Is the dominant logic limiting us from making progress on the issues that matter?

It was the first week in December 2020, and there was a lot of publicity around the announcement that New Zealand had declared a state of climate emergency. Most commentators and politicians agreed that some kind of action around climate change was needed. As I was watching the local evening news, a three-minute segment made me stop and take notice.  

This segment started with a short BBC report that gave facts and data about the state of climate change. The call to action was “cutting carbon emissions now, or face disaster.” This news segment was followed by a two-minute clip of politicians who represent different ideological stances reacting to another politician’s proposal. This article zooms in on those three minutes.  

As a response to the call to cutting emissions, Simon Court from the ACT Party was calling on politicians to give up their entitlements to unlimited taxpayer-funded domestic flights. The news anchor reported that other politicians were rejecting the idea, just a day after the government declared a climate emergency. 

Reporter Benedict Collins proceeded to follow through by canvassing the reactions of other politicians to this proposal:

What is the dominant logic, and how does it show in the responses above?

Surprisingly, the dominant logic that decision-makers use today comes from the 17th and 18th century. It is based on the works of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton. Their discoveries and writings created a context for people to perceive the world as a flawless machine, governed by exact mathematical laws. This view has filtered into all areas of our lives, including the social sciences, and influences the ways we are likely to interact with our world. When our logic is based on a clockwork view of the universe, whether we are conscious of that analogy or not, we are inclined to:

  •  interpret complex situations as technical problems to be fixed by predetermined technical solutions
  • assume that if we just have enough of the right information, we should be able to predict and control the future
  • believe that by reducing human systems down to their component parts, we can better understand the whole sum total
  • rely on experts, preferably those “outside the system”, to describe what is happening and provide proven solutions that will eliminate uncertainty
  • import evidence-based “best practices” from other environments.
  • the scale of the action is proportional to the impact—big action generates a big impact.

So what do the statements from the politicians on that news broadcasters tell us about dominant logic? 

A complimentary logic—Pattern Logic

Back in 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution in which he describes the emergence and structure of a shifting paradigm (a new way to explain our reality). Kuhn’s thinking has since then been expanded by new discoveries and learnings in biology, quantum physics, non-linear equations, chaos theory, complexity theory and computational advances.

 With this complementary logic, rather than see our reality as a bundle of problems to solve, we learn to see our world in terms of emergent patterns that can move and shift. We recognize that today’s world is made up of complex systems, which are inherently unpredictable. This means that:

  • the whole does not equal the sum of the parts
  • although some aspects of our world are known and knowable, others – including the future – are not knowable.
  • we can tap questions and a stance of inquiry to generate viable options for action
  • uncertainty is not going to go away, so our attempts to gain control won’t last and often prevent us from responding effectively
  • in changing conditions, rather than relying on what has worked in other times and places, we will get farther by attending to the current context and adapting
  • small actions/change can have non-linear impacts on a complex system, so tiny contributions have the potential to matter.

Professor Shaun Hendy’s comment reflects how logic that is based on complexity shows up. When he said:

“Politicians might be surprised at what they could do, with good planning MPs can get around the country, can speak to their constituents and can use public transport”

He was acknowledging that MPs would be entering an uncertain terrain if they were to give up their familiar pattern of flying to engage with constituents and others. It is one thing to make a public declaration on the climate crisis, but it is quite another thing to suspend one’s habitual and known patterns for an unknown way forward.

The replies of our politicians minimize the impact of individual actions. Single or small actions can act as tipping points for change in a complex system, and something new emerges. The size of the action or the number of actors does not predict the impact. Two examples of individuals whose actions have sparked change at a large scale are the well-known story of young activist Greta Thunberg, and the lesser-known story of Peter Lowe whose actions inspired others to clean up-river banks in Taiwan.

Now What?

After listening to this two-minute exchange it dawned on me that no matter how progressive the idea, in this case, agreeing that we want to cut carbon emissions if we continue to use the dominant formal logic from the outset, we have already limited how much progress we can make on the issue.

 Below are some hypothetical responses if a logic-based in complexity was used:

Unfortunately, we do not teach or demonstrate to people how to think in alternative ways. In most cases, we expect people to infer this new logic from the content. We have been exposed to Newtonian logic for so long and is so widespread that even new learnings continue to be filtered through this “order funnel”—even complexity theory! You see this when people try to explain new complexity-based concepts through a formulaic step process, or when they simplify concepts to the point of dilution. A better understanding of complex adaptive systems and corresponding logic leads to new possibilities.

Glenda Eoyang, founder of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute uses the term “Pattern Logic” to describe this complementary logic. It is a process of understanding what shapes the self-organizing processes that arise in complex systems, and what we can do to influence them. Through pattern logic, we grow our capacity to see patterns clearly, to understand what they mean so we can act to transform turbulence and uncertainty into possibility. We can become more adept at recognizing the elements that comprise our teams, organizations, families and political parties. These elements are the similarities, differences and connections that shape culture and inform our options for action. Pattern logic, together with inquiry and adaptive action cycles are essential for finding our way forward in a rapidly changing world.

In summary, if we want to be able to not just declare change, but enact it, we need to become conscious of the underlying logic that informs our decisions. Rather than relying on experts, we can create our own maps to guide our most innovative thinking and behaviour. We can learn to look at the whole of our human systems, not just the parts, and to be interested in the study of form, not just content. As we practice this new logic, we can create new ways forward if we can ask questions around emerging patterns and surface new and innovative options; spark new action; attend where that new action brings us; and start that iterative cycle over again: seeing, understanding and acting.

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Our present moment and our future require that people at all levels be familiar with and practise these two ways of thinking, formal and pattern logic. They are complementary in nature.

To learn practical ways on how to how to learn to navigate your own complex systems, and influence patterns in accessible ways, please join us at


Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi, The Systems View of Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

Glenda H. Eoyang & Royce J. Holladay, Adaptive Action (Standford: Standford University Press, 2013).

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Fourth Edition, (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012)

TV News Clip:

Monica Leon is a Management & OD consultant and HSDP Associate.

Wendy Morris is an internationally recognized facilitator of learning and leadership development specialized in leading in complexity. She is an HSDP Associate.

Nurturing Choicefulness supports organisations that want to thrive in complexity and uncertainty. Change is like a wave that keeps getting bigger and bigger, there is no way to avoid it but there are ways to surf it. Nurturing Choicefulness emerges from a deep desire to see individuals and organisations thrive on their own terms. We acknowledge that one size does not always fit all.