Actions Spectrum

SUMMARY OF JEAN RUSSELL’S PRESENTATION – MARCH 13, 2012

The Action Spectrum framework is a guide for practice and action. It looks at what actions take, what results we can expect when we act, and what metrics we can use to measure them.


The Control Space is a causal space, which focuses on simple systems and predictable consequences of actions. It is the space where most people understand their actions, and where most organizations want to focus theirs: they place boundaries around their actions and like to have clear expectations.

Example: When one uses a video camera, the action captures what is in front of the camera. The outcome is highly predictable.

The Guide Space is already much larger and looks at complex systems. It is a space in which we connect with other people, influence and direct their actions. It particularly applies to situations when working in a team – we cannot control what others are doing, just guide their actions.

The shift between the Control and Guide space is a shift from mechanistic to interpersonal dynamics. The question of attribution becomes blurry – it is difficult to clearly identify who is responsible for the success or failure of an organization.

However the guide space is interesting, because more diversity and inputs in action guarantees more robust and richer results

Example: When one directs actors in front of the camera, one gives input to guide their actions but does not control the outcome.

The Nurture Space applies to complex adaptive systems (i.e. learning systems). It comes down to sharing ideas, putting information and content in shared spaces, without knowing what the impact on individuals will be.

Attribution becomes almost impossible – the link between action and results is not directly causal, a same action can produce a broad variety of results.

The Nurture Space is a world of probability. It most often leads to broader and more interesting results and impacts, but it is very hard (or impossible) to identify and guarantee ingredients that make things work.

Example: Sharing the video on youtube for viewers to see, without any control or even guidance on the impact of the video on viewers.

The Action Spectrum strongly relies on systems theory. But while Systems Theory mostly focuses on the nurture space of complex adaptive systems, we focus on a portfolio of actions and impacts to be balanced. Each dimension has its benefits and its limits.

For example, the control space has the strong benefit to let you know specifically what is going on and what might happen as a result. The strong level of authority is also an interesting benefit in certain situations – it exerts confidence.

At the other end of the spectrum, in the nurture space authority and causation is a story – participants in the system define the attribution of impacts.

The level of impact to be expected is proportional to where the action fits in the spectrum. In the control space, impact might be small but will appear in the short term. Actions in the Nurture Space are likely to produce large scale outcomes, but the time scale and the attribution are very uncertain.

Example: for non-profits focusing on prevention, the uncertainty of impact, time scale and attribution of results makes it very hard to convince and spread effective solutions

QUESTIONS / DISCUSSION

How to nurture change and document impact across the different dimensions of the spectrums? (Christina)

The work of Hildy Gottlieb on unpredictability, variable time frames and measures of collective impact is an interesting perspective:

  • In the nurture space, the notion of best practice has to be replaced with the notion of emergent practice.

  • Impact is non linear. Different parts of a system have different areas of Control / Guide / Nurture. Impact is a combination of variables belonging to different parts of the system.

  • It is interesting to shift the focus from predictability to feasibility.

The Action Spectrum focuses on the distinction between open and closed systems. How can the action spectrum translate in spontaneous emerging system? (Cheryl)

Evolutionary processes and chaotic process go through various dimensions in the spectrum. When an organization emerges, in the start-up phase, Christina imagines that the organization goes from Control (setting up the base of the organization, going through regulated procedures), then to Guide (experimentations, training staff, etc.), to nurture (going out into the world and spreading ideas at a large scale).

Cheryl understand the process going the other way, as with the creation of Ci2i which first focused on creating relatedness between us, before moving to a more controlled formalization process.

Any organizational activity is a blend of Control / Nurture / Guide, while organizations focus their attention and intervention on the control space. Understanding the mix can help them act more effectively.

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