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 user-centered design and service 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.

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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

 

Our causes can’t see their effects

Cynefin frameworkI’ve been interested in, and trying to understand, the Cynefin framework for many years. Without much success, I might add. However, I recently saw an Intro to Cynefin video from Dave Snowden at Cognitive Edge that has helped me put the final pieces of my understanding in place.

Actually, looking back at my first attempt to use the framework to look at an issue, back in a November 2008 look at the response to the global economic crisis, it looks like I may have understood it better than I thought I did. But then I started taking it places I don’t think it was ever meant to go. Continue reading “Our causes can’t see their effects”

Does your blog’s “personality” reflect your personality?

Recently, Dave Snowden and Jack Vinson have both typealyzed their blogs:  Dave’s is ENTP and Jack’s is INTJ.  Since I’m not sure exactly how Typealyzer works, I wasn’t sure if I’ve got enough content here at this new blog (15 posts so far) to get a type, but figured it was worth a shot.  The verdict:  INTP – The Thinkers.

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.

Interestingly, maybe not surprisingly, this is typically what I get back after taking a personality type indicator test.

Being the curious person that I am, I also checked to see how other blogs I write (or have written) are typed:

No Straight Lines: INTJ – The Scientists
29 Marbles: INTP – The Thinkers
Tramp and Tumble: ISTP – The Mechanics
St. Louis Elite: ESTP – The Doers

The first two are, of course, my personal blogs that have since merged into the current blog, so it is no surprise – at least to me – that they turned out to be what they are.  I write it primarily for myself, so the topics are what interest me and the style is what I’m comfortable with.

The third, The Tramp and Tumble Blog, is a site I maintain to get information out to parents, athletes, and coaches in the sport of Trampoline and Tumbling.  The topics I choose are still somewhat based on what interests me, since I’m a parent of a T&T athlete, but the style of writing is based more on what I think the readers would appreciate than what I would like to see.

The last, the web site for the non-profit that supports St. Louis Elite Trampoline and Tumbling, is primarily targeted at outsiders to the sport of T&T and intended to get them excited about the sport and the team so that they will support the team financially or in some other way.  It’s nice to know that this site comes across as a “Doer – They are especially attuned to people and things around them and often full of energy, talking, joking and engaging in physical out-door activities”.

In general, I agree with Dave that one shouldn’t take these types too seriously and that they shouldn’t be used for “categorising people into little boxes”.  I do, however, think that these types of tools can help individuals gain some personal insight into their ‘natural’ tendencies.  It is obviously possible to overcome these tendencies when the situation demands it, if you simply use it for what it is – another tool in the toolbox.