All situations or systems share certain basic attributes or conditions, called boundaries, relationships, and perspectives. Together, these conditions generate patterns of system-wide behavior that are called situational or system dynamics.
- Simple dynamics are characterized by fixed, static, and mechanistic patterns of behavior, as well as linear, direct cause-and-effect relationships between system parts.
- In more complicated systems, leaders plan and coordinate the activities of multiple teams or parts. Because of circular, interlocking, and sometimes time-delayed relationships among units or organizations in complicated organizations, unexpected results can occur through indirect feedback processes.
- Complex adaptive dynamics are characterized by massively entangled webs of relationships, from which unpredicted outcomes emerge through the interactions of many parts or actors within and across levels. Complex systems are adaptive; actors learn and coevolve as they interact with one another and respond to changes in their environment.
All dynamics are present to some degree within the same context or situation, although the balance of dynamics may shift over time (Patton 2010a). For example, hospitals have both complicated and complex dynamics; the dynamic that predominates depends on the context and organizational level.
Quality improvement, rapid cycle evaluation, and complex systems feedback approaches were designed for different interventions and system dynamics. Quality improvement approaches focus primarily on enhancing the efficiency of service delivery of specific practices within organizations. Rapid cycle evaluation methods were designed to evaluate organization-scale programs. Ongoing evaluation processes with rapid feedback mechanisms are appropriate for complex systems change initiatives. These are not mutually exclusive activities, however. They can be nested at appropriate layers, within initiatives. Each layer provides a context for the nested intervention.