I have been thinking a lot about fractals lately. A fractal is a repeating pattern, in which replication is the same or similar at every level of scale, and is a naturally occurring phenomenon. Fractals are beautiful, perhaps because their repeating patterns at different scale are pleasing – our human brains are wired for visual recognition of patterns. It occurred to me recently that some human systems are similar to fractals, and replicate a pattern at multiple levels. The way an organization makes decisions is likely to be the same way groups within it make decisions, and that is often repeated at the small team level and at the individual level. I once heard organizational culture defined as “the way we do things around here.” (Unfortunately I can’t attribute the quote, I heard it so long ago.) There is an interplay between organizational culture and individual behavior – organizations are still just collections of people, yet anyone who has worked in one and behaved contrary to the org culture knows that there is a strong pull to conform. It is often manifested in many s mall, subtle ways that are hard to clearly point to yet can be quite powerful – feedback from the system to maintain the current state.
This is both good news and bad news for individuals trying to create change. The good news is that if it is true that you are part of a system of fractals, your behavior is connected to the patterns of the organization within which you operate. You could potentially have a significant impact by creating change at the smallest scale – yourself. The bad news is, there is a lot of strength and inertia in the larger pattern, which will likely resist change. However, change at the smallest level is both the best place to practice and learn, and has the highest chance of success. I think it is important to place your hopes for change in perspective of the larger landscape – to be a realistic optimist. Change is absolutely possible, and it may take perseverance, at least until it has had a big enough impact on the larger system to develop some momentum.
My two favorite quotes that inspire me in this regard:
You must be the change you want to see in the world. –Gandhi
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. –Margaret Mead
If there is some truth in this idea that human systems might behave like fractals, and I want to create a more data-informed organizational culture, than I need to start with myself, both as an individual but ever more so as a leader. How often do I actually use data to inform my own decisions? How often do I learn from testing hypotheses and change what I do as a result? The truth – not as often as I could.
One of my personal goals for 2015 – to practice being data-informed more often than wishing others were already behaving that way. And given the tendency of systems to resist change, I need to recruit a small group of thoughtful, concerned fellow citizens to support me in this goal.
I will let you know how it goes in future post(card)s from my journey.