Our Next Systems Lesson: Complexity

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The global pandemic has provided us with another lesson in systems thinking: the role of complexity.

A well-known proverb states that the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago and the second-best time is today.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has upended so much of what was normal and this has as much about how it affects the inter-relationships between the many aspects of our daily life that we take for granted. Further, it affects these in different, unpredictable, inconsistent, and unreliable ways that may not be fully expressed or immediately felt. These effects can be mitigated, but they can’t be controlled.

Welcome to complexity.

Understanding how complexity operates within systems can allow us to ride the waves these situations bring rather than be subsumed by them.

In this second in a series on systems thinking lessons from COVID-19 we look at complexity.

Sensemaking Systems

Complexity is all about action: the interaction of various forces operating at different levels of a system, time scales, movements, and degrees. That’s a jumbled way of saying: there is a lot going on and isn’t all straightforward.

One way to understand how complexity operates is by examining how it’s different than other types of system properties. The Cynefin Framework (below) is a useful tool for determining the nature of the problem at hand by considering the type of order we see around us. On the right side of the diagram are attributes pertaining to systems with higher levels of order than those on the left. It provides us with a way to understand what is happening and determine strategic approaches that are likely to help us rather than exacerbate problems.

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By SnowdenFile:Cynefin framework Feb 2011.jpeg, CC BY 3.0, Link

What makes something complex is that there may be interactions within a system that are straightforward and are simple in nature, cause, and effect or are complicated, too. What makes them complex is that they are wrapped within other activities that are emergent, dynamic, scale-independent, and filled with delays.

The consumer phenomena of Black Friday and its web of interactions are a good example of this in action.

Unlike the situation with COVID-19 however, we humans have engineered Black Friday sales to our own benefit and detriment. We could put a stop to it if we wanted (with some effort and determination). Disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and climate change aren’t as straightforward and thus, our efforts to change their course are more difficult and require an understanding of how complexity operates in systems.

Complexity and COVID-19

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When governments declared states of emergency and enacted sweeping policy measures many asked of their leaders: why this and why now? It’s a good question and speaks to the problem of complexity and evidence.

The best evidence of yesterday or even 6 hours might tell us different stories right now. This is not a problem of the evidence, but one of the problems itself. These problems or challenges are sometimes called wicked. A wicked problem is one that changes once you start trying to address it.

For example, most scientific research centres on the examination of causal pathways and interactions. These are best understood and predicted based on linear models. However, complex situations are often tied with non-linear effects, as seen by such things as Pareto distributions or others.

When we speak of ‘flattening the epidemic curve‘ that’s speaking to a normal distribution (a ‘bulge’ model), whereas non-linear models have a far less uniform shape. So what does that mean in practice?

It means we see waves of panic and calm, spikes in supply and reduction, or mass changes followed by calm. The pattern isn’t consistent. There may be an overall pattern, but it’s not easily discernible. All of a sudden people see that toilet paper (something big, bulky, and can’t be stored in the same quantities as cans of tuna or soup) disappear and that leads to runs on it and other staples.

Next week it might be eggs or lentils or something else. Meanwhile, the disease is following a pattern that is more predictive based on human behaviour — hence ‘the curve’. Two activities happening simultaneously.

What to do?

In moments of complexity, the key is to find domains of coherence that you can create positive interactions around and that you can build on. A humorous and useful example of one of the central organizing principles underlying complexity is Dave Snowden’s take on using a party as a metaphor for how to guide wise action in matters of great complexity

One of the ways we can do this is to look more closely at what is creating positive (i.e., helpful) coherence in these times. It may mean something as lighthearted as emergent public sing-a-long odes to healthcare workers to boost morale and strengthen community connections. It might be meant to create a stable, localized distribution channel for medicine and supplies to help neighbours like we are seeing in Toronto and even more granular such as the neighbourhood of Leslieville where I live.

Local, small-scale initiatives are often best suited to addressing these kinds of problems at first. Why? They are nimble, can gather, deliberate upon, and utilize information quickly to create learning systems. Complex problems require that we learn. In Cynefin terms — it means probing the situation (paying attention, trying small-scale prototype solutions), sensing what’s working (which means evaluating our efforts and providing feedback), and then responding (acting) based on that. Even failure can benefit us. This is a cycle that repeats while our learning increases.

The same kind of approach can be taken within a large organization, a government, or international collaboration. We are seeing this with the coordinated efforts of public health professionals across the world who are providing up-to-date reports (feedback) based on evaluated efforts to control the spread and residual effects of COVID-19. Organizations like the WHO can serve to coordinate these efforts.

You can do the same with your organization or community: the same principles apply.

It’s why things like the off-the-hip, non-scientific, and reactive (not responsive) approach we are seeing by some governments and leaders are failing their communities. It’s also why, for those that are guided by the evidence and feedback, they may sometimes appear to be shifting direction so much.

These are uncertain, complex times and they are only getting more so as the world seeks to adapt to what is happening, what was, and figuring out what could be on a global scale. Knowing how to think and act about what’s happening and what we can do is critical to taking wise action when we can — and knowing that we can.

Be safe, be well.

If wrestling with complexity is something that you are struggling with within your organization, contact me. I can help — that’s what I do.

Photo by Benjamin Wong on Unsplash

This article was adapted from an earlier article published on Censemaking.

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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