The problem of using examples to understand Action Experiment

By Martin Sandbrook, Learning programmes Director

When I am teaching people about action experiment, they understandably ask me for examples. When I respond, I often sense that the reaction is one of disappointment. I think this may be because trying to learn from other people’s experience of action experiment is not necessarily helpful. Every action experiment is unique. It is about the particular context of one person’s interaction with a system. The specific point of interaction often involves some sort of connection, communication or transaction with another person, and the experiment often involves a change in the nature of that relationship. Hearing about someone else’s experience puts it ‘over there’, when what you want from an example is to bring it ‘over here to me’.

My solution is to suggest that, from the outset, you use yourself as your own example.

You transact with the world outside yourself all day long. This brings you into contact with many different systems. Think of the systems you engage with at the start of every day (food distribution, transport, water delivery and disposal, energy supply etc). In relation to many systems you are passive, you have little agency or influence. Many of these systems are heavily ‘path dependent’ – their existing structures (pipes, cables, roads, rails) will be here tomorrow as they were yesterday, so your scope for changing them is limited, at least in the short term.

But there are some systems you engage with where you really do have agency and influence – in your relationships, such as friends, partner, family, and in your work. In these you transact, energy flows, you are an active participant, with choices about how you connect to the system you are immersed in. The image of a synapse comes to mind. Within the system as a whole, energy flows to one side or other of the synapse and then jumps across – there is a discernable flow between you and the system, between the system and you.

Action Experiment is about changing, or learning about, the system. It is about you effecting this, through your agency. So you need to ask – ‘where is the point of exchange between me and the system?’ It is only at this point of transaction that I can make change, that I, yes I, have true influence. I might want to change the whole world, or see the whole system shift, but beyond just thinking about it, I can only begin to effect actual change at that finest point of interchange, where I and the system exchange, at the synapse.

Ralph Stacey suggests that many systems are ‘complex responsive processes, mediated by conversation’. Often, the point of interchange between you and the system takes the form of a transaction, a relationship or communication with another person. It might be spoken or written. This transaction is unique to you. And if it has become in some way ‘edgy’ for you, with a lot riding on it, or has got stuck in some way, you will feel it needs reframing. Your aspiration, which you will be able to describe, is for it to be more effective.

To achieve your aspiration, you work your way round the Action Experiment cycle. You act, do something different, most likely through a change in how you relate to the system. You do this ‘experimentally’, as in ‘let’s try it and see’, with awareness and the mind-set of systems thinking. From this change you notice and learn, reflecting on how the system responds and changes (however slightly), allowing you to see what to do next as you go round the cycle again.