Tag: mindfulness

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.

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkinghealth promotion

Design + Love = Change

Design love, produce change

Sigmund Freud believed examination of life was useful for making people better at work and love. Designers are brought it to support the former, but have opportunities to contribute to the latter in ways that might be better for society than anything cupid has to offer.

It’s Valentine’s Day here in North America. Although the days’ modern expression is clearly commercial, the thought of having a day that is devoted to love is quite appropriate for those interested in design, social change and health.

Love is an uneasy bedfellow (to mix metaphors) with much of what we do in business, design, and health promotion. But not all designers or change agents avoid speaking of a term that may be the most profound expression of the compassion, attention and care that creates products, services and policies that produce healthier, happier societies. As designers, health promoters and change agents, there may be no greater goal than to produce love and no more powerful vehicle for this change than love itself.

Love and power are two of the great forces that underpin social change

Adam Kahane, an organizer and designer who has worked on creating social change on a grand scale, has written and spoken widely about this tension, arguing that we need to design conditions to promote love in partnership with a deep seated understanding of how power is manifest in the change relationship. Kahane uses the tools of design and systems thinking to get communities to visualize possible futures. By walking through various ways in which love and power can be wielded and cultivated, he helps groups struggling to promote change to be more attentive and aware of the role of love in encouraging healthful application of power. Creating scenarios in people’s heads shows how the affairs of the heart can influence design outcomes.

Fast company wrote back in 1998:

Kahane sees scenario planning as an instrument of social change. “I believe that we have a much greater capacity to shape the future than we allow ourselves to think,” he says.

Of the various labels Kahane has, one that he has embraced is that of designer. He uses love and its relationship to power as means of creating dialogue about possible futures on complex topics. This embrace of love also means acknowledging complexity, which just like love, is dynamic, multi-faceted and unpredictable. Power is the means to leverage love into social change.

Milton Glaser has described design as the introduction of intention into the stream of life to produce a specific change. or more broadly:

Design is the introduction of intention into human affairs

Intention is about awareness, focused attention and projection of consciousness to motivate action. In many ways, it is the application of love. Designers who work with the intention to produce healthy outcomes, may be using more than just creativity and social engagement as their tools, they may be employing their heart.

Arthur Zajonc has explored the role of intention and mindfulness as a means of designing greater learning environments and creating cultures of contemplative inquiry. His recent book on the subject, focuses on those points where knowing something — yourself, others, a subject matter — intimately through compassionate reflection produces love. This is the cultivation of intention and the purposeful expression of it to human affairs. Mindfulness and design go hand in hand.

If design is about introducing, provoking and facilitating change, and if such change must be guided by intention, then efforts aimed at social change for health most likely require attention to love. So consider the work that you do to make your community a better place the best Valentine of them all.

** Photo Love by Aunt Owee, used under Creative Commons License from Flickr.

behaviour changecomplexityinnovationpublic healthsystems thinking

A Mindful New Year

Cutting through the swamp of information (CC by Mindfulness)

What is mindfulness and why should we be paying attention to it in our individual and organizational work in health systems? As the calendars change and we begin to reflect on the year past and what is to come, it seemed like a good time to ask that question.

Shifts in the calendar are always strange and wonderful events for me. On one hand, it seems that the world has changed with new possibilities, (literally) new calendars and date stamps on everything, and what seems to be a wave of renewal and energy among friends and family. It is the time when people make resolutions and aspirations to make the world and their part of it a better place. As I’ve written before, this is not unproblematic and often leads to failure, but the act of reflection is one of the consistent benefits regardless of whether goals are achieved or not.

Mindfulness, an intentional act of paying active attention to the present moment in a non-judgemental manner, has been found to produce benefits for individuals and organizations alike. University of Toronto professor and psychoanalyst Scott Bishop and others have sought to take the idea of mindfulness further by looking at what this act of paying attention really is and how it could benefit human wellbeing. In their 2006 paper, Bishop and his colleagues reviewed the state of the literature on mindfulness-based approaches to health and wellbeing and convened meetings with those doing research in this are with an aim to come up with a more specific definition of mindfulness suitable for research.

To that end, they came up with the following:

We propose a two-component model of mindfulness. The first component involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.

This model has some critical features worth expanding upon, particularly for those of us working on issues of health.

1. Self-regulation of attention. Unlike a traditional marketing approaches that seek to capture our attention and dictate things to us, self-regulation implies some sense of resistance to the messages that come or are thrown up at us (think: Times Square for the most extreme example of this) and control. It is tied in with self-determination theory and many other health behaviour change theories that stress the importance of having self-directed influence over our cognitions and emotions rather than having them unduly, mindlessly, influencing us. It sounds simple, but it isn’t easy when you’re bombarded by media messages.

2. Maintaining focus on the immediate experience and the present moment. Here I turn to sage wisdom of Yoda in his conversation with Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi about the problems Luke has with sustained attention on the present, rather than fantasizing about the future.

A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing. Adventure. Excitement. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.

Jon Kabat Zinn has written and spoken extensively on this problem of sustained attention on problems and how our attentive resources tend to focus on almost anything but the present moment. Just spend a moment paying attention to where your mind is right now and it is probably not fully in the present.

3. Encourage curiosity, openness, and acceptance. These three points, joined together, are ones that are near and dear to my heart because they are so poorly done within my world of public health research and practice, despite what it may appear. Curiosity means supporting innovation — translating knowledge into actionable products that have transformative value (that is, it changes the way you see, act and engage with things – including ideas) — is something spoken of widely, but rarely achieved. Funders, researchers, policy makers and politicians alike are all becoming more risk averse it seems and that is almost antithetical to curiosity, which necessarily means going into the unknown.

Openness, a problem I have written about, is also something spoken of, but not acted on as often as words might appear.

And acceptance builds on the other two, drawing us to consider the value in new ideas and perspectives that differ from ours. It means attention to diversity and a welcoming of difference. That kind of thinking however, steers us into the realm of complexity, where the idea of best practice (a concept that seeks to reduce difference) is inappropriate in favour of good or appropriate practice.

Becoming mindful enables us to attend to the complexity of human systems and can guide our thoughts and actions in a manner more aligned with our purpose for doing what we do in the first place. It is that re-alignment of purpose and the desire to understand what we’ve done in light of what we desire that prompts such attention to New Year’s resolutions this time of year. A more mindful take on this suggests that we may wish to consider doing this much more than just at the end of December and beginning of January. Imagine what we might do then?

Happy Mindful New Year!



Contemplative Inquiry

The CENSEmaking blog is on vacation for the next few days as I take in a five-day course on contemplative practice and curriculum put on by the interesting folks at the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society. Beginning tonight, I’ll be learning more about the ways in which contemplation can be better incorporated into coursework and learning through a variety of means. Mindful approaches to understanding complex systems is one of the best strategies out there and this will help me understand how best to fully engage my classes, research teams and colleagues using methods drawn from contemplative inquiry. Watch this space for some reflections emerging on this over the coming weeks, but not before taking a few days to absorb and learn offline.

behaviour changeeducation & learninghealth promotionpsychologyresearch

Feeding the Right Beast: A Healthy Information Diet?


There is a First Nations story that has been told to me many times and, like many good stories, it inspires some important thinking. The story goes like this (shared by First People):

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy.

“It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”

The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”

The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

(Alternative versions of the story are here and I’m sure elsewhere as they told over again in the great oral traditions of First Nations communities)

When we open our laptop, switch on our iPhone or Blackberry (assuming they ever are off in the first place), turn on TV or even listen to a story told by a colleague in the hallway at the office or from a friend or relative on the phone, we are taking in information. And with mobile technologies and social media we are taking in a lot more than ever before. Today the annual consumer electronics show starts in Las Vegas and front-and-centre will be new tools to help deliver more information faster to more people. The pot gets bigger all the time.

We are not starved for information, rather we might very well becoming informationally obese. And just like with food, what we feed on and how much matters to our health — certainly to our ability to make healthy decisions. A recently published study on consumer behaviour shows that too little or too much information stifles decision making. An entire body of research has shown that we can only reasonably pay attention to very few things at once, squashing the myth of multi-tasking as a means of being productive.

Research and the story above illustrate the importance of being mindful of what we consume and how, when and how much of it we take in. While millions will create new years resolutions that will focus on the food they eat, we might want to consider paying more attention to our information diets as well.  Jonah Lehrer’s WSJ health article I cited in my last post refers to work done at Stanford University which brings this all together by looking at information quantity,  decision making, and diet:

In one experiment, led by Baba Shiv at Stanford University, several dozen undergraduates were divided into two groups. One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.

Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Prof. Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain—they were a “cognitive load”—making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.

This helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza. (In fact, one study by researchers at the University of Michigan found that just walking down a crowded city street was enough to reduce measures of self-control, as all the stimuli stressed out the cortex.) A tired brain, preoccupied with its problems, is going to struggle to resist what it wants, even when what it wants isn’t what we need.

So while we feed our brain, we also might be priming ourselves to feed our body. Like most things, quantity and quality matter. Next time you open the laptop or look at your Blackberry, take a moment to pause and ask yourself: What are you feeding your brain today? And is that diet a healthy one?

complexityresearchsystems sciencesystems thinking

Mindful Systems


The benefits of standing still and looking around at the systems around us never cease to reveal themselves.

Mindfulness is something that is most often associated with individuals. Mindfulness is a pillar of Buddhist practice and is increasingly being used in clinical settings to help people deal with stress and pain.

Mindfulness sometimes get unfairly linked to individuals, groups and movements that, for lack of a better term, could be described as ‘flaky’. Its association with many spiritual movements can also be problematic for those who are looking for something more aligned with science and less about religion or spirituality. Yet, the spiritual and scientific benefits of mindfulness need not be incompatible. Google, while innovative and often unusual in the way it runs its business, is certainly not flaky. As a company, it understands the power of mindfulness and has hosted a few talks on its application to everyday life and its neuroscientific foundations and benefits. For companies like Google, promoting mindfulness yields health benefits to its individual staff members, but also to its bottom line because being mindful as a company allows them to see trends and the emergence of new patterns in how people use the Internet and search for information. Indeed, one could say that Google with its search engine and productivity tools could be the ultimate mindfulness company, aiding us to become aware of the world around us (on the Internet anyway).

We are often profoundly ignorant of the systems that we are a part of and while the idea of having us all sit and mediate might sound appealing (particularly those of us who could use a moment of peace!) it is not a reasonable proposition. One of the things that meditation does is enable the mediator to become aware of themselves and their surroundings often through a type of mental visualization. Visualization allows the observer to see the relationships between entities in a system, their proximity, and the extended relationships beyond themselves. In systems research and evaluation, this might be done through the application of social network analysis or a system dynamics model. Through these kinds of tools that allow us to enhance visualization potential of systems, this is almost akin to creating a mindful systems thinking tool.

My colleague Tim Huerta and I have been developing methods and strategies to incorporate social network analysis into organizational decision making and published a paper in 2006 on how this could be done to support the development of communities of practice in tobacco control.  I’m also working on creating a system dynamics model of the relationships within the gambling system in Ontario with David Korn and Jennifer Reynolds.

By creating visuals of what the system looks like consciousness raising takes place and the invisible connections become visible. And by making things visible the impact, reach, scope and potential opportunities for collaboration and action are made aware. And with awareness comes insight into the connections between actions and consequences (past, current and potential) and that allows us to strategize ways to minimize or amplify such effects as necessary.

behaviour changecomplexityeducation & learningpsychologypublic health

Standing Still

One of my favourite quotes is from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa‘s posthumously published novel: The Leopard. The story is about a artistocratic family and their fall from the ranks in society. In the book there is a marvellous quote that reflects the most fundamental challenges of system dynamics:”If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”

I'm Forever Standing Still

I'm Forever Standing Still..Or Am I?

At its core, the message is that we cannot avoid change by standing still, rather only through change can we hope to achieve consistency. And that, is unlikely. We lose our position unless we move along with everyone else, even if in the process of moving it appears as if we are standing still. (Just think of cars on a highway. Two cars driving side-by-side at the same relative speed will look to each other as if they are not moving much at all, when in reality they may be cruising at a very high rate of speed).

We are rarely aware of the speed at which we are traveling, that is the rate of change that is taking place around us and within us. The human body renews itself many times over throughout the lifespan. Our cells are brand new, yet our looks appear at first to be quite similar from day to day. That is, until someone uncovers a picture of us as a child, a youth, a twenty-, thirty-, any-something that is far enough removed from our current state that we realize the profound change that has taken place.

Systems are enormously difficult to change for that very reason. There is not only constant movement, but lots of it and the impact of each component on everything else is different, dynamic and inconsistent. I am currently helping graduate students in public health learn about systems and, while the teaching is fun and the students are interested, the challenge to communicate the language of systems in a manner that is easy to understand is difficult. Indeed, there is little reason why teaching complexity science should be simple given that one of the principles of systems science is that complex problems require complex solutions.

But thankfully one of the other features of complex systems is the presence of paradox. And one of the tools I’ve found works wonderfully is mindfulness-based reflection. Mindfulness is the process of ‘standing still’ by calming the mind and attending the signals around us without trying to influence them. Remarkably, by keeping still and just paying attention to what is around you without ascribing feelings, thoughts, or attitudes towards something we can learn a great deal about what is going on around us. This is a strategy that has been highly effective as a technique in addressing complex health conditions like chronic pain and addictions and training those who work in areas like this.

The question I have is this: How do we get our social institutions and communities to do the equivalent of paying attention to its breath and relaxing its mind to see the systems that they are a part of in order to initiate healthy change?

That is the challenge I am putting to my students and myself and to you too, dear reader.