If At First You Don’t Succeed . . . .

Recently Glenda Eoyang, Human Systems Dynamics Institute added a tag line to her e-mail messages:

If at first you don’t succeed, iterate and iterate again!

That’s good advice, no matter who we are or what challenges we face.

Human systems are infinitely complex. They are continually in motion. They are diverse. They are open to influences from the environment, which is also infinitely complex, changing, diverse, and open.

We cannot predict what any individual will do in a particular situation, but we can note patterns over time. We can analyze what is happening, and we can make judgements about what our next most promising step might be. We can try it out; watch how the system shifts; and then take another step. This cycle is iterative, and the only way we can move productively within a changing system is to iterate. And iterate again and again.

Glenda Eoyang and her colleagues are developing a field within complexity science she calls “human systems dynamics.” A central model or method within that field is an inquiry/reflection/action cycle that facilitates this kind of iteration. She calls it Adaptive Action. Adaptive Action is and inquiry/action cycle framed by three questions:

  • What is happening?
  • So what does it mean?
  • Now what shall we do?

For a deep dive into that concept, see Adaptive Action: Leveraging Uncertainty in your Organization.

The “problem” with this approach is that mistakes (failure) are a necessary part of this process. In each iteration, we make mistakes, learn what might work better, so that we can move forward into a new iteration.

When we want to make a long-lasting difference in our work, we have to take action. But we also have to be patient–iterating over and over again–as we try to adapt to the unpredictability of this world.


  • Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Patterson, L., Holladay, R., and Eoyang, G. (2013). Radical Rules for Schools: Adaptive Action for complex change. Circle Pines, MN: Human Systems Dynamics Institute Press.

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