Complexity At The Beach

We can learn much about change from our trips to the beach and how things relate to one another.

Beach-going is a summer pleasure than those of us fortunate to live close to the water can enjoy as an escape and, when it’s hot, sometimes a necessity. While it might odd at first, our lazy beach days might serve a great lesson for appreciating complexity and change.

Thinking About Change

When people speak of change there is a tendency to favour grand gestures, transformative actions, and heroic acts when we think about change. A new CEO, a strategic turn, or a bold team are things we celebrate when it comes to change.

Many stories of change feature a storyline that includes phrases like “and that’s when I knew…” or “that was the moment when…” or “suddenly, we realized…” and so on.

These phrases and ‘moments’ of change make for great storytelling, but they provide only a sliver of insight into how real change happens and sticks.

Another thing we tend to embrace in our narratives is some account of a planned, structured approach to change. Cognitive rational strategy models that focus on taking knowledge, beliefs, perceptions, and sensations and converting that into intentions and actions through means of a plan and sequential rollout of that plan. Just consider the names of models like Stages of Change, Theory of Reasoned Action and Planned Behaviour, and Behavioural Activation Model.

What these models lack is a structured appreciation for many of the situations that humans find themselves which can be described simply as complex. And complexity is most certainly like a day at the beach.

Complex Situations: An Introduction

These all have benefits and many limitations. One limitation of these models is that they represent an approach to change that doesn’t reflect much of how we live in practice for much of our lives. Much of what we do exists in the realm of the complex.

Complex situations and change reflect how components within a system (which is any bounded set of circumstances or actors like an organization, a community, or a person’s mental life) interact. A more fulsome description is provided by Alexander Siegenfeld and Yaneer Bar-Yam:

Complex systems science considers systems with many components. These systems could be physical, biological, or social. Given this diversity of systems, it may seem strange to study them all under one framework. But while most scientific disciplines tend to focus on the components themselves, complex systems science focuses on how the components within a system are related to one another.

The last part about how things relate to one another is what we focus on when understanding complexity and change.

A Day At The Beach

Beaches are dynamic spaces that affected by the number of people on them, the tides, the weather, wind, and the way its used. This will change on a hourly and daily basis. While there are patterns of use that are consistent (e.g., swimming, suntanning, boating) the means by which this is realized is highly situational.

Some people wish to set up close to others and some further apart. The same is true for how people swim and go into the water. The introduction of something new like a soccer ball or volleyball net or boom box changes the dynamic. Add in alcohol, sunscreen (or the absence of both) and you have another emergent, dynamic factor that changes as the day and week goes on.

What about sandcastles? They can last a few minutes, but rarely more than a few hours. A lifeguard station, however, might be there for the entire season and then moved the year afterward. Or, it could be something that’s permanent and even historic like the image of the Leuty Lifeguard Station below.

Beaches have many shared features, but no two are the same. Even stretches of the same beach differ despite many shared qualities. This is because of the water, tides, sand (quality, amount, or presence), size, shape, and proximity to others and that all of this is subject to change over time.

There is a perception of consistency, but so much dynamism that we often fail to appreciate. Just as our plans for setting up our umbrella and camping for the day are affected by so many things beyond our control so are most human environments.

Just as we expect to make changes during our time at the beach, so too should we plan for this in shaping our strategy, our assessment of outcomes, and our metrics for change (and fun in the sun).

Strategy in human systems is not a day at the beach (it’s a lot of work), but maybe it should be more like one than we think.

Image credits by Stanslav Rostov, Quiet Studio and Lianhao Qu via Unsplash. Thank you for sharing your work.

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