Appreciating the Complexity of Human Ecosystems

By Sarah Ann Shanahan, The RE-AMP Network and Royce Holladay, The Human Systems Dynamics Institute

Networks are made of individuals. Each person is a complex system where we can’t control nor truly predict their behavior, so combining them to form a network can make things even messier! As a practitioner it’s my job to pay attention and support healthy, productive patterns that emerge from the network’s ecosystem. I was first introduced to the Human Systems Dynamics Institute (HSD) when we hired Glenda Eoyang to help facilitate a difficult transition we were facing in the Network. I was so impressed by how she was able to tap into the tension that existed and turn into something innovative that I later became an Associate of the Institute. The foundations of HSD supplemented my existing systems thinking practice allowing me to better see into the system of forces in the network and to be able to make sense of them so that I could be empowered to begin making a difference.

Sarah: How do the foundations of HSD help us appreciate the complexity of human ecosystems? 

Royce: Through HSD, we learn that the complexity of human ecosystems emerges as we live, play, and work together. Over time, we generate system-wide patterns. Those patterns, then, influence the whole of the system. They also represent the system. For instance, in a community we honor long-held traditions as the patterns of our lives. In some organizations, we pride ourselves on patterns of safety or service. 

HSD helps us see into those patterns. We understand how our interactions shape the patterns of our lives. We begin to see that the problems we face in today’s world are really patterns that have emerged over time. These may be patterns of bias or inclusion, peace or war, or conservation or waste. On a large scale, these may not be “solvable” patterns. Each individual, using HSD, can take small actions that can change the larger patterns over time.

Exploring the relationship between certainty and agreement through the landscape diagram.

That’s how HSD has helped me “appreciate” the complexity of human ecosystems. I can see that complexity. I don’t have to be baffled by events and issues that seem beyond my reach. I know that, even if I can’t change the world, I can change my little corner of it. When enough people network together in this human ecosystem, they can change it in even more powerful and far-reaching ways than I can alone.

Sarah: As networks become more diverse and introduce more difference into their systems, how do we leverage the powerful differences we bring to the table?

Royce: In HSD we focus on differences that make a real difference in the overall functions in our worlds. We may be of different genders, beliefs, backgrounds, races, or ethnic groups. And those differences sometimes do bring tension. On the other hand, we can look beyond our more immediate differences. We can come together to consider larger issues. These are the huge differences that matter for our future and for our planet. We can put the tensions of difference to better use.

Consider the work of the RE-AMP Network. Imagine what’s possible when people look beyond local differences to focus on the future of climate and energy use across the planet. The differences that matter can be the differences that help us accomplish a shared task. They can help us avert a shared disaster. We can move beyond the tensions that might have stopped us altogether. 

The most productive work in a diverse network shifts focus from standing “nose-to-nose” about our differences. When we stand against others over differences that are less critical, each of us is weaker. If we stand “shoulder-to-shoulder” to take on a shared challenge, we each become stronger. 

I know it’s not easy. Given challenges we face around the globe, I don’t know what other options there are. The real power in this approach emerges when it happens in small groups. Those small groups then, network with other small groups to increase the power as the network grows. 

Sarah: How else can HSD methods and models help us care for our network’s ecosystems?

Royce: A number of HSD-based methods and models have a great deal to offer. The most basic, however, are probably the most useful and powerful. 

Adaptive Action is a three-step, problem-solving method. It that helps you see, understand, and influence the patterns around you. It’s simple, but not easy. The model asks you three questions.

What? Begin by describing what you see and feel and hear. What are the facts? What are the aspirations? What data do you have? What are the patterns? You gather that all and ask the next question.

So What? You begin to explore the implications and meanings of information gathered in the “What?” stage. Most HSD-based models and methods help you make sense of those patterns. Whatever tools you use, this step helps you understand from multiple perspectives. You generate multiple options for action. You push beyond your usual boundaries. You go beyond what you generally can see on first glance. Then you move to the third question.

Now What? Which of the options makes the greatest sense?  Which of the options is within reach for you? How will you implement that option? How will you know when it’s done? How will you know if it’s successful? 

When you have finished those steps, you stop and go back to the first question to ask, “What?” again. Adaptive Action is an iterative process. You use what you learned in one round to inform your actions to complete the next.

A complex system is constantly changing and emergent. We have found Adaptive Action to be the only reliable way to move forward in such a system. 

Inquiry is the other tool that is a foundation in the HSD world. We see inquiry as a way of living in the world. It allows us to stand inside our questions, rather than living out our assumptions. Glenda Eoyang, the founder of the field, talks about how answers have short shelf lives. In a complex world, answers never hold true for very long. What we prefer questions to gather the information that feeds our Adaptive Actions. HSD defines inquiry in a very specific way. We stand in inquiry when we:

We know that none of us will probably ever be able to be that open and comfortable in all situations. It’s a challenge to respond from that position every single time. It’s a stance we work on, and we help each other work on it throughout the network. Because if we don’t, there’s no way we can see and understand patterns locally or globally to build a better world. We will never be able to leverage our differences to address the issues that threaten us all. Finally, if we don’t stand in inquiry, we cannot engage productively in Adaptive Action. 

For more information, visit our website at or contact us at info@

White Supremacy Culture is an “All of Us” Problem By Donte Curtis, Catch Your Dream Consulting

White – Supremacy – Culture. There are normally a lot of feelings, reactions and images around these three words. It is easy to pass blame around because it is 2019 and we are still having these conversations. For people of color the word “white” is believed to let them off the hook; For people who are white, “supremacy” is the trigger because now it is associated with the worst of the worst, such as the KKK. However the last word “culture” brings us all together. Culture is our values, traditions and ways of being. 

I’m from the great state of Texas and we have a word we are known for probably more than any other state: Y’ALL. It doesn’t matter their gender, income, education level, geographic location or race, people who grew up in Texas most likely use this gender neutral phrase. “Y’all” is a part of the CULTURE of Texas. I have had people come up to me during breaks in trainings and confessed they are not from Texas, but have spent long periods of time there and now “y’all” is apart of their everyday speech.

In the same way The United States of America has a culture of white supremacy and no matter your race, gender, income, education level, or where you live, it can ( and probably has ) rubbed off on you. Not just you, but all of US. It takes form in our habits, our language, patterns of thoughts, and our actions. Here are two examples of how it can show up in our personal/professional lives and in our networks.

In 2001, an article came out by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun entitled, ‘The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture’ where they submitted fifteen ways it manifests. Two ways it manifests are through “either/or” thinking and “individualism”. 

Either/or thinking shows up in how we talk about things such as ‘either you pass or fail’, ‘it’s my way or no way’ and ‘male or female’. Ultimately, there is no room for ambiguity and other truths. When it comes to individualism and how it manifests, it could sound like “ I am successful because of my own hard work” or the famous hip-hop song “Independent” by lil’ Bosie or not asking for support because you feel you have to do all of the work yourself and can’t rely on others. It also sounds like “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”. It is hard to imagine life without hearing one of these phases in the United States and are some ways that we experience patterns of white supremacy. 

These patterns make it hard to be inclusive and thrive as a network when ‘either/or thinking’ and ‘individualism’ are present. If there are network members who are not leaning on the collective, the network is missing out on their expertise and knowledge. Furthermore, if ‘either/or thinking’ is present, it could be hard to get things done because there is no room for multiple ideas. Also, either/or thinking doesn’t let you build on another’s ideas which can harm innovation and creativity within the network. 

These two manifestations of white supremacy culture can show up in anybody at anytime. We need to be aware of our own patterns, because we are all a part of the problem, so we can collectively create a better, more inclusive solution. 

I hope you join us for the Network Thinking Academies as we identify some more of these patterns or habits that shows up in our networks and collectively look for ways to give way to new, life – giving habits; So that our networks can thrive, be inclusive, and create the change we want to see in the world.  

A New Visual Language for Networks

By Christine Capra, Greater than the Sum and Sarah Ann Shanahan, The RE-AMP Network

Networks are complex ecosystems of people and relationships. Social impact networks seek to leverage the often invisible dynamics of those relationships in ways that we’re still learning to understand and that are hard to represent using organizational and hierarchical models.

One new tool that has recently emerged to support this new way of seeing is social system mapping. The RE-AMP Network and Greater than the Sum have partnered to leverage these tools to build a map in order to see the Network’s system as a whole as well the patterns that emerge through its interactions. Social system mapping is a collective learning journey that uses new data-gathering and data-visualization tools.  A social system map itself is an iterative, emergent mash-up of social network analysis, system mapping, asset mapping and ripple-effect mapping. It always starts with and builds upon network actors and their existing and potential interpersonal relationships. As the network’s collective sense-making capacity deepens, the mapped dimensions will expand to include organizations, systemic forces, network goals, strategies, relevant flows of knowledge and other resources, assets, impacts and other dynamics that live in a generative social impact network. Once set up, the new data-gathering and data-visualization platforms used enable network members themselves to maintain and update the relevant relationship data that is mapped, enabling the map to evolve and deepen over time as the social ecosystem develops and becomes more self-aware.

A social system map can become a transformational tool in that it:

  1. Provides greater transparency about network relationships and resource flows, supporting agency and distributed leadership.
  2. Enables members to discover as-yet untapped potential within the network, through identifying potential connections and potential actions that can’t otherwise be seen and may take years to become evident otherwise.
  3. Enables collective insight into the structure and patterns in the ecosystem that help identify what’s working, what’s making things work, what could work better.
  4. Highlights gaps in the network structure, so that members can design interventions and see their relative effectiveness over time.
  5. Is an inherent intervention through the process of collectively defining the relevant data to be gathered, prompting people to consider and report back on dynamics generally not considered relevant.
  6. Becomes a tool for expanding our collective mental-maps. Helping networks ‘see’ their interconnectedness and feel and live into this more interdependent reality, they become more insightful about the complexity of their systems.
  7. Helps members see and gain insight into the ‘greater whole’, beyond their own areas of focus and their own ego-networks with-in that greater whole.
  8. Is a sensitizing tool – along the lines of Michael Quinn Patton’s idea of ‘sensitizing concepts’. It sensitizes network members to a more eco-systemic paradigm and more effective ways of catalyzing transformation through their collective works.

Many networks have begun using social system maps to help members see the potential ecosystems they’re trying to develop, to make more strategic connections, and to target their convening efforts where there is the most interest and energy. 

RE-AMP is also using our social system map to be more intentional about recruitment and to accelerate new member’s understanding of what the network really is and how to be in integral part of it. 

And because of the RE-AMP Network’s maturity and systemic focus, we’ve been able to dig deeply into understanding the underlying patterns and systemic dynamics in ways we couldn’t have early on in our evolution. That, combined with our ongoing exploratory work with social system mapping pioneer Christine Capra of Greater than the Sum puts the RE-AMP Network at the forefront of this new network learning tool.

Christine says that because of:

  • Our abundance of historical data about network members and network activities,
  • The clear and broadly understood systemic analyses that inform our goals,
  • Our deep learning in what networks need to thrive and generate impact,

we’re able to push the boundaries of what is possible with these types of maps, making the RE-AMP network to be a rich test-case for deepening the practice of Social System Mapping. 

We’ve already gained a lot of value from our social system map and Christine says our map has pushed her thinking further than any other map she’s worked on – and yet we all feel like we’ve just barely begun this journey. 

RE-AMP staff and members intend to continue working with Christine to explore what this new kind of mapping can make visible and how that new visibility can help to make our network more aware and wise and impactful. 

Ways we invite you to join us as we continue on this learning journey:

Learn more about Social System Mapping here 

Join the Network Thinking Academy to learn more about ecosystems mindsets

Create your website at
Get started