In a surprising turn of events, I find myself packing my bags for an accidental, month-long European tour. What is perhaps even more fascinating is that my itinerary has come together as an unintentional journey through Berkana’s Two Loops model, a compelling theory of how system change emerges.
The tour came about a few months ago when, in a moment of distraction, I agreed to speak at a conference, assuming it was virtual. Weeks later, I started to see promotions for it and realized it was in Paris. With some embarrassment, I reached out to the organizers to say: I can’t justify the environmental impact for something that could be done online. The more we talked, though, the more we saw an opportunity to weave the message and experience of thrivability and alignment with life throughout the whole conference, for a level of learning and impact that could only happen in person. Hmmm. I mentioned my dilemma to a group of wonderful European colleagues, who immediately said, “You’ll be so close! Let’s organize something meaningful and important in the Netherlands right after!” That was followed by basically the same conversation with an equally wonderful colleague in Barcelona. At that point, I stopped telling anyone about the trip for fear of never seeing my family again! There is no shortage of wonderful colleagues or meaningful, important conversations to be had. Tickets were purchased. Plans were made.
And then I realized that my journey had a definite arc to it, mirroring the Two Loops Model that illustrates the different and equally valid roles people play within the process of systems change.
On my upcoming journey, I start at the NextGen Enterprise summit — a gathering of global consulting firms, banks, telecom companies and others, all dabbling in new, self-organizing methods of project management for greater agility and responsiveness to change. These are what the Two Loops model would call Stabilizers, keeping the lights on within the still dominant — but steadily deteriorating — structures of society and creating pockets where the new can begin to coalesce.
From there, I join warm-hearted, dedicated organizational development (OD), leadership, and change practitioners in a gathering we’ve called OD for Life. According to the model, they are Bridge Builders, offering hospice to the dying system and midwifing the new. Our work together is “to help shape new narratives of progress characterized by care for all people and life on our planet.”
My travels culminate with Thrivability Camp: “a weave of inspired theory, pioneering stories, playful co-creation and emergent learning.” My co-host, Stelio Verzera, and his colleagues at Cocoon Pro are Creators of New Systems, ten years in to blazing a bold, life-aligned trail within organizations.
But what about those who believe “System Stabilizer” is NOT a valid role? Who suspect those people are engaging in “predatory delay,” contributing to our impending doom through their tending to the old? This is certainly a risk. Indeed, here’s what my colleague Ben Wolfe has to say:
“Until people see, accept and choose to be part of the need for change, the Two Loops model doesn’t include them. In that territory, it’s meant to help them reimagine their role, as possible allies, using their power and knowledge for a different purpose.”
This will be my invitation in Paris and throughout my journey, asking people to take an honest assessment of their work and whether the gravitational pull leans toward the old or the new, urging those Stabilizers to use their power and resources to create space for truly life-aligned change. There’s a version of the Two Loops model with a little human stick figure trying desperately to climb back up to the top of the first hump, the old and dying system. The message is: don’t be that guy.
In all, the Two Loops model helps us understand the various places to intervene within a system in need of change. It invites each of us to discern where we are most drawn to contribute our gifts, and it helps us acknowledge the contributions of those who are working at different points across the model. It can help us see how to expand our work and our impact, connecting with those playing other roles. And it invites us to recognize that change is collective, an emergent phenomenon of the entire system.
How fabulous that my journey has already offered up a small gift of insight before I even finish packing my bags.
Where do you see your contribution along this journey to system change?
Interesting model for systems change.
It makes me think of the 3 horizons model of innovation by Bill Sharpe and Kate Raworth where H2 is the transition thinking from the old system H1 to the new system H3. The bridge builders in this model could be seen as the H2+ (forward looking) thinkers in the 3H model. Is that correct or do both models serve different purposes?
I have been working on a “two loop” dual-process model for decades. It began when Brenda Zimmerman and I became aware of Canadian ecologist C.S. “Buzz” Holling’s adaptive cycle and adapted it to human systems, calling it the ‘ecocycle’.
You can see my short video here:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ryxJ25pdUY and a longer story of how the framework developed here: https://plexusinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Discovering-Complexity-by-David-Hurst-May-2019.pdf
I recognize the model from Margaret Wheatley’s version, and I have been meddling with it too. I learned the creators of new systems come in several flavors: pioneers, connectors movement builders connecting pioneers, storytellers of the new. And just for fun I added two new roles: first followers, the bees who proclaim “these new ideas be flowers with honey.” And fools. Fools help create the fun, take the sharp edges out of the battle or suffering, and make the revolution a party one can dance in.
I learned that on top of the first wave ride protectors who see the new coming and help it grow, sometimes even hidden. They create spaces of fund events that help water the seeds.
I learned that among the stabilizers are also many healers. The bad ones get you back to work after a burn out asap. The good ones help you find the more healthy new communities full of vibrant people, often the place that is more human and welcoming.
Anneloes Smitsman even extended and refined these roles, looking also at the bigger system, like wholeness coder, evolutionary catalyst or future maker. These could well be the bridge builders. But..
The bridge you draw is a dangerous one, a mistake often found in Anglo Saxons approaches. (sorry) It’s the short cut from A to B, promising less suffering when you cross the bridge. Like in theory U, and the journey of the hero, the short cut neglects some essential steps and trauma needing to be faced. Almost all sales programs have this ‘bridge’ the easy way to your desire.
But in all the mistakes the pioneers en connectors make, lie essential lessons, that may lead to a new different reality than the picture book promises, or deviations that either corrupt, bomb or evolve and transcend the ‘old paradigms’. The first two sadly the resistance to change we see, when it threatens certain interests. Where conflict happens when the two lines cross each other. And to avoid such conflict next to bridge builders we need shadow workers, like the truth tribunals after apartheid.
I hope this helps, or you tell me all this and much more was already in your workshop. 🙂
Thanks for the comments Floris. I loved the insight that among the stabilizers are many healers, for good and for ill. Which loop are they pulling you towards?
My background from early childhood (in Canada) includes a lot of summers on canoe trips, some of it paddling the full length of northern rivers. These were life-guiding experiences of shared learning and adventure, in (sometimes) weeks of immersion in the health of the living world. In my 20s I ran into this quotation which has always stuck with me: “What a sad fate if the wilderness should become nothing more than a recreational venture to refurbish us for our dull jobs.”
About the bridge — I do accept your criticism of the diagram as readily interpretable as making it seem like a bypass of the journey below. If it is expected to be, the bridge will likely fail. I really like your references to both Theory U and the hero’s journey in that second loop. The “other side” of the bridge is only there to bridge TO because of all that necessary learning and suffering, iteration, failure and wandering, that might take and shape a lifetime (or many generations) in some cases and contains all of what was learned on the way.
If we have enough of a bridge to a renewable energy future, it was made by decades of work and wandering. I dream that my grandkids will walk with ease into a living systems, life-aligned worldview (and their kids or grandkids will wake into one) without having to undo nearly as much of a linear, mechanical hierarchical and atomistic one.
(And I see many references to deep inner work in your comment… shadow work and trauma healing, individual and collective. I think it is a profound part of the story and the need. It makes me want to meet you in person. For reassurance about what is not spoken and might easily not have been meant, one part of what I do is work with the Thomas Hübl team.)
So lovely…this is such a useful framework and I always enjoy watching folks engage with it. It never gets old!
When I teach it and draw it,I always ensure that the new paradigm extends back deep into the heart of the old paradigm. It then gives us space to talk about those who “walked out” of the system when it was at its peak and beginning to decline and also, those who were always “left out”of the ascendency of the system and had to hack and create new ways of being long before anyone else did. These are the innovators that start to get seen only decades after they began their work, sometimes just in time to create enough stability about the new that the bridge is an easy one for most everyone else to take. Most of us made the transition from typewriter to PC with a whole lot of ease because we didn’t have to invent personal computing. When I made that switch in the late 1980s it was because people had been building that bridge for me for decades. Here’s an old post from the Art of Hosting ning with one of the diagrams I use to use and Amanda Fenton’s summary of one of my own teaching videos along with an embodied exercise you can use to explore this model with groups: https://artofhosting.ning.com/forum/topics/two-loops-activity-notes
Have a great trip!
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