What is made possible? You can help a large group of people identify obstacles and opportunities for spreading ideas or innovations at many levels. Panarchy enables people to visualize how systems are embedded in systems and helps them understand how these interdependencies influence the spread of change. Participants become more alert to small changes that can help spread ideas up to other system levels; they learn how shifts at larger or lower system levels may release resources to assist them at another level. With better appreciation of the Ecocycle dynamics at play, the group creates “opportunity windows” for innovations to spread among levels and across boundaries.

Five Structural Elements – Min Specs

1. Structuring Invitation

  • Invite participants to identify what is contributing to the existence of a challenge at levels above and below them. Ask them also to specify different strategies and opportunities for change within each level and across multiple levels.

2. How Space Is Arranged and Materials Needed

  • A room with an unobstructed flat wall and open space for participants to stand comfortably in front of the wall
  • A blank Panarchy chart handout
  • A large wall-poster or flip-chart version of the Panarchy chart
  • Post-it notes for each participant
  • Flip-chart pages for the Panarchy graphic

3. How Participation Is Distributed

  • Everyone involved in spreading a transformation or innovation effort is included
  • Everyone has an equal opportunity to contribute

4. How Groups Are Configured

  • Individuals, pairs, groups of 4, whole group: 1-2-4-All

5. Sequence of Steps and Time Allocation

  • Introduce the idea of the Panarchy (and the Ecocycle if needed). Show an example, such as the MRSA infection Panarchy in Collateral Material below, and hand out a blank Panarchy chart to each participant. 5 min.
  • Invite participants to work individually to generate the set of system levels that influence the spread of their ideas/innovation in three steps.
  • First step alone to make a list of factors by asking, “What are the smallest-to-the-largest factors influencing your/our chances for success?” Include micro (particles, individual people, teams), meso (organizations, networks), and macro (culture, politics, myths) factors that contribute to the existence of the challenge being addressed. 5 min.
  • Second step in pairs to “translate” the factors into levels and create labels for each level (4–7 levels are sufficient). 10 min.
  • Third step in groups of four to compare their levels and finalize their chart with Post-its. 10 min.
  • If there are multiple groups of four, create a single chart, by inviting each group to place any levels not previously included on the larger chart. 10 min.
  • Invite participants to work in groups of four to reflect on the following questions: “On which levels have attention and resources been invested to date? Which levels have been neglected? What do I/we know about the status and dynamics in play at the different levels?” 10 min.
  • In the whole group, share reflections from a few groups. 5 min.
  • Ask groups of two or four to explore one level in depth with the Ecocycle. Each group should pick one of the 4-7 levels. Distribute people with experience at the different levels to those groups. Ask, “At this level, what is going on right now and what actions are being taken for the challenge that our innovation addresses? Is the response to the challenge in an entrepreneurial, bureaucratic/management, heretical, or renewal phase?” Create a rough draft of Ecocycle assessments for this level. 15 min.
  • Collect the Ecocycle assessments from the groups. Each group presents the Ecocycle assessment of their level briefly. 10 min.
  • In small groups, brainstorm a list of obstacles and opportunities in regard to efforts to spread ideas/innovations. Ask, “Looking up and down the levels, what opportunities and obstacles do you see for changes across the levels? What windows for new ideas are opening above? What resources are flowing downward from creative destruction unfolding above? What small-scale developments from below are disrupting the level above?” Encourage the groups to go wild and have fun. 15 min.
  • Prioritize the opportunities and obstacles that emerge. 10 min.
  • For each opportunity and obstacle on your list, create one first-action step using 1-2-4 by asking, “What action can you take immediately to influence levels above and below you?” And, “Who do you know that has influence in more than one level simultaneously?” 10 min.
  •  Share action steps with the whole group by placing Post-it notes on each level of the large Panarchy chart. 15 min.
  • Invite the group to take a close look at the chart. Use What, So What, Now What?to make sense of and prioritize all of the possible next steps. 15 min.
  • Revisit and update the Panarchy chart periodically as the group continues work to spread its innovation.

WHY? Purposes

  • Identify a mix of strategies at multiple levels to move transformation efforts forward
  • Create an opportunity for people from many different levels to work together
  • Prepare for serendipity as opportunity windows open or close
  • Identify people that span levels and can help the group move forward
  • Help a whole group see the whole picture (forest AND the trees AND the bioregion)
  • Create resilience and absorb disruptions by reorganizing together

Tips and Traps

  • Use 1-2-4-All for all or most of the steps even if it feels like a chore: the objective is to identify ALL opportunities and obstacles at ALL levels!
  • Include people or perspectives from each level (the more participants, the better)
  • Look to research when you are unfamiliar with dynamics at smaller and bigger scales
  • Do not neglect history and its role in defining what is possible at each level.

Riffs and Variations

  • String together with Ecocycle, 1-2-4-All, What I Need from You, Social Network Webbing, Celebrity Interview
  • W³ (What, So What, Now What?) can help spur focused action steps
  • Use Panarchy for individuals by asking, “What is contributing to the existence of your challenge at levels above and levels below you? What elements are perpetuating the challenge you are facing? What are the different speeds for effecting changes at each of the levels?”
  • Link to the “trophic cascades” video about the influence of wolves in transforming rivers in Yellowstone Park.


  • Native American school administrators advanced education opportunities for their students with innovations ranging from individual student advising to dispelling social myths
  • Safety advocates in one hospital planned the spread of their innovations locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally
  • Foundation grantees planned dissemination of their disaster-preparedness innovations from prototype to national adoption
  • An individual artist sketched out how her work can influence change at different scales

Attribution: Adapted by Henri Lipmanowicz and Keith McCandless from the work of professor Frances Westley (see, e.g., Gunderson and Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems)

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