Tag: social science

behaviour changecomplexitydesign thinkingevaluationpsychology

Exploding goals and their myths


Goal-directed language guides much of our social policy, investment and quests for innovation without much thought of what that means in practice. Looking at the way ideas start and where they carry us might offer us reasons to pause when fashioning goals and whether we need them at all. 

In a previous article, I discussed the problems with goals for many of the problems being dealt with by organizations and networks alike. (Thanks to the many readers who offered comments and kudos and also alerted me that subscribers received the wrong version minus part of the second paragraph!). At aim was the use of SMART goal-setting and how it made many presumptions that are rarely held as true.

This is a follow-up to that to discuss how a focus on the energy directed toward a goal and how it can be integrated more tightly with how we organize our actions at the outset might offer a better option than addressing the goals themselves.

Change: a matter of energy (and matter)

goal |ɡōlnoun:  the object of a person’s ambition or effort; an aim or desired result • the destination of a journey

A goal is a call to direct effort (energy) toward an object (real or imagined). Without energy and action, the goal is merely a wish. Thus, if we are to understand goals in the world we need to have some concept of what happens between the formation of the goal (the idea, the problem to solve, the source of desire), the intention to pursue such a goal, and what happens on the journey toward that goal. That journey may involve a specific plan or it may mean simply following something (a hunch, a ‘sign’ — which could be purposeful, data-driven or happenstance, or some external force) along a pathway.

SMART goals and most of the goal-setting literature takes the assumption that a plan is a critical success factor in accomplishing a goal.

If you follow SMART, Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-bound (or Timely) this plan needs to have these qualities attached to them. This approach makes sense when your outcome is clear and the pathway to achieving the goal is also reasonably clear such as smoking cessation, drug or alcohol use reduction, weight loss and exercise. It’s the reason why so much of the behaviour change literature includes goals: because most of it involves studies of these kinds of problems. These are problems with a clear, measurable outcome (even if that has some variation to it). You smoke cigarettes or you don’t. You weigh X kilograms at this time point and Y kilograms at that point.

These outcomes (goals) are the areas where the energy is directed and there is ample evidence to support means to get to the goal, the energy (actions) used to reach the goal, and the moment the goal is achieved. (Of course, there are things like relapse, temporary setbacks, non-linear changes, but researchers don’t particularly like to deal with this as it complicates things, something clinicians know too well).

Science, particularly social science, has a well-noted publication bias toward studies that show something significant happened — i.e., seeing change. Scientists know this and thus consciously and unconsciously pick problems, models, methods and analytical frameworks that better allow them to show that something happened (or clearly didn’t), with confidence. Thus, we have entire fields of knowledge like behaviour change that are heavily biased by models, methods and approaches designed for the kind of problems that make for good, publishable research. That’s nice for certain problems, but it doesn’t help us address the many ones that don’t fit into this way of seeing the world.

Another problem is much less on the energy, but on the matter. We look at specific, tangible outcomes (weight, presence of cigarettes, etc..) and little on the energy directed outward. Further, these perspectives assume a largely linear journey. What if we don’t know where we’re going? Or we don’t know what, specifically, it will take to get to our destination (see my previous article for some questions on this).

Beyond carrots & sticks

The other area where there is evidence to support goals is from management and study of its/ executives or ‘leaders’ (ie. those who are labelled leaders and might be because of title or role, but whether they actually inspire real, productive followership is another matter). These leaders call out a directive and their employees respond. If employees don’t respond, they might be fired or re-assigned — two outcomes that are not particularly attractive to most workers. On the surface it seems like a remarkably effective way of getting people motivated to do something or reach a goal and for some problems it works well. However, those type of problem sets are small and specific.

Yet, as much of the research on organizational behaviour has shown (PDF), the ‘carrot and stick’ approach to motivation is highly limited and ineffective in producing long-term change and certainly organizational commitment. Fostering self-determination, or creating beauty in work settings — something not done by force, but by co-development — are ways to nurture employee happiness, commitment and engagement overall.

A 2009 study, appropriately titled ‘Goals Gone Wild’ (PDF), looked at the systemic side-effects of goal-setting in organizations and found: “specific side effects associated with goal setting, including a narrow focus that neglects non-goal areas, a rise in unethical behavior, distorted risk preferences, corrosion of organizational culture, and reduced intrinsic motivation.” The authors go on to say in the paper — right in the abstract itself!: “Rather than dispensing goal setting as a benign, over-the-counter treatment for motivation, managers and scholars need to conceptualize goal setting as a prescription-strength medication that requires careful dosing, consideration of harmful side effects, and close supervision.”

Remember the last time you were in a meeting when a senior leader (or anyone) ensured that there was sufficient time, care and attention paid to considering the harmful side-effects of goals before unleashing them? Me neither.

How about the ‘careful dosing’ or ‘close supervision’ of activities once goal-directed behaviour was put forth? That doesn’t happen much, because process-focused evaluation and the related ongoing sense-making is something that requires changes in the way we organize ourselves and our work. And as a recent HBR article points out: organizations like to use the excuse that organizational change is hard as a reason not to make the changes necessary.

Praxis: dropping dualisms

The absolute dualism of goal + action is as false as the idea of theory + practice, thought + activity. There are areas like those mentioned above where that conception might be useful, yet these are selective and restrictive and can keep us focused on a narrow band of problems and activity. Climate change, healthy workplaces, building cultures of innovation, and creating livable cities and towns are not problem sets that have a single answer, a straightforward path, specific goals or boundless arrays of evidence guiding how to address them with high confidence. They do require a lot of energy, pivoting, adapting, sense-making and collaboration. They are also design problems: they are about making the world we want and reacting the world we have at the same time.

If we’re to better serve our organizations and their greater purpose, leaders, managers, and evaluators would be wise to focus on the energy that is being used, by whom, when, how and to what effect at more close intervals to understand the dynamics of change, not just the outcomes of it. This approach is one oriented toward praxis, an orientation that sees knowledge, wisdom, learning, strategy and action as combined processes that ought not be separated. We learn from what we do and that informs what we do next and what we learn further. It’s also about focusing on the process of design — that creation of the world we live in.

If we position ourselves as praxis-oriented individuals or organizations, evaluation is part of regular attending to the systems we design to support goals or outcomes through data and sensemaking. Strategy is linked to this evaluation and the outcomes that emerge from it all is what comes from our energy. Design is how we put it all together. This means dropping our dualisms and focusing more on integrating ourselves, our aspirations and our activities together toward achieving something that might be far greater than any goal we can devise.

Image credit: Author



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Foreseeing the Unpossible


Change may be the only constant and, beyond wet babies, few of us welcome it. Foresight is about looking ahead to what change(s) might be coming to help us prepare, but that doesn’t help much if we don’t know where we are right now. 

Last night I had a wonderful conversation with some foresighting peers, all fellow alumni from the Strategic Foresight and Innovation MDes program at OCADU. We were coming together to talk about what we, as ones with training in the foresight theories, methods and tools that help people consider possible futures, can do to help and heal the world in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the social collisions that have come with it.

Trump’s election was an example of where the foresight community — like pretty much every other scholarly field — failed. Few, if any, saw it coming. No matter your slant on the media coverage, 18 months ago no one was talking about the Trump presidency in serious terms – hardly even Donald Trump, himself.

Even after securing the Republican nomination his candidacy was seen as taking on the impossible. Now, it’s the unpossible.

Today we have someone going on a campaign-style crusade against his opponents after he’s won the election. It’s as if the presidential outcome was never decided. No one saw that coming, either.

Or Brexit.

Or…you get the picture. There are a lot of things that have been missed by very smart people with powerful tools, theories and resources and it’s happening a lot.

This is less about bad foresight as much as it is a lack of insight into the present day and the present moment and the human beings who inhabit it. It might be time to bring psychology into foresight and that begins with understanding how people live their lives day-to-day and what they think, feel, pay attention to, and gravitate to (and away from).

Putting difference in context

To see the unpossible we need to start going deeper into the heart of human life.

While many laud the accomplishments of the maverick, the inspired trailblazer, or the wonders of diversity, the truth is that we are wired more tightly to sameness than difference. (Like it or not). Difference and change are two things we humans don’t have innate attraction to at a macro level, yet it is the hallmark feature of the cosmopolitan, modern (and certainly Western) world. Complexity is about diversity, change, instability, and non-linearity — the very things we humans have trouble with and yet we keep making systems that are ever-more complex making for a paradox of epic proportions.

Take the Syrian refugee crisis as an example of difference in-the-world. Canada is taking in over 35,000 refugees and has a commitment to maintain a slightly reduced level of refugees (from all over the world) for the foreseeable future. This pales in comparison to what other countries such as Lebanon or Turkey have taken in, but shames its larger neighbour to the south.

These new citizens bring new ideas, energy, culture to a country that has more than enough space, plenty of relative wealth and a population who are willing and able to help. Syrians (like so many refugees) have experienced  horrors and more human suffering than anyone should have to endure.

While these new Canadians are contributors, they also require resources to help them settle. For many, it will be some time before they integrate into Canadian life enough that they no longer require government or charitable assistance. In the meantime, this group is hungry to work, to study and to create a life for themselves in their adopted home. The problem comes when there are others already here who also want to work, study and create a life for themselves and can’t do it to the levels they want and who might see the scarce resources being further reduced by these newcomers.

If I am a Canadian without work, how happy should I be that we are committing to providing 35,000+ people who are also looking for work with a place in my country? If I’m waiting for healthcare treatment, how is this going to affect me? How might I feel when I see that these newcomers get food, shelter, community support, job training and programs aimed at supporting them to integrate when I don’t believe I can get anything like that and I’ve been here my whole life? When has the Prime Minister ever come to welcome me to anything?  If I was a refugee from another place just a year or two earlier, why didn’t I get this treatment when I arrived?

These aren’t just Canadian questions. They are being asked in Germany, Lebanon, Turkey, England, Jordan, Sweden and anywhere there is a perception of scarcity of resources (which is pretty much everywhere).

This is but one example. The humanitarian impulse that many people feel when looking to help those in need is why Canada and so many nations around the world have stepped up and taken in these Syrian ‘strangers’ as their new friends, neighbours and family with open arms. It’s heartwarming and represents some of the better angels of our nature. Yet, this doesn’t make the concerns that someone who is already settled here any less legitimate. This is that part of the equation that is easy to miss or dismiss when we see resistance to change or opposition to these kind of initiatives.

The psychology of difference

For those who identify as a progressive or liberal, opposition to change, diversity and global integration is often labeled as ‘small-minded’ at the least, racist at the worst. Certainly there are elements of that which can reside within what might be considered ‘conservative’ movements, yet it’s unfair to use these labels to describe an entire worldview. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently commented on the pull between globalist and nationalist thinking, pointing to the way worldviews about change and stability help us understand the rise of Donald Trump and other radical candidates. His analysis an application of moral psychology provides what may be the most powerful explanation of why we are seeing the ‘unpossible’ become possible.

As a caricature for illustration, liberals are biased to see positives in change while conservatives are biased toward promotion of stability. When change is constant and stability is comforting, this dichotomy is not easily resolved, if at all.

Psychology can help us in other ways when looking to the present and future of our world. One is to consider the cognitive biases that we hold when we bring a worldview that sees change and stability, globalism and nationalism, unity and diversity in everyday life.

One bias or mode of thought is attribution theory— taking one thing and ascribing qualities from it to another. In the case of a Trumpist United States that positions difference — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, other countries’ trade policies — as a threat we can find examples of how this thinking plays out. It might be easy to look at what is the most obvious — people who are new, dress differently, speak differently, believe different things, and look different — as the culprit. After all, when things were good — when “America was Great” — these people weren’t here and this situation didn’t exist. Simple cause and effect, right?

Of course, we know that the ‘good old days’ were rarely ever as good as we make them out to be. This is because of a collection of other cognitive phenomena.

Hindsight bias is a way of confirming present feelings and thoughts based on seeing the past through a distorted lens that allows us to say things like “I knew it all along”. Nostalgia is a form of hindsight and allows people to reflect back on positive feelings and experiences in life, but also to connect to simplicity, which is why we remember simple, but strong feelings (love, fear, conviviality) but lose the details of just what was said or the specifics of an encounter. It’s the feelings that matter most.

A quote attributed to Toni Morrison is particularly apt here:

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Finally, confirmation bias takes these thoughts and reformulates them into the present, which is a way of saying that we fit our memories and thoughts from the past to fit our current belief system.

Understanding time and change

Change is always relative. The parable of the frog in the boiling pot is a good one to illustrate this. We might not perceive the water getting too hot until it’s too late because change is so persistent, yet gradual. The distresses we find in modern life are the ones that often promote loneliness, disconnection and separation from the natural world. These are all things – communion, connection, engagement with nature — that promote wellbeing and comfort.

Difference can be a source of inspiration, new ideas and innovation, but it can also be a source of distress because of this perceived separation from the stable. When I’ve had traditions, practices and a way of living that has provided comfort for me my whole life and, in a time when I need comfort more than ever, am having trouble seeing those things that once brought me comfort in everyday life, how am I going to feel about difference? To what might I attribute this difference, this change to? The answer sometimes comes in the form of racism, sexism, sexual discrimination, and ethnic nationalism.

Trump and others are capitalizing on the fog that comes with memory and our self-selection and editing of history in our minds. What we long for are those feelings associated from earlier times and those feelings are connected to the simplicity of the practice (as we construct it in our memory). When you recall your day to a friend or loved one you summarize: that’s how memory works for you. You don’t speak of the day in terms of how your brain actually functions moment-to-moment with the gamut of feelings, thoughts, memories you have at any one time because you’d sound like a lunatic with all the chatter, contradiction and stream-of-consciousness going on. That’s your memory at work in bringing clarity to the chaos of a waking moment.

The distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction with all of this change is reasonable and legitimate. The manifestation of those feelings into hatred is not. Add in our bias toward in-groups — however we personally define it — and the reaction that we are seeing isn’t surprising at all. We are forward-oriented beings, we see things moving ahead and when social or economic situations force us backward by having less — friends, social engagements, money, buying power, security, stability — we don’t handle it lightly.

Time plays many tricks with our mind whether we view it as being in abundance, scarcity or even relate to it at all in the moment.

Light on our shadow

Add in another feature that we often overlook: our darker, shadow side. Jung spoke about the importance of the shadow and using it to understand the light. We all have a shadow, that darker side of our nature that emerges in times of stress or when we least expect it.

The human shadow is that part of the self that revels — even momentarily — on revenge**. How often have we, in fleeting moments (or even longer), wished ill-will on someone else? That person that cuts us off on the way to work; the clueless person who stops at the top of the escalator in a busy shopping plaza; your cousin who always takes more than his share at family dinners; queue jumpers; the telemarketer who interrupts your quiet night at home to sell you something; the sports fan who cheers for your team’s rival and revels in your team’s defeat; the person that votes for the candidate who’s not yours.

Why are revenge movies so appealing to so many? The Revenant wouldn’t be much of a story (although a glorious testament to the Alberta mountain landscape, which is well worth seeing on its own) if we didn’t, at some level, relate to the characters’ desire for revenge. It feels good. And it makes many of us recoil in horror and deny it when we consider it as part of us.

I experience this all the time and I’m not proud of that. I’ve not met a person yet who hasn’t confessed (when pressed) that they feel the same way. It’s part of being a human being.

Seeing the unpossible is about seeing ourselves as humans, not just fellow citizens who we think ought to mirror our own personal ideals. Humans get scared of change, they are overwhelmed with information, have few tools at their disposal and even less time and energy to apply those tools, and they are willing to seek comfort in anything that holds the promise of making life simpler.

If the present and future will be shaped by humans, then we need to add our humanity, including the ugly parts of it, into the mix. Consider that when you make your predictions, generate your models and envision the world ahead and also ask yourself whether you’re comfortable getting a little darker in your outlook on life right now.

Only by seeing us as humans can we imagine what seems unpossible as possible.

** A fun way to soften the harshness of thoughts of revenge on others is provided by the Canadian comedy troupe Kids in the Hall.

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Leadership and Systems Thinking Issues

John Wenger has written on the issue of leadership and systems thinking asking some pointed questions about how leaders can prop up a dysfunctional system inadvertently and how they can also actively serve as agents of change within it. This is the sort of discussions that more leadership training programs and systems thinkers in general could benefit to make the intangible nature of systems real.

quantum shifting

Business leaders: when I use the word “culture”, do you screw up your face and say “Love and peace, man”?  I’m no aging hippie; in any case, I was born 10 years too late to be part of that movement.  Business culture is no wiffly-waffly discretionary add-on.  It’s central to effectiveness and business improvement.  I do admit a fondness for better communication, greater self-awareness, lots more empathy and way less fear in the workplace (man), but this comes out of a firmly held view that there is huge scope for workplaces to be more humanised, which will have a huge impact on effectiveness.  I also have a firmly held view that a real leader is one who seeks to steward the business culture; not find things to measure so they can prove how useless people are.  My thinking about “culture” comes out of the intellectual rigour that is Systems Thinking.

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Have We Turned the Page on Social Science Research for Health?

Turning the Page on Social Science and Health Research

Over the last two weeks social science researchers across Canada began receiving the decisions from last autumn’s competition for a Social Science and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funding award. SSHRC is the principal funder of social science research in Canada, although notably is not in the business of funding heath-related research, which is supposed to be funded by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR). [Full disclosure: I currently hold grants from both of these organizations]. The problem is that CIHR was born from a policy and programming body and the former Medical Research Council and has a rather awkward relationship with social science research given its medical focus. It has funded some social science programs, but not in a manner that has enabled social scientists to comfortably explore the range of issues that they might have under traditional SSHRC funding programs, particularly when social issues are not always obviously health issues (e.g., poverty, education) and can easily be dismissed as not being relevant in spite of the evidence that they are.  Yet, SSHRC has decided to forgo any funding of health-related projects due in part to the absence of funding to support it when there are presumably options through CIHR or the disease-specific health charities like the Canadian Cancer Society, the Lung Association and others.

Yet, these options are not suitable. In a manifesto entitled “The end of medical anthropology in Canada” a group of leading social scientists painted the picture of the situation in grim terms in University Affairs. Although medical anthropology is the focus of the piece, the authors might as well be speaking for social sciences in general:

Health is inherently social and cultural. SSHRC has always understood this; CIHR, we fear, does not. We face the possible extermination of one of the most vibrant, high-demand and policy-relevant health disciplines, the only scholarly field that places culture at the centre of the analysis of health and that characteristically does so in both national and international contexts. In a multicultural, settler society with a substantial aboriginal population, and in a world where health is at the core of developmental, political and social issues in so many countries, where Canada otherwise wishes to have an impact, does this make any sense?

This brings me back to the beginning of this post and the announcement of the results of the last competition. Looking at the funding numbers released by SSHRC, a discouraging picture emerges. In 2011-12, 37 per cent of all applications in the open competition were deemed fundable, yet only 22.5 per cent were funded. These numbers are similar t0 2010-11, when 36  per cent were deemed fundable and 22 per cent were funded. What is not mentioned in these numbers was the level at which these grants were funded in the first place. I am a 2010-11 recipient of funding from SSHRC — meaning my grant proposal was within the top 22 per cent of all applications for that year — and the amount I received was approximately half of what I requested. That means that I had to take half of my budget and throw it away. So yes, I was successful providing I did either half of the research or found money elsewhere. I did the latter and my pocketbook is none the better for it.

Consider the implications of this change in funding. With one in five projects funded and many of those that are funded at levels well below what was requested the motivation for researchers is one of the first casualties. Researchers know that funding is tight and that it is highly competitive, but few alternative sources for research grants that lay outside of specific disease-focused areas, social scientists young and old are faced with little option. This creates another set of affected parties: students and trainees. Research funding not only supports the scientists themselves in many cases (see my previous posts on this), but those seeking to become scientists themselves or those who seek to get better acquainted with research. In health sciences and policy, this means just about everyone enrolled in such programs.

Now consider all of this in light of a trend towards increasing graduate education numbers. At the academic institution I am affiliated with (like many of its peers), the enrolment numbers are set to nearly double across many of the professional programs associated with health practice and policy in the coming years. Increased demand for training opportunities from the public has created a means for universities to cash in. Of course, what these students will do when they get there is unclear (let alone when they graduate), but it cannot be much in the way of research — at least as it pertains to social science and health. The funding is simply not there to support the kind of broad-based inquiry into the social factors that influence health, illness and well-being anymore. We have, as I call it, reached ‘the Turn’.

The Turn is that point where the system changes irrevocably towards a new direction. It is like a ‘tipping point‘.  Dwindling numbers of social scientists working from funding from an institutional budget (e.g., tenure-stream faculty positions) + a doubling of the student cohort * half of the research dollars makes for rather toxic math. The Turn will fundamentally shape the way social science inquiry is done and the kind of questions that get asked. As question foci change, the quality of the research shifts, and the depth of inquiry is reduced, so too will the real impact that social science has on our health.

The gap between what we know, what we do, and what we can do to prevent illness, treat sickness, and promote well-being will grow.

Anecdotally speaking, this trend is not unique to the social sciences, but it is amplified in this domain. Social sciences in Canada and abroad are consistently funded at lower levels than that of basic research (see here for a starting point). But what is interesting is that many of the problems that we face within health require social science knowledge and research to address and social science — from knowledge translation, social network studies, technology adoption, innovation, management, to policy implementation and beyond .

Prevention of disease and chronic illness is often a social phenomenon (e.g., hand washing). Even the act of taking the best of basic science and translating it into practice or policy options (or other scientific research) is a social act that draws on social science research to execute. Social determinants of health are social in nature and require social science to understand their impact. Designing the policy and programmatic interventions that support creating a healthier society also falls to social science research and practice.

What will our health landscape look like without the ability to take what we know and translate it into action? Worse yet, what if we simply are unable to even know what to do because the research and evidence isn’t there in the first place to translate into anything? Without another turn towards something more positive in our research support, we are about to find out.

* Photo Turn the Page by Miaboas used under Creative Commons License from Deviant Art.

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(Not) Following the Rules in Complex Social Systems

Life would be a lot simpler if humans just did just one thing

It’s not everyday that you see complexity science propped up in big type in a major newspaper like the New York Times, but a couple weeks ago in that’s what happened. The article, titled: “It’s Complicated — Making Sense of Complexity” is enough to get a professor like me all giddy.

In the piece, authored by frequent contributor David Segal, took a light look at the distinction between complicated and complex situations, something I’ve discussed in other posts, pointing out that the confusion between these two concepts often leads us to trouble. To illustrate this, Segal quotes Dr. Brenda Zimmerman from York University’s Schulich School of Business, one of the leading proponents of complexity science in social systems like organizations. Dr. Zimmerman states:

What we need, suggests Brenda Zimmerman, a professor at Schulich School of Business in Ontario, is a distinction between the complicated and the complex. It’s complicated, she says, to send a rocket to the moon — it requires blueprints, math and a lot of carefully calibrated hardware and expertly written software. Raising a child, on the other hand, is complex. It is an enormous challenge, but math and blueprints won’t help. Performing hip replacement surgery, she says, is complicated. It takes well-trained personnel, precision and carefully calibrated equipment. Running a health care system, on the other hand, is complex. It’s filled with thousands of parts and players, all of whom must act within a fluid, unpredictable environment. To run a system that is complex, it’s not enough to get the right people and the ideal equipment. It takes a set of simple principles that guide and shape the system. For instance: Teach everyone the best practices of doctors who are really good at hip replacement surgery.

So here’s a leading proponent of complexity science, providing clear examples of the distinctions between complex and complicated in a major newspaper, and finishing it off with a health example. What more could I want?

Yet, I was disappointed by this piece, and particularly the examples described above. The reason was not because they were wrong or inaccurate per se, but rather they are well-worn (to complexity scientists) to the point of being a ‘pat response’ and it is that feeling that stirs concern.

The idea of the simple principles concept comes from work done on ‘Boids‘ and other simulations of complex systems where lots of activities happen simultaneously to produce order out of a situation that is ripe for chaos. Research on flocking or swarming behaviour shows that, despite the volume of actors in the system (like a flock of sparrows), a few simple rules can guide complex behaviour, almost reign it in. With birds flocks, rules such as:

1. Stay equidistant between the closest other members of the flock;

2. Avoid hitting other objects, but keep moving;

3. Steer towards the average position of your flock mates

This produces something that researchers believe approximates the behaviour simulated in the video below:

This is a theory that has been explored with many species and been found to be robust enough to warrant serious consideration. The problem comes when we take these same principles and apply them to human systems. Unlike birds or fish, we are actually quite horrible at following rules, even the most simple of them. It is for this reason that many best practice efforts in health cease to gain widespread adoption. And while there is a movement afoot to use simple rules like checklists to guide certain behaviour in health and other fields, the cases in which these checklists work like surgery are ones that are complicated, not complex.

Human and social systems might be described as ultracomplex because they are governed by chaos, complexity, complexity, simplicity at the same time (for those interested in the relationship between these, I’d recommend studying the Cynefin Framework developed by Dave Snowden and the folk at Cognitive Edge). We humans have rules, but we apply them indiscriminately and consistently depending on the context — which includes person, place and time. Unlike the bees that will create elaborate hive behaviour that resonates with complex systems, bees don’t worry about their self-esteem, tend not to create elaborate myths to guide their collective actions, or empathize with the plight of other insects. Humans ability to self-reflect, to engage in metacognition, empathize, and morally reason makes them different from other natural phenomena, making them problematic for applying the rules of complexity to without some considerable reservations or contextual binding.

I write this as an avid believer in the potential applicability of the laws and rules of complexity from the natural world to the human one, but one also troubled by how quickly we systems scholars apply these concepts without deeper thought on the theoretical and empirical problems that they pose in transferring evidence from domain to domain. There is relatively little good, quality evidence on the use of complexity science as a guiding framework for human action based on studies with humans — insofar as other bodies of evidence are available on similarly tricky subjects. And yet, conceptually, complexity-based concepts like emergence, sensitivity to initial conditions, self-organization and fractal patterning often do a better job explaining plausible connections within human systems than much of the normal, linear science.

Yet, possible face validity does not excuse our need to develop a science that can enable us to speak with confidence on the patterns we see and the meaning — if any — that comes from them. As scientists, it is our job to develop this and take the risks that come with that charge. Perhaps once this evidence based has developed, we’ll see experts discuss the differences between complex and complicated situations citing more than just analogies, but empirical research too.