This is an Eval Central archive copy, find the original at cense.ca.
Many transformation efforts fail because they focus on what people say they want, not what holds their attention and are attracted toward. This is the role of attractors. We’ve written about attractors before and how to map them, however in this post we want to explore how they benefit strategy development more fully.
An attractor is just what it sounds like: something we are attracted to. That might be something positive (an opportunity), an area of activity like a part of the market, or it could be something we fear. The idea of attractors is rooted in complexity science although, unlike many areas within it, the application of our understanding of attractors is actually quite straightforward for decision making. Attractors help to establish coherence. That’s why they are useful in strategy development.
Aside from using it in mapping a system, how might we learn from what people pay attention to rather than what they think? That’s the role of attractors. They focus us on what humans — and by extension, organizations – find important even if they are not conscious of what that might be.
Using Attractors To Focus Discussion and Strategy
Just like the Death Star uses a tractor beam to pull spaceships into its orbit, we can use attractors to help us focus our strategic thinking. The first step is to determine what attractors we have. This might not be conscious — we can often find ourselves unaware of what is driving us. This is where having an evaluation plan can really help.
If not, here’s what we recommend doing.
- Talk. Ask questions and open up the conversation about what is not only valued, but what has value. This is about the narrative of what is important — what those stated goals are — and about what kind of evaluation metrics guide decision making. For example, consider a student who focuses on whether they get a grade of 94, an A, or a pass. Each of these are metrics that shape what is valued and what has value.
- Observe. This is where evaluation comes in. Evaluation is fundamentally an assessment of what is valued and how that value is expressed. Some say it’s about merit, worth, and significance. Regardless of how you define evaluation, the key is using methods and tools that can help you detect what an organization pays attention to and considers in its decisions. Take for example the role of evidence in decision making. If an organization claims to be evidence based, yet repeatedly neglects its research or fails to invest the energy in reviewing research, it shows that this value isn’t valued in practice.
- Sort Once you have the data from what is reported and what is witnessed it’s important to sort and to engage in a form of sensemaking that involves a social process of meaning-making from data that is usually complex and multi-layered. Our attractions and attractors are things that often fit this because they aren’t straightforward. There are issues of what we want and what we actually feel. It’s often why we experience feelings of cognitive dissonance — a separation between what we think and what we do.
- Design. The last part is to take what we learn and design a strategy around what we are attracted to — or want to avoid. By being conscious of what it is that we are looking to move toward or from we can be far more intentional in how we go about setting up systems and strategies to get us where we desire. This intention, design-driven process both works with how we are and who we want to be (as an organization or individuals).
Attractors, as their name suggests, can draw us to them and be powerful vehicles for focusing change if we’re aware of them and work with them, rather than against them.
We can help if you want some support in identifying and using attractors as a means to help you learn, grow, and focus your organization and generate impact. Contact us to learn more.
“Strange attractor?” by Kevin Dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.