Boardmember Blog: Equifinality

Have you ever come across a concept that immediately puts ideas you may have been struggling with into complete perspective, so much so that your entire body breathes a sigh of relief? This happened to me when I came across the concept equifinality early in my career as a consultant as I was learning about various organization development and design methods and models.  I was quite overwhelmed by the wide range of approaches to doing organization design, and even more concerned about “getting it right” when deciding which approach to take.

Ludwig von Bertalanffy saved me.  From Wikipedia: “Equifinality is the principle that in open systems a given end state can be reached by many potential means.  The term and concept is due to Hans Driesch, the developmental biologist, later applied by Ludwig von Bertalanffy, the founder of General Systems Theory.”  The translation of that concept for me was:  anything goes!  There is no “right answer” when it comes to doing design, rather, as I’ve learned over the years, there is only the “best answer” for a given situation.

I continue to find it oddly refreshing when a thought leader whose ideas take off quickly, and are subsequently adopted whole sale, eventually gets refuted.  This happened recently while reading the post from the Plexus Institute, “Disruptive Innovation Debate.”  The author writes, “Clayton Christensen, the business scholar who developed the concept of disruptive innovation, and historian Jill Lepore are Harvard faculty colleagues. The two professors don’t agree on much, and Lepore’s sharply written assault on Christensen’s theory has ignited an uproar in academic and business circles.”  Later the post quotes one of the business leaders in the debate, “They are both right…Disruptive innovation has plenty of exceptions but it’s still a useful theory.”  What I find refreshing about this is the reminder of what I learned over 20 years ago.

I enjoy meeting the newer organization design practitioners who come to the ODF Annual Conference.  They are eager to absorb the variety of design methods and models that are discussed, yet they become overwhelmed at the same time.  If you are one of those people who are early in your career, my simple advice to you is play with a few concepts at a time to see where your comfort lies, but be guided by the situation at hand.  Your favorite model may not work in every situation.  And, be assured that whatever path you choose will likely be okay; there are many potential means to achieve a given end.  Equifinality.

Wendy Helmkamp, ODF Board Member


Showing 3 comments
  • L.J. Lekkerkerk (Hans)

    Take the time to read Christensen reaction on the Lepore assault … Already when I read her comments I thought “You missed CC’s later work on the further development of the theory”. CC’s own reaction to her more or less confirms this, to my opinion, so I tend to regard her comments as ‘much ado about nothing’.

  • Glenda Eoyang

    Thanks for this lovely reminder that opens us all to creative engagement with the world, our clients, and ourselves. I find equifinality a true and useful way to think about complex adaptive systems and how their patterns emerge continually–whether or not we intervene.

    For me, though, it makes the job of design more challenging (and interesting) rather than less. Why? The challenge is not just to select the best approach from among a set of options, as it was when we thought there was a single best path and we just had to find it. Now, the challenge is to invent a response that is most fit for function in this time and place and situation. . The most useful path isn’t a random walk of “anything goes.” It is the challenge and opportunity to engage with reality, understand it in useful ways, and take action to influence the present to co-create the future. Then, as reality responds, you have to begin again–never finished, always in emergence. In human systems dynamics, we call this Adaptive Action (What? So what? Now what?)
    The process is further complicated by the fact that you can seldom predict what will come of your actions, and worse than that, you can’t even predict when you can predict! I think this is the kind of challenge that has CC and Lepore tied up. In this space of equifinality, they can both be right AND they can both be wrong. It is our job to discern what is most fit for function in the context of our own environments and challenges.

    Interesting and not easy!

  • Michael Carrieri

    Thank you Wendy for a rare pearl of wisdom. I often feel overwhelmed by the variety of approaches to OD practice and your shared experience and recommendations are truly helpful.

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