Living in a Complexity

Complexities are those large, organic systems that defy understanding, and usually frustrate even our most reasoned attempts at control.

Solution Outline
  • Key players respect the interdependencies and complexities in the system.
  • Players understand they are in the system, and not outside, neutral observers.
  • Change efforts are temperate and partial; leave room for the system to react and adjust.
  • Healthy behavior somewhere in the system is identified and supported.

How To Get There
  • Map the best you can
  • Define the evolving entities
  • Discover how the system "learns"
  • Find the health in the system.
  • Look for the smallest, high-leverage actions
  • Enrich feedback to the system
  • Respect the power of symbolic acts
  • Learn from iteractive cycles of small "nudges" to the system.

The ability to see systems, much less deal with them effectively, is relatively rare. We typically prefer to believe we are the observer and somehow separate from the observed; systems remind us that we are a part of the very thing we are hoping to observe. Even our awareness of our membership in the system becomes part of the system. There is no neutral point from which to gain an objective understanding.

This does not mean we must work without any understanding. Parts of the system are often clear; the repetitive and insistent emergence of symptoms is often painfully obvious to all. We can work backwards from there to identify a few of the key causal loops. It will still require some deep reflection and analysis, since complex systems often have both circular causal loops as well as time lags between cause and symptom. The low morale in June in the Installation Department could be the result of a new Department Head in Sales back in January who insisted on volume without any concern for thorough documentation of customer requirements.

Often there is some healthy behavior somewhere in the system; it is easier to nurture existing positive behavior than it is to introduce new behaviors. The best outcome may be the one already existing, but dismissed as an "exception".