolve in its adaptive cycle, we might be able to both improve our advocacy outcomes and implement longer and deeper change plans.
But it is hard to do that precisely because we get stuck with our first impression, at least until we get surprised by the changes that have taken place in the target as we try to change it.
There is another way in which first impressions undermine our ability to see the process of a complex system adapting over time. Our advocacy groups and organizations are also complex systems, and they are also following some path in the adaptive cycle, passing along some place in the process of aging. And we also keep our first impressions of our change organizations until we are surprised by perceiving a change we didn’t know was going on.
To help expand our ideas of how the interaction of our complex change organizations and our targets produce different itineraries on the adaptive cycle, in my next post I will discuss two large scale processes that affect (more or less) all complex systems over time.
These are the journey to efficiency and the journey to innovation.
Next Post: Two Strategies for Changing Complex Systems