It occured to me this morning after I posted that piece on affordances last night, I haven’t really blogged about the two loops model of change in living systems. That’s kind of a surprise to me because for the past 15 years or so this is one of the models that has formed a deep part of my practice in working with organizations. Like the Chaordic Path, it is a simple way to grasp deep and complex topics and a good way to introduce groups to concepts that explain more deeply how complex systems work.
(You’ll see me refer to this diagram as a map, model and tool throughout. I suppose it is all of these in different contexts).
So perhaps I’ll make this a series of posts on the two loops. I’ll start with a basic description of the model and then perhaps explore some aspects of application and some stories. If you have been to an Art of Hosting workshop with me, you probably have a version of this description in the workbook, so this won’t be anything new. If you want to see me teaching this online, there is a video here: The Two Loops Model of Change in Churches, which is from a webinar I gave to the Edge Network of the United Church of Canada in 2014. One of my favourite facilitation stories comes from using this map with the United Church, and I promise to share it. We disrupted an intergenerational conflict, and the process was so unexpected and oblique that the Moderator of the time, Gary Paterson, who was in attendance, picked it up and spent the last 18 months of his two-year term doing over 50 workshops using the model to examine the ways the Church is dying (and living). Whenever one uses a model or a map like this, one needs to adopt it for the context, but anyone with even a passing familiarity with the history of Churches can see how this is useful on a number of different levels.
At any rate, here’s the basic overview
The two loops model is a map of how change works in living systems. It charts the movement and relationship between systems of influence and emerging systems, and it is a helpful tool that invites leaders to reflect on where their organization is in this lifecycle and what kind of leadership is most useful.
This map was initially created in a swirl of community conversations in and around the Berkana Exchange around the turn of the century. It was first published by Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze and called “The LIfe Cycle of Emergence” and is colloquially known as “the two loops model.” Back in the early 2000s when I was doing many Art of Hosting workshops with the Berkana Institute, we incorporated this work in our teaching, especially when we were working with teams embedded in a shared context. As a result, the picture you see above evolved, capturing the many stances and approaches needed to work in different areas of the map.
In living systems, change doesn’t happen in a linear or predictable way. The new forms are born within the old forms and they emerge in the midst of the legacy system. For us to cultivate and work with the life cycle of emergence, leaders need to muster the resources of the legacy system to support the emergence of the new while at the same time navigating the emotional terrain of simultaneous loss, grief, disappointment, creativity, excitement, and rigour.
This map tracks the emergence of new systems at every scale, from the personal through to teams, organizations, communities, societies and the planet.
At the heart of the map is the relationship between the “legacy system” and the “emerging system.” As systems ascend in their power and influence, leaders who can stabilize and structure the system for long-term sustainability are put in place. As long as systems are thriving, these stewards focus on maintaining and managing the long-term health and sustainability of the system.
But change is inevitable, whether it is internally driven or coming from the external context in which a system exists. As changes begin to play against the system, the system loses its fitness and ability to sustain itself and enters a period of decline in its influence. This is a very painful process as many people will try to hold on to what has been lost, and those who wield power unresourcefully can sometimes become more controlling as they use their power to attempt to sustain what is in decline. Without good hospicing of a dying system, this can result in pain and the inability to use the resources of the legacy system to support what is emerging..
The new is always with us, but it is rarely visible to the leaders who maintain the legacy system. It is often championed by outsiders who experiment with new forms and new practices. These outsiders are sometimes people who have left the legacy system to discover something else, and they are often also people who were never included in the legacy system and created new ways of being at the margins of the mainstream.
Leadership in times of fundamental change – whether it is the reorganization of a team or department or whole-scale social changes in demographics, economics, or social systems – requires us to build and foster connections between the legacy and emerging systems. As the emerging system is developing, leaders can support experimentation and safe-to-fail work, allowing for learning about what the new system can look like. Before even naming the new systems we can discover the affordances for change that already exist by seeking patterns in the system that are coherent with a preferred intention for change. There are no guarantees that change will occur down any of these particular affordances, but working with emergence requires us to probe and explore to find out what might work. Often leaders need only go to the margins of their system to learn about promising practices that may later appear in the new iteration of their system. Connecting people into networks and nourishing communities of practice with the resources that are channelled from the dying system can make change work smoother and less conflict-riddled. Many systemic shifts are made worse by the conflict between the two loops, where the legacy system leaders try to hold on to what they have always done, and the leaders of the emerging system, who are shut out of access to the power and resources of the legacy system, organize in opposition to what has gone before.
In living systems like forests, the old nourishes the new and willingly gives itself to the emergence of the next form of life. In human systems where such transitions are accomplished with grace, creativity and energy, it is often due to the leadership that guides the lifecycle of emergence by creating spaces for connection and resourcefulness, which allows the rest of the people affected by these systems to transition seamlessly to the new.
Think of how computers have replaced typewriters as an example of how, over the period of about a decade, users were able to transition to a new way of doing the same things, but with more power. Everything about writing has changed, but we still use the same keyboard, and it became the primary way most people could transition from typewriters to computers.
For leaders, the two loops model helps to begin to understand a non-linear theory of change and helps us to assess where our strengths lie and what connections and capacities we need to develop to work with emergence.