Coherence is the degree to which parts of a system “fit” each other or the external environment, and it is a necessary factor in sustainability. We often think of coherence as the degree of similarity, thinking that the more similar we are, the better off we will be. Actually, that’s not exactly right, and a more rigorous understanding of coherence serves us more effectively. One definition of coherence as ‘’the quality of being logical and consistent; of forming a unified whole.’’ When we say coherence is the degree of fitness among the parts of a system, that’s what we mean. the parts work together in logical and consistent ways to create a unified and complete system. They make sense together. There is enough similarity that they can work together well, but enough difference that they are not unnecessarily redundant.

What do we mean when we say that patterns across a system are coherent? We mean that people don’t have to rely on standard answers to every situation. They function from a shared framework of understanding and decision making that informs decisions similarly from moment to moment and from place to place. From an HSD perspective, what are some principles that increase coherence in a system?

1. Inquiry – When individuals and groups stand in inquiry, they are better able to see and understand the reality of their environments rather than act on their own individual assumptions. They stand open to the possibility that is in a situation and can see options for creating the best “fit” response.

2. Patterns – Individuals understand the underlying dynamics of the systems where they live and work have the capacity to see, understand, and influence patterns. When they have that basic capacity, they have less need to rely on standard answers and black-and-white decisions. They can take action that build similarity across the whole, without everything having to look exactly the same.

3. Simple Rules – Simple rules, or “minimum specifications,” inform action and decision making that shape the dominant patterns in a complex adaptive system. In human systems they are the shared expectations or agreements (sometimes explicit; sometimes implicit) that are common across the group. When people use a shared set of simple rules, they generate shared patterns of decision making and interaction that come to characterize their group.

In our work with systems, we have identified seven characteristics that serve as indicators of coherence. Each characteristic can describe a continuum of possibility—from dysfunctional randomness to dysfunctional similarity. Systems seek the middle range of each, allowing for optimal responsiveness and adaptability. The basic definitions of each of these characteristics are more fully explored in the attachment, which offers a tool you can use to explore and discuss the coherence you find in your organization or system.

Shared Goals
parts of the system working toward similar targets.
Repeated Patterns
system-wide interactions generating similar patterns across time and space.
Shared Meaning
data is being interpreted similarly across the system.
Internal and External Adaptation
system responding productively to internal and external changes and challenges.
Conserved Energy
resources are not being wasted across the system.
Complementary Functions
parts contributing to each other and to overall system-wide functioning.
Reduced Internal Tension
parts are working together well, reducing tension and discord across the system.