Just a quick note to bring your attention the September issue of Harvard Business Review, which is on complexity! Michael J. Mauboussin is interviewed in an article title “Embracing Complexity“.
Mauboussin is the author of “Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition. ” He touches briefly on Complex Adaptive Systems, like ecosystems, and how they defy the Newtonian reductionist models. An ant colony is an example:
If you examine the colony on the colony level, forgetting about the individual ants, it appears to have the characteristics of an organism. It’s robust. It’s adaptive. It has a life cycle. But the individual ant is working with local information and local interaction. It has no sense of the global system. And you can’t understand the system by looking at the behavior of individual ants.
Not wanting to compare office workers to ants, but we find ourselves in a situation in many cases of trying to define a concrete process when in reality no such process exists.
That’s the essence of a complex adaptive system—and the thing that’s so vexing. Emergence disguises cause and effect. We don’t really know what’s going on.
His biggest warning is not to believe simplified models. He points out that we are wired to construct simplified models.
…humans are incredibly good at linking cause and effect—sometimes too good. Ten thousand years ago most cause and effect was pretty clear. And our brains evolved to deal with that.
But it means that when you see something occur in a complex adaptive system, your mind is going to create a narrative to explain what happened—even though cause and effect are not comprehensible in that kind of system.
By thinking you understand a system, you might act. But acting on a system you don’t understand can have surprising consequences. He gives a good example of feeding elk in Yellowstone caused a reduction in trout population. The inter-dependencies of an ecosystem are not obvious, and so it is with businesses as well. He points out that:
- We listen to experts even when we know they can’t possibly know what is really going on — reminding me of The Black Swan by Taleb.
- Workers don’t share information very well.
By recognizing that complex systems don’t reduce to simple rules, he offers some techniques that a manager can use to make better decisions.
OK, I admit it, I am sucker for any article about complexity and the limitations of Newtonian / Cartesian thinking. Those who have followed me know that Adaptive Case Management is focused on helping organizations to support precisely this kind of complex work patterns.