Fractal systems: creating patterns of learning

“The human mind is an incredible pattern recognition machine that can make sense of even the most complex data.” – Nate Silver

If we stopped to think about our lives to date, and we looked at the different experiences, feelings and reactions we’d had, I wonder how many patterns we would be able to distinguish? I have recurring memories about the way I used to do or feel about something, and I would always just put it down to idiosyncrasy, without even noticing patterns – oh, she always does that, or that’s just the way they are…

It reminds me of a kaleidoscope that changes every time we move or introduce new input. But are there actually patterns that we can notice, if we intentionally look, of how our brain reacts to certain situations, and particularly to uncertain ones? It also makes me think of those first disappointing moments of a sports race, or the competition you desperately wanted to win, and the old adage of ‘it’s not about winning – it’s about taking part’. This allows us to step back from the fact that we didn’t win – from our ego reaction – and think differently about the context. We can step out of a reactive state of resignation, move away from the fact that we haven’t succeeded and instead look at the process and get curious about what it means in this context.

Defining the patterns: awareness

The biggest challenge in any change or situation is ultimately the way we think – we are our own worst enemy in this regard! If I take the example of the race above, even if we intentionally craft our own definition of success, the need to constantly reappraise our beliefs, assumptions, biases and ways of working is ever present. We need to remain in a posture of humility and look at learning over knowing, which is of course easier said than done. It is all about stepping out of our bubble – whether it be our race, our team, our meeting room or our site – and thinking more holistically. What makes this manageable is understanding system boundaries and what is below the surface. As Peter Senge tells us: “Systems thinking is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns rather than static snapshots. A set of general principles spanning fields as diverse as physical and social sciences, engineering and management.” Being aware of the systems we live and work in is key to developing muscles to navigate uncertainty and learn from this navigation, but of course the awareness comes from within.

In her new book, The Right Kind of Wrong, Amy Edmondson talks about three levels of awareness: self-awareness, situational awareness and systems awareness. We cannot have either situational or systems awareness without self-awareness, so as ever, it starts on the inside. But this understanding and embodiment of nested systems can also help us better manage failure. Often it is systems and not individuals that produce consequential failures, and therefore interdependence is the key to building and leading healthier cultures in workplace systems, where the science of failing well is an intentional lever. We discuss all this and more in our recent podcast (listen here), but essentially it is all about creating patterns, as any system does, and understanding the fractal part of this is key.

fractal systems : Lilia Daffi

Understanding the patterns: context

Fractals are unique patterns that result from the chaos and unpredictable movement of the world as it evolves. The veins in your hand, water as it twists its way in and out of a tap and then navigates the surface it lands on, or the roots of trees and plants creating their underground webs and networks – these are all fractal patterns. And in today’s world of interconnected systems, we must learn to recognise them. This is the first step of choosing learning over knowing and shifting into a different perspective. Similarly, our mental models can also be likened to fractal patterns – the dance of biases as our patterns adapt to different situations and evolve with the context in which we find ourselves.

Indeed, from ancient tribal peoples to modern painters, film makers and musicians, artists have long been captivated by fractals and utilised them in their work. Gregory Bateson asserts that man must think as Nature does to live in harmony on the earth and, that “the major problems in the world are a result of the difference between how nature works, and the way people think”. I like to think of the analogy with our bodies. I remember the first time I learnt about the muscles and how they work in symbiotic pairs, or the neural labyrinth of fractals that is our brain and how everything is essentially connected to everything else. This creates a ‘dynamic’ and systems are just that: dynamic and evolving constantly. They are forever interacting and are interconnected mazes, as new connections and sometimes new sub-systems emerge. This allows us to initiate new working practices and understand what different value creation brings: piloting new ideas and giving people the possibility to apply what they’ve learnt, empowering them to work differently.

So how do we use our understanding of systems and the different interdependencies and interrelationships at play to deliberately shift to healthy cultures of learning in organisations to allow people to thrive, fail and learn well?

Transforming the patterns: intentional learning

In a recent article penned by the Griffith University on systems and patterns, they tell us that “our experience suggests that no single approach is preeminent. Organisations seeking the best way to ‘many’ shouldn’t ask which is the ‘best’ method; it’s much better to consider which path will work best for a given circumstance”. Defining the model that works for you is why culture change is an inexact science, because it is human at the core and there is no ‘one size fits all’.

Creating regenerative systems and patterns of learning in organisations involves designing learning processes that not only support continuous individual development, but also contribute to the overall resilience and adaptability of the organisation. We need to stay curious and mindful of the complexity we live in, think about the bigger picture of our ecosystems and intentionally move from fixed ideas to more fluid and growth-related ideas. The example of this that I discuss most with both leaders and peers is the reframing of perfection to excellence: giving ourselves permission to recognise the default mental pattern of perfection, preventing stagnation and self-judgement, and embracing the fact that no one really knows but lots of people have great ideas about how it could be done differently! If we are aware, we can understand and then leverage the shift to doing things differently.

Generative AI will have enormous effects on the systems in which we operate and handling this requires us to strive for excellence in what makes us human: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, mindfulness, and a smart way of iterating for learning at scale. This is a longer journey of understanding systems, where people are at and mindset change, as well as having courage and patience and relishing exciting opportunities!

Leaders must support their teams in their everyday workplace, build momentum through agile communities, coach and mentor people to sustain the change and anchor it in the DNA of the organisation. We must create awareness of the patterns in the system and connect people to other products, ideas and ways of doing. This will help us to understand and coach collective teams not only to another way of doing, but also of being, and ultimately coach the organisation to make systemic changes to enable this to take root. We therefore need to be intentional about how we go about creating these patterns in the system as part of the ‘way we do things around here’.

I often refer to these 10 principles for creating systems & patterns of learning:

Holistic design: coming from a systems lens and integrating learning, failing and dialogue seamlessly with daily work processes.

Interdisciplinary approaches: encouraging interdisciplinary learning to foster a holistic understanding of the organisation and the business ecosystems.

Interrelationships: encouraging understanding of the relationships and human systems of an organisation.

Ecosystem thinking: understanding interconnectedness and the interrelationships between various departments, teams, internal and external stakeholders.

An adaptive mindset: cultivating curiosity and patterns for embracing uncertainty, change and failure as opportunities for growth.

Collaboration: facilitating collaboration across boundaries (teams, departments, sites) and fostering leadership where learning to collaborate is a collective responsibility.

Inclusion: creating the conditions for all voices, ideas and thoughts to be listened to, acknowledged and considered.

Powerful coalitions: intentionally building communities of practice and structures of teams of teams.

Sustainability: defining an upskilling plan for all the above areas and creating regenerative working models that are customised to your context and allow people to thrive.

Thriving organisations learn from how systems fail and evolve and articulate this as a goal. This encompasses continuous improvement for excellence, the requisite structures for individual and collective learning, and opening the dialogue on emotional regulation. By designing with these principles, patterns and practices in mind, organisations and leaders can create healthy learning systems where the different parts of the system can dance the fractal dance to constantly adjust and create a new, more relevant and adaptive model. This will contribute not only to the regeneration of the organisation, but also to its broader ecosystem.

Thank you for reading.

If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.

You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.

If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

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