Systems Thinking About Action: Complexity

The global pandemic situation has provided us with a lesson in complexity by giving us much to see, learn, and do if we pay attention.

It’s been said that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second best time is today.

Our personal, social, and organizational preparedness plans are being enacted now. How well they fare is largely a matter of how they account for complexity. The global COVID-19 pandemic has upended so much of what was normal and one of the reasons it’s a challenge to manage is that the situation is one that affects entire systems and does so in a complex state. It’s why our stores (as pictured above) are temporarily emptied while our panic is filling up.

We can’t control all of what happens — a hallmark feature of complexity — but we can learn, adapt, and work in ways that enable us to ride the waves the situation brings rather than be swamped by them. If we can do that, we might find ourselves OK on the other side.

In this second in a series on systems thinking lessons from COVID-19 we look at complexity.

Sensemaking Systems

Complexity is all about action: the interaction of various forces operating at different levels of a system, time scales, momenta, and degrees. That’s a jumbled way of saying: there is a lot going on and isn’t all straightforward.

The Cynefin Framework (below) is a useful tool for helping us make sense of activities and determining the nature of the problem at hand. It provides us with a way to understand what is happening and determine strategic approaches that are likely to help us rather than exacerbate problems.

By SnowdenFile:Cynefin framework Feb 2011.jpeg, CC BY 3.0, Link

What makes something complex is that there may be interactions within a system that are straightforward and are simple in nature, cause, and effect or are complicated, too. What makes them complex is that they are wrapped within other activities that are emergent, dynamic, scale-independent, and filled with delays.

The consumer phenomena of Black Friday and it’s web of interactions are a good example of this in action as I’ve shown in other posts.

Unlike the situation with COVID-19 however, we humans have engineered Black Friday to our own benefit and detriment. We could put a stop to it if we wanted with much effort and determination. With outbreaks, natural disasters, and climate change the pathway to change is less straightforward and only so much human interaction will help.

Complexity and COVID-19

As governments declare states of emergency and enact a whole suite of sweeping policy measures some are asking of their leaders: why this and why now? It’s a good question and speaks to the problem of complexity and evidence.

The best evidence of yesterday or even 6 hours might tell us different stories right now. This is not a problem of the evidence, but one of the problem itself. For example, most scientific research centres on examination of causal pathways and interactions. These are best understood and predicted based on linear models. However, complexity situations are often tied with non-linear effects, as seen by such things as Pareto distributions or others.

You hear about ‘flattening the curve‘? That’s speaking to a normal distribution (a ‘bulge’ model), where as a non-linear models have far less uniform shape. OK, so what does that mean in practice?

It means we see waves of panic and calm, spikes in supply and reduction, or mass changes followed by calm. The pattern isn’t consistent. There may be an overall pattern, but it’s not easily discernible. All of a sudden people see that toilet paper (something big, bulky, and can’t be stored in the same quantities as cans of tuna or soup) disappear and that leads to runs on it and other staples.

Next week it might be eggs or lentils or something else. Meanwhile, the disease is following a pattern that is more predictive based on human behaviour — hence ‘the curve’. Two activities happening simultaneously.

What to do?

In moments of complexity, the key is to find domains of coherence that you can create positive interactions around and that you can build on. A humourous and useful example of one of the central organizing principles underlying complexity is Dave Snowden’s take on using a party as a metaphor for how to guide wise action:

One of the ways we can do this is to look more closely at what is creating positive (i.e., helpful) coherence in these times. It may mean something as lighthearted as emergent public sing-a-long odes to healthcare workers to boost morale and strengthen community connections. It might be means to create a stable, localized distribution channel for medicine and supplies to help neighbours like we are seeing in Toronto and even more granular such as the neighbourhood of Leslieville where I live.

Local, small-scale initiatives are often best suited to addressing these kinds of problems at first. Why? They are nimble, can gather, deliberate upon, and utilize information quickly to create learning systems. Complex problems requires that we learn. In Cynefin terms — it means probing the situation (paying attention, trying small-scale prototype solutions), sensing what’s working (which means evaluating our efforts and providing feedback), and then responding (acting) based on that. Even failure can benefit us. This is a cycle that repeats while our learning increases.

The same kind of approach can be taken within a large organization, a government, or international collaboration. We are seeing this with the coordinated efforts of public health professionals across the world who are providing up-to-date reports (feedback) based on evaluated efforts to control the spread and residual effects of COVID-19. Organizations like the WHO can serve to coordinate these efforts.

You can do the same with your organization or community: the same principles apply.

It’s why things like the off-the-hip, non-scientific, and reactive (not responsive) approach we are seeing by some governments and leaders are failing their communities. It’s also why, for those that are guided by the evidence and feedback, they may sometimes appear to be shifting direction so much.

These are uncertain, complex times. Knowing how to think and act about what’s happening and what we can do is critical to taking wise action when we can — and knowing that we can.

Be safe, be well.

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