Normative Complexity: Breaking Up is Hard To Do


Normative behaviour is what we expect from others operating in the world around us. It is what defines the world “normal”. It’s based on a complex array of history, social conventions, mores, values, context and timing, but it is the reason we know weird or odd from something else. Weird, is by definition, something that is not normal.


What I Learned From Denim

Many years ago I saw a TV special looking at the world of fashion and was struck by the process of designing denim jeans for men. The audience was told that jeans are often designed based on the prototype of the ‘average’ man and then worked out from there. What struck me was that they also said the ‘average’ man has a size that matches about 1 in every 7500 men. So the average — the normal — is not average at all. Indeed, he is particularly rare. Male models who represent this size do very well in their profession.

While there is a norm of social behaviour, there are actually very few people who are wholly ‘normal’ in their actions, nor are there obvious cases where normal is indeed, then norm in social systems. Why? Because social systems are complex by their very nature. They bring together diverse, overlapping, dynamic elements together operating at different scales simultaneously. This is complexity.

Just as individuals we bring our familial history, education, gender, sex, age, faith (if it exists), height, race (which might be highly mixed), experience, physical abilities, fashion choice, body type, vocal acuity, energy level and on to every single interaction we have. Every one of those factors — of this limited group — bring with it a set of unique attributes that individually and socially have differing weight and ‘normality’ depending on the circumstance. To imagine that there is a place where all of these line up with everyone else is utterly absurd if not statistically impossible.

Yet, we cling to the idea that normal exists and might even be something to aspire to. We push a conformity on to our expectations of each other and our research that is unreasonable and often harmful.

It’s not unexepcted. From our earliest days in the society we belong there is pressure to conform. Norms are what hold societies together. They are what creates culture. But where the confusion comes in is with the treatment of norms as truly common things that is universally positive (if attainable).

It is the often mis-attributed following quote to many that still stands out as true:

There is nothing so uncommon as common sense

In complexity science, norms are not disregarded, but are only minimally useful in helping understand patterns of activity. There are path dependencies, which guide certain activities and point to the importance of knowing where things start to help trace the manner in which they project outward. There are things called minimum specifications, often referred to as ‘simple rules’, that can help us create certain conditions within boundaries to shape behaviour. Yet, no matter how we shape these, the normative condition is not and will not be normal in any sense like your favourite pair of jeans.

What Relationship Break-Ups Can Teach Us About Complexity

Psychology and Psychotherapy, when operating at its best, helps people to understanding their true selves independent of, although interdependent with, the world around them. It falls short when it pushes people to conform to social norms apart from their true self. This is a shame.

Ask anyone who has endured a particularly heartfelt breakup of a relationship about normal and you’ll see the pain caused when we ascribe normative behaviour to complex systems. Sensemaking in a breakup is hard to do because of the massive cultural and social baggage we attach to them. Marriages, engagements, boy/girlfriend partnerships, affairs, flings, and flirts all bring socially normative expectations (and taboos) with them. And yet, if you think to any of those relations you’ve had I suspect that you’ll find that at its core there was relatively little ‘normal’ actually going on. Each relationship has its own cadence, pattern and normalness to it.

The best relationships have their own way of creating patterns that are unique to themselves, which is why we can’t replace or hope to replace one with another. They are irreplaceable for the very reason they are special. Not necessarily better or worse — but perhaps more congruent, happy, loving and so on — but different. The things that turn one person on are not the same as some one else and this is what makes relationships hard, but also exciting. This is what a complex adaptive system is like in real life.

Unless there was some obvious punctuated event like an affair or assault or major crime, most relationships don’t end because of a single thing. There might not even be a clear sense of what the “thing” that caused the breakup was. Sometimes people drift apart, sometimes the spark disappears, other times individuals forget who they are, while in some cases people discover themselves to be altogether new. Even still, sometimes this all happens at the same time, over time, in ways that neither couple can see until they are too far apart to connect. A complex system.

Treat this like a linear system and you may find potentially catastrophic consequences and hence the drama that TV and film introduce in their break-up scenes. For a funnier, but no less important take on this, see the video below from Dave Snowden.

This happens with lovers, spouses and friends all the time. A look to popular psychology or media will suggest that there are ways to handle this and no doubt efforts will be made to show how ‘healthy’ people transition and what they do to do so. These ‘healthy’ people will represent the ‘norm’. They’ll take time out for themselves, they’ll ‘get back up on the horse’, they’ll do the Eat, Pray, Love journey.. All of these might work, but they are based on an assumption that whomever is recommending these strategies knows the complexity of the individual’s case to whom they are referring.

Some therapists do, many do not. If you’re in for two or three sessions it will undoubtedly fall to the latter.

This is parallel to what we do in our efforts to inspire systems change. We look to the norms of our society, our discipline, our sector, our community and so on and we hire people for the equivalent of one to three to five sessions to tell us what to expect and do. What we get is Dr. Phil, which sounds great, allows us to boil enormous complications into a one hour soundbite or self-help book, and feel good because we are doing something that matches society’s expectation and we end up with what Russell Ackoff suggests as doing the wrong things righter.

Minding Our Norms

We expect to go into these encounters being the 1 in 7500 male model for jeans, when we are our own model for our our denim.

Work in complexity means breaking up with normative expectations and becoming mindful of what our own unique ones are as well as what the minimum specifications are that link us to that common thread of humanity — society, discipline, family, community, whatever. This is not easy. Mindfulness is very hard, but remarkably simple.

The more mindful we are of the rules and norms we live by or try to live up to, the better we can understand where they fit and where they collide against our own specific condition and setting and better craft strategies and design opportunities for real, genuine social innovation and not a caricature.

We need to be the model for our own jeans. When we do that, the fit will be both bespoke and very fashionable.

Photo by Muffet Used under Creative Commons Licence

The coffee is on and change is brewing.

The best insights, tools, and techniques for change-making and innovation delivered to your inbox for free.

I'm not a jerk and don't spam people. Your email will be used only for this newsletter.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: