Fitness Landscapes


The idea of fitness landscapes emerged from the work of Stuart Kauffman (, who used computer simulation models to represent how organisms interact with their environments to improve their abilities to survive. We draw from his work to see, understand, and influence individual and group success in a variety of situations. We find the model/method of fitness landscapes supports decision making and action because it helps people think in simple ways about the complex environments in which they live and work.

While landscapes in real life can come in any shape, we classify the whole array of landscapes into three general categories.

Single-point landscapes. Environments like these have a single, clear measure of success. No matter where you are in the space, you know what it means to succeed, and your desire is to move toward that goal. An organization that focuses only on profits shapes a single-pointed landscape. At one time, we thought public education and life-long employment were single-pointed because we assumed that everyone defined success in the same way: graduate or retire. In such a system, every person plans, acts, and evaluates success in light of that single, simple goal. When an organization frames a vision, they are trying to create coherence by shaping a single-point landscape for their diverse players and functions. The benefit of a single-point landscape is that it is easy to understand, measure, and motivate action. Decision-making is clear, groups are aligned, and system-wide movement is unambiguous. The risk of a single-point landscape is that it constrains options for action and reduces individual creativity and freedom. It is also possible that the single point chosen is not the most productive or sustainable one, and it will ultimately limit the ability of the system to survive in a larger context. Examples of the risks of single-point landscapes are obvious in patterns of conflict, violence, economic domination, cultural bias, racism, environmental degradation, and nationalism.

Multi-point landscape. Environments like this present multiple goals that are disconnected from each other. Depending on where you are in the space, your actions may move you up toward one goal or toward the other. If you are far away from either goal, a decision may move you closer to both, but as you approach the goals, you have to choose because a move toward one is a move away from the other. When parents struggle to balance professional and family demands, they may imagine themselves moving on a two-pointed landscape. If the space is conceived in this way, one solution is to have a stay-at-home parent and a go-to-work parent so overall, the family can reach both goals. Individuals who see such a space may construct two different strategies and alternate between them. Another option is to create one from the many, so that the landscape is simplified into a single-point landscape again. When the Natural Step folks ( define sustainability as a “triple bottom line” they were bringing their goals in environmental, economic, and human endeavors into a single focal point for success. The benefits of multi-point landscapes is that they make choices clear. The benefits of the single-point are still there (clarity, alignment, coherence), and some of the restrictions are removed. One has choice, and people can shape diverse paths to success. On the other hand, the two-point landscape adds a major risk. People on a landscape are trained to move up. Where am I now? What would be better? How do I get there? (Note: If this sounds like Adaptive Action, it is! Fitness Landscape is one of the theory bases that informs the way HSD uses Adaptive Action.) The problem is that this strategy may take a player to the top of a local peak, where they must stop because there is nowhere else to go. If there is a higher peak anywhere on the landscape, it cannot be reached by the usual methods. The system must be massively disrupted to move the player from the top of one peak into the range of another peak to begin a new journey toward fitness.

Rough Landscapes. Environments like this have many diverse and relatively equivalent goals. Players can move up and down, reaching minor successes and competing in narrower niches. In times of major disruption in social systems, rough landscapes are often a transitional phase. The old, clear, and dominant peaks are gone, but no new ones have yet emerged. We see this dynamic in personal transition during adolescence and late middle age when physical, emotional, and social contexts are in transition. It appears as depression in economic transitions when the successful strategies of the past are no longer effective and before new opportunities become obvious. It often follows the success of a revolutionary movement, when the single goal of overthrow is replaced by the complex landscape of governing. The benefit of the rough landscape is that it offers freedom and diverse versions of success. The risk is that no one really knows what is going on. It is difficult to build shared action or to come to shared agreement when no single goal or definition of success defines the problem space.

Strategies to move toward fitness are, of course, different depending on how you conceive of the landscape on which you travel. Two other factors serve to complicate matters even more. Many fitness landscapes change as agents move along them, so the measures of fitness change without warning. For example, a teenage boy wants a particular sneaker because everyone else wants them, but when everyone gets them, it is no longer a signal for success. The second factor that complicates this model/method is that various landscapes can be coupled, with each distorting the other in unpredictable ways. For example, if I am an ethical being, my personal landscape has a certain profile. If I work in an organization where financial success is the only goal, then my everyday behavior is a complex combination (a coupling) of my personal and my professional definitions of success.

The best way to make this model and method useful is to use it as one filter of meaning making and action taking in the midst of Adaptive Action.

What? are the current measures of success? How many and how high are the peaks of fitness? What are my personal choices for action, given the current landscape?
So what? are the options for my action? So what do I want to do to influence the landscape for myself and others? So what are the implications of this definition of fitness in the context of the larger or smaller environments?
Now what? can I do to move on the existing landscape? To explore additional landscapes? To reshape the landscape for myself and others?