Results for: complexity

complexitysystems sciencesystems thinking

Complexity and the Senseless Marketing of the Future

Logarithmic spiral

Futurists take what we know now and project into the future ideas about things will be like years from today using the models that have worked consistently up to now. Those models applied to human systems are changing quickly making marketing the future based on them senseless and potentially dangerous.

Earlier this past week a post on FastCoExist caught my attention and brought to mind why I have such an uneasy relationship with futurists and futures as a field. The post, 8 Ways the World Will Change in 2052, is look at the next 40 years written by Jorgen Randers, a professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School and written with all the confident swagger that typifies futurists making statements about what is to come. After all, it’s hard to draw an audience (and the benefits that comes with that) when you don’t have a confident answer on your subject matter — even if that answer is wrong. In this latest post in the series on marketing complexity I look at futurists and their predictions and what it could mean for making sense of the threats and opportunities we will face in the years to come.

The Mathematical Problem of Futures and Complexity

The FastCoExist article paints a picture of a world that looks a lot like the one we have today, just with some shifts in economic and social structures. It suggests that much will remain the same even though a few key things will change, but our general relations will remain constant. It is that consistency that raises my concerns about futurist thinking (not all, to be sure) and its use of the data today to make predictions tomorrow. There is an assumption of linearity that weaves its way through the narratives spun by futurists that do not fit with how complex systems behave, nor does it account for the network effects created by interconnected systems.

Where I live now (Toronto), we have seen an almost uninterrupted heat wave for more than three weeks and that is forecast to continue for the week to come. This is the hottest year in recorded history (video), and as this short news clip shows the implications are many. At our current level of focus the implications may seem slight: changing growing conditions for gardens, better cottage swimming weather, brown lawns etc.. But at another scale and perspective, the interconnections between these things will start to reveal themselves if the pattern continues.

It is here where I see futurists getting it wrong as their predicts rest on largely linear trajectories of change and scientific knowledge that uses linear models to create predictions. The mistake is taking linear phenomenon and grafting that knowledge on to complex cases, while another mistake is taking science that works for static things and applying it to dynamic objects.

Complexity often produces change curves that follow a Pareto distribution, which is a way of accounting for things like ‘tipping points’, and is rarely linear in its effects for long periods of time. As the news report mentions, Toronto has an average temperature of 3.5 degrees higher than normal in a single year. It could be an aberration, but when we see record-breaking temperatures for years on end that looks like a pattern forming.

Climate change is not just about things getting warmer, cooler, wetter or dryer. From a human standpoint, how we adapt to these changes is what counts and in a networked world is that adaptations happen simultaneously and in a dynamic, interconnected manner. That means that many things change at the same time and that the relationship between dynamic objects means that the overall quantity and rate of change in the system is likely to be logarithmic (exponential) not additive.

Reframing change models: the language of complex systems.

If we are to create models that are more useful to us, we need to develop them with complexity in mind, think in systems and act as designers. To do this requires a change in the thinking models we use and the ways we communicate these models to the wider world. Yet, it isn’t as alien as it seems; we do it all the time with ourselves in explaining our social lives.

  • A child goes from being peaceful and quiet to a tantrum in a matter of seconds.
  • A calm, composed individual bursts into tears at a seemingly random event.
  • A polite, warm conversation quickly turns cold at the slightest mention of a particular phenomenon

In many of these cases the ’cause’ might not be obvious. An example I use with my students is this:

Imagine a couple in their bedroom and one partner sees a wayward sock that has been left on floor and gets intensely angry at the other partner upon discovery of the sock. Why? Is is that the sock on the floor is so problematic that it reduces an otherwise peaceful environment into a space of conflict? Is the sock really that bad? Or is the sock a catalyst for something else? Does it represent something (or many things) that are embodied in the sock being left carelessly on the floor? Does the sock serve as a vessel for accumulated grievances and stressors only loosely related to its position on the floor?

This example of the sock illustrates how a Pareto distribution of social tensions in a relationship could be expressed. It points to how the most ‘obvious’ linear answer might not always be the case even if initial appearance suggest a relationship.

Explaining the reasons for problems opens a door to solving them. But we can do more.

The power of weak signals

The way to interject into a complex system is not to pay attention to everything all of the time, but to small things that show patterns. Eric Berlow has a remarkable 3 minute TED talk that illustrates how signals can be extracted from networks to reveal simplicity in complexity. A 2008 paper in the journal Physical Review shows the ways in which weak signals can be detected by reducing the overall volume of information or nodes in a network.

But what to pay attention to? This is where mindful evaluation and attention comes in. Mindfulness is not just a way to connect to one’s inner life, but also the outer world around us. A mindful approach to monitoring and evaluation means watching what happens around us and positioning tools, metrics and data gathering processes to give us the necessary feedback on our systems around us. To take the example of the couple’s conflict over the sock, paying attention within the relationship to minor conflicts, areas of tention, and moments of release earlier could have diffused energy enough to mean the sock was just a sock.

In social systems, this means paying attention to areas of intersection where natural tensions occur due to difference. These differences could be perspective, attitude, knowledge, beliefs or capabilities. These points of intersection are often where novelty emerges and innovation takes place, but they are also where deeper problems can begin. Constant, evolving and dynamic methods of data collection that recognizes change in non-linear and linear forms is more likely to enable the sorts of weak signal detection that can help us see the future more clearly.

That can help us make sense of future possibilities, rather than make empty predictions that guide what we do now at the expense of paying attention to what might come (and what is really happening).

complexitysystems thinking

Marketing the Narrative of Complexity

Sunset 2007-1Complexity, by its very nature, is not a simple concept to communicate, yet it is increasingly becoming one that will define our times and may be the key to ensuring human survival and wellbeing in the years to come. If society is to respond to complex challenges the meaning of complexity needs to be communicated to the world in a manner that is understandable to a wide audience. This is the first in a series of posts that are looking at the concept of complexity and the challenges and opportunities with marketing it to the world.

Across North America this week the temperatures are vastly exceeding normal levels into ranges more akin to places like India or East Africa. The climate is changing and regardless of what the causes are the complexities that this introduces require changes in our thinking and actions or human health and wellbeing will be at risk. To follow Einstein’s famous quote:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”

Many U.S. States are suffering hurricane-like after-effects from a Derecho that hit last week, knocking out power at a time when temperatures are into the high 90’s and low 100’s. Derechos are rapid moving hot air systems that are difficult to predict and can only be anticipated under certain conditions. The heat wave combined with the lack of air conditioning and supplies left 13 dead, maybe more. The heat wave is continuing and is expected to last throughout the weekend.

But this post is not really about the weather, but the challenges with complexity that it represents and how we need to be better understanding what complexity is and how to work with it if we are to survive and thrive in the years to come.

Blog interrupted

It’s ironic that this post was delayed by blackout. I live in Toronto, Canada and we have a remarkably stable power supply, yet last night and through this morning I was without power  due to suspected overheated circuits attributed to high air conditioning use, shutting down my Internet and everything else with it. In many parts of the world, this kind of blackout is commonplace and a fact of daily living, but not here…yet. This fortuitous bit of timing illustrates the fragility of many of our systems given the reliance on power to fuel much of what we do (e.g., cooking, food storage, Internet, traffic signals, lighting, etc..).

Virtually all of the infrastructure of modern life (here and increasingly globally) is tied to electricity. If you’re interested in imagining what would happen if it all shuts off, I’d highly recommend reading The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Weisman uses a complexity scientist and futurists’ tool called a thought experiment to craft a book about what New York City would look like if humans suddenly disappeared. The book illustrates how nature might take over, how the underground subways would flood and collapse because of the millions of litres of water needed to be pumped out of it each day, and how certain human-built structures would decay over time (some far faster than we might hope).

Thought experiments take data from things that have happened already, theories, and conjecture and project scenarios into the future based on the amalgam of these. It provides some grounded means of anticipating possible futures to guide present action.

From present delays to future/tense

The Guardian asked a number of scientists working on climate about whether this current spate of extreme weather events is attributable to global warming. The scientists offered a range of answers that (not surprisingly) lacked a definitive statement around cause-and-effect, yet the comments hint at a deep concern. These anomalous conditions are starting to move further towards the end of the normal curve, meaning that they are becoming less statistically plausible to be caused by chance. What this means for the weather, for climate, for our economies is not known; all we have is thought experiments and scenarios. But the future is coming and we may want to be prepared by helping create one we want, not just one we get.

Unfortunately, we cannot wait for the data to confirm that global warming is happening or determine that we are contributing to it and to what degree. This is not just a weather issue; the same situation is playing itself out with issues worldwide ranging from healthcare funding to immigration policies and migration patterns. Interconnected, interdependent and diverse agents and information forms are interacting to create, emergent patterns of activity.

It is for this reason that weather patterns — despite being one of the most monitored and studied phenomenon — can’t be accurately predicted outside of a few hours in advance, if at all. There is too much information coming together between air flows, humidity, land forms, physical structure and human intervention (e.g., airplane contrails) interacting simultaneously in a dynamic manner to create a reliable model of the data. David Orrell’s book Apollo’s Arrow is a terrific read if you want to understand complexity in relation to weather (and more) or see his talk at TEDX on YouTube.

Two’s company, three’s complexity (and other analogies)

The above heading is taken from a title of another book on complexity and tries to simply point to how adding just a little bit of information (another person to a conversation perhaps) can radically alter the experience from being simple or complicated to complex. Just thinking about planning a night out with two people vs. three and you’ll know a little of what this means.

Analogies and metaphors are ways in which complexity scholars commonly seek to convey how the differences in conditions represent varying states of order. Brenda Zimmerman and others write about putting a rocket to the moon as being complicated and raising a child as being complex. One of my favourites is Dave Snowden‘s video on How to Organize a Children’s Party. One of the reasons we resort to analogies is that we need a narrative that fits with their experience. All of us were children and some of us have had them as parents so we can relate to Zimmerman and Snowden’s ideas because we’ve experienced it firsthand.

We haven’t experienced anything like what is anticipated from global warming. In the Americas, parts of Europe and Asia we are enormously fortunate to have entire generations that don’t know what it’s like to be hungry, have no healthcare, be without electricity, or have no access to safe water and proper sanitations. Stories about children’s parties might not bring these scenarios home. It is why Weisman’s book is so clever: it makes a plausible scenario fiction.

Science fact as science fiction

The role of fiction might be the key to opening the marketing vault to complexity. Scott Smith and others have been exploring how the use of science fiction helped pave the way for some of today’s modern technologies and innovations. By weaving together fantasy narratives and imaginations on the future, technologists have managed to re-create these tools for current life. Witness the Tricorder Project that seeks to develop the same multifunction health and information tool used by Dr. McCoy on Star Trek.

We are making headway with complex information as witnessed by the popularity of infographics and data visualizations. But there is much more to be done.

Complex problems require complex solutions. Artists, designers, scientists, marketers, journalists and anyone who can communicate well can play a role. Making complexity something that people not only know about, but want to know about is the task at hand. In doing so, we may find people reaching for and advocating for complex solutions rather than stop-gap, band-aid ones like buying a car with better fuel economy as the main strategy to combat carbon emissions.

It’s been done before. Marshall McLuhan wrote about esoteric, yet remarkably insightful and complex topics and became a household name in part to his appearance in Woody Allen‘s Annie Hall. Our media landscape is far more complex now (no pun intended) to think that a single appearance of any complexity superstar (if one existed) would change public perception of the topic in the same way that McLuhan’s did for his theories on media. Yet, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth might have done more to get people talking about the environment than anything. And while Gore is not known for his witty storytelling, his slide show did a good job.

To begin our journey of marketing complexity we need to come up with our stories so that we can tell ones that are pleasant, rather than the ones that are less so. And if you want one that fits this latter category, I strongly recommend reading Gwynn Dyer’s chilling Climate Wars. Instead, let’s get closer to living what Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler write about in Abundance.

The future is ours to write.

For more books and resources on complexity, check out the library page on Censemaking.

psychologysocial media

Mindful Navigation of Complexity and Social Media

Meditation 1
Social media is probably THE word of 2012. Facebook goes public, Twitter takes off, and YouTube and LinkedIn are hitting their stride. Add mobile data to the equation and the prospects for a truly interconnected web (no pun intended) of humanity in real time is becoming close enough to imagine being real. The singularity indeed may be near and social media is helping lead the way to a new global brain.

Evolving our thinking and the role of social learning

We are at another inflection point in social cognition. We have evolved our thinking from units associated with families, to tribes, to institutions and more recently to networks. With each step, the complexity of the communications increases. Consider the Facebook status update and the myriad sets of relationships that are wrapped up in the audience for that post and the intricacies associated with deciding who should see that post or who should have access to it. (For the record, Google + is immensely more easy to navigate with its Circles, yet it still hasn’t quite caught on).

With every additional layer of connections so too does the complexity associated with those connections. It is no wonder that people are feeling overwhelmed, confused and disturbed by social media, and yet it is pulling us into a new (media) world order that is seemingly inevitable.

Let me unpack these ideas. Firstly, the move towards social media is as much a way forward, but also a return to the past when ‘news’ was transmitted socially. It is also a means of navigating complexity. When the abundance of information available to us is as great as it is, humans need ways to efficiently filter information for effective sense-making. To this end, recommendations from our peers and social learning is an efficient way to side-step this. We use a form of distributed cognition to mitigate the risk and assist in our decision making and use others as a proxy for thinking about problems. It’s not that we’re stupid or lazy, we’re being efficient.

Filter failure and the problem of information volume

Clay Shirky has arguedwe are not living with information overload, but filter failure. This is true and not true, because we are exposed to more potentially meaningful bits of information than ever before, not just more information. While Shirky is correct that we have had more information than we could possibly consume at any one time for generations, the increase and ease of access to this information through electronic media and the personal relevance of this information makes our current circumstances different.

We now have tailored news services/apps like and Zite that help filter information, but they also add to the number of sources that one regular checks to get news. I use Twitter as a primary news source, but as my list of followers increases along with those I follow, the number of engagements I have through that media increase every week. Add email, Facebook, Google +, my LinkedIn groups and connections and the RSS feeds I subscribe to and its amazing I am able to do anything with any of the information I get.

That is part of the problem. Contemplative inquiry and mindfulness is a potential solution.

Mindful escapes

This past week’s Opinionator column in the NY Times was on the busy trap that we find ourselves in. This was published the same week as The Atlantic published a piece on women’s challenge of ‘doing it all’ that I commented on in my last post. Both articles point to a trend toward expectations of having to do too much and not finding the time to squeeze it all in. Mitch Joel from Twist Image refers to this as the age of digital anxiety and points to some resources like that are designed to help people take themselves away from the fray, even for just a few minutes.

Another resource designed to help work with this complexity is Buddhify, a website and app designed to bring mindfulness into the everyday life of people on the go. I use this regularly and really enjoy it.

Yet, these are all ways to deal with the output of information and the complexity it produces in our lives (along with the attendant stress and time-pressure). What we are not doing is mindfully attending to this complexity as a whole, asking what it serves. Just as we humans created this social media landscape, so too can we re-create it. We are at a point in the evolution of our media ecology that Marshall McLuhan notes was at a point of serving us and is shifting to having us serve it, unless we engage in mindful (re)design of our system.

Before moving in this direction, we first must as a simple, but important design question: what was social media hired to do for us? 

If we are to mindfully design our social media ecology and do it in a manner that promotes empathy and connection, rather than overwhelms us; engenders learning and insight over simple content absorption; and promotes creativity and innovation rather than just talks about it, we need to answer the question more intently and act accordingly.

Applying complexity questions and mindfulness to social media use

From a complexity perspective we can note a few things as we engage in contemplative inquiry on social media. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What are the boundaries of my (social) media ecological system?
  2. What are the attractors that organize my activity (what do I pay attention to voluntarily or involuntarily)?
  3. What new insights and patterns of behaviour emerge from these interactions?
  4. How have those new insights and behaviour patterns influenced what I do?
  5. How have the products of those changes been fed back into that media ecology (what have I taken away?, what have I given back?)
  6. What have I hired social media to do for me?
  7. Is this serving me and my interests (which include that of any social units — family, firm, community, network) ?

Contemplate that as you engage in social media use and you may find surprises. I’d love to hear about what those are.

complexityevaluationsocial systemssystems science

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.

complexitydesign thinkingevaluation

The PR Problem for Design, Evaluation,and Complexity

I (heart) PR

Complex concepts like evaluation, design and even complexity itself provide insight, strategies and applications that provide usable solutions to real-world problems, but also suffer from widespread misunderstandings, confusion and even derision. If they are to take hold beyond their initial communities of interest, they need to address their PR problem head on. 

This past week was Design Week in Toronto. As one works extensively with design concepts and even has a health promotion-focused design studio, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that this would be a big week for someone like me who lives and works in the city.  Well, it came and went and I didn’t attend a single thing. The reason was partly due to timing and my schedule, but largely because the focus of the week was not really on design writ large, but rather interior design. Sure, there were a few events that focused on social issues (what I am interested in) like the Design With Dialogue session on Designing a Future for our Future, but mostly it was focused on one area of a large field.

And thus, interior design was left to represent all of design.

So why does this matter? It matters a lot because when people hear the term design, most of what was presented this week fits with that perception. The problem is that design is so much more than that. It is about making things, creative thinking and problem tackling (design thinking), social innovation, and responsive planning for complex situations. Architects, business leaders, military strategists, social service agencies and health promoters all engage in design. Indeed, Herbert Simon‘s oft-quoted and often contested definition fits nicely here:

Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones

If one accepts that we are all designers and all of what we create and use for change is design, than a week devoted to the topic should offer much more than innovative concepts in furniture or flooring. Yet, this high-concept style showcase is what most people think about when they first hear design. Give people a choice between a Philippe Stark Juicy Salif citrus juicer and creating a trades-based, social change curriculum for low-income kids such as the work by Emily Pilloton as the example of design and they will probably guess think Stark over Pilloton, when both are equally valid examples.

Evaluation (another area I focus my work on) is equally fraught with perception problems. If you want to raise someone’s blood pressure or heart rate, tell them that either they or their work will be the focus of an evaluation. Evaluation may be the longest four-letter word in the English language. Yet, tell someone that you have a strategy that can enable people to learn about what they do, its impact, and provide intelligence on ways to improve, adapt and outperform their competitors and you’ll find an inspired audience for evaluation services.

Lastly, complexity presents the same challenge. It’s very name — complexity — can make people shy away from it. As humans, we crave the simple in most things as it is easier to understand, manage and control. Complexity offers none of these things and, if anything, reveals how little control we have. Entire fields of inquiry have been established around complexity science and its related theories and practices. Complexity can help us make sense of why things don’t work as we think they ought to and allow us to better navigate through unpredictable terrain with greater resilience than if we tried to tackle such problems as if they were linear in their cause and consequence.

In all of these cases — design, evaluation and complexity — there exists a PR problem. The advantages that they pose are tremendous, yet these concepts are frequently misunderstood, dismissed, or inappropriately used . When this happens, it creates even greater distance between the potential benefits these concepts offer and their real-world application.

This distance is partly an artefact of poorly articulated definitions and examples, but also by design (no pun intended). There are those who relish having these concepts appear opaque to those outside of their social cluster. Thus, we have the ‘superstar designer’ who seeks to create products and personas that are built upon their rarity, rather than accessibility. There are evaluators who exploit the fear that people have of evaluation and lack the understanding of the methods and practices of evaluation (vs concepts like research or innovation consulting) to gain contracts and social influence within their field. Complexity, with its foundations in physics and systems biology, can appear to the layperson as otherworldly, making its practitioners and scientists seem all the more powerful and smart. These tactics benefit a small ‘elite'(?) number of professionals, while robbing a far larger audience of the potential benefits.

In 1969, then president of the American Psychological Association, George Miller, implored members to “give psychology away“. His message was that psychology was too important to be left just to the professional, graduate-trained practitioners to use. If psychology was to confer social benefits, it was necessary to ensure that everyone had access to it — it’s theories, methods, models and treatments. It is perhaps no surprise that psychology remains one of the most popular undergraduate degree programs in the arts and social sciences and the focus of television shows, magazines and and an array of services. Miller was commenting on the need to change a field that he perceived was becoming elitist and not serving the needs of society.

The same might be true of design, evaluation and complexity if we let it. It’s not a surprise that these three concepts are intimately tied together, as those training to apply design thinking and strategic foresight learn. Perhaps its time to start giving these ideas away, but to do so we first need to rehab their image and apply some design thinking and brand development strategy to all three ideas. As practitioners in any or all of these fields, giving away what we do by educating, reinforcing, and ensuring that the work we do is of the highest quality is a way to lead by example. None of us is likely to change things by ourselves, but together we can do wonders.

For those interested in evaluation, I suggest catching up on the AEA365 blog sponsored by the American Evaluation Association, where evaluation bloggers and practitioners share ideas about how to practice evaluation, but also how to communicate it to others. For those interested in design, I would encourage you to look at places like the Design Thinkers LinkedIn group, where practitioners from around the world discuss innovations and way to promote and apply design thinking. A similar group, and opportunity, exists with the Systems Thinking LinkedIn group or by joining the Plexus Institute, which does considerable work to promote complexity and systems thinking in North America.

Photo: I (Heart) PR by The Silfwer used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr.

complexitysocial systems

Common Sense, Complexity and Leadership

Bye, Bye Common Sense

Great leaders are often ascribed traits that include ample common sense. But what passes for common sense is often a grab bag of miscellaneous, inconsistent ideas that are context dependent and less useful in the complex environments where leadership is called for most. 

common sense |ˌkɑmən ˈsɛns|


good sense and sound judgment in practical matters: use your common sense | [ as modifier ] : a common-sense approach.

Today Research in Motion announced that its founder Mike Lazaridis and his co-CEO Jim Balsillie would be relinquishing their roles with the company. In their place, a ‘pragmatic, operational-type guy ‘was installed. Presumably, Thorsten Heins has the common sense to lead RIM after the founders lost theirs. Yet, the pragmatic, common sense that RIM is looking for might not be what they need given the complexity of the environment they are leading in.

Common sense is a false lure in complex systems. In his recent book, Everything is Obvious *Once You Know the Answer, social network researcher  and Yahoo! Research scientist Duncan Watts eloquently critiques the concept of common sense, illustrating dozens of times over how “common sense” doesn’t fare so well in decisions that go beyond the routine and into the complex. Indeed. the very definition of the term implies that the problems that common sense works towards addressing are relatively simple and pragmatic.

Certainly, navigating daily social conventions might lend itself well to what we might call common sense. Watts refers to sociologist Harry Collins’ term ‘collective tacit knowledge‘ that is encoded in social norms, customs and practices of a particular world to describe common sense. However, what becomes common is a byproduct of many small decisions, dynamic and flexible changes to perspective, an accumulation of knowledge gained from small experiments over time, and the application of all of this knowledge to particular, context-dependent, situations. This constellation of factors and its interdependent, contextual overlap is why artificial intelligence systems have such a difficult time mimicking human thought and action. It is this attention to context that is most worth noting for it is this context that keeps common sense from being anything but common:

Common sense…is not so much a worldview as a grab bag of logically inconsistent, often contradictory beliefs, each of which seems right at the time but carries no guarantee of being right any other time.

Watts goes on to argue:

Commonsense reasoning, therefore, does not suffer from a single overriding limitation but rather from a combination of limitations, all of which reinforce and even disguise one another. The net result is that common sense is wonderful at making sense of the world, but not necessarily at understanding it.

Thus, we often concoct a narrative about the way something happens that sounds plausible, rational and be completely wrong. Throughout the book, Watts shows how often mistakes are made based on this common sense approach to solving problems.

When it comes to RIM, some have pointed to the late Steve Jobs’ assertion that they would have difficulty catching up to firms like Apple given that the consumer market is not their strength, the enterprise market is. Yet, Steve Jobs didn’t let the fact that Apple was a computer company stop him from making music players (the iPod), mobile phones (the iPhone) or becoming book, music and movie vendors (iTunes). A read of Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Isaacson reveals a man who was able to lead and be successful through what appeared to be common sense, yet was decidedly uncommon among media and technology leaders. That is why Apple is where it is and why so many other technology companies lag behind them or simply disappeared.

The reason is that common sense in leadership looks as simple in hindsight only, not in foresight or even in the present moment. This is one of the big points that Watts makes. He uses the example of Sony’s MiniDisc system that, when introduced, had all of the hallmark features of the innovations that Apple introduced (novel, high quality, portable, smaller, visible advantages over the alternatives), yet it was a spectacular failure. Canadian management consultant Michael Raynor has called this the strategy paradox. When qualities such as vision, bold leadership, and focused execution — all the commonsensical aspects of great leaders — are applied to organizations it can lead to great success (Steve Jobs and Apple) or resounding failures (RIM?).

Strategic flexibility, making small adjustments consistently, and imaging scenarios for the future in an ongoing manner are some of the potential ways to limit the damage from common sense (or use its advantages more fully). This requires feedback mechanisms and close monitoring of program activities, developmental evaluation, and a willingness to tweak programs and design on the go (what I call: developmental design) . It’s not a surprise that this incremental approach to development is consistent with the way change is best produced in a complex adaptive system.

By recognizing that common sense is less than common and is certainly not consistent, program designers, developers, evaluators and other professionals will be better positioned to provide true leadership that addresses challenges and complexity rather than adds to the complexity and creates more problems.

Photo: Goodbye to Common Sense Space by Amulet Dream from Deviant Art

complexitydesign thinkingevaluationsystems sciencesystems thinking

The Complexity of Planning and Design in Social Innovation

The Architecture of Complex Plans

Planning works well for linear systems, but often runs into difficulty when we encounter complexity. How do we make use of plans without putting too much faith in their anticipated outcome and still design for change and can developmental design and developmental evaluation be a solution? 

It’s that time of year when most people are starting to feel the first pushback to their New Year’s Resolutions. That strict budget, the workout plan, the make-time-for-old-friends commitments are most likely encountering their first test. Part of the reasons is that most of us plan for linear activities, yet in reality most of these activities are complex and non-linear.

A couple interesting quotes about planning for complex environments:

No battle plan survives contact with the enemy – Colin Powell

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Combat might be the quintessential complex system and both Gens Powell and Eisenhower knew about how to plan for it and what kind of limits planning had, yet it didn’t dissuade them from planning, acting and reacting. In war, the end result is what matters not whether the plan for battle went as outlined (although the costs and actions taken are not without scrutiny or concern). In human services, there is a disproportionate amount of concern about ‘getting it right’ and holding ourselves to account for how we got to our destination relative what happens at the destination itself.

Planning presents myriad challenges for those dealing with complex environments. Most of us, when we plan, expect things to go according to what we’ve set up. We develop programs to fit with this plan, set up evaluation models to assess the impact of this plan, and envisage entire strategies to support the delivery and full realization of this plan into action. For those working in social innovation, what is often realized falls short of what was outlined, which inevitably causes problems with funders and sponsors who expect a certain outcome.

Part of the problem is the mindset that shapes the planning process in the first place. Planning is designed largely around the cognitive rational approach to decision making (PDF), which is based on reductionist science and philosophy. Like the image above, a plan is often seen as a blueprint for laying out how a program or service is to unfold over time. Such models of outlining a strategy is quite suitable for building a physical structure like an office where everything from the materials to the machines used to put them together can be counted, measured and bound. This is much less relevant for services that involve interactions between autonomous agents who’s actions have influence on the outcome of that service and that result might vary from context to context as a consequence.

For evaluators, this is problematic because it reduces the control (and increases variance and ‘noise’) into models that are designed to reveal specific outcomes using particular tools. For program implementers, it is troublesome because rigid planning can drive actions away from where people are and for them into activities that might not be contextually appropriate due to some change in the system.

For this reason the twin concepts of developmental evaluation and developmental design require some attention. Developmental evaluation is a complexity-oriented approach to feedback generation and strategic learning that is intended for programs where there is a high degree of novelty and innovation. Programs where the evidence is low or non-existent, the context is shifting, and there are numerable strong and diverse influences are those where developmental evaluations are not only appropriate, but perhaps one of the only viable models of data collection and monitoring available.

Developmental design is a concept I’ve been working on as a reference to the need to incorporate ongoing design and re-design into programs even after they have been initially launched. Thus, a program evolves over time drawing in information from feedback gained through processes like evaluation to tweak its components to meet changing circumstances and needs. Rather than have a static program, a developmental design is one that systematically incorporates design thinking into the evolutionary fabric of the activities and decision making involved.

Both developmental design and evaluation work together to provide data required to allow program planners to constantly adapt their offerings to meet changing conditions, thus avoiding the problem of having outcomes becoming decoupled from program activities and working with complexity rather than against it. For example, developmental evaluation can determine what are the key attractors shaping program activities while developmental design can work with those attractors to amplify them or dampen them depending on the level of beneficial coherence they offer a program. In two joined processes we can acknowledge complexity while creating more realistic and responsive plans.

Such approaches to design and evaluation are not without contention to traditional practitioners, leaving questions about the integrity of the finished product (for design) and the robustness of the evaluation methods, but without alternative models that take complexity into account, we are simply left with bad planning instead of making it like Eisenhower wanted it to be: indispensable .

social systemssystems thinking

Women and Leadership in Times of Complexity

We Can Do It by J. Howard Miller

“The Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” – Aretha Franklin & The Eurythmics

The old cliches of where a woman’s place ought to be have changed to mean: anywhere she wants to be. Women are poised to drive change in the age of complexity leading us all to consider why this might be the case and what we can learn from it.

There was a time when women repeated the line in graphic artist J. Howard Miller‘s famous piece: We Can Do It! Now, as Aretha and Annie sing, they are doing it for themselves…and in spades. The ‘it’ is leading and innovating in times of great complexity and change and not necessarily by role, but by action. When the challenges of ‘wicked problems‘ become great and pervasive, it is women not men who are stepping up to lead and that might have a lot to do with design. How?

Design and design thinking is fundamentally about strategies used to create, shape and influence. There are many definitions of the concept, but generally speaking it is about finding / clarifying problems at their root, framing them within a larger context, and addressing them using empathic methods. Quite often this involves intense engagement with the issue and those whom the issue most affects and these are areas where women are doing well.

Drawing on the growing literature base on design thinking and a series of ongoing interviews I have done as part of the Design Thinking Foundations project, there are three areas that sit at the core of this way of approaching problems. As it turns out, women are pretty good at all of them:

  1. Empathy. Getting to learn more about the person / people who are designing for / with by stepping into their shoes is a powerful vehicle for gaining insight into the nature of the problem at hand, its frames, and possible ways forward. Research looking at males and females consistently shows women expressing higher levels of emotional empathy than men (e.g,  ). More recent work has begun to explore the ways in which women relate empathically to others, whereas men are more prone to what can be called Machevellian tendencies;
  2. Literacy. By this I refer to a constellation of skills that sit at the intersection of craft and knowledge to address a particular problem. A designer’s literacy most often includes creativity and the ability to analyze problems. These skills can fall within artistic realms, but also scientific and mathematical realms. Here in Canada, a recent report on the state of education finds that boys are lagging in literacy scores and, for the first time, science scores. They are tied with girls in math. The report (PDF-summary) adds greater weight to the shifting nature of boys and girls.
  3. Engagement. Designers — whether they are introverts or extroverts — need to be able to engage in diverse social situations in order to create useful products and services. Early work on online social networks is suggestive of this, building on a body of work looking at the strength of associations between gender, emotion and socialization (see 2010 chapter of the same name)

It used to be that women would express these three areas in social roles that were of lower status than men and generally following male leads (e.g., homemaker, assistant). However, the balance is starting to shift and women are no longer waiting for men to give things up, they are taking things for themselves. Indeed, women are becoming the new leaders and are designing themselves lives that will keep them in this position for the foreseeable future if indeed design is the new competitive advantage as has been suggested by Roger Martin at the Rotman School of Business in Toronto.

Lest we think this is isolated to Canada or the United States, the rise of women and girls is being seen globally. Earlier this year, the Economist explored how Asian women are marrying less and marrying later. One of the reasons is that they are no longer tied to men in the same way and are less willing to fill a role that sees them often as less than in their marriages. Indeed, Asian women are eschewing the practice altogether in rates never before seen and may be on the cusp of instilling deep and profound social change.

A lot of Asians are not marrying later. They are not marrying at all. Almost a third of Japanese women in their early 30s are unmarried; probably half of those will always be. Over one-fifth of Taiwanese women in their late 30s are single; most will never marry. In some places, rates of non-marriage are especially striking: in Bangkok, 20% of 40-44-year old women are not married; in Tokyo, 21%; among university graduates of that age in Singapore, 27%.(Economist,  August 20, 2011)

One of the reasons is that women are more often placed in roles of great social complexity in the family/social sphere, yet without the power to make key decisions. This might mean child raising (often held as the ideal example of complexity), negotiating and planning social engagements, and doing much of the emotional maintenance in relationships. While these are not universal and suggestive of stereotype, there are libraries full of research that have found these roles tend to be persistent and consistent across most Western countries. Until now.  These are also the kinds of skills that are needed in complex systems and to create means to navigate through them.

Women are no longer satisfied (nor should they be) with the roles assigned to them by men, but are shaping and crafting new ones for themselves and reclaiming and challenging outdated, sexist ones. A terrific example of this is the SlutWalk movement that started in Toronto in reaction to public statements by a police officer aimed at helping prevent rape that placed blame on victims, suggesting that women “stop dressing like sluts”. Here, women just took action and men followed.

As societies, we will (and do) need leaders and innovators who know how to manage complexity well and design solutions and women may be the first place to look because they are doing it already.

art & designcomplexityemergencehealth promotionpublic health

The Art of Complexity and Public Health


“Art is an intimation of the fundamental reconciliation of contradicting possibilities” – Joel Upton

Without contradiction, there is no art. Art itself is about juxtaposing ideas, tensions, concepts and working with form and space. The artist, whether consciously or not, is balancing contradictions in space, medium and form to challenge themselves and their audience to explore an idea, a feeling, concept or all three.

Engaging with art is about beholding. To behold requires focus, attention and some enthusiasm for the subject matter (knowledge doesn’t hurt much either). It requires time to contemplate the elements above and explore the contradictions and the perspective of the artist and the beholding audience. Health promotion and social change is full of contradictions. For example, how to promote freedom and self-determination while ensuring appropriate regulation to protect those who’s self-determined choices put others at risk? How do we create community and common space while respecting diversity and uniqueness — including those perspectives that don’t support commonly held values?

The list can go on. Art and the art of beholding can offer some ways to address this complexity through contemplative inquiry and learning about perspective and perspective taking.

Claude Monet in painting the Maintee sur la Siene did so from the river in his boat. By being on the river Monet was able to gain a perspective that is fundamentally different than had he painted from the shore, which he also did in other works. To behold Monet’s painting yields insights that cannot be gained by simply passing the image over.

Spending time before the work yields perspectives that cannot be obtained through mere casual observation. One is immune to the overlaying circles, the misty cornering of the Siene, or the fact that nearly all of the painting exists in reflection. When one looks at the painting in the context of others using the same angle and different colour shades, we see that this is a work that is distinct. Searching through the various forms of the work, one sees new layers of possibility and complexity emerge as the tones change, the textures shift and the intensity of the work alters. The version held at the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, where Professor Upton teaches, is particularly complex in how subtle the reflections and use of colour and texture are parlayed on the canvas.

Learning more about Monet at the time he did this painting, his life, the fact that it wasn’t like he painted it from the water, he DID paint it from the water.

But we might have known that had we not spent the time in contemplation of the painting. Got to know it, and understand it deeply. Submitted ourselves to the work with a level of intimacy that can only be obtained through the act of contemplation and engagement with the art. The longer one beholds the work and sees the various forms within it, the greater the complexity that emerges — qualities unknown or unknowable without the contemplation of the work in depth.

Monet knew that he had to survive, to produce a work of art that was in demand and could sell. He had to survive, but also did art to ensure that people were inspired and challenged. His wrestling with contradiction, his application of knowledge to a medium, and the expression of his creativity through both is what made him one of the most widely renowned impressionist painters who ever lived.

Health promotion is about contradiction. It deals with complexity all the time. How do we inspire change in others and still support self-determination? How can we change a system when that system has no single voice? How do we get individuals to do what we want, yet simultaneously respect what they want?

Health promotion also seeks to respect diversity, but at the same time, what does it do to truly understand this diversity? Do we take the time to get to know the communities it deals with. Really, truly know these communities. Do we give the time to be intimate with them?

My experience is sadly, no. In public health we use focus groups — which were initially designed to focus a research question, not serve as a means of research unto itself — to generalize from a group-think scenario to an entire community and then claim that we know them. Really? Is this beholding? Is this the kind of contemplative inquiry that makes sense for public health.

Could we learn more from artists? Our methods certainly could (see art of public health), but perhaps the way of the artist is also something we could learn more from.

complexitysystems thinking

The Complexity Challenge

Is Learning Falling Down When it Comes to Complexity?

Before acting in a manner consistent with complexity principles, people need to understand what they are, how they are different from other systems, and what it means for their work. With mainstream education, professional practice so geared to linear forms of learning this bodes poorly for building better systems thinkers. 

Let’s just throw some social media at it” is a variant of an expression I often hear in my work in health communications consulting and training. Organizations seeking to use the new tools and media employed by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube genuinely want to “get in the game” and use them effectively. Where things get problematic is when I tell them that social media is principally about building relationships and that extends to organizations: you need to relate and therefore  act according to how you build relationships.

Just as no one (at least no one I’ve met) would consider drawing up a flowchart and showing a prospective mate the planned trajectory of their dating relationship with milestone targets and deliverables, no organization should think that they can just shovel content to people and expect their audience to relate better to them.

At first one might attribute this to a lack of understanding of social media, but that is only a small part of it. Empathy is another. But the third and perhaps biggest reason is a fundamental lack of understanding of complexity and what it means.

The seductive nature of the “best practice” and the prescription for change in 5,7, 10, 12 or whatever easy steps is something that is endemic in our society. These forms of thought suggest a linear trajectory of events, suggest an ability to control for externalities and parse out their impact, and provide a prescriptive solution that removes much of the worry about unknowns. But H. L. Mencken’s often quoted phrase (which I’ve used often) suggests the folly in this.

Simplicity is another way to get around complexity. It is something sought, but rarely achieved in its application to the lived reality of the human condition, and although much discussed it hasn’t been widely achieved as a means of policy effectiveness. The reason lies with the nature of complexity itself and its resistance to reductionism. Evidence from biology through psychology (see previous links for examples) points to the considerable problem that science has with applying linear modes of thought and inquiry to complex systems.

The problems here are multifold and complicated, if not complex.

1. Our education system is designed for linear, progressive modes of learning not discovery and non-linearity. We sit kids (and adults) in rows, we talk at them, we present material front-to-back. In short, we don’t design education for learning, but for knowledge transmission. Complexity is all about learning. Every situation has a degree of novelty to it that presents new challenges and what happens today might not be the same thing that happens tomorrow even if much is similar. Teaching to discover, adapt, play and risk is something our system doesn’t do well. How can we expect complexity and systems thinking to thrive when the muscles used

2. It’s more convienient to think in dichotomies than spectrums. As I’ve written previously, spectral thinking is something critical to many of the issues we face in complex systems. Good/bad, strong/weak, X/Y lose their meaning in complex environments where there is a. Of all the dichotomies that work, only Ying/Yang comes close. But its a more difficult concept to grasp that maybe things aren’t all one way or the other, that there is use in even something that isn’t well constructed. This problem (and the ones that follow) are tied to the first one: education and learning systems are not set up for this. We are primed for either/or thinking. Think in criminal justice terms how easy it is to demand harsh punishment for criminal acts without considering that the perpetrators are human too, even if their behaviour is unacceptable.

The only dichotomy that works in complex systems?

3. Our decision-making tools are ill-equipped to handle ambiguity. Health care is a great example of how badly we do at complexity thinking. Consider the systematic review, often viewed as the gold standard for evidence for adoption into healthcare organizations. If it has a good systematic review, then the chances that we will see that evidence translated into practice is good, right? No. Surprisingly, even systematic reviews of systematic review use shows a mixed bag in adoption. Systematic reviews are designed to reduce ambiguity, but (for those on human social systems at least) they only illustrate how much there is. A systematic review only looks at the evidence created, it doesn’t include all those questions that were never asked, never funded for inquiry, or couldn’t be structured in a manner that fits the criteria for a good review. It is, by its design, reductionistic in its approach to complexity.

4. Our institutions are resistant to complexity. Complexity takes time, nuance, and relationship development; all the things that screw up plans. You can’t plan a relationship, but you can anticipate some things. You might even be able to use scenario tools and strategic foresight methods to anticipate what might happen, but you can’t plan it. John Lennon is right:

Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans

While we plan, the complex systems move along. We can plan and fail, fail and plan, or plan to fail and work build the strategic foresight to know what to do with these “failures”.

So now what? Being aware of these things is a start, but making systems change is really the key. Making change is about questioning the way we have been taught to learn, and what our assumptions are about the universe are. Learning the difference between a simple, complicated, complex and chaotic system and the means to identify when those systems present themselves (and how they often change) is another. This means finding like minds, sharing stories, and building networks. It means creating space for relationships — even in our linear planning models if we must keep them (or better yet, get rid of most of them) — and considering what kind of returns we get from paying attention, being mindful of our systems, and what kind of things contemplative inquiry might offer that simple, detached data analysis does.

These are starting points, but not all of them. Addressing the challenge of complexity is, ironically or perhaps appropriately, complex. But the challenge of dealing with the negative outcomes resulting from overly simple approaches to dealing with complexity will ultimately be far more so.