Colleges are perfect.

They are “organized perfectly to get the results you get”, as Ollhoff & Walcheski (2002) say in their book, Stepping in Wholes (p. 104). This doesn’t mean they are actually producing the results we want, however.

There are many players in the system that makes up any college. Let’s call this college, “your college”, for this post; like you care about its health, its survival, its future. Your college is made up of many players, or “agents”, that interact on a daily basis: staff, faculty, and students. Like any group of interacting family members, they don’t always get along or agree, but they support one another for the collective cause of the family. The agents at your college not only carry out their designated functions (as teachers, or learners, or worker bee’s- all with a specific set of tasks), but they also learn to deal with the situations brought upon them directly and indirectly. For example, last year, your college had problems with enrollment. Even though you do not work in admissions, you were indirectly impacted by this problem. In this system, an enrollment issue led to less revenue, which led to budget cuts, which led to no new hires to fill retirements and resignations, which meant some workload was dispersed to you, which now means that you work in a team of 2 carrying out the same duties your team of 7 did a year ago. Don’t worry though. You are not the only who has been impacted. Things aren’t so bad in the system and, for the most part, your college is still a pleasant place to work. You are doing a bang up job and you have learned to deal.

Learning to deal as individual agents also means learning to deal collectively. Collectively dealing is adapting. As Ollhoff & Walcheski (2002) say, “when you affect one part, you automatically affect all parts” (p. 14). All agents were impacted at your college, which has changed the expectations they place on you, the expectations you place on them, and the expectations of the collective as a whole. This does not mean your college has compromised on quality. No. For the most part, individual agents remain committed to quality and to each other. It’s just as a whole, the system has adapted and is smarter for it in many regards. We have used “systems thinking” to “get a more accurate perspective on organizational observation, diagnosis, and problem-solving” (p. 18). We can see how a “perturbation” in one area of the system impacted another area of the system. So, in this scenario, your college is a complex adaptive system that has adapted.

But, your college is also a complex adaptive system INSIDE of a complex adaptive system and it is an “open system”, permeable to changes in the system outside of the system. In other words, your college is impacted by other things outside of the college. What caused a problem with enrollment? Perhaps we could look back 18 years and see that fewer individuals were birthing babies that year. Or perhaps we can look at the stock market to see if there was a recent dip. We could also look and see if the area is experiencing a renaissance, influencing young adults to work for a giant tech company that just moved to the area. Or perhaps we can look across the country, as a college, not even on our competitor list, partnered with an American coffee company to offer online degrees for free. “When a system is open, the boundaries are permeable” (p. 24). Your college had little control over what happened on the outside of the system last year. It’s only course of action was to brace, adapt…. or die.

Not everyone will agree that the system needs to adapt, however. When faced with this dilemma, Ollhoff & Walcheski (2002) point to “differentiation”. “Differentiation is the ability to articulate your own goals and still remain connected to those people who disagree with your goals” (p. 30). Probably not intending to offer higher education leadership advice, their concept is still strong and applicable. In most unhealthy systems, “autonomy is punished. Loss of individuality is praised” (p. 30). Autonomy leads to creativity and differentiation, however. “So,” they say, “when anxiety is high and differentiation is low, you can expect the forces of togetherness to push you away from your own goals and activities, and toward the goals and activities of the group” (p. 36). This “togetherness” can stifle differentiation. They offer some “easy to say and difficult to do” steps for differentiation:

“1. Self-define always. Just think about what you are, who you are, what you will do, and what you won’t do.
2. Don’t get sucked into the whirling vortex of the forces of togetherness. Be aware of triangles and don’t get drawn into them.
3. Realize that what the organization does is not a reflection on you or who you are. Separate yourself—emotionally speaking—from the organization.
4. Get a good support system outside of work. You’ll need it.
5. Resist the temptation to define others. Don’t blame others. Don’t tell others what they think. Don’t pretend to be a mind-reader.
6. Don’t try to change anyone else.
7. Don’t tie your joy, your happiness, or your satisfaction to what other people do. It’s dangerous to give other people power over your own happiness. Don’t give them that power. Tie your job satisfaction to what you completely control.
8. Make clear boundaries. When in doubt, err on the side of impermeable boundaries. Toxic forces and pathogens hate boundaries. A boundary is like garlic to a vampire.
9. Allow other people—especially the leadership—to do whatever they need to do. You can’t control them. You just do what you need to
10. Consistently, constantly, and with great intentionality, self-define.” (p. 42)

All of these steps are applicable to higher education leaders. The harder decision is really about how to best go about adapting. How much leaders acknowledge shared governance and the individual feelings of agents in the system is a very tough balancing act, indeed.

Fast forward 20 years. The dinosaur that is your college adapted out of necessity 20 years ago, but learned from the process. How are the agents interacting with each other differently or the same? How are your leaders self-defining themselves? How was the system structure changed to create a complex adaptive system? How have you adapted?


Ollhoff, J., & Walcheski, M. (2002). Stepping in wholes: Introduction to complex systems: topics in process adaptive systems. Eden Prairie, MN: Sparrow Media Group.

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