Why Complexity?

When I speak of complexity, I’m NOT speaking metaphorically—both people and organizations are complex systems. Aristotle was on to this holistic way of seeing things, when he spoke of the true Self as both mind and matter [mind/body in people; in organizations, mission/vision (potential) and what actually happens day-to-day].

Remember SMART goals? They’re great for mechanical systems. Mechanical systems follow linear rules of behavior. These systems are predictable and deterministic. Not so you or your organization, which follow complex rules of behavior (which are inherently unpredictable and non-deterministic).

That’s why data can give us a false sense of security, as when FiveThirtyEight.com assured us that Donald Trump had no chance of winning the Republican nomination. In the world of complexity (pretty much where we live), SMART goal thinking—making a game plan and sticking with it—is very often going to get you into trouble. This is so no matter how good a game plan it is, at the time when it’s made.

Case in point: You and your significant other (or boss) need to have an important conversation. Are you going to script this out in advance, line by line and word for word? Maybe your part, IF you knew exactly how your significant other (or boss) would respond at each point. But you don’t (even if you think you do!), so you can’t. You can have a general goal (working through an issue, finding common ground, agreeing on how to move forward) and even prepare by trying to to see things from the other’s perspective and anticipating their concerns. This approach might not be “SMART,” but it’s sure a lot more sensible!

If you know the other person well, you can make reasonably good predictions of how the conversation will go, because there are rules of behavior (dynamics) for complex systems. Outcomes can even be fairly well predicted, probabalistically—especially in the short term. Think of your weather forecast—say, 60% chance of rain. (That’s a probability, not a fact, as we know all too well!). Very accurate for tomorrow, still pretty good three days out. But ten days out—not so much. A month out?—forget it!

So data is still useful, especially in the short term. But the takeaway is: To intelligently plan how best to achieve your goals, you need to know and apply the rules and principles of complexity. Below is a short primer. (To get the long version you have to hire me!)

Self-Organization: Think of a time when you met some people and then grew very close. Or think of John, Paul, George, and Ringo. As relationships deepen, a kind of group mentality (or collective intelligence) develops, in which the whole is greater than the sum its parts. Nonetheless, parts influence other parts, all parts influence the whole, and the whole influences all parts. Think of your family, when you were growing up. For better or worse (or both), it helped form you into what you are. Yet you, in turn, helped form the family unit. A family’s a complex system, continually self-organizing from the interactions of its member-parts.

Like a new-born baby, a newly forming complex system undergoes rapid change. The Hindu Trimurti has a name for this: Brahma, the Creator. I mention this because the two other aspects of the Trimurti (Vishnu and Shiva) also have parallels in complexity theory.

Feedback: Complex systems exhibit negative and positive feedback. Negative feedback damps down behaviors (your mother glares at you for reading a comic book in church). Positive feedback amplifies behaviors (your mother smiles when you share your toys). Negative feedback keeps systems within zones of optimal behavior. It keeps things the same. Positive feedback encourages needed changes in the status quo. Without negative feedback, systems would lack stability. Without positive feedback, systems couldn’t innovate, adapt, and evolve. Within the political arena, conservatives emphasize negative feedback and progressives accentuate positive feedback. In fact, both are necessary.

Within the Hindu Trimurti, a healthy balance of negative and positive feedback corresponds to Vishnu, the Preserver. One way to describe such a state is dynamic equilibrium—the state of continual but regulated change.

But complex systems can fall out of dynamic equilibrium by going to one extreme or another. A system that changes too much, too fast (too much positive feedback) may dissolve into chaos (conservatives are right). A system that’s unable to adapt (too much negative feedback, leading to rigidity) may collapse when the environment changes (progressives are right too).

Within the Hindu Trimurti, an imbalance of negative and positive feedback corresponds to Shiva, the Destroyer. Shiva can kill by stasis (too much negative feedback, strangling innovation and adaptation) or by chaos (too much positive feedback, leading to turbulence and incoherence). 

As an individual, do you tend toward one extreme or the other? Do you utilize both types of feedback, as appropriate? As an organization, do you have both types of people? Are both listened to and valued? Such things are helpful to know.

Using feedback effectively depends upon awareness. Your mind is very good at screening out or explaining away things that you don’t want to hear. And data is no particular protection—remember FiveThirtyEight.com? In hindsight, we can see that the signs were all there, but we ignored them. See “Deep Listening & Dialogue” and “Presence, Alignment & Flow” to find out how to gain greater objectivity, so that you can actually take in (and utilize) the feedback that’s staring you in the face.

By the way, now that you know about feedback, you can see that epigenetics is basically a means by which environmental feedback is used to alter structures and behaviors within the system. It’s kind of like a mute button. You can use it to discriminate amongst all the voices in your head—choosing to listen to those that are most pertinent and constructive in the current moment. Within an organization, you can tailor assignments within particular situations, so that they’re carried out by those who do them best. People may need to come into and drop out of a project, playing their critical roles when needed. (This is usually much easier and more effective than trying to fire and hire your way out of dysfunctional dynamics.)

Emergence: Emergent behaviors arise at the whole-system level and are different in quality than the behaviors of any of the parts. The human brain is a good example. As a general rule, particular functions are accomplished by neurons in particular regions of the brain. But people can lose an entire brain hemisphere and—over time—“rewire” the remaining one so that it carries out functions previously performed by regions that have been removed or damaged. Simply put, individual neurons don’t think and don’t learn. However, as neurons develop complex networks of interconnections, thinking as a global phenomenon emerges. This is why integration (of parts) is the name of the game—for personal and organizational development as well as for your brain.

History: It’s obvious that your experiences have helped to form who you are and how you act. You also can’t walk back history. You can only move on. But mechanical systems are different. We don’t need to know who owned a gun to know whether it will fire. We just need to know that the parts are intact and put together properly.

If the real world were mostly full of mechanical systems (in fact, it’s the opposite), life would be more straightforward. Machines don’t acquire habits, nurse grievances, harbor (or transcend) prejudices, or learn (at least not in the way that people do). But you do all of these things and much, much more. So do the people in your organization, thereby influencing the collective behavior of the system as a whole.

When we know our histories well, we understand the present much better—and how to reach our desired future. At the same time, history never repeats itself exactly. We can try not to get into “another Vietnam” but there will never be “another Vietnam”—so we need to use caution when making predictions (or forming plans) from history. We should ask what’s similar or the same—but also what’s different.

Τέλος: We tend to talk about purposes with regard to complex systems. The purpose of a bird’s anatomy is flight. The purpose of a beaver’s behavior is building a dam. But few scientists think that some ancient feathered dinosaur decided that flying would give it an evolutionary advantage. And how much intention goes on in a beaver’s mind is a matter of scholarly debate. Fortunately, in practical affairs, it doesn’t really matter whether τέλος arises from a designer (as Aristotle thought) or simply emerges. Either way, complex systems behave as if they’re designed to accomplish certain purposes.

The takeaway here is that complex systems are dynamic. Heraclitus observed that you can’t step into the same river twice. A complex system is always a moving target. In fact, it’s a BECOMING (much like the Buddhist understanding of the soul). It’s a verb, not a noun.

This means that a τέλος can change. A bird can BECOME a penguin—forget that whole flight thing and get really, really good at catching fish! In fact, a τέλος must change, if it is to reflect the current state of a dynamic system. Since the understandings of complexity theory square with Aristotle’s idea of τέλος, it makes sense to use complexity theory to realize your (or your organization’s) potential.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

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