Regime Shifts: a new way to think about culture change?

Towards the end of last year I attended a Complexity Forum hosted by the Center for Studies in Complexity in Stellenbosch. There were academics, researchers and practitioners from many different disciplines, and it was fascinating to hear so many different perspectives on complexity.  A dominant theme that emerged was around the concept of resilience.  It was in this context that I first came across the concept of a Regime Shifts in natural and social systems.  Subsequently I found out that it’s pretty well documented, there’s even web site dedicated to recording regime shifts in a database.  It also links to Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” idea, so it’s not a new idea but interesting none-the-less.  (It may even be mentioned in the book, which could be pretty embarrassing!  Read it so long ago that I can’t remember!)

What is a regime shift?

According to regimeshifts.org, regime shifts are “large, persistent changes in the structure and function of social-ecological (or social) systems, with substantive impacts on the suite of services provided by these systems. Better understanding of regime shifts is important as they may have substantial impacts on human economies, societies and well-being, and are often difficult to anticipate and costly to reverse.”

Here’s a metaphor can help us understand this:  Let’s imagine that different regimes can be represented by a ball-and-cup diagram. The valleys or cups represent different regimes or fundamental ways in which a system can function and be structured – these are also called basins of attraction in complexity language.  The ball represents the current system state. Because complex systems operate far from equilibrium, even while it is in a particular regime the system does not remain stable but it fluctuates around within the attraction basin.

A regime shift entails a shift in the current system state from one cup or valley to another.  It is often irreversible, or very costly to reverse.  It can also be pretty catastrophic e.g. a stock market collapse.

How do regime shifts happen?

Anyone familiar with systems thinking and particularly systems dynamics modeling understands the importance of feedback loops in complex systems.  Regime shifts result from changes in the dominant feedbacks in a system.  In complex systems, a particular combination of feedback loops tend to become dominant.  This leads to the system organizing into a particular structure or function – a “regime”.   Regime shifts typically come about in one of two ways, when the system experiences a shock that overwhelms it’s dominant feedback loops, or when small changes over time erode these feedback loops.  In essence the resilience of the system is eroded over time, or if we refer back to our metaphor, the depth of the cup becomes shallower and shallower and then disappears altogether.  Whether by one big disruptive event or a slow erosion over time, the system reaches a  critical threshold (a tipping point) where a different set of feedbacks become dominant a large, often abrupt change in structure and function occurs – a “regime shift”

These shifts can be devastating, for example in our oceans coral dominated reefs can suddenly become algae dominated.  In social systems, stock markets collapse, or physical regimes can fall e.g. the Arab spring.  Important to note is that these changes are often not visible unless you’re specifically monitoring them.  So it may take years to reach a tipping point, but when it happens it seems like a sudden change and catches everyone by surprise.

Most of the speakers spoke about research to enhance the resilience of social ecological systems, Prof Christo Fabricius from NMMU, had a different perspective: do we always want a system to be resilient?  Don’t some systems need to transform, rather than be resilient?  In social systems, I think the answer is quite obviously “yes”; think for example about South Africa’s Apartheid system.  Some regimes are toxic and needs to be disrupted.  The key is not to wait until the system is disrupted or shocked into a potentially traumatic shift, but to find ways to preemptively erode the resilience of the undesirable regime and evolve towards a positive regime shift “responsibly”.

Think about toxic corporate cultures as an example.  Sustained culture change is notoriously hard to achieve.  In their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky states:

“There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization, because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”

In other words, the dominant feedbacks that are causing the system to self-organise in a particular way is operating very effectively, we just don’t like the outcome.  In organisations this can be seen with the culture shift required to facilitate strategies such as customer centricity.  Old regimes of competition, silo thinking and profit centrality needs to shift to collaborative cultures that seek to delight the customer above all else.  The authors ask leaders to think beyond the performance of any particular individual or project and diagnose the current conditions of the system that deliver these results.  Leaders then need to take steps to evolve the system in a way that produces different results.

I think it is helpful to think about shifting culture as facilitating a regime shift.  If the dominant feedbacks in the culture could be identified, small “nudges” in the right direction, small changes in the conditions keeping the current regime in place, could erode the resilience of the negative culture until we reach a “positive tipping point”.  This approach is much more aligned to the operating modality in complex systems proposed by the Cynefin framework: Probe – Sense – Respond.  In other words, run many small safe-to-fail experiments at once, learn about the system as you go, amplify what works & disrupt what doesn’t.  Much more effective (and cheaper) than big “put all your eggs in one basket” culture change campaigns, don’t you think?

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