October 13, 2019

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Creating Good Work: Adaptive Action in All Directions

The Adaptive Action process needed for creating transformational change: How do we know and do what is right?


By Glenda Eoyang

A passion for doing the “right thing” is bubbling up around the globe. People want to do the right thing. Corporate greed is finally going out of fashion. Creating Good Work is the latest and one of the most useful signs of this emerging movement.   

Adaptive Action

The question, “How do we know and do what is right?” resonates around the world, and diverse answers evolve to fit local contexts. Adaptive Action is a simple process that helps answer this critical question in even the most complex environments. As we share Adaptive Action with groups around the world and across the political, institutional, and economic spectrum, a pattern has begun to form. At first glance the pattern is troubling, but perhaps it holds a creative key.

At its core, this pattern shows that “change” is sparking two, distinct narratives.

Narrative One:

Change is hard. People don’t want to change. Leaders are unable to move their organizations. The old days of planning and implementation are gone. The return on our change investment hasn’t met our expectations. What’s the matter with the world? The standard of living is going down and will continue to go down for the foreseeable future. Corruption is rampant. The U.S. political process is stuck. Institutions are dying. Markets are collapsing. Self-interest trumps the common good.

Narrative Two:

Change is exciting. Everywhere we look the good kind of change is bursting out all over. In New Mexico, teens clean up arroyos to honor ancestors and improve water and soil conservation. On an island in Puget Sound, middle-class women set up local food sourcing for themselves and local schools. Medical technicians from Vancouver travel to Rwanda to teach locals the tricks of their trade. Across the U.S., healthcare policy and practice reforms keep more elders and people with disabilities in their homes and communities. Kids get books, neighbors get support, and families get medical homes.

What are your versions of these two stories? Which is the story you tell yourself and others?

WHERE? and WHO? shed light on the particular SO WHAT? of these two emerging and divergent narratives. I usually hear Narrative One sitting on a verandah watching the sunset after a glass of fine wine and before an elegant meal. The speaker is past middle age, well dressed, and college educated. Narrative Two is accompanied by a covered dish dinner and weak coffee in a church basement. Speakers are of many ages, many colors.

grassrootsSometimes an interpreter delivers the lyrics, but the music is unmistakable.

Learn From The Grassroots

So what does this mean? Demographics in the U.S. are changing. Institutions that served us in the past will not serve in the future. Power and privilege are challenged in ways no one completely understands. Diversity and locality are engines of growth and adaptation. The rules of the game, sometimes even the game itself, are changing in unimaginable ways.  

Freedom and grassroots adaptation generate creative, surprising best-fit solutions that work in a particular place and time. We need to find and amplify Narrative Two to help individuals and communities use what they have to make what they need. 

People who support Narrative One, have a point, too. They support system-wide, consistent interventions because they recognize that custom and localized solutions are hard to apply globally. What works in one village or neighborhood probably won’t in another, so we lose the efficiency of economies of scale. Single-purpose, generalizable solutions give great efficiency and fast dissemination, when the solution fits local needs. If the fit is bad, though, efforts to disseminate innovation globally do not work or, worse than that, they spread solutions that deny or destroy local capacity.

Global Solutions, Localized

So what we need are global solutions that are easy to localize, and local solutions that generate essential learnings that can be applied in other local contexts. In short, we need adaptive capacity. Adaptive capacity is the ability for individuals and groups to:

  1. Ask WHAT? to see patterns in the current context, whether the relevant context is global or radically local.
  2. Ask SO WHAT? to understand how the current pattern serves—or doesn’t serve—the current Adaptive Actionpurpose for individuals, groups, and communities.
  3. Ask NOW WHAT? to take action to influence the pattern and shift it toward greater service. 

This process is called Adaptive Action (Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in Your Organization (2013, Stanford University Press). The Human Systems Dynamics Institute supports a global network of scholar/practitioners who use Adaptive Action to shift patterns through political advocacy, program evaluation, occupational therapy, agile software development, education, management and leadership in organizations and communities. 

Creating Good Work tells the stories and shares the lessons of many people and their communities where innovation and Adaptive Action are a way of life. Every chapter demonstrates what happens when people from any walk of life, any level of power and privilege, take Adaptive Action. 

They recognize and leverage the energy and innovation that emerge from the grassroots while they distill the essence that takes those innovations global. Together—bottom up and top down—the social innovators in Creating Good Work move beyond the two different narratives of change to create a third that brings the best of both into a future that is good for all. 

Where do you stand?



Social Entrepreneurs Must Learn to Change Before Affecting Change in Business

The Collaborative Framework: From Social Contest to Social Body

Seven Principles: Developing New Social Enterprises with Benetech

Identifying Commonwealth-Building Healthy Economies

Shifting The Unshifting – The Course Of Social Innovation

Bringing Good Capital Home with a Living Economy Fund

Creating Good Work: A New Series on Social Innovation by Social Innovators

About the Author:

Glenda H. Eoyang, PhD, is the founder of the field of human systems dynamics. She currently serves as founding executive director of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, a network of professionals working at the intersection of complexity and social sciences. Her published works include three books: Coping with Chaos: Seven Simple Tools, Facilitating Organization Change: Lessons from Complexity Science, and Voices from the Field: An Introduction to Human Systems Dynamics, an edited collection of practitioner stories that demonstrates the transformative power of systems dynamics.

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by CSRwire contributors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of CSRwire.

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