Exponential Lessons for Systems Action

What does systemic change at an exponential level look like? Look around and you’ll see why a new approach to perceiving the world is now critical.

The first question above is answered below:

Whether it’s area burned (above) or carbon emissions (below), the Canadian wildfire situation is a start and gigantic example of what exponential change looks like.

This is one example from one large country. But it points to a much larger issue across the globe whether its climate or AI use or the effects of both on society. These are two issues that are creating a change vector that we’ve never seen before at a speed, scale, and scope never before seen. Whether it’s flooding, fires, heat, or drought nature is giving us a reason to reconsider our behaviour by forcing us to change.

How do we deal with systemic change at an exponential level? That’s what I want to explore.

Developing The New Post-Linear Mindset

The first thing is that we — collectively — need to get a far better handle on mathematics and complexity. Understanding non-linear, exponential growth will get us away from thinking about incrementalism in our actions and their effects.

Understanding complexity means acknowledging that system changes are irreversible. Whatever changes we make can only affect the system as it is, not bring the old one back. We can, however, change things in a way that might bring about something positive — it just will be a different system. You can’t deconstruct and reconstruct a soup or loaf of bread into its original components. Systems operate that way.

This also means understanding things like tipping points — how small, accumulated changes can ‘tip’ into massive change. It’s like the equivalent of the straw that broke the camel’s back. Our years of actions have added straws and now small changes have unleashed catastrophic effects.

Both of these speak to the post-linear mindset and understanding that linear incrementalism does not apply to complex systems. Understanding these things and how living systems evolve, not just expand, is critical. It’s moving from a static, linear perspective focused on expansion to a developmental mindset, where two times something doesn’t necessarily mean twice the value or impact.

Designing for Complexity

More than ever, we need design for living systems. The standard linear logic models and 5-year plans are no longer sufficient for anything to do with human-engaged life systems. This means organizations, communities, and individuals need to abandon the notion that we’ll chart a path and move toward it without deviation. Now, more than ever, (complex) change is the new constant. They’ve always been poorly suited, but now they are simply wrong-headed.

If we are to design for complexity, some considerations include:

  1. Build in adaptive capacity. Folks like Matt Keene and his adaptive action approach to teaching his children using the garden as a project and metaphor offers an example of how to do this within education. This approach means working with the changes in nature and its relationship by learning from it and designing with it, rather than seeking to constrain it. This means evaluating, monitoring, and designing developmentally — no more one-and-done.
  2. Get humble. Our ability to adequately predict and control the effects from our actions is limited to non-existent in a complex system. That doesn’t mean we’re impotent, just we need to approach the problem space we encounter with humility. In embracing what we don’t know, we can better apply what we learn and do know to make a positive difference.
  3. Increase communication and sensemaking. Talk, listen, and learn. Sensemaking is about working together to share, sense, and explore what we see, feel, experience, and have questions about. The frequency and intensity of this is dependent upon the situation. Situations like the wildfires above might require an almost on-going process, whereas organizational development activities might be more periodic — but the process never stops.
  4. Keep in motion. Slowing down and reflecting is important, but standing still in a dynamic system means that you’re moving by virtue of what’s happening around you. The strategic planning retreat isn’t the end of your story, it’s the kickoff to a process of learning, exchange, sensemaking and design that should guide what you do. It has to be built into the way you work.
  5. Evaluate, always. Sensing is done with data. This is from what we see, hear, experience, and capture. Without data, we are blind to our systems. For example, without understanding what is on fire, where it is, how fast its changing, and what impact its having wildfires could overwhelm us. And while wildfires can be a catalyst for systems change, they only do so if we pay attention.

Each of these aspects can be built into our teams, our organizations, and our communities. We can do with our families and neighbourhoods, too. It comes using design principles and making systems that are fit for purpose, because right now the fit and purpose are changing faster than we’ve seen before.

The numbers and data speak for themselves.

I help organizations prepare for and design change. If this is a situation you’re struggling with – let’s talk. I can help.

NOTE: The Mental Health Commission of Canada has resources on supporting people experiencing eco-anxiety and stress from the wildfires. Please use these as a start as you seek help.

Image Credits: Mike Newbry on Unsplash, Saskia van Manen on Unsplash, and Emma Gossett on Unsplash

1 thought on “Exponential Lessons for Systems Action”

  1. Pingback: Cooperative Complexity and Planning - Censemaking

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