by Andrew Langford

I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of something to strive toward. This can also blind you however: you see only your goal, and nothing else, while this something else – wider, deeper – may be considerably more interesting and important.

Ryszard Kapuscinski, in The Shadow of the Sun, p. 24

You may have already met with the Eisenhower quote to do with the value of planning and the uselessness of plans and now I propose to extend this thinking to visions and goals.

That is, whilst the process of developing visions and setting goals is deeply valuable, the artifacts themselves (the “things” that make up the content of the visions and goals) need to always stay flexible and open in order to accommodate the flows of change in our complex lives.

This way we are likely to achieve the essence of our visions and goals rather than struggle for the exact replica of our dreams.

It is with this commitment (to a near constant review of visions and goals in an emergent world) that we at Gaia University engage with the process of creating our Learning Intentions and Pathway Design (LIPD).

The model below, taken from the work of Robert Fritz (The Path of Least Resistance), helps to resolve the apparent contradiction contained in the wisdom referenced above that: –

a) vision work and goal setting work is potent and yet,

b) creating fixed goals that are supposed to lead to the vision is problematic due to the shifting context over time, especially after we have made an intervention. That is, we make the situation different each time we act and, as most situations have many actors, all of whom are making changes, our contexts are always dynamic.

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Structural Dynamics

Fritz names the underlying concepts of his model “Structural Dynamics”

The pattern was derived from observing the successful methods of creative artists (often musicians) working to produce their compositions or ‘pieces’. We would do well as ecosocial designers to imagine our projects as ‘pieces’ and creative compositions.

The Structural Dynamics model proposes that we can deliberately generate tension in our minds (at individual, group and organizational levels) by alternately making efforts to:

  • construct clear visions of how we want things to be in the future followed by
  • generating an honest and realistic appraisal of the current situation.

Typically, these activities create tensions because: –

  • the vision and the reality are a long way apart …
  • the resources available to the actors for making the necessary change(s) are inadequate for the task … and
  • the time frame is usually tight!

Under these difficult (but realistic) conditions the actors, composers, artists and designers need honed capacities for focus and discipline and, in Gaia U parlance, significant competence and attention.

We need to cultivate an attitude of delight at the challenge of making wonderful (inspired, high quality) steps forward, whilst working with less than enough. See The Urban Farming Guys for a great example of this ‘can-do at ground zero’ attitude.


Given that we have chosen to do this work we can: –

  • create good-enough-for-now, safe enough to try strategies and actions (instead of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed into inaction by trying to get it exactly right and to be perfect),
  • see what happens through enacting our changes in the world,
  • deduce theories of causality (and be prepared for there to be none as proposed by the Cynefin model in complex systems),
  • and then choose our next steps according to the now fresh (as we have just changed it) context, including our in-transformation selves.

Allowing the next, next step to emerge

This approach also proposes that, when we are unable to ‘see’ what the next step is, we should revisit our two tension generating data points (the long term vision and the realistic appraisal of the current situation) so that the sense of tension is refreshed and thus a next step can emerge in our thinking.

Lastly, the approach encourages us to know how to resource and do ONLY the next step (well, maybe the next 2 or 3). We can work out the detail of later steps once we get there.

Why is this?

What about long-term planning?

For one thing, it relieves us from attempting to predict the impossible – in complex and chaotic situations we have no clear idea of what the outcomes of any intervention may be.

Secondly, it acknowledges a key concept in working with emerging systems, that each time we act we change the system and, therefore, the next next step requires us to observe and reflect before doing fresh thinking.