Spectrum Thinking and Complex Systems

Among the most frustrating aspects of being a systems thinker/actor/researcher is the “one thing” question: What is the one thing that we can do to solve this problem?

The answer is almost always: there isn’t one thing you can do, the problem requires a complex response*

*That isn’t always the case, but in my line of work, it pretty much is true that the problem and its solution fall within the realm of complexity.

When you work in complex systems, the problems are nearly always multifaceted, convoluted and multi-dimensional in their scope and impact. Yet the “one thing” request comes up all the time.

Dave Snowden, from Cognitive Edge,  in his work with the Cynefin Framework nicely points to the difference between best, good, and emergent practice. In public health and medicine, the term “best practice” has been so dominant that it is hard for people to lose the terminology, even if they acknowledge that it sometimes doesn’t fit (the concept of “better” practice is often snuck in as a way to placate those who subscribe a model of thinking that challenges “best” practice thinking). While this is very useful, the problem that even useful frameworks like Cynefin produce is a tendency for people to put whatever they are doing into boxes.

Looking at Cynefin, you can see the world compartmentalized into four nifty quadrants, making the world simple — or at least complicated, but certainly not complex. Dave Snowden himself has been critical of this tendency in his writings on Cognitive Edge’s blog, yet time and again I see this type of thinking come alive. I currently am teaching a course for graduate students on systems science perspectives in public health and this is one of the pitfalls that I hope the learners in my class can avoid.

It’s not easy. We humans love to compartmentalize things. Charles Darwin, one of the founders of modern science, famously began his career putting things in literal and metaphorical boxes. Classification is something we do from our earliest years and do all the way through school. Indeed, a brilliant and somewhat depressing look at how engrained this thinking is can be seen in Sir Ken Robinson’s animated TED Talk on the history and possible future of education.

Systems thinking requires spectrum thinking. People must be able to see things on a gradient, rather than in absolute compartments. Students can’t be faulted too much for having a hard time with this when they are graded based on letters where a B+ is a 79 and an A- is one percentage point higher, yet the mere presence of a B (anything) on a transcript can mean the difference between an award, admission, or a job and not.

This is in no way a criticism of Cynefin or other frameworks used to explain or assist in the understanding of complexity, but rather a statement of the problems inherent in our quest to teach others about complexity that is intellectually honest, reasonably accurate, yet also effective in helping people understand the gravity and scope of complexity in practice. I don’t have an answer for this, but do find using a spectrum useful.

And on a side note, the multi-coloured palette of the spectrum also allows for an introduction of the concept of diversity and human relations at the same time as it illustrates a way of thinking about complex systems.


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