I am always impressed at how Nature is constantly finding ways to cultivate conditions for evolution over the long term.  For example, Type I ecologies are filled with weeds and annuals because the ground is not conducive to bulbs or shrubs. As those weeds and annuals die off, the roots amend the soil.  Over time, more things can grow and the ecosystem evolves into a Type II ecology.

As I think about how we can influence the transformation of systems, this example reminds me that Nature teaches us the power of creating conditions conducive to the life of future generations. If Nature had only one purpose, this would be it.

Learning to become gardeners

Change agents who have shifted their perspectives to leading a living system, instead of changing an object, have learned there are lessons on change embedded in the act of gardening. Gardeners understand the importance of preparing the soil so that it can grow the crops they want to plan. If your soil has too much acid, plants that do well in non-acidic soil won’t thrive, for example. I have a rancher friend who plans his crop rotations three years in advance so his future crops are sure to have the right nutrients. By planning out this process, he is creating conditions conducive to the life of future crops. 

As change agents, we can learn to create just the right conditions for a system, organization, or community to evolve successfully.

We often approach change as though there isn’t a need to cultivate conditions conducive to the change we seek. Instead, we substitute the need to create conducive conditions with creating a sense of urgency. This urgency provides a temporary adrenalin rush in the organization to mobilize support for the change, but when the urgency wears off or is shown that it is man-made (ego-made), the support for the change disappears. This type of temporary change becomes an example of an initiative that has run out of gas and failed to stick.

Now let’s juxtapose urgency with creating conditions for change. In the gardening metaphor, it is the quality and nutrients embedded in the soil that allows for seeds to self-germinate. When we have the right nutrients, we as leaders can unleash the self-organization that is already present in our organizations and communities. Nature uses information and feedback to help shape conditions conducive to the life of future generations. In fact, DNA is a form of information in nature, and only the species that have adapted to the changing dynamics of the larger ecosystem get to pass on their DNA to future generations.

Using feedback and information to cultivate conditions for change

Noticing what is changing in the larger system helps an organization generate energy toward adaptation,  rather than controlling its own aspirations without regard to what is happening in the larger system. As change agents in our organizations, we must ask ourselves a few questions: 

  • What information is helping to create the conditions that support the transformation we seek? What information is missing in the system?
  • If that information or feedback was present, would people be more attracted to how the organization needs to evolve? 
  • How can we develop robust feedback loops between the external and internal environment? 

The more I learn from Nature, the more nuanced are the ways I think about change. First, I substitute change for evolution. The larger purpose of the change is to help the system, community or organization evolve and adapt to the larger environment. Secondly, I seek to unleash the natural self-organizing energy of the people in the organization or community. And third, I pay attention to the unique context (culture) of the place to see what kind of ideas and evolution can grow in its soil and what additional nutrients are needed to create conditions conducive to the evolution of the organization. 

How have your ideas about change evolved?