The Forward Orientation Problem With Complexity

The human body is oriented towards forward motion and so too are our institutions, yet while this helps us move linearly and efficiently from place to place, it may obscure opportunities and challenges that come from other directions such as those posed by complexity. Thinking about and re-orienting our perceptions of who we are and where we are going might be the key to understanding and dealing with complexity now and in the future.

When heading out into the turbulent waters that face us we humans tend to look straight ahead and press forward. Our entire physical being and that of all mammals is aimed at facing forward. We look forward, walk forward and this often means thinking forward.

Doing this predisposes us to seeing problems ahead of us or behind us, but is less useful when what challenges us is positioned elsewhere. For this reason, fish and birds, with their eyes on the side of their head, are able to adapt to challenges from nearly any direction quickly. It also allows them to fly/swim in flocks/swarms/schools and operate with high degrees of coordination on a large scale.

These are skills that are useful for handling the social problems that are complex in nature and require mass action to address. But, we don’t have eyes on the side of our head and we tend to look forward or backward to orient ourselves and our activities.

One way this expresses itself in our perceptions of time. Thor Muller, writing in Psychology Today online, highlighted how our perceptions of time influence the way we handle appointments and punctuality with modern technology.  Citing the work of anthropologist Edward T. Hall (although mistakenly referring to Manhattan Project contributor Edward Teller), Muller points to the differences in perceived time across cultures and the way that plays out in our treatment of time and technology used to “manage” it and the complexity of everyday life. Monochronistic and polychronistic time orientations matter to whether you see time as a linear, quantifiable phenomenon or a more non-linear, contextual one. One allows you to “bank” time while the other perception deals more with the present moment, less dependent on forward-backward thinking.

Western society and the technologies developed within it are oriented primarily towards dealing with a monochronistic form of time. This works well when patterns, problems and situations have a linear, ordered set of circumstances to them. The cause-and-effect world of normal science fits within this worldview.

Complexity is non-linear and not easily defined in cause-and-effect terms and conditions. Two-dimensional space doesn’t capture complexity the way it can for linear situations. It also means thinking solely in forward and back terms is problematic.

An example of where this comes to conflict is in program planning and evaluation. Traditional evaluation methods and metrics are set up for looking at programs that are planned to start and end with impacts developed and detected in between. This implies a certain level of consistency in the conditions in which that program operates. This control and measure aspect of evaluation is part of the hallmark features of scientific inquiry.

For programs operating in environments of great change and flux, this is a faulty proposition. We cannot hold constant the environment for starters. Secondly, feedback gained from learning about the program as it proceeds is critical to ensuring adaptation and promoting resilience in the face of changing conditions. In these cases, failure to act and adapt on the go may result in a program failing catastrophically.

This is where developmental evaluation comes in. Developmental evaluation works with these conditions to generate data in a manner that programs can make sense of and use to facilitate strategic adaptation rather than simply reacting to changes. As the name suggests, it promotes development rather than improvement.Developmental design is the incorporation of this feedback into an ongoing program development and design process.

Both developmental design and evaluation require ways of seeing the world beyond forward/backward. This seeing comes from understanding where one’s position is in the first place and that requires methods of centring that take us into the world of polychronistic time. One example of a strategy that suits this approach is mindfulness programming. Mindfulness-based programs have shown remarkable efficacy in healing and health interventions aimed at stress reduction across conditions. Mindfulness techniques ranging from meditation to contemplative inquiry (video) brings focus to the present moment away from an orientation towards linear trajectories of time, thought and attention.

Some forms of martial arts promote attentive awareness to the present moment by training practitioners in strategies that are focused on simple rules of engagement, rather than just learning techniques for defence.

These approaches combine inward reflection — reflective practice — with an openness to the data that comes in around them without imposing an order on it a priori. The orientation is to the data and the lessons that come from it rather than its directionality or imposing values on what the data might mean at the start. It means slowing down, contemplating things, and acting on reflection not reacting based on protocol. This is a fundamental shift for many of our activities, but may be the most necessary thing we can focus on if we are to have any hope of understanding, dealing with, and adapting to complexity.

All the methods and tools at our disposal will not help if we cannot change our mindset and orientation — even in the temporary — to this reality when looking at complexity in our work. One of complexity’s biggest challenges right now is that it is seductive in accounting for the massive, dynamic sets of conditions we face every day, yet it lacks methods beyond evaluation to do things with it. The irony of mindfulness and contemplative approaches is that they are less about acting differently and more about seeing things in new ways, yet it is that orientation that is the key to making real change from talking about change. It is the design doing that comes with design thinking and the systems change from systems thinking.

5 thoughts on “The Forward Orientation Problem With Complexity”

  1. This is especially interesting if we think about how this forward attitude is shaping actual design practices. Specifically, I am thinking of recent posts about the consequences of having too many followers on social media and not enough leaders and collaborators. Do you think the forward orientation is enabling more following or leading through collaboration? How would this kind of design look different?

    1. Hi Carey,

      Thanks for your comment. A forward orientation is likely to lead people to choose collaborators strategically based on a present state vs. the perceived goal, presumably with the idea that collaborations will help advance towards that goal. That might work if you know what the goal is and how to get there, but in circumstances where you are dealing with rapid change and it isn’t clear exactly where the goal is position, this could be problematic. For example, if you are looking to build in resilience to change, the nature of collaborations and the types of people/organizations/resources needed to help foster that will be different depending on the current and anticipated challenges. If you are looking to produce more of X or reach more of Y in an environment with less and slower change, that’s different. Advertising is going through this. Some firms have their focus on achieving more ads on TV etc.. while others are just looking to remain relevant in an era of social media.

      Having a clear goal inspires people to want to follow. If you Tweet on a specific topic, people know where you’re going. If you are about a number of things, that’s harder to inspire followership. That said, you might have fewer followers, but you end up with a more committed group than you would normally. It’s not necessarily bad or good, effective or not, just different goals. The design would depend on what you felt was an appropriate outcome of the situation you’re in.

      1. Thanks for the reply, Cameron. It certainly doesn’t take much convincing that indeed our current social situation is complex and experiencing rapid change, thereby encouraging us all — no matter what profession we are in — to develop useful ways of responding, and being responsive to, complexity. Reading your post made me think about education, specially medical education and the importance of design given the changing landscape of medicine in the 21st century. Current patient safety education initiatives, for example, overlaps with what you said at the end of your comment nicely. A number of goals exist, however, group leaders who know where they are going have generated committed followers committed to quality care through transparency and open and honest communication. This model is inspiring others. But these goals are context dependent and most successful when adapted to meeting the needs of the groups they hope to serve. So it is forward thinking yes, but this way of thinking and seeing, seems to have a built-in form or reciprocity that matters in terms of being mindful of the unique circumstances of other individuals, organizations and resources.

  2. You said it right: “The notion of being mindful of unique circumstances of other individuals, organizations and resources” is the key. That is one way to get out of the mindset orientation that causes us to look one direction for solutions, when they might be elsewhere.

    1. Exactly, and probably will help bring creativity to the way we manage problems too. Thanks for starting this conversation!

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