Human Systems Dynamics: New Rules for an Evolving Game

The rules for corporate and individual performance are changing. Your employees need to develop new competencies to adapt effectively to their emerging environments, and they will develop these skills and concepts through innovative systems and delivery m

  • Outlining some common characteristics of dynamic human systems.
  • Describing some of the ways that individuals and groups are using the wisdom of human systems dynamics to respond to real-world challenges.
  • Introducing questions that will help you discover the rules of your new game.

The Name of the Game

For the past decade, scholars and pundits have explored the “new sciences” to understand how rapid change shapes the emergent patterns of individual and corporate performance. These efforts have generated a flood of books, models and metaphors related to chaos science, nonlinear dynamics, butterfly effects, fractals, edge of chaos, chaords, strange attractors, short lists of simple rules, holographic structures, complex adaptive systems and computer simulation models. How can a busy executive make sense of this complicated and ever-changing body of knowledge? How can you use insights from the new sciences to take more effective action in your own emerging environment?

Some consistent characteristics appear over time in any complex system, whether the system is composed of humans, fluids, physical objects or mathematical entities. These characteristics will be familiar to you from your own experience of organizations in turbulent transition.

  • Details of the future are unknowable, though system-wide emergent patterns can be anticipated. Trainers, managers, organization development professionals and CLOs are quite familiar with this dynamic. It is easy to see that one or another individual may disrupt a planned process, but it is impossible to know when or how the disruption will emerge. Sometimes, an anticipated catastrophe doesn’t materialize at all.

  • Very small changes can result in large-scale effects across an entire system. Who hasn’t seen a simple rumor erupt into a corporation-wide catastrophe or a newspaper story transform stakeholders’ expectations?
  • Similar patterns appear in different places and different levels within a social system. Corporate culture, organizational identity and personality are examples of patterns that emerge in various ways across space and time in human systems. One function of workplace learning is to reinforce productive corporate-wide patterns and to displace less productive ones.
  • External factors affect and are affected by the internal functions of the system. Perhaps there was a time when an organization could function in isolation from its environmental context, customers, suppliers and stockholders. Those days are clearly gone. Individuals and organizations must be prepared to adapt to their environments and to influence them as well. Effective learning systems are one significant element in collecting and distributing information to assist in adaptation.
  • The whole system is different from the sum of its individual parts. Parts (whether individuals, teams, departments or corporations) are massively entangled and mutually dependent. Their interactions engender patterns across the whole that make it either greater or less than the sum of its parts. Any effective CLO has seen this dynamic at work as efforts in one part of an organization bring benefits to other parts and to the whole.
  • Structures and patterns of the whole are not pre-designed by someone external to the system. They self-organize based on the internal dynamic interactions of the parts within the system. Stuart Kauffman, a respected scientist in the field of complexity, calls this “order for free.” Given the right conditions, the system defines and builds structures that are most useful for its purpose, history and available resources. Though organizational expectations frequently dampen effective self-organizing, it is most evident in times of disaster. Whole communities come together spontaneously to accomplish a task, even if they were totally disconnected and alienated before. Your learning systems should embody the self-organizing dynamic before a disaster strikes.

These patterns are counterintuitive to traditional rationality, but they exist without a doubt in the complex and fast-moving organizations of today. They generate the challenges that you and your organization face as you move toward new functions and structures that will respond to economic, environmental and competitive demands of the global marketplace.

The Game Plan

These complex patterns shape the options for the organization and its CLO. Building theory may help you understand surprising events in the past, but you need proactive methods to respond effectively to the surprises that await you in the future. At the same time that thinkers and writers are figuring out how to build the bridge between the new sciences and the real world of social systems, practitioners are using the lessons of complexity to design and implement creative responses to the demands of fast-changing environments. They manage change, improve quality, evaluate evolving systems, lead organizations, start new companies, create knowledge management systems, design products and train employees. They are informed by the emerging theory in the fields of complexity and management, and they move the ideas into action quickly.

A new field is emerging at this rich boundary between the theory and practice of complexity. It is called human systems dynamics (HSD) because it explores the underlying forces that move individuals and shape the ever-emerging dynamic patterns of human systems of all sizes. HSD relates to all human systems where patterns of complexity emerge, including individual learning, management and supervision, team development, organizational design, economic development and cultural evolution. It incorporates the best of theory and practice from the emerging sciences and mathematics of complex systems and the methods and insights of social sciences from anthropology to management to public health.

An upcoming book, “Voices from the Field: An Introduction to Human Systems Dynamics,” presents recent examples of applications of human systems dynamics, including:

  • A team working with competing economic and ecological factions to preserve precious coastal resources and enhance livelihoods.
  • Diverse communities using ingenious methods to discover grounds for shared talk and work.
  • Facilitators and leaders building conscious competence in decision-making and adaptation to changing conditions.
  • Supervisors supporting employees through difficult transitions in ways that reap rewards for employee, organization and customers.
  • A physician and community activist building networks of friends to improve the health and welfare of children.
  • Independent consultants designing and redesigning their ever-evolving practices.
  • A human resource professional in Saudi Arabia exploring the intersection between Islamic ideals and complexity to articulate individual and organizational ethical systems.
  • Middle-school teacher/researchers growing a network for individual and organizational learning and transformation.
  • An entrepreneur establishing a network for learning and professional development that reaches across the vast expanse of organizational, political and geographic terrain in Alaska.
  • A psychologist defining a vision for a new approach to mental health, one that acknowledges the complex interdependencies among individual, environment, institution and therapist.
  • An anthropologist and an economist developing models to inform development and implementation of public policy and practice.
  • Canadian consultants establishing a powerful model for building and maintaining generative relationships across communities and within organizations.

In these diverse environments, professionals use principles of human systems dynamics to respond to a wide range of emergent issues and concerns. The challenges they face are similar to yours as a CLO in a rapidly evolving world.

Winning Strategies

Hundreds of professionals are exploring the power of human systems dynamics. Some work consciously, with lingo and models borrowed from science and mathematics. Others derive their insights from practical experience by way of trial and error in the school of hard knocks. All of them need a way to speed up their processes of exploration and to leverage their learning and that of others. The Human Systems Dynamics Institute was founded in January 2003 to establish the conditions that would facilitate the development of theory and practice in the field of human systems dynamics. HSD Institute associates and staff use the principles of human systems dynamics to reach this goal.

The field of HSD provides a powerful model for facilitating evolutionary processes. Individual parts, and the wholes they generate, form or reform most quickly when:

  • The parts are held together in a shared context.
  • The differences among the parts are explicit but not overwhelming.
  • The parts are connected to each other with transforming exchanges of information, resources or funding.

How does this work in the formation of a nonprofit organization? What lessons can it teach you about emergent learning in your own organization?

Holding the Parts Together

Individuals and organizations join the HSD Institute, attend training sessions and retreats, participate in online conversations and agree to follow a short list of simple rules. These elements of the Institute bind the members together with shared goals, objectives and language.

What brings the parts together in your organization? Do you have a charismatic leader who draws employees? Are you located in an enclosed geographical space? Do you use access to information as a magnet to draw staff together into functional wholes? Are you struggling against historical structures (silos, job descriptions, compensation systems) that emerged to meet needs of the past but not those of the future? What options do you have for building new, more adaptive structures?

Focusing on Significant Differences

Associates of the HSD Institute come from a variety of fields, organizational environments, countries, nations, races and political persuasions. The differences that make a difference, however, are the ones that offer opportunities for learning and growth: academic and practitioner; neophyte and expert; physical and social scientist. These are the distinctions that open the network up for new learning and innovative applications. The HSD Institute’s policies and procedures are designed to explore perspectives across these differences while minimizing the effects of differences that are less relevant to the development of new theory and practice.

What differences are significant to individuals in your organization? What differences are rewarded, ignored, punished? What differences are significant to your customers or other stakeholders, and are those differences reflected within your organization? How can you focus energy and resources to reinforce differences that will make a difference in the future while moving away from those that shaped your organization’s actions in the past?

Building Transforming Exchanges

One of the primary functions of the HSD Institute is to build transforming exchanges among diverse individuals and organizations. Multiple media are used to establish vibrant connections. E-mail, Web site, phone, face-to-face and text all have a role to play in connecting associates to each other, to Institute staff and to the emerging pool of HSD resources. Individuals and organizations are encouraged to engage in a variety of ways with others inside and outside of the Institute. Associates agree to “teach and learn in every interaction” so that each exchange has the potential to transform.

What exchanges are most transforming for your organization? How do you waste energy on exchanges that do not transform? Do you design communications with an expectation that they become two-way transforming exchanges? How can you invest your resources more effectively to build exchanges that support the double transformations of learning and adaptation?

Such questions are the heart of human systems dynamics. Your organization is unique, and this moment in time is different from any other before or after. Answers that were perfect in another place and time are woefully insufficient here and now. The game has changed, the rules are different, and no one has the answers you need. As a CLO, the greatest service you can provide is to use an understanding of human systems dynamics to frame powerful questions that help move your employees and your organization toward more adaptive functions and structures.

Glenda H. Eoyang, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute ( and the interim director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press. As an internationally recognized expert and leading voice in the field of human systems dynamics, Glenda has been studying and applying the concepts of chaos and complexity for 15 years. Since 1988, she has explored the frontiers of mathematics, philosophy of science and information and physical and social sciences, and she has applied her knowledge to support many organizations in the United States and abroad. Glenda works with a variety of human systems including communities, government bureaucracies, businesses, industries and educational institutions. Her current areas of interest include evaluation, leadership and strategic planning in emergent environments.

March 2004 Table of Contents