Have you ever wondered how the apparently sensible actions by two individuals or groups, or countries for that matter, can result in both parties finding themselves where neither of them wants to be? Consider the way an an argument heats up between two people, or the urgency begets urgency, or even the US/Soviet arms race of the past. The foundation of these activities is an escalation structure.

An escalation structure is composed of two balancing loops which interact in such a way as to create a single reinforcing loop. The action of each loop provides the basis for increased action by the other loop and the real foundation for this is insecurity resulting in competition. Consider the following example.

If Tom and Anne's results are the same then better results of Anne relative to Tom will be zero and nothing happens. Yet if we consider the case where Anne's results are actually better than Tom's results these will interact in such a way that the better results of Anne relative to Tom, because of Tom's insecurity, adds to the perceived threat to Tom. This perceived threat to Tom adds to the actions by Tom to add to Tom's results. Tom's results then subtract from the better results of Anne relative to Tom.

Now that Tom's results have decreased the better results of Anne relative to Tom this subtracts less from the threat to Anne. This is actually a double negative which Anne perceives as an increases threat. The threat to Anne adds more to the action by Anne to add more to Anne's results. This finally adds more to the better results of Anne relative to Tom, which adds to the threat to Tom and we're going round the first loop again.

These two balancing loops interact like a figure eight to produce a single reinforcing loop. This is immediately evident in the redrawn structure below.

Managing the Structure

Nothing comes without a cost and there is a limit to the results that one can generate. In this example Anne and Tom are on a mutually destructive course. A point must be reached where the structure can grow no more, because nothing grows forever. There are two effective strategies for dealing with this structure.

Areas of Concern


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Copyright © 2004 Gene Bellinger