I invite you to try this experiment. Put your right arm out in front of you and bring your hand to your right shoulder. Do this a couple of times and focus on the amount of energy you use to do this. Now try this again and instead of lifting your hand up to meet your shoulder, this time, drop your elbow to allow your hand to meet your shoulder. Reflect on the amount of energy it takes to accomplish your task by dropping your elbow instead of lifting your hand.

If your experiment went like mine, it takes less energy to drop your elbow than to lift a hand up and bring it to your shoulder. If this truly was your experience, I’m sure you’re wondering why?

Our bodies are designed to be interdependent and our nervous system has an interdependent relationship with our brain signals, our skeleton and our muscles. Everything works together in not only conscious, but unconscious ways as well. When we drop our elbow in this experiment, we are using the interdependence of our muscles and skeleton and gravity to move our hand to our shoulder more easily.

Now to the next question: What can this simple experiment teach us about interdependence, leadership and change?

Nature, Networks and Interdependence

Nature is structured as a network of relationships and connections. Nothing is separate. The connections over time develop relationships that in turn evolve into interdependence. If we saw leading change from an interdependence point of view, what would change? In our “dropping our elbow” vs. “lifting our hand” example, we might change our thinking from “what do I lift” to “where do I press down to shift the system?”

Interdependence means that change in one part of the system will impact change in another part of the system. Another example beyond that of our own bodies would be to visualize a spider web. When a fly gets caught in the web, their attempts to get free shake the whole web, even at a distance. In other words, there is a ripple of movement – or change – that starts with the fly caught in the interdependent web.

When we lead from a networked interdependent framework, we look for small changes that will optimize the connections of the living system. Interdependence helps leaders achieve changes in the system that will help it thrive.

The (interdependent) system will help you –  if you let it

About five years ago I was talking with a group of organizational consultants about organizational change. They were complaining about the limitations embedded in the systems they were working in because the culture and defaults often made their change work unsustainable. I had a different view and experience with organizational change. My consulting work was filled with sustainable change successes. I didn’t share my colleague’s frustration. After listening to them deeply to understand their experience I said, “You know, the system will help you if you let it.”

They all stopped talking and leaned into our circle and asked – what do you mean? I shared examples of how I used the interdependence of the system to help create sustainable change. They had started from the assumption that the systems they were working in were inert and consultants and organizational leaders needed to do the heavy lifting to get the system to change. Instead, I was starting from the assumption that all systems are living systems and because they are interdependent, change in one part of the system will affect change elsewhere. The challenge is to find the place to influence and understand the flow of movement that will result. It requires us to see and understand relationships – the dynamics between people, the organizational structure and processes, and how culture will shape individual and collective responses.

Interdependence allows an organizational leader and consultants to ask a more powerful question when leading change. This last question in our post is:

What is the smallest action I can take that will lead to the highest possibility and outcome? Remember, the living interdependent system will always help us to achieve the change we seek.