Supermini course: the adaptive cycle

January 9, 2019

Social and systems innovators that we know have consistently cited the adaptive cycle as one of the most useful tools for understanding their system and their role as systems innovators. An artist in Sweden has even tried to capture the idea in a sculpture! Why is this model so loved? And what is it anyway?

  1. What is the adaptive cycle? This is a model—meaning an incomplete and time-bound representation of reality—that helps you see the stages of your initiative: where you’re at currently, and what is likely to come next. Our systems innovator’s glossary has a basic definition, which you can also find in Swahili here, Spanish here, Portuguese here, and Hindi here (with more languages to follow in the future). As the definition says, the model’s purpose is to analyse the resilience of a system. It comes out of the ecological sciences but is equally useful in social contexts. Watch segment 2.2 here for a quick overview of the adaptive cycle.
  2. I see how this applies in natural systems—but what about social-ecological contexts? Watch segment 2.3 here to understand how the adaptive cycle applies for the kind of work most changemakers are involved in.
  3. Related to this is the idea of panarchy – but what is it? Our glossary (in all the languages listed above) has a definition for panarchy, as well. You can find it at the same links as in #1, above. The important point here is the idea of nested scales; that is, that scales are interconnected. Processes go through the adaptive cycle at all the different scales and they’re connected. The Resilience Alliance has a brief description of this here. You can even think of the adaptive cycle and panarchy right down to the individual scale—to yourself.
  4. Try a thought experiment. Think about an issue you’re dealing with or process you’re going through right now, as an individual. Look at the adaptive cycle diagram and see if you can pinpoint where in the adaptive cycle you are right now. What insight does this give you into what you’ve left behind or need to let go of? And into what you might need to prepare for next? Now think about how your individual experience is connected to several other scales up (e.g. your family or community, city, region, state, etc.). Can you see how each level has its own adaptive cycle—which may be at different stages—and how they’re connected? Can you begin to see how the scales interact with each other?
  5. Take it easy. If the adaptive cycle is new to you, you might have found the thought experiment a bit tricky or confusing. Don’t worry! Take the time to reflect and let it sink in. It will make more sense over time.
  6. What do I do with this? It’s helpful to know where your initiative is along the adaptive cycle. There are different needs and different problems at each phase; so, if you’re clear on what phase you’re in, you can work to address these needs—and prepare for the needs of the next phase, which will inevitably come! Watch segment 3.11 here for some basics on this. Some initiatives move through the phases very slowly, but sometimes this can happen very quickly, too. At the same time, your initiative is nested within a larger system—which sits within a yet larger one—and so on, which may be at different stages. This can help illuminate points of friction or opportunity for you. Analysing the stage your organisation is in may be similarly illuminating.
  7. How do I work with this? As an individual, you’ll be proceeding through the adaptive cycle over and over again, and it’s interesting to observe where you’re at and how this affects your interactions. It’s also interesting to understand at which stage of the adaptive cycle your strengths are most relevant and where you feel most challenged. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work on initiatives that are at other stages, but it may give you valuable insights into how you can best contribute and when it may be time to move on. Watch segment 3.14 here for an introduction to this kind of analysis for yourself and your colleagues. (Note: in this segment, the term “systems entrepreneur is used.” You can read the definition of this term here in our glossary. It refers to a changemaker who is not just innovating, but also trying to shift the system that is creating the problem in the first place.)
  8. Are there tools for this? Here’s one: what we call the systems entrepreneur skills inventory. After you’ve answered the questions, fill in the answer key. The scores show your relative strengths in the different phases of the adaptive cycle. This is something you can use to think about your own skills (what you want to build on; what you might want to develop further; how your skills match or don’t match with the phase of the adaptive cycle that your current initiative is in, and so on) or to analyse the skills of your team as a whole, assessing the balance of skills you need. It’s a beginning point for exploration and discussion.

Further reading and resources: