Category Archives: Uncategorized

Shifting Sands and Chronic Illness

The last two years have been like standing at the ocean’s edge, trying to keep my balance as the tide comes in. I take a step and the sand seems solid, but soon my toes lose their grip. I sink into the wet sand, even as I brace for the next big wave. Exhilaration and fear–all in one moment.

In the last two years or so, what we assumed was solid ground was not. The waves have come at us so fast that we struggled to balance before the next one threatened. Climate crises, partisan divides, cruel and foolish leaders, police violence, civil unrest, COVID, insurrection, and, now, war.

In the midst, in January, 2021, Dana, my daughter, was diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. The news threatened to knock us all over in a heap. But, taking our cues from her, we are learning to step into each oncoming wave. There is still the fear and sadness around what’s coming, but we are trying enjoy each salty splash of the ocean against our legs.

Dana has become the teacher. She is teaching us how to think of her illness as a chronic, treatable condition. She can’t eliminate the cancer, but she can act each day (and each moment) to build healthier connections both inside and outside her body. Those connections have kept the cancer at bay for now, but, more important, those connections bring joy to her and to all of us who love her.

So that brings me to some questions I’ve been thinking about. How is the current state of the world like an incurable but treatable illness?  How can I learn to live a full and generative life, in the midst of the frustration, the pain, and the grief? How can I work to keep the disease in check while I build more generative connections with my family and the larger community? What do hope and love have to do with it? In fact, what is “hope” in the face of a threat which is ultimately insurmountable? What patterns do I want to generate and sustain in this troubled  world?  Finally, how do I invite others into a shared inquiry around these questions?

It occurs that my answer to this last question is to post this short message here.  Please join the conversation.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Power of the Ripple

Last week I also had the opportunity to attend an event sponsored by Education Week — “Leaders to Learn From.”  This event honored 16 district leaders who are making a difference in the lives of students. They are setting conditions in their systems ftransformation. One interesting thing about this group is that they are not all superintendents! The list also included people who work in curriculum, food services, nursing, family-school involvement, union leadership, and technology.  My take-away was that transformation can emerge and spread  anywhere in the system.

To be honest, district-level administrators cannot control what goes on in classrooms. They can only set conditions that make it possible for campus leaders to work in generative ways with their staff and stakeholders. Campus administrators set conditions that make generative teaching and learning possible in classrooms, in the media center, in the cafeteria, and on the soccer field. Teachers, coaches, nurses, counselors and librarians set conditions for students to engage in collaborative inquiry, deep reflection, and action.
But transformation can move up and out from the classroom, too. Teachers and students can use informal channels to set conditions for others as well.

We (simply) need to think outside the hierarchical box.

Scientists tell us that healthy and sustainable human systems are scale-free networks. Patterns can emerge from conditions set at any place across or up and down the system. No matter where we stand in the system, we can see the patterns and we can take action to influence those patterns. No one person or group is in control on how the changes. But we each have influence on the parts of the system we can touch.

In complex systems, patterns of the whole emerge from interactions among the individual parts—not from edicts or mandates or absolute fidelity to a particular method. Sometimes people call it “distributed leadership.” That emergent, distributed leadership does not guarantee that we all live happily ever after, but it does mean that the blame game will never set conditions for transformation.

We must each work hard—wherever we are. We must set conditions for the patterns that we want to see around us. But that is not enough. We must also pay attention to how our actions might cause ripples—ripples that might be amplified across the system and eventually make a larger difference than we expected. Work locally (in your classroom; on your project; with your staff). But think systemically.

I’m looking for examples where that emergent work at the local level triggers change throughout the system!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

What We Can Learn from Fire Ants — Adaptive Capacity

Last week, as I was pulling weeds in my flowerbeds (as always, amazed by the tenacity of dandelions and crab grass), I reached under a shrub to pull a particularly stubborn root. I felt a sting and drew back my hand to see dozens of fire ants scatter. I had disturbed their mound, and the ground waSlide2s alive with tiny workers scrambling to rebuild their fortress. Somehow, those many individual ants worked as one in response to the disaster.  Read more . . .

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Setting Conditions for Powerful Learning — Adjacent Opportunities

In a complex system, we can’t always point to clear, direct causes for the results we want to see. Root causes, influences, triggers, sources–life is too messy. Our actions and reactions are too massively entangled for us to sort out those direct causal paths. Ron Schulz points to “adjacent opportunities and the failure of simple answers.” In a recent post in Emergence: Complexity and Organization, he describes how this shows up in the work of an excellent science teacher–Laura Schulz–who also happens to be his wife. This is a compelling description of the complexity of teaching . . .

Adjacent opportunities

The favorite teacher — posted December 30, 2014


How do you set conditions for powerful learning? How do you look for “adjacent opportunities” for your students?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Simple Rules for Complex Systems!

What are your biggest frustrations as an educator?

  • Are you overwhelmed? Too many demands; too little time?
  • Do you feel fragmented? Pulled in a hundred directions at once?
  • Do you feel isolated? Not enough opportunity to work with colleagues?
  • Do you feel pressure? Seemingly contradictory mandates and unspoken expectations?

arguing peopleYou are definitely not alone. What can we do to simplify? What can we do to build more coherence in these crazy systems we call school?  Scientists tell us that a short set of simple rules can set conditions for surprising outcomes in complex systems. Check out this brief explanation: Simple Rules for Governing Complex Systems by Brian Sauser.

Clearly, schools fit the definition of a complex system:

  • Open to inside and outside influences
  • Diverse across multiple dimensions
  • Interdependent in nonlinear and unpredictable ways.

So what are the simple rules that might set conditions for coherent, adaptive, and generative learning in schools? We doubt that one set of simple rules would work in all situations. Here are three possibilities.

Whitney Young is a kindergarten teacher who taught her students this set of simple rules:

  • Teach and learn in every interaction.
  • We all contribute a piece to the puzzle.
  • Pay attention to patterns in our classroom.
  • Notice, talk about, and change patterns we don’t like, and keep patterns we do like. 
  • Take risks.

Mandy Stewart is an assistant professor at Texas Woman’s University. In a 2014 summer literacy program, she worked with eight adolescent students who have recently come to the U.S. Most of them are actually refugees whose families are settling into a new life here. To build on their first language and to support their emerging bilingual/bi-literacy proficiency, Mandy used these simple rules to guide her instructional decisions:

  • I learn, you learn.
  • I teach, you teach.
  • I write, you write.
  • I read, you read.
  • I care about you; you care about others. (And maybe me, too.)

Cupertino USD is a Pre-K – 8 school district in California. A new superintendent joined the district in 2013-14 and introduced a short set of simple rules from Radical Rules for Schools by Patterson, Holladay, and Eoyang. Since then, leaders throughout the district have participated in deep training related to the use of tools to support these simple rules. Even the school board has adopted these simple rules for their decision-making:

  • Teach and learn in every interaction.
  • Pay attention to patterns in the whole, part, and greater whole.
  • See, understand, and influence patterns.
  • Recognize and build on assets of self and others.
  • Seek the true and the useful.
  • Act with courage.
  • Engage in joyful practice.

North Star of Texas Writing Project is a local site of the National Writing Project. As these teachers work together to enhance the writing instruction in their classrooms, and as they provide in-service support for teachers in area schools, they have agreed that they want to set conditions for seven generative patterns of learning in classrooms and in professional development teams. For each pattern, they point to a simple rule that seems to generate that pattern in the system.

  • Empathy — Take multiple perspectives, imagining how others think and feel.
  • Deep Content Learning — Build capacity to make sense of the world—the past, present, and future.
  • Inquiry — Embrace uncertainty—notice and interpret patterns at the whole, part, and greater whole.
  • Authenticity — Eagerly engage in tasks you see as significant.
  • Apprenticeship — Work with peers and teachers as you build confidence and expertise.
  • Re-visioning — Reflect, assess, and take informed action to adapt to changing conditions.
  • Dialogue — Engage in conversations about your learning.

We are learning that a set of simple rules like these make our shared agreements explicit and that we can begin holding ourselves (and one another) accountable for acting in coherent and collaborative ways. We are also learning that the exact wording of the rules is less important than the conversations we have about the rules and what those rules mean for the patterns we want to see across our complex systems.

Which of these rules resonate with you?  Which of these rules would help set conditions for the patterns you want to see in your classroom? on your campus? in your district?

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Invisible Revolutions

Here is an open letter to teachers and administrators who work hard to set conditions for generative learning from Royce Holladay, Network Director with Human Systems Dynamics Institute.
Recently, Michaela Jacobsen, a 5th-grade teacher at Faria Elementary school in Cupertino Unions School District, shared a blog with me. It was a lovely reminder about the use of tools in learning. You can read the blog here. It got me thinking about how much of what we teach, and I had to write her a note, thanking her for the ideas she had shared.
Michaela, thanks for sharing. I loved it. You may not even know who I am. My name is Royce Holladay, and I have been working with your district for about a year, helping the administrators learn about and use Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) in their work. I continue to follow and care about the work you all are doing in Cupertino as you move toward full realization of the potential for “invisible skills” addressed by the Common Core. I have met some teachers there and continue to be impressed by the level of commitment I see among you–commitment to growth, learning, and exploring at all levels of the system.
Thank you for sharing this article in particular. I love the idea of an “invisible I-pad” and the correlations the author drew to automobiles and light bulbs. It’s not about the item–it’s about how that item changes our lives. 
So here is what that made me think about: What if we get to a point where the concepts/skills described in the common core become invisible in our communities? So that it’s not about “the Four C’s”, but it is about what communication, creativity, critical thinking, and collaboration can do to change our lives and the lives of our children. 
What if ideas like inquiry are “invisible”? What will it be like when adults and students in CUSD (and everywhere) engage in inquiry because of the ways it helps us all see the world, rather than because it’s the next concept on the lesson plan or the next competency in the Common Core? What will our work be like when “collaboration” is invisible? What is possible when “creative thinking” is invisible? What will your relationships across the district and in the community be like when “communications skills” are how we engage in our discourse rather than what our discourse is about? 
I have been an educator since the late 1970’s (yes, I am that old)! This moment in time seems to me to hold the greatest promise in the 40+ year-long history of “reform” in public education. In this moment it seems we have the possibility to realize the true professionalism of educators, as we take on the challenge of building those skills so that they are measured by the degree to which they become invisible–in a way that filling in dots on a standardized test will never be invisible.
Thanks to you and to all who stand in inquiry and set conditions for generative learning everywhere.
–Royce Holladay, May 15, 2014


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I’m All for Systemic Change! But, uh…Which System?

Last week, I heard aarguing-characters-shows-disagreement-discussion-or-dispute-100206611 passionate conversation between a teacher and an administrator about how to transform learning in their school district. The conversation circled around questions familiar to school reformers.  Who has the power to make significant change? Who needs to be thinking outside the box? Who needs to listen to the other side? In other words, who needs to transform first, to make system-wide transformation possible?

The subtext in this familiar (and sometimes painful) debate is this:  What is the teacher’s role? What is the administrator’s role? And also, whose fault is it when transformation gets stuck?

That conversation made me think about other conversations (debates? arguments?) I have engaged in over the years. They usually involve a whole list of “if only” statements:

  • If only teachers would let go of those methods that aren’t working . . .
  • if only administrators would listen to teachers . . .
  • if only teachers would respond to individual students’ needs . . .
  • if only administrators would come work alongside me in the classroom for just one day . . .

You get the idea. The blame game.

The problem with this kind of talk is that each perspective is focusing on only one “place” in the larger system—either the classroom or the administrator’s office. They are, however, parts of the larger whole. So where do we begin if our goal is to set conditions for systemic, transformational change?

  • at the classroom–where teachers are the most likely to help individual students learn?
  • at the campus–where an innovative and perceptive leader can make a huge difference to both students and teachers?
  • at the district–where leaders can set conditions that shape interactions up and down the system?
  • in the policy arena–where decisions about resources and priorities are powerful levers?

And those are just the formal layers of the system. What about other networks of influence?

  • families?
  • advocacy groups?
  • the business community?
  • publishers and software companies?
  • researchers and teachers in higher education?
  • community-based organizations?
  • foundations and others who might fund our initiatives?

Whew. Clearly, we are not just dealing with one big, unified system. We are working in many systems simultaneously—and those systems are nested, overlapping, and massively entangled!  They are also constantly moving and changing, adapting and self-organizing in unpredictable ways. Schools are made up of large numbers of highly diverse, interdependent individuals, groups, and communities. Each one plays a particular role in how the system functions, and each brings unique agendas and histories.

So where do we begin?

We begin anywhere. We begin everywhere. In complex adaptive systems, patterns emerge from the way individual agents in the system behave—in the ways they do their jobs and in the ways they communicate with one another. And if our goal is to transform the system—to encourage patterns like innovation, responsiveness, adaptation, and joy—we cannot expect school change to begin only in the classroom or only in the boardroom. Everyone in the system needs to behave in coherent ways. Everyone in the system needs to follow a short list of “simple rules.”

Everyone needs to set conditions for others to engage in innovative, responsive, adaptive, and joyful behaviors.

Transformation doesn’t move from the top down or from the bottom up. It emerges from individual actions throughout the system.  So let’s move beyond those arguments about where to begin. Let’s just do it. All together. Now!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sticky Issues and Messy Learning

two girls inquiry.001Learning may be a natural and necessary meaning-making process, but it can also be messy and frustrating, especially when we get “stuck” — when we face a seemingly intractable problem. Seth Horwitt, who teaches 5th graders, tells about how he and his students make sense of their sticky issues with Adaptive Action — a three-step inquiry/action cycle (What? So What? and Now What?)

Seth says:

Often, one sticky issue is “nested” in a larger issue.  Finding and addressing that larger sticky issue is what brings system transformation. I have to say that I find myself constantly going through Adaptive Action cycles, large and small. It seems that these cycles flow from one to another. . . I have come to describe sticky issues as nesting dolls.

I agree. It is sometimes hard to tell where one inquiry ends and another one begins. Here — in Seth’s words — are some of those messy but necessary learning cycles.


Adaptive Action Cycle #1


This year our district lost all class-size-reduction funding.  As a result our classrooms are minimally at 30 kids per room.  This has had a dramatic impact on student behavior, especially during recess and lunchtime. The biggest problems arise at kinder lunch. My principal got very frustrated and shared that frustration in an e-mail to the staff.  She stated that teachers need to “crack down” on the kids’ behavior.  But I thought there had to be a different way (than cracking down) to approach this problem. Students are not behaving as they should.  This has caused frustration and this frustration will be communicated downward to the kids.

So What Does This Mean?

We have tried this in the past.  “Cracking down” (whatever that means….) is the usual way that school systems respond to discipline issues.  What methods and models could we apply to this situation that might give us insight into creating a novel solution? The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  Has cracking down on student behavior been tried before?  If so, what were the results?  Did this action provide the results that we were looking for?  Were these results lasting and sustainable? What could be tried that has never been tried before?

Now What Shall We Do?

One pattern that we as a site and as a district have been trying to establish is one of student engagement in critical thinking and problem solving. So, how can we look at this “problem” as an opportunity to amplify that pattern–to invite students to think about it?  I decided to turn this problem over to my class by engaging it in an Adaptive Action.

Adaptive Action Cycle #2


I presented the class with the problem: kids are not walking in the hallways.  We made a three-part chart: What is the problem? Why do we think it’s happening? What can we do to solve it?  After discussing the issue at length with the class, the kids were ready to report their findings. My students and I collaborated on an e-mail to the faculty. As I wrote the message, taking their input and projecting it on the screen, the students saw the text being typed, and they negotiated the content to get it just “right.”  The kids were totally empowered by the experience. . .

Our discussion was all about asking questions…particularly “why”…in order to understand how things “are” so that we could help make them better. I wanted to make sure that it was NOT intended to blame anyone for anything. I sent this message to my colleagues:

Dear Teachers, After reading the principal’s note about running in the hallways, I asked myself what I could do to help the situation. It occurred to me that I needed more information about the problem in order to address it in a meaningful way. So, I decided to take a risk and ask my class what they thought. I didn’t have a lesson planned; we just had a discussion. Wow, was it eye-opening!

Here is what my kids had to say: Big Picture: We have a lack of respect problem at our site.  While we say that our school rules are, “Be safe, Be respectful and Be responsible” that is not how kids are treating each other at recess.

So What Does This Mean?

As we talked, it became a clear possibility that the reason that kids aren’t respecting the rules, it that they don’t feel respected by one another.  This is not a teacher/kid issue, it is a kid/kid issue. I asked my class to think about why kids were ignoring teacher’s requests to walk in the halls after lunch.  They were extremely clear about why kids were motivated to run. We only addressed two main reasons. There could be more, but I wanted to share these with you now.They are very solvable.

The first issue the kids mentioned is that there aren’t enough red flags to play “Space Invaders” or Capture the Flag at lunch.  Whether this is true or not is irrelevant.  This is what kids believe.  According to my class, kids are running to make sure that they get to play.  A possible solution that my class suggested was for grade levels to take turns—maybe a 3rd/4th grade day with the flags and 5th grade playing on the grass and then switch.  Or, maybe, more red flags?

The second issue is much bigger.  According to my class we have SERIOUS issues at four-square.  Basically kids are making up their own rules.  The most detrimental “rule” that the kids have come up with is that whoever gets the ball and court is in charge.  In essence if you get there first, you get to control the game for everyone for the entire recess.  That is why kids are running!

The rules being made by the kids are neither safe, respectful or responsible.  An example of a “rule” that kids have made up is “GOD POWER”.  God power is more powerful than “punchies”, “spinnies” or “slammies”.  A possible solution for this problem that my class suggested was a four-square rules refresher course.  The kids also suggested training kids to help solve four-square problems, using a printed copy of the rules as reference. The crux of the issue, according to the data that I collected from my students, is that we have a pervasive pattern of disrespectful competition between kids.  It seems highly likely that this is starting to spill over into kids’ interactions with teachers.

Now What Shall We Do?

I believe that if we start to address the issues kids are facing at recess, we will start to ameliorate the overall “behavioral” problems that we’re seeing at the site.

On a pedagogical note, the process that I went through with my kids to come up with this information has really impacted me.  We, as a site, have spent a great deal of time and energy encouraging our kids to be independent thinkers and powerful collaborators. I now understand that I need to put those skills to work to solve real life problems, not so that I can get a grade for them, but so I can empower kids to actively engage in decision-making about their lives.

Kids may be causing “problems” but they’re also our best asset in finding “solutions.”

Sincerely yours, Seth


So those are two of Seth’s “nested” cycles of inquiry and action. The next cycle is all about how his colleagues —and campus administrators—responded to his message. Stay tuned for that post.

The point here is that authentic learning (and problem-solving) is all about asking “What? So What? and Now What?”  — over and over again! In curriculum documents, the inquiry process can look fairly linear, predictable, and pristine. In the real world, as Seth’s stories illustrate, it’s messy—messy, but not hopeless.

And maybe the messiness is where we can learn the most!


Further Questions?
Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, CA: Stanford University Press.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Learning, Adaptive Action, and the Moon


Some weeks ago, I was driving my two granddaughters home after dinner. It was only dusky-dark, but the full moon was already visible. Five-year-old Claire saw it first: “See the moon! It’s so big tonight! Is it a full moon yet?” When two-year-old Brooke spotted it, she squealed, “Moon! Moon! Moon! Ball!  Moon! Ball!”

They were both—from different perspectives—noticing, naming, interpreting patterns. They were learning without paying attention to the process.

Learning happens whether we pay attention or not.  The brain is a learning organ, and the healthy brain must learn—that’s what it does. When human beings engage with the world, we learn. We notice, name, and make sense of patterns in our experiences.

If we think of “learning” in this way, we can see it daily. Hourly. Minute-by-minute. Learning doesn’t have to be a deliberate (or painful) process, but in schools, where our business is learning, we need to make the process more visible and deliberate.  We need to set conditions so that learning can happen. The question is this: How do we ensure that this natural and necessary learning process happens every day, for every student?

This is not a new question. (John Dewey had quite a bit to say about it, for example.)  But across the complex landscape of teaching and learning in schools today, educators and policy-makers have yet to answer that question in a coherent or systemic way. We see “best practices,” mandated programs, and accountability schemes, but none of those have yet answered that question in a coherent or sustainable way.

Here’s an alternative. It’s not an answer, but it’s a way to search for answers—Adaptive Action.  Adaptive Action is a deceptively simple inquiry/action cycle that makes learning a systemic function in complex system.

With Adaptive Action, we try to frame a deliberate learning process with three questions:

  • What?  — What do we notice? How do those experiences, observations, perceptions create patterns?
  • So what? — So what do these patterns mean? to us? to others? What might have caused these patterns to form in this way? How might they trigger new patterns?
  • Now what? — Now what shall we do next? Now what are our new questions?

AA w questions2

Adaptive Action is not about conducting a long-term inquiry before taking action; nor is it a series of action steps before a summative evaluation. It is an iterative cycle that integrates inquiry and action at each moment. It’s about always and ever taking an inquiry stance. What is happening? So what does it mean? Now what shall we do?

Just a few days ago, I was again driving the granddaughters home after dinner. This time, we couldn’t locate the moon. . . “Where’s the moon?” Brooke wondered. “Where’s the ball moon?” she demanded again, almost in tears. Uh-oh—an interruption to the pattern that had been so noticeable just weeks before. What happened to our moon?

Older sister Claire tapped on the window and asked a passing car:  “Excuse me. Have you seen the moon?”

It was another Adaptive Action cycle at work. And another lesson about learning.

More Information

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.

Credits:           Photo: The Moon – Facts About The Moon For Kids

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Stop Swinging that Pendulum. Please.

If we are truly interested in school reform, we have to decide what to do about that pesky old pendulum. In each wave of reform, we see policies swing from one extreme to the other: from critical thinking to the “basics;” from inquiry to direct instruction; from process to product; from standardization to individualization. And back again. Even more frustrating is when the pendulum swings back and forth for day-to-day decisions on our campuses. When the pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, the inevitable contradictions can confuse and, ultimately, paralyze us.

The problem with that old pendulum swing is that a pendulum moves back and forth, back and forth, with no forward movement. It covers the same ground again and again. Or, as in Poe’s short story, its razor-sharp edge swings lower and lower with each pass, threatening to destroy whatever it touches.

No wonder educators are cynical about the potential for genuine and lasting reform.

This maddening focus on first one extreme and then another is grounded in a simplistic understanding of teaching and learning. It comes from incomplete and insufficient models of how human beings work together. When we don’t know how to deal with the complexities inherent in human thought and action, we tend to divide experiences into polarized categories, like those in the list below. See if this list of extremes is relevant to the pendulum swings you see in your school.


Figure 1. Extremes (Interdependent Pairs). Each of these dimensions represents two opposite extremes. The school reform pendulum tends to swing back and forth from one extreme to the other.

When we don’t understand how complex systems work, we tend to see these as either-or choices. We choose sides. We cite the research that supports our version of the world, and we quote the authorities who agree with us, whether John Dewey or Arne Duncan.

From a complex systems perspective, however, we think of these as interdependent pairs, each one naming opposing ends of a continuum along a particular dimension of the system. But they are not separate. Each extreme gives meaning to the other, and both are potentially useful to sustaining the system.

The answer to most questions about generative and sustainable instruction and educational policy should be, “It depends.” Reformers who understand how complex adaptive systems work know that individual actors, intentions, resources, and context are critical. Whether it is better to focus on standardization or diversity, for example, depends on many interdependent issues—identities, intentions, objectives, and current practices. Usually, the best path is whatever proves most appropriate at a particular point in time. The question is “What fits here and now?” Or “What is our next, most useful step forward?”

Often, for example, the most appropriate fit for some procedures is standardization; yet other decisions can focus on the diverse range of unique resources each teacher and learner brings. But how do we decide what is “most appropriate” and what will sustain the patterns we want to see in our system?

Glenda Eoyang and her colleagues who use principles from human systems dynamics (HSD) suggest the Landscape Diagram as a way to think about what actions are the most appropriate points between any two extremes. Think of the Landscape Diagram as a two-dimensional space within any system. One dimension is about the degree of agreement about specific options. The other dimension is about the degree of certainty that this path will lead where we want to go.
Take a few minutes to look back at the chart above. Think about how each of those extremes can map onto the Landscape Diagram—either toward more “Organized” or toward more “Unorganized.”
landscape diagram

Figure 2. Landscape Diagram. This diagram helps us think about how to avoid extreme “pendulum swings” by making decisions appropriate to particular issues or situations.

In situations where we all agree on the course of action and we are certain that a particular action will achieve what we need, we can choose more “top-down,” “convergent,” or “standardized” approaches. Here are some examples that may make sense:

  • payroll procedures
  • bus routes and schedules
  • fire drills
  • tardy policies
  • documentation of differentiated instruction
  • learning math facts
  • procedures and reports in science lab
  • writing a “how-to” paper in language arts.

In situations where there is less agreement on one right way to proceed or when the outcome is not certain, more flexibility (less organized or constrained decisions) is appropriate: • writing poetry

  • writing poetry
  • project-based learning
  • inquiry-based approaches
  • professional learning communities focusing on student achievement
  • attempts to shift the culture of a campus or faculty toward shared inquiry
  • transitional support for special needs learners into mainstream classes
  • supporting English learners who each have unique strengths and needs.

We might even think of options for action that apply to each of the extremes listed in the charts above. Here are possibilities:
rejecting extremes 7-27

Figure 3. Options for Rejecting the Extremes. These guidelines can help educators take action to avoid the swings from one extreme to the other.

This approach, grounded in complexity thinking, absolutely rejects that old pendulum metaphor. This approach requires, instead, that we have shared agreements, that we pay attention to what is happening in the moment, and that we think together about what makes sense to support student learning. In other words, it calls for “Adaptive Action” (Eoyang & Holladay, 2013; Patterson, Holladay, & Eoyang, 2013).

Please join me in this conversation:

  • Does one or more of these options for action fit your situation?
  • Do any of these make sense for your work?
  • Can you think of other options?


  • Eoyang, G. H. and Holladay, R. (2013). Adaptive Action: Leveraging uncertainty in your organization. Palo Alton, 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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized