Attractors might be the most useful concept within complexity science for understanding practical change-making. By looking at how an attractor works we can better facilitate action and design more practical strategies in complex situations.
We hear much about the concept of complexity when speaking about social systems. Complexity simply refers to a set of multiple, overlapping, dynamic influences that are bound by context and time and produce differential effects based on these conditions. Complex systems are resistant to prediction and control because of the many layers of interconnected effects.
Attractors are a core concept within complexity theory, science and practice.
“The most important thing to understand about attractors is that they are islands of stability in a sea of chaos.”
Attractors are among the most actionable parts of the theory and can help us to focus our attention within a complex system.
Attractors are where patterns develop — it’s where things are happening. We might not understand why this happens, but identifying where they are and how they function within the system gives us a clue about where to intervene in a system. It’s a way of finding things like leverage points by looking at where things come together.
A great example of an attractor is Dave Snowden’s timeless explanation of complex systems around building understanding around things that draw people in (in this case, it’s a children’s party and the attractors are things like a ball, game, or activity that focuses kids’ attention). Attractor maps simply create a visual representation of this pattern of activity with data based on observations.
It means a simple system that is highly predictive, repetitive and controllable is not the best place for an attractor map.
Attractor maps are much like a heat map and distinguish areas of activity and the intensity of that activity. This is a visual way to find and represent where the action is happening.
An attractor map is a visual representation of information within a system designed around where things coalesce and organize. Attractor maps are anticipatory in that they help organizations learn where things are happening now so they can pay attention and help anticipate or guide where things are going in the future. This method can be a foresight-supporting tool as well as an asset for conducting organizational sensemaking.
Attractor maps tell us where things are now and where things might be leading in the near future. They also can help us figure out what attracts and what repels people.
An attractor map can be any visual means of organizing and representing what it is that we see. Tools like mind maps and other visual thinking tools can be of use. Keep in mind that the map is not reality, it’s just a representation of reality.
Using Attractors To Focus Insight and Strategy
Just like the Death Star uses a tractor beam to pull spaceships into its orbit, attractors can focus our strategic thinking. Attractors are where our energy is drawn to (or repulsed from). In either case, something is creating coherence that allows us to begin organizing things around.
The first step in using attractors is to determine what attractors are present in the first place. This can be through data (observing patterns) or applied extraneously to data by determining what is meaningful and then seeing if the patterns fit the theory. (Being careful not to see the thing that isn’t there because of preconceived ideas and biases). Attractor mapping can be means of theory testing in this way.
It’s important to remember that we often find ourselves unaware of what is driving us. Being able to step back and see patterns with some distance can allow us to see where energy is being drawn to and where coherence is starting to form.
Once we’ve seen patterns, dive in a little further and start observing what happens.
How to Initiate Attractor-Based Strategic Thinking
Where do we begin? Attractors aren’t always jumping out at us so how can we start finding or revealing them within a system? A place to start is by defining what has value and using evaluative thinking to find and reveal where it is created.
Talk. Ask questions (lots of them) and open up a space for conversation about what is valued and what has value. This narrative allows us to determine what is important and helps us determine what to focus on. A complex system is partly defined by an abundance of information in various states of organization. Our focus helps set the organization of the information we have available.
Observe. As we clarify value the next step is observing where such value sits within the system (if at all) and noticing where there might be something else. For example, engagement is a key indicators of success in marketing or communications campaigns. Observing where and what people are engaged in (and what they avoid) can help determine where the value is potentially generated and whether this is as intended or expected. Gather data on this. Is this tied to specific times, places, people, or circumstances? Is this happening in a fleeting moment or something that is more persistent in its presence? Where people are attracted can help us align our strategy with what people are already doing or reveal areas of opportunity.
Sort. Once you have the data from what is reported and what is witnessed it’s important to sort and engage in a form of sensemaking that involves a social process of meaning-making from data that is usually complex and multi-layered. Our attractions and attractors are often not straightforward. Sometimes what we observe contradicts what we believe or do. It’s often why we experience feelings of cognitive dissonance — a separation between what we think and what we do. Sorting allows us to determine what to focus upon within a sea of information and helps us determine what’s relevant and pertinent.
Design. The last part is to take what we learn and design a strategy around what we are attracted to — or want to avoid. By being conscious of what it is that we are looking to move toward or from we can be far more intentional in how we go about setting up systems and strategies to get us where we desire. This intention, design-driven process both works with how we are and who we want to be (as an organization or individuals). This is where we leverage attractors.
Attractors, as their name suggests, can draw us to them and be powerful vehicles for focusing on change if we’re aware of them and work with them, rather than against them. Attractors and attractor mapping can help us put our energy into where energy is already present and available rather than trying to go against it.
In practice, this can be a way to get an answer to the question: Where do I start?
Knowing where to start is often the hardest part. Good luck.
Need help with this or simply finding the right way to begin the process? Let’s grab a coffee (even virtually).
Image Credits: Matt Howard on Unsplash and by Nayam on Unsplash