In today’s faster paced and technologically advanced world, organizations have become emergent, complex systems. If they ever seemed simple, none of us can think of them as static or simple these days. Things change. Fast. Organizations, and individuals within them, must respond. But how? Our old ideas about change no longer apply. In a fantasy future, a leader like Jean-Luc Picard (Captain, Starship Enterprise) could say, “Make it so!” and walk away. In our real future, things aren’t so easily accomplished in a single step.

We used to view organizational change management as a linear, predictable process to be managed well. Complexity thinkers call this the idea of “static” or “dynamic” change. Static or dynamic change processes involve a great deal of upfront planning to predict one or a number of linear steps–then we set the whole thing in motion, and Voila! Our change happens as planned. Except it was always a fantasy. Things didn’t go as planned, and we had to live with the unanticipated consequences.

We can be smarter about change in today’s organizations. Organizations need to be more flexible, more agile; people in organizations gain awareness that the results from interventions and changes we apply must adapt to the specific circumstances that emerge. We look for change processes more suitable to our emergent, complex, variable systems–in other words, “complex” change.

Viewing the world and change as emergent allows for the ability to see and discern patterns in our organizations. Patterns give us clues about what might come next in an emergent world, a world with many elements are at play where cultures are continually evolving. Recognizing patterns of behaviors and how they influence the actions of groups and/or organizations helps us to understand the dynamics at work. Shifting undesirable patterns calls for working with complex change.

Always present, though often implicit, simple rules provide the underpinnings of organizational behavior and culture, defining how things are done in the organization, how people in the organization work together to get the job done. If tacit and unexamined, simple rules can move the organization in unexpected, undesirable, and occasionally unethical directions.

As we recognize and understand the effect of patterns, we can explicitly reconsider and amend our simple rules to influence and guide the behaviors of each person or team member in the organization. In turn, simple rules made explicit and aligned with our intentions lead to better and more effective working relationships. Written as a short, action-oriented, generalizable, and scalable set of guidelines, simple rules enable us to move forward and support complex change through adaptive action.

Glenda Eoyang, Executive Director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, and Royce Holliday, Director of the Network for the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, have written a book calledAdaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization. (publishing this week) In their book, they examine ways of navigating through complex organizational change allowing change agents to make judicious decisions when conditions are changing, unpredictable, uncertain, and ambiguous.

They base the adaptive action model on skillfully answering three simple questions: What? So what? Now what?

As a first step, What?, develop a deep understanding of the conditions (containers, differences and exchanges) that exist in a particular setting or around a particular issue and identify the patterns between and among those conditions.

Second, So What?, take a sophisticated look at the patterns and make meaning of their shape, type, recurrence, outcomes, and so forth. What do the patterns tell us? What insight and understanding do they bring us?

Finally, Now What?, having discerned patterns and their implications, we are better able to make decisions about what we want to do as a first, next step.

The adaptive action model iterates, continually adapting the direction and steps based on changing conditions. This type of complex change reflects a kind of VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity - from the US Army War College) world that allows us to say, ‘we have a plan for adjusting this, we may not know what the specific steps are, but we know how we are going to approach it and we know we can bring the right people in the room and be able to take the right next step together.’

The body of research on emergent organizations and simple rules grows daily. The Human Systems Dynamics Institute is a leader in the field and offers a wealth of information on its website and through the trainings it offers.

For more information on how to benefit from expertise in the realm of complex change, see our list of resources below.