Coherence: A Plenary Reflection about Systems Thinking

March 26, 2020 by Elizabeth Sawin

Originally published on the Confluence Philanthropy website on March 17, 2020 by Dr. Elizabeth Sawin, re-posted with permission.

Slides from the presentation can be found here.

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Coherence is the alignment of time, investment, and attention with core values over time and across sectors and scales. Seeking coherence is a strategy for steering systems towards desired goals, especially when time is short, resources are limited, and uncertainty and disruption abound.

Analysis using computer models of climate change, like the ones created by our team at Climate Interactive, show that while it is still possible to limit global temperature increase to 2°C and thus meet the goal of the Paris Agreement, a truly ambitious effort will be required to do so. Decarbonization will need to

After decades of UN climate summits, it seems unlikely that all the leadership needed for this transformation will be found from the ‘top-down’ in the form of international plans and agreements. To some extent then, this rapid global decarbonization will need to be executed via self-organization. Given increasingly strong climate impacts and disruptions, it will also need to happen under circumstances of increasing instability.

To make matters even more difficult, the non-profits, community-based programs, and businesses dedicated to this transformation, along with the philanthropic sector supporting them with grants and investments, are the underdogs, consistently outspent and overpowered by the momentum of a global economy that remains reliant on fossil fuels.

The good news is that there are systems-based strategies that are especially appropriate for these circumstances. These strategies take advantage of coherence, a self-organizing process where similar principles applied across differing scales and domains produce self-similar patterns across a system.

The movement towards values-aligned investing is an excellent example of a system seeking coherence. When a foundation is coherent, similar organizing principles (or values) are applied across its internal operations, its programs, and its investment strategy.

A climate change program that also prioritizes gender and racial equity in its goals for the world as well as in its internal operations and partnerships would be coherent. On the other hand, a program that eliminates many tons of greenhouse gas emissions but places burdens on people of color as a ‘side effect’ of its strategy would be less so.

Coherence is worth seeking because we feel peace and satisfaction when our work aligns with our values. But coherence goes beyond this. Coherence also sends out ripples of change, so that even small pockets of coherence can become the seedbed of wider or deeper impact.

Experiencing coherence builds a sort of ‘muscle memory’ that allows coherent patterns to replicate and spread. This is a very attractive property of coherence in a time where we need to accelerate innovation and large-scale change.

Coherence accelerates change through a number of pathways.

It works by allowing people to build capacity for acting out of a given set of operating principles in lower stakes situations, such as a staff meeting. That capacity is there to be drawn upon later, in moments that might be much more consequential, like a big new partnership or a system-wide intervention.

Coherence also accelerates innovation. If different sectors of a system are coherent, then learning and innovation can quickly be shared sector to sector. While the technical aspects of wind and solar energy might be different, social innovations in how to convene stakeholders, structure community ownership, and increase the number of community-based jobs can be explored within the solar sector and then transferred to wind, or vice versa.

Coherence helps guide improvisation. In novel situations people draw upon and replicate patterns that they have experienced in more familiar circumstances. Knowing that climate change and other stresses will bring unanticipated situations, investing in coherence today is a way to influence the patterns that will rise up in future, unforeseen situations.

The 2020s will be a decisive decade for equity, climate, and biodiversity. Early signs show it will also be a chaotic, unpredictable decade. Prioritizing coherence in our organizations, strategies, and investments is one way to steer change towards our goals even while navigating uncertainty and disruption.