Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: A Journey beyond System Thinking

System thinking is goal-oriented: there are always pre-defined goals and objectives, which system must achieve, and there are always prescribed requirements and criteria, which system must satisfy. As the achievement of any goal happens always in the future, system thinking is obsessed with prediction and generating plans, blueprints, time-schedules and scenarios.

Complexity and chaos focus their attention on the present, because even tiny perturbations in the process of self-organization occurring at present can have enormous impact on the further development of this process. It is an impossible task to make the ‘butterfly effect’ follow any goal-oriented strategy and any targets’ setting anchored in the future.

Source: Complexity, Chaos and Creativity: A Journey beyond System Thinking (Dr. Vladimir Dimitrov)

Jurgen Appelo – Complexity vs Lean the Big Showdown

Lean software development promotes removing waste as one of its principles. However, complexity science seems to show that waste can have various functions. In complex systems things that look like waste can actually be a source for stability and innovation; Lean software development preaches optimize the whole as a principle, and then translates this to optimization of the value chain. However, I believe that complexity science shows us a value chain is an example of linear thinking, which usually leads to sub-optimization of the whole organization because it is a non-linear complex system.  — Jurgen Appelo

Exactly. Somewhat reflects my own thoughts and is something that has been on my mind quite a bit of late amidst an organization and projects hell bent on removing not just the optimum amount of waste from a process but removing all white space from the environment in pursuit of maximum efficiency toward the achievement of what they already know how to do. (breathe, Brett…)

As I wrote in KM vs LSS vs CPI, too often “improvement” is seen as requiring a single, all or nothing approach. When, in fact, improvement and optimal performance comes from a mix of techniques. Sometimes waste is a hindrance, and sometimes it’s where you find the gold.

 

Systems thinking and complexity

One of my earliest blog posts was a simple reference to complex adaptive systems. The concept was (is) fascinating to me, on many levels. Not the least of which is my unquenchable curiosity about the connectedness of everything, and an early realization that the world can be seen as a collection of systems. A systems thinker, in other words.

I think I first came across the formal concept of systems thinking in The Fifth Discipline. I was a young Army officer in the Signal Corps, responsible for leading and training young soldiers and for planning and executing communications support missions. Many of my colleagues approached the role from a very rigid, very structured, very “mechanical” perspective. Not unexpected, of course, since military units in general are very highly structured and driven from the top down by command and control – “Here’s what you should do, and I’m going to watch you to make sure you do it so we achieve this very specific outcome.”

As if anything ever works out the way you plan. Understanding my job, the role of my unit, as a component of a larger system that could be manipulated helped me to provide the best support I could to the units that depended on what we provided. (The beginnings, perhaps, of my understanding and application of human centered design, perhaps?)

I really don’t remember what triggered my interest in complexity. This, I think, is something that has always lingered just below the surface in my mind. If I had to pinpoint a single starting point for the beginning of my slow hunch about complexity it would have to be Douglas Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach – A Golden Eternal Braid. I came across this book in my latter years of high school and made my way through it as best I could. Though I didn’t really understand much of it at the time, it primed my thinking to be more receptive to a different way of viewing the world.

Then came James Gleick’s Chaos and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. My interest in the science and philosophy of Richard Feynman led me to Murray Gell-Mann and the Santa Fe Institute. Eventually I found my way to the work of Dave Snowden and his insights into the application of systems thinking and complexity science to the world of work, however broadly or narrowly you might define this. (Though I have some of this documented in my notebooks from the time (90’s), I wish I had been blogging back then so I had a better record of my thinking.)

Systems thinking and complexity have thus spent a lot of time in my mind, side by side as I try to make sense of them and understand how to apply them to life and work. To be sure, I have often simply treated them as “basically the same thing”, without much effort to distinguish between them. Though they share some key characteristics they are, of course, different. But what are those differences, and why does it matter? Heading in to the new year seems to be a good time to delve into this.

Fortunately for me in this regard, I recently discovered an article from 2013 by Sonja Blignaut that has pointed me down a good path for this exploration. Titled appropriately enough 5 Differences between complexity & systems thinking, the article is a summary of her notes and thoughts from some time spent with Dave Snowden as he presented workshops and worked with clients.

In the coming days I’ll be looking at those 5 differences in detail.

Welcome to The Emergent Era – Emergent Era – Medium

As our information moves faster, we move faster. And as more of humanity comes online (2.3 billion more people in 2016–2017 alone), it’s causing a fundamental and spontaneous restructuring of our collective behavior. The overlay of our evolving planet wide digital nervous system has taken the perennial drivers of change — human needs, politics, geography, culture — and woven new patterns from them. All of us, especially those who are guiding businesses, need a new framework to understand and adapt.

Source: Welcome to The Emergent Era – Emergent Era – Medium

Coherence through shared abstraction – Cognitive Edge

Scaling in a complex system is fractal, or self similar in nature. In effect we decompose to an optimal level of granularity then allow coupling and recouping of the granules to create new patterns all of which have a self-similar relationship to each other. One of the things we are doing with our adaptation of fitness landscapes within SenseMaker® is to allow the same source data to represent itself for different identity structures within an organisation in contextually appropriate ways. Nothing in a complex system is context free, everything is context specific.

Source: Coherence through shared abstraction – Cognitive Edge

 

Autism and “I”

Since I signed up today for the Strange Loop software developer conference here in St. Louis, it seemed fitting to repost this article, originally published on my autism blog nearly three years ago.
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Earlier this summer [2007] I read Douglas Hofstadter’s new book, I Am a Strange Loop. As Hofstadter mentions early in the book, a more appropriate title would have been “I” is a Strange Loop; the book is about the nature of consciousness, that elusive concept of “I”, and not an autobiographical work as the actual name of the book suggests.

Hofstadter’s works have been among my favorites since I read his first book, Godel Escher Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, in high school. The new book is, in fact, an updating of the ideas he first expressed in GEB. I have long hoped that he might address issues of the mind and consciousness in terms of atypical minds (such as autism), but aside from some passing discussion of those minds, I Am a Strange Loop does not provide any real insight into how the concept of “I” fits with autism.

On Monday, I was pleased to find a paper that specifically addresses the question of autism and “I”, Self-Referential Cognition and Empathy in Autism, co-authored by Michael V. Lombardo, Jennifer L. Barnes, Sally J. Wheelwright, and Simon Baron-Cohen. From the paper’s abstract:

Background. Individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC) have profound impairments in the interpersonal social domain, but it is unclear if individuals with ASC also have impairments in the intrapersonal self-referential domain. We aimed to evaluate across several well validated measures in both domains, whether both self-referential cognition and empathy are impaired in ASC and whether these two domains are related to each other.

Conclusions/Significance. We conclude that individuals with ASC have broad impairments in both self-referential cognition and empathy. These two domains are also intrinsically linked and support predictions made by simulation theory. Our results also highlight a specific dysfunction in ASC within cortical midlines structures of the brain such as the medial prefrontal cortex.

Instead of looking at autism as a syndrome of self-focus (the Kanner approach), the paper starts from the concept of “absent-self” put forth by Uta Frith in her book Autism: Explaining the Enigma. I had not heard of Frith before reading this paper, so I can’t really comment on her ideas. But the paper itself seems to make sense. I’m still going through it, trying to understand all that they are studying and what their results mean. (I did learn a new word:alexithymia – difficulty identifying and describing one’s own emotions.)

My first time through I Am a Strange Loop was to soak in the big concepts. I typically wait a few months before re-reading something like this so I can get into the details, but I think I’ll start again sooner than that. (At the moment, I’m reading Steven Pinker’s latest book The Stuff of Thought.) Now that I have a bit more information about autism and “I”, I’ll have a better context for processing what I read.

Another interesting note about the paper, it was originally published by the Public Library of Science under a Creative Commons license. The PLoS home page describes it as a “A new way of communicating peer-reviewed science and medicine”, so I will assume the paper has been appropriately peer reviewed. But I think I will do a bit more checking just to be sure. (Of course, any insight from readers here would be greatly appreciated.)

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Chances are very good that I will re-read I Am a Strange Loop again before Strange Loop; curious to see what I get from it this time.

What’s in a label? Autism, Asperger’s, and the DSM V

Several years ago, I wrote a two part article on my thoughts about whether autism should remain in the DSM. Here’s what I came up with:

For now, we need to keep autism in the DSM, because it serves as the way for autism parents to help their children get the services they need to succeed in the world.

The current draft of the DSM V, available for review and comment, still includes autism – now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder (instead of  Autistic Disorder). However, the DSM V proposal recommends that Asperger’s Disorder and Pervasive Development Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)be subsumed into an existing disorder: Autistic Disorder (Autism Spectrum Disorder)“.

As you might imagine, there has been a lot of discussion about this. I’m not really sure what I think of this change yet, there are so many aspects to consider:

  • What is the impact to those already diagnosed with Asperger’s or PDD-NOS? In terms of available services? In terms of individual perceptions of self? Will they have to be rediagnosed, or will they be “grandfathered” in to an Autistic Spectrum Disorder?
  • What is the impact to future diagnoses? Will there be fewer children diagnosed autistic, or more? Will a child who would have been diagnosed with Asperger’s or PDD-NOS be diagnosed as autistic? How will this affect funding of special education programs?
  • Will parents accept a diagnoses of “autistic” for kids they believe are “too high functioning” to be autistic but whom they believe need the services that come with the diagnosis?
  • How will special education programs be impacted? Will they be able to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach to treating “autism” as if it is a singular thing, or will they remain flexible enough to develop education plans based on the needs of individuals?

And more, many more.

It is the last of my bullets above that most concerns me. Anyone who is involved in special education – as a parent, student, teacher, or administrator – knows that even now Individual Education Plans (IEP) are typically anything but individual. (There are, of course, exceptions, but you will find many many more horror stories than success stories about IEPs.)

I agree with Roy Richard Grinker when he writes that “the stigma of autism is fading”, though I’m not sure I agree with him that this is happening “fast”. I also agree that across the three current diagnoses there is a lot of commonality, both in terms of symptoms and “treatment”.  But there are differences, and I think that having the three separate diagnoses emphasizes the “spectrum” – or, as Grinker calls it, a “continuum”.

My experience leads me to believe that many people don’t understand the concept of a spectrum unless they can clearly see the boundaries between the different layers of the spectrum. Only when you see a rainbow of light coming out of a prism can you see that white light includes all of those colors, and that each of those colors has its own unique properties. We still need this prism effect with autism.

We are making progress in understanding, but we still have a long way to go. So for that reason, I’m leaning toward the opinion that Asperger’s and PDD-NOS should stay in the DSM. At least for now.