Panarchy: Adaptive Cycle in Three Dimensions (...

Panarchy: Adaptive Cycle in Three Dimensions (by Holling) (Photo credit: Adam Crowe)

Large complex adaptive systems, regardless of type, all follow the same life cycle. The overarching term for this is Panarchy.

Panarchy simply means that the complex system changes without any special direction or any special control by one level.
The Panarchy Cycle:
Reorganization: In an environment empty of much organization, some actors will rapidly pick up available resources and use them as pioneers would.
Exploitation: As pioneers can more predictably get resources, they begin to change into what we think of as successful  growing organizations.
Conservation: All organizations reach a peak of growth and when they do, they become defensive of their existing resources and their strategies focus on preservation.
Release: All complex systems eventually break down, and their resources disappear or changed into something they can no longer use. At this point, pioneers begin to opportunistically look for usable resources and the cycle begins again.
Examine your target of Intentional Change to get an idea of where they are in the Panarchy cycle. Their values, speed of response, and qualitative reactions to your change efforts will alter depending on their place in the cycle.
Reorganization: Pioneers are flexible and fast. Begin to contain them with regulation and requirements. New Providers
Exploitation: Partner with them to make changes. Because of their confidence in themselves, they will be open to change and not afraid that it will hurt them.  Some Human Services Agencies
Conservation: Threaten and partner. A carrot and stick approach will trigger their anxiety about being able to keep their assets. Threats need only be feasible, they don’t have to be explicit or implemented. State Bureaucracy
Release: Release occurs because a system can no longer use it’s central strategy without destroying itself. Push this contradiction as hard as you can. Nursing Homes

5 thoughts on “Panarchy

  1. I like where you led on the applications to organizations (agencies…nursing homes) whereas up to that point I was taking the cycle personally and inwardly, merely observing long periods of my life to-date moving through all of it, and that serving to mark the periods themselves; pioneering…conserving…releasing…something new again….now wondering as a result, am I getting anywhere? Or stick to organizational change, and leave myself out of it!

    • When I first ran across the concept (in the ecology and conservation literature), I also applied it to myself. We are complex systems, and the phases of our lives seem to grow, peak, and fade. In my own life, I try to use contact with novelty as a substitute for the lack of the automatic novelty that would start working on my natural release phases when I was younger. When I was in my 20’s stating a new life was entirely possible, or so it seemed. The empty spaces require concerted action for me now. I think there is probably a model of the impact isolation has on general personal function in this somewhere.

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