The axis refer to the energy, capability, specialisation and integration of the system(s) of interest - through the cycle.
There are two main features. The first, often referred to as the forward-loop, from r to K, is the slow, incremental phase of growth and accumulation. The second, referred to as the back-loop, from Omega to Alpha, is
an often rapid phase of reorganization, leading to renewal.
The five distinct elements are:
- exploitation or growth (r)
- conservation (K)
- release (omega)
- reorganization (alpha)
- redistribution (x)
Real life examples are the forests of California and Eastern Australia. The entire ecosystem gradually evolves to a state of vulnerability as the stored energy accumulates over many years, to then be released as fire in a matter of hours or days. The loss of life and habitat can be significant
and the trigger for it can be a single spark..
On the positive side, Aboriginal people use this cycle to their advantage by burning off small areas deliberately, in a measured way so that they may harvest the variety of new regrowth. Perhaps we could learn from our first peoples?, their understanding of natural cycles and rhythms is deep.
Beyond ecological application
Although probably not what 'Buzz' had intended in the beginning, the model can and has been applied in a large variety of ways and scales, from thinking about your own career path to the evolution and destruction and re-emergence of entire industries, economies and ecosystems.
An easy to recognise example is the rise and fall of Kodak, there has been many hours spent debating why and how the company couldn't allow itself to release and reorganise - having invented digital imaging technology in the first place.
Human behavior - some observations
The conservation phase is a particular vulnerability when it comes to institutions and collectives of people and infrastructure. The trajectory through the growth phase, along with its trappings, fun, successes and comfortable arrangements all tend to freeze us in the headlights of oncoming change. It is easy to get stuck in the conservation state. On the whole, people like to specialise, maintain the status quo and tend to hang on in a state of denial, long after they
ought to have begun to transition.
Perhaps the dramatic fall in the trust of institutions by the general population reflects the disconnect between what is being felt on the ground and what is systematically being believed and promoted at higher levels in this 'Post truth' era?.
But change can be complex and uncomfortable
Obligations and path dependency such as existing infrastructure, assets, revenue streams and retention of power can drive massively defensive behavior among invested people.
Imagine you are a highly successful and specialised sector that suddenly recognises there are new competitors on the horizon and that your customers preferences and behaviour is changing. You know that change is inevitable and that the adaptive cycle is at play - but what are you going to do?
What most do is they ignore or deny there is a problem, spend more money on marketing and PR, distract, blame, defer, block, tell wonderful new stories and employ consultants and financiers to massage the numbers, just like Kodak did.
Often I'm asked, can we work in both loops simultaneously? meaning can we maintain business as usual and do something different as well?. It depends, the following will provide some insight into what you will need to reconcile.
Working through the back-loop sensibly (AKA the good bit!)
Working in the back-loop isn't for the faint hearted. That said, if the conservation phase is the place of mounting fragility and risk, the back-loop is the place of variety and opportunity. These very different worlds demand vastly different attitudes, competencies, behaviors and approaches. High trust environments, strong social contracts and commitments are required if you are to thrive in a release and reorganisation context.
If you want to lead the work in this space - you will tend to have significant experience in whole systems change. You need to be able to create hold diverse teams over extended periods and be able to deal with resistance and conflict along the way, while at the same time creating fertile ground for new people, ideas and energy. Aligning senior stakeholders can be particularly challenging.
If you want to participate and contribute in this space - you will have the humility and patience to hold the space where new blood and diverse ideas can find their foot-hold, emerge and flourish.
If you want to have an evidence based approach - you need to apply science and engineering - not intuition or traditional
The only way to innovate and implement a robust and sustainable change - is to have an approach that is based on reality; for example, the real resources, nature itself, and immutable
The only approach I have encountered that is designed and developed to provide a robust evidence based foundation is ‘Transition engineering’.
Interested? An introduction to this methodology next week.
And before we sign off, if you are interested in the adaptive cycle, have a go at noticing what you are in now...
Pick a system or process you are in and ask two simple questions, "where am I, are we, in the adaptive cycle? and "what might I or we not be facing into with honesty"? Reflect for a while, what to do next should become clearer.