Why Complexity?


A crowd is an example of a complex system.

A crowd is an example of a complex system.

In this first episode of the HumanCurrent podcast, we begin our casual conversations about complexity by defining what complex systems are and why they matter.

At the HumanCurrent, we often get questions like, “Why complexity? Why not focus on simplicity instead?”

Systems are an often invisible fact of life and nature. Think ecosystems, cultures, human relationships. It’s hard to break these things down and understand them by examining their parts. But from a systems perspective, you can see for miles. Complexity science observes the relationships between the parts, and the outcomes they produce, in order to understand the ways the whole system is changing and organizing itself.

Complex adaptive system — a network, a set of loosely connected units, each pursuing its own agenda in response to local conditions. The absence of strong central control in such networks can be a virtue because local units can adapt very quickly to new developments and because the loss of any one outpost does little damage to the whole. —  Bolman and Deal, Reframing Organizations

A complex adaptive system is the product of many relationships that evolve together in response to their interactions with each other. Whether you’re at work, at home with your family or walking around nature, YOU are part of many evolving complex systems.

You can’t eliminate complexity, by virtue of the fact that life has a lot of unknowns and a lot of connections. To get in tune with a complex system’s behavior, you look for “attractors,” or places in the system where patterns coalesce. Once relationships self-organize into patterns, these patterns can’t be erased (in complexity science this is called “history dependence” — like neural networks, connections can’t be undone, only replaced.) Understanding patterns of interrelationship within the system can help us detect signals in the noise — aka “coherence” — and from there we can make more sense of it.

Denying complexity, misunderstanding it or trying to reduce it into simple causal chains can result in shortsighted measures with disastrous results, like when you artificially introduce predation to “rebalance” an ecosystem and you end up with a bunch of starving predators and road kill. Unfortunately, many of our current business, economic and social best practices are focused on that same kind of reductionist thinking — the endless search for a single cause and effect.

Complexity science isn’t about focusing on the complicatedness of things; it’s looking at all the relationships, dynamics, uncertainty and unexpected (or emergent) behavior to detect what patterns we can, find coherence and measure the effects of our interventions.

Why are we worrying about complexity when there are starving people in the world?

Because economies, agriculture and politics are complex systems.

This is not some abstract academic concept that doesn’t apply close to home. Complexity in the workplace, for example, is something that goes way beyond common management “best practices” and looks at emergence. These are the unintended/unanticipated outcomes of human interactions (i.e. culture, innovation, market perception) and how they affect and co-evolve with the organization’s brand, its customers, its processes, its level of bureaucracy and informal networks, and all the things that go on behind the scenes that make or break a company. Again, an ecosystem.

One type of complexity strategy would be to plan for adaptability and emergence vs. avoiding failure, to create loose frameworks that appropriately incorporate failure and flexibility so that the system bends instead of breaking.

In a keynote to Agile developers, Dave Snowden said “the only useful model is the one you can draw on the back of a napkin from memory,” because we get in trouble when we start mistaking the model for reality. It’s the “all models are false, but some are useful” concept.

Understanding complex systems can help us shift from a measure-and-control mentality to a place of curiosity and creativity. When we know that at the right time, the smallest action can make a big difference, we can affect change with less effort and see how our actions ripple through the system. Snowden calls it “a matter of guiding and directing flow.” When we have the sort of flow that we can guide and direct, we work happier.

In our conversations on the HumanCurrent podcast, we want to explore how learning complexity awareness and tolerance can help us work and live happier. We don’t have the perfect language yet, but we want to build a casual vocabulary for complexity awareness in all walks of life. That’s where YOU come in — because we’re hoping our curiosity and your knowledge will make this show an experiment we can all learn from.

Many thanks to you in our learning process:
Santa Fe Institute — @sfiscience
Complexity Explorer — @ComplexExplorer
Dave Snowden — Cognitive Edge, @snowded
Chris Aldrich — @chrisaldrich, see his list of complexity theorists/scientists on twitter

The HumanCurrent podcast is hosted by Angie Cross & Stacy Hale. Subscribe in iTunes or listen at www.human-current.com.

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