The Adaptive Cycle in Nature
Nature responds to opportunities. Empty spaces fill quickly after a fire destroys a forest and leaves barren ground. Plants adapted to survive in harsh conditions arrive first. Once established, they pave the way for others. Early colonizers are followed by shrubs and trees. Over time, the ecosystem resettles into a stable state.
In nature, this cycle is repeated again and again, triggered by new disruptions. Resilient ecosystems cope by adapting and rebounding from adverse events. If the disruption is too great, recovery isn’t always possible. The system may collapse instead of entering a new cycle of recovery and growth.
Ecologist C. S. Holling pioneered in applying the concepts of nonlinear dynamics to ecology. He called the repeating pattern of crisis and recovery the ‘Adaptive Cycle,’ and illustrated it as an infinite loop.
In this diagram, published in Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems by Lance H. Gunderson and C. S. Holling, potential is the accumulated reserve of material inside the system and connectedness is the strength of internal linkages and controls that regulate the system and its relationship with the outside world. Potential and connectedness rise and fall as an ecosystem moves through the cycle.
There are two trajectories. The foreloop (from the bottom left to the top right of the diagram) moves from slow, incremental growth (exploitation) to stability and maintenance of the status quo (conservation). The backloop (from the bottom right to the top left) is triggered by a disruption, moving from a rapid release of resources (release) to restructuring and emergence of a new system (reorganization). If reorganization is successful, the cycle repeats itself; otherwise, the system collapses.
The Ecocycle in Organizations
Organizations follow a similar pattern. In his book Crisis and Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change, David K. Hurst applied the Adaptive Cycle to business and called this an ‘ecocycle.’
“The first half of the ecocycle,” Hurst said, “the conventional life cycle, tracks the development of a performance-oriented organization from its entrepreneurial beginnings until it becomes dominated by its technical system and the institutions associated with it.” This is Holling’s foreloop.
“It is toward the end of this loop that the total system starts to become negatively constrained,” Hurst said, “unable to adapt gradually to change and hence prone to crisis. The other half of the ecocycle, the learning loop, is the story of the evolution of a social system, which, after the constraints of the technical system are broken, leads to the emergence of choice, to freedom.” This is Holling’s backloop.
“Thus, for an organization to survive,” Hurst says, “it must continually traverse both loops at all scales – that is, on all levels of the organization.” As in natural systems, the cycle repeats itself.
Hurst used birth, maturity, creative destruction, and reconception in place of Holling’s terms exploitation, conservation, release, and reorganization.
The Sweet Spot
Organizations are challenged to cope with two opposing requirements simultaneously: the need to sustain quality and efficiency, and the need to innovate quickly in response to crisis and change. This creates tension, as an organization has to balance Exploitation of a historically successful model with the Exploration of new possibilities. Hurst calls this zone the ‘Sweet Spot.’
The tensions are described in Hurst’s book The New Ecology of Leadership: Business Mastery in a Chaotic World, which clarifies the differences between Management and Leadership.
Management is about the exercise of power, Hurst says. “It takes power of many kinds to manage size and complexity and to keep an organization on track: power of position, power of processes, power over resources, power to reward, power to punish, and so on. With the organization’s goals considered as givens, management tools and settings are often the embodiment of hierarchical power over people in the form of rules and regulations, specialization, standardization, hierarchy, and incentives.”
Leadership, on the other hand, is about transformation, Hurst says. “[It] is about synthesis, not analysis. If management is about tasks and means (transactional), leadership is about relationships and ends (transformational). Leadership is about hunting, exploration, movement – finding the right questions rather than supplying the right answers. Leadership tools and settings create contexts and conditions for innovation and the discovery of new opportunities.”
Organizations today need to be effective in both worlds.
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on collaboration and transformative change. It was first posted on December 5, 2017, on LinkedIn.