Transforming Complex Systems

Richard Hames • • Published on September 26, 2016

The Case for Wayfinding

Transformation – as in a complete change of substance, form and appearance – is all the rage. During a recent two-day international management conference, where I delivered the opening and closing keynotes, the term transformation was mentioned in every presentation, with the exception of mine, at least twice.

The need for transformation is on everyone’s lips. It is held in awe by shareholders who seek superior profits, discussed in hushed tones by People & Culture executives, and revered by professional services firms as the latest trendiest way to sell their services. But for all the hype transformation in an organisational context is pretty rare. Incremental tweaking or opportunistic expansion, often punctuated by ill-advised downsizing, still dominate the stuttering evolutionary ostinatos within most organisations.

Many in vogue words like transformation enjoy limited currency – entering the language primed as trends, yet drained of authentic meaning. As is so often the case we are all talk and swagger.

Outside of corporations and public service agencies pundits write about the need for social transformation – to dismantle the most toxic aspects of our civilisational model so as to create a world that works for everyone – and personal transformation in order to be able to stay sane and aligned in an era of constant and accelerating change. Few of them have any useful advice to offer in terms of how best to trigger such a fundamental transmutation – for that is what it is.

Some talk more modestly and pragmatically about linear, cyclical or spiral transitions, dependent upon their personal inclinations for attracting attention or staying under the radar. But even here pathways are often unclear and agreement limited to the portal of disruption through which we need to transit in order to achieve the new state.

We all know how emotions can run amuck whenever the need for massive change is considered. Could it be that the doyens of change do not fully grasp what is entailed when they talk so glibly about transformation and how it differs from transition? Are they just being lazy with their language? Is transformation even a serious proposition in most cases?

Transformation, quite literally, is generally posited as the most complete kind of change possible. And that is correct. Scientifically speaking it is recognised as the full or partial mutation of a living organism into a totally different form but with the identical DNA – the cellular metamorphosis whereby a chrysalis becomes a butterfly for example.

The mystery of metamorphosis is that the caterpillar has no encoded roadmap nor concept of its future form. There is no teleological disposition to evolve a certain way. Instead, unable to move within the chrysalis, the new organism arises from the liquefaction of its prior form. The mush of the dying caterpillar contains a few single-cell organisms that resonate at different frequencies to others. These imaginal cells are the seeds of future potential. At first these new cells are attacked by the old immune system. Gradually they increase in numbers. As they start clustering together, they pass genetic information back and forth. The mush becomes a nutritious soup enabling more clustering until, at last, a butterfly is born.

In any social, commercial or political context, the process of transformation is not triggered by biological coding. It is therefore far more imprecise, but still implies rapid evolution of almost every factor within an organic structure, relative to its immediate past form and present environment.

The impulse for societal transformation in today’s context commonly arises as a response to unusually disruptive conditions. As a phenomenon it can be induced. But the efflorescence that follows is largely unpredictable. Unlike incremental change, or transitions that can be designed, planned, rehearsed, resourced and managed, transformational change cannot be regulated. In other words control, in a strictly mechanistic sense, becomes impossible once the process of transformation actually starts. In social systems, as in biology, nature takes over.

This is why I believe the appreciative heuristic of wayfinding within whole system change is so critical. Wayfinders are the social equivalents of imaginal cells in the natural world. Just as in nature the wayfinding cells have only a partial knowledge of what is required and who they will become. Clustering and collaboration are vital for the new organism to evolve. So how should we understand wayfinding?

The contemporary practise of wayfinding allows for constant adjustments to be made within the process of transformative change. Explicitly it refers to a dialogical, collaborative design praxis; a knowledge amplifier where the past is reinterpreted, current systems are reinvented, and new pathways into the future constructed – all from a congruent appreciation of what it means to be human. In this experiential state of not knowing the constant fine-tuning of contextual energetics, through tiny adjustments to trajectory and speed, allows wayfinders, those with an acute sense of complexity and the capability of tuning in to the most subtle of environmental signals, to surf the dynamics of coevolution.

The term wayfinding itself is taken from an ancient wisdom tradition that enabled Micronesian master navigators to travel vast distances on the open ocean. Using finely-tuned observations of the stars, the sun, the clouds, the ocean swells, and other signs of nature for clues as to direction and location of a vessel at sea, these master navigators were voyaging with pinpoint accuracy for thousands of years before the invention of European navigational instruments. By continuously monitoring the environment they knew where they were, relative to where they had come from. Wayfinders were the navigators who held their vessels to be fixed points on a star compass – the art and science of wayfinding enshrined in their ability to visualise a destination until it became visible on the horizon. These mental constructs ensured they did not get lost.

Today, our society is in urgent need of master navigators and wayfinding. Crucial questions on many a mind are (i) can we evolve fast enough to master our technological ingenuity rather than it controlling us; and (ii) are we wise enough to survive our own success as a species?  Answers to these questions are by no means certain. Having lost sight of where we have come from, our present is collapsing, our future has become dark, and the way unclear and confused. Indeed without revised plans and a drastic course correction we risk losing our way completely. It is clearly time for new mental constructs. It is time for transformation.

But while transformation does not necessarily entail disruption – yet another in vogue mantra heard over and over again these days, usually in the context of innovation – the expertise and skills of wayfinders to navigate coevolutionary progress within a transformational framework does entail both learning and appreciation – the constant detection, exploration, synthesis and application of relevant meta-level information – for reasons that are possibly self-evident. But now we run into a problem. What type of learning is necessary and how should it be applied?

The First Barrier

We lack the disposition for sophisticated, formalised, collective learning. Even where there is a genuine pre-existing comprehension of what it will involve, including hard evidence of a shared desire on the part of a social group to encourage transformation, there are often impediments to learning that get in the way.

Many years ago the American experiential educationalist David Kolb pointed out that the cycle of learning in individuals could be broken down into four stages:

1.    Experiencing an event in the real world and asking “What happened?”

2.    Making sense of what happened by reflecting on “Why did it happen?”

3.    Inventing an appropriate response to what happened in the light of why it happened

4.    Applying that response to the situation.

This process is both iterative and recursive. In other words, it is seamlessly cyclical – which is why we usually are unconscious of the various steps within this learning cycle. Learning becomes more deliberate – and far more strategic – when we (5) diligently monitor what occurs moment by moment in the system as we apply our response, and (6) modify our original response(s) based on fresh or more refined observations and analysis.

The greater sophistication we can bring to each step in the strategic learning process generally means more options and design possibilities open up for us in each stage of learning.

Thus tracing Kolb’s cycle from a higher altitude[1] enables:

1.    A far greater number of observed features to be included as being salient to what happened. These might include factors ordinarily regarded as of secondary importance, or even irrelevant and dismissed without difficulty, as well as those that present in unexpected ways – e.g. abnormal behaviours resulting from psychological trauma.

2.    Instead of assuming that simple cause and effect relationships lead to predictable results and must be held responsible for any incident, non-linear and asymmetric causalities are also sought in order to determine why it happened the way it did.

3.    A considered response that is less about a particular factor and much more to do with a whole-of-system design architecture. If the system in which the event occurred can be held in the mind, or made more palpable through the use of visualisation technologies, working on even the subtlest of the dynamic relationships between the various parts becomes feasible. This level of sophistication leads to a greater likelihood that our responses will be more effective – both immediately and over time.

4.    The creative resolution of tensions within the system now becomes possible. This allows us to avoid unacceptable trade-offs that may have previously been incorporated into our response because of a perceived absence of options.

From this schema it becomes more apparent that the thinking functions of making sense (of an event) and designing (a suitable response) are cognitive processes. They are undertaken in mindful reflection, whereas the relatively undemanding work of experiencing (the initial event) and applying a response is an expedient enactment of that design in the exterior world.

Successful wayfinding for beneficial transformational outcomes in any domain depends upon a level of conscious cognitive elegance. Yet often we leap from sensing what is going on to applying a solution as an unthinking knee jerk reaction – very often using ingrained memories of what we did last time this happened as a clue to how we should react this time. In doing so we bypass the time we need for analysis, reflection and synthesis, so as to respond wisely and prudently in terms of wayfinding.

The Second Barrier

It gets more problematic. The second barrier is located beyond the capacity of the basic cycle and strategic learning modules outlined above to even imagine or deal with systemic appreciation – a deep awareness of the whole field of change. But learning is just learning I hear you say? Wrong. It turns out that comprehensive systemic appreciation is less common and far less easy to grasp than Kolb’s illustration suggests. Indeed, in order to access it comprehensively we need to shift from our customary experiential concrete reality, and the ambiguously individualised vocabulary we use to communicate that to others, to one that also includes a generative mode of learning.

Once we have opened the interface to our innermost thoughts and feelings – the filters we use to understand ourselves and our relations with the world – we can then use the same cycle but in a much more insightful manner. Usually this kind of “treatment” of our most intimate thoughts and observations are only to be found in therapy or counselling situations.

It is nevertheless a powerful process in our context. For one thing axiomatic hypotheses can be queried. These are the filters that, when used appropriately, allow us to comprehend ourselves and our relationship with the world around us better. Pausing in this space for a while can be wonderfully unsettling. It gives us a unique opportunity to test and dismantle current norms, as well as to examine the reifying connections between our beliefs.

These reifying connections, or synapses, usually remain out of our functional awareness, unless we can induce some kind of altered state of consciousness to make them palpable. But they are important to detect if we are to navigate entirely new possibilities. For only then, can seeds of doubt, usually in the form of new intelligence and fresh insights, be woven into the broader contextual landscape. Doubts serve to perturb and shake up any profound convictions we might have, highlighting blind spots and untenable predeterminations.

Step by step we can dismantle current prejudices – encouraging letting go of our attachment to any certainties – what we know for sure – that impede us being able to perceive alternatives, and opening ourselves to a deeper potential for reinventing knowledge systems where tensions between heartfelt moods, visceral emotions and cognitive constructions can be accommodated, and where greater choices for real-world designs present themselves as emergent qualities.

If we ignore the implications of using the learning cycle at this systemic level we run the very real risk of reifying beliefs that could actively dislocate transformation or delude us into assuming we are in control of such metamorphoses. To believe one is in control is always comforting of course. But it is a mistake.

The Third Barrier

Our sense of time, we are reliably informed by science, is an illusion. Technically speaking we can consider chronometrics as convenient. Clocks assist the sorting of events in our minds. However I have no doubt we are too often constrained in our ability to “think ahead” because of the way we reflect upon, talk about, and use time. Mostly we are trapped in chronometric constructs that have a valuable coordinating function but offer little else of value.

Most people are only fully “alive” to what we refer to as the here and now. The present moment. In fact many spiritual teachings, such as Buddhism for example, reinforce the importance of being fully aware in the present as the only corporeal reality. But the wayfinding experience demands that we become fully engaged within an expanded now that frames a broader context. This “now” is elastic – stretching backwards and forwards in time and pulling all versions of the past and the possible into the present “electric” moment so as to generate new thoughts and new narratives.

Although that sounds weird it is actually very grounded. For example, human performance at its peak is an expression of this expandednow. What we physically and emotionally encounter when we listen to an amazing live musical performance or watch an exceptional sporting spectacle, for example, gives us goose bumps. We can account for the mystery in different ways. But at its core is a compression of past experiences with desired possibilities pulled into a present. Moment by moment. To a performer it is often felt as an altered state of “flow” where literally everything becomes easy and the sense of time freezes into slow motion.

So the third possibility that transformation will fail us – or rather that we will fail to grasp what is forming – is when we have no means for (a) calibrating and (b) sharing what is happening in this expandednow of our collective consciousness. As a general rule:

1.    Although people within a social system can decide to initiate a transformational process, it is impossible for them to accurately predict – prior to transformation occurring – what the eventual outcome(s) will be. In other words our ability to anticipate the future state of any system is severely limited. That is not to say prediction is impossible. It simply requires a level of forensic analysis and processing that is highly granular and therefore relatively uncommon.

2.    Once a system has been transformed it will not be immediately knowable, nor plausible, for those still only aware of and living in the previous system. Most people will continue as if they are inhabiting the old system until sufficient numbers of contextual markers indicate new realities.

The forensic analysis of a system’s components, constraints and dynamics in the expanded now of time experienced as virtually static, allows some degree of calibration, bolsters the capability to foresee the likelihood of an event occurring, and reveals how best to adjust pace and trajectory in a series of small benign nudges.

The Fourth Barrier

The fourth and final barrier has to do with the difficulties that groups encounter when trying to process, communicate, and convince others of the validity of their learnings.

Kolb’s cycle, as we have seen, really only deals with individual learning. Group learning presents altogether different challenges. For example, even at the best of times, we are not particularly well-disposed to share our most intimate perceptions and insights.

Because the way conventional information transactions are configured, based upon the same principles as those we apply to the ownership of land and capital [entitlement, competition, and the accretion of financial value] we defend proprietary knowledge with all the protectionist apparatus we can muster – from patents and trademarks to non-disclosure undertakings and everything in between.

This habit can be traced to the UK’s Enclosure Acts that began in the 12th century and became even more commonplace after the Industrial Revolution. In search of better financial returns, landowners looked for more efficient farming techniques. Enclosures were also created so that landowners could charge higher rents to the people working the land. This was at least partially responsible for peasant farmers leaving the countryside to work in the city’s industrial factories. Gradually these protectionist policies eroded the wealth of the commons.

Today, with the rise of peer-to-peer, open source, social economies, the knowledge needed to help transform global society is being unshackled from private ownership and control. But using this knowledge is still an issue for us – burdened by an unjustifiable sense of supremacy and exceptionalism held by some, as much as by our innate intransigence in challenging what each of us “knows for sure”.

For a social group of any size or disposition to see and appreciate a set of circumstances through the eyes and feelings of others is an utterly distinct proposition to the acquisition or application of discrete individual knowledge. The latter requires contextual empathy and the willingness to set aside both individual and group prejudices in order to fully appreciate alternative values, beliefs, ideas and opinions. This can be very disconcerting but also hard to fit in with our current prejudices regarding the characteristics of one group when compared with others – differences ranging from subtle preferences [as in dietary penchants, for example] to seriously mandated distinctions [as in religious beliefs].

But learning through the mechanism of collective exploration is the key to conscious evolution of the human family. If we talk about societal transformation we are inevitably drawn into the task of opening our minds to alternative experiences of what it means to be human and giving those diverse experiences the legitimacy they currently lack.

If the first of these is difficult, the second appears to be nigh impossible. In a world where state-imposed rules, laws and cultural conventions equate to crude moral notions of right and wrong, yet also shift from one territory to another, sometimes in quite elusive ways, the abstract notion of borders, for example, is a useful mechanism for separating one group from another in addition to maintaining a semblance of order in the movements between groups. Viewed from a purely moral standpoint – humanity as a single integrated species – the concept of borders as a means to separate and distinguish one tribe from another might be regarded as unethical, superfluous and a form of violence.

My conclusion is that we need to find acceptable ways to access, respect, learn and apply the numerous cultural mindsets that each one of us uses in order to navigate, translate and interpret the civilisational worldview, without mitigating their potential impact or insisting upon trade-offs between different cultural traditions based purely upon power and wealth. Only then can we begin to fully appreciate the need for cooperation at all levels of society.

Unfortunately our present tendency is to allow the Occidental mindset and its holier-than-thou morality to dominate all others. This is dangerous for any number of reasons, the main one being the tendency for power structures within the Western tradition to homogenise and neutralise all others, while leaving the dominant worldview intact – even going to great lengths to protect its imperatorial tedium.

The ascendency of this monoculture, both within the West as well as in other societies its rules and norms infuse, can be seen so clearly across many domains. We unconsciously subscribe to its propaganda, however outrageous this is. This Westernised monoculture is most publicly evident in the sphere of geopolitical relations. For example, whistleblowers like Edward Snowden are branded traitors rather than heroes. Journalists like Julian Assange who publish facts or release evidence that refute officialdom are silenced or forced to do penance. Russia and China are censured for all manner of atrocities while the deaths of more than 20 million people around the world that can be attributed to the US since 9/11 are ignored. Meanwhile claims that US exceptionalism presents the greatest danger to humanity are scorned by corporately-owned media and their political sidekicks. We try to hide from the fact that the UK is the biggest arms dealer in history – fuelling extremism and underwriting rogue regimes. We condone and encourage a seemingly lasting state of war between the US and any group possessing a different belief system, or culture, or owning resources that we covet. Israel is beyond reproach because criticism might be interpreted as anti-Semitic. On the other hand it is justifiable to brand all Muslims as would-be terrorists. We permit large agribusiness companies to poison our soils with chemicals and are then persuaded by their sweet talk of their right to make profits irrespective of the damage it does to small farming communities. We are far more ready to jail people who do not share the colour of our skin or our religion. China’s aspirations as a global leader are constantly, calculatingly, misconstrued. Need I go on?


Our understanding of transformation, and how we might harness the process of metamorphosis to address some of the more complex matters facing humanity, will be severely limited until we can jump the hurdles I have identified here. Once we have over come these barriers we will be in a better position to influence the pace and trajectory of any transformation we initiate or that is imposed upon us by nature.

Firstly we need to acquire profound knowledge – extending our ability to learn through a spirit of generosity, respect, empathy and reciprocity. The intention must be to develop a new polyocular wisdom for change – one that can be applied universally without running the risk of destroying the astonishing richness within human diversity or limiting the potential of our species to advance.

Secondly we need to develop a deeper, more holistic, understanding of the various contexts for change – including the energetics and dynamics of emergence – and be prepared to let go of any tendency to control outcomes that benefit a majority but that happen to be dissonant with our original intentions or ideologies.

Thirdly we must practice shifting our attention from chronological time to an expanded now of awareness so as to incorporate issues that might otherwise be disregarded or ignored as being inconsequential to the matter at hand.

Finally we must have the courage and humility to incorporate the deeply inculcated views of others, including those with whom we hardly ever consult, in order to arrive at solutions that genuinely service all our needs and make the world work better for everyone.

These four final tenets underpin the experience of contemporary wayfinding – a dialogical method developed by Richard Hames & Marvin Oka and practiced by Centre for the Future for exploring complex systemic issues, and finding appropriate design solutions, within the context of a continuously evolving human consciousness.

[1] I often refer to this higher altitude learning as coming from an integral perspective. By this I mean the inclusion of all knowledge needed to fully comprehend a system and its dynamics. This should not to be confused with the use of the term integral by Ken Wilber and the “integral movement”.

Richard David Hames is a corporate philosopher, author and knowledge designer. Working at the interface between organisations and society, he is widely considered to be among the world’s most influential intellectuals and strategic futurists. An Australian citizen, educated in Europe and domiciled in Thailand, Richard has been honoured with numerous awards including a French Government Scholarship, a Leverhulme European Fellowship, the Mondadori Professorial Fellowship and the inaugural Lord Attlee Fellowship.


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