If you are building a business case to use narrative techniques in your organisation, here are some great quotes to sprinkle throughout the story you might tell your executive.
Steven Johnson writes an essay in the New York Times pondering the future of writing with the availability of tools like DEVONThink. It helps you locate those ideas you managed to type into your computer and then promptly forgot by feeding the system a sentence of two, such as a paragraph from the new book you are writing. Steven tells us about the interesting new trains of though which have emerged using this approach.
If navigating complexity requires us to detect new and emerging patterns, tools which alert us to new connections and provide new perspectives will be valuable aids. As Johnson suggests, we are beginning to see our multiple intelligences augmented by a silicon one.
Complex systems lack explicit boundaries. Any boundaries which exist are imposed by people who are attempting to constrain and simplify the system for a particular purpose and therefore these boundaries are artefacts affected by the designer’s biases, interests and vision. This is not bad situation, we just need to remain aware of how boundaries were set. Boundaries are essential because without them we are forced to consider an infinite number of connections—everything is connected to everything else—which is hopeless. Designers, therefore, need ways to define system boundaries which delineates the system in ways which are both relevant and manageable.
Typically, boundary definitions are set without thought. Designers rely on their intuition and make decisions like: “the culture change programme will focus on the call centre and we will concentrate on the managers’ viewpoints.” This decision leaves out other stakeholders such as the call centre operators and the human resources department in headquarters. Whenever boundaries are set people are left out. The question for designers is simply: “are we leaving people out for the right reason?” Boundary setting is the first important step in designing interventions for a complex system. A practical approach to boundary setting is a fundamental tool for complexity-base designers.
Weiner Ulrich (1983; 1996) provides a practical boundary-setting approach based on considering four types of stakeholder and asking three questions from the perspective of each. The four stakeholders are:
- clients—the people or groups who benefit from the interventions;
- decision-takers—those people who allocate the budget to implement the interventions; and
- planners—the people responsible for designing the interventions;
- bystanders—people affected by the decisions but not involved in the process (Ulrich called this type, the witness).
Ulrich suggests the questions be asked from two perspectives: what ought to be the answer and what is the answer. These questions can be summarised as having the following dimensions:
- client—1) sense of purpose; 2) clash of purposes;
- decision taker—3) control of resources; 4) lack of control (environmental conditions);
- planners—5) types of expertise; 6) likelihood of success; and
- bystanders—7) voice of the affected; 8) clash of worldviews.
Designers can run a simple workshop format with representatives from each stakeholder type. I have used a challenge-and-respond format combined with mixing people throughout the workshop to ensure we expose the maximum variety of viewpoints.
Setting boundaries in this way ensures the system is defined so that it is both relevant and manageable. Perhaps more importantly, it specifically includes a broad set of stakeholders in the improvement process. Complex problems never have a right or wrong answer. In fact it’s impossible to objectively measure whether a complex problem has been ‘fixed’. Rather, the stakeholder must believe that improvements are being made and this requires their active involvement in the intervention design and monitoring.
Ulrich, W. 1983. Critical Heuristics of Social Planning: A New Approach to Practical Philosophy. Bern: Haupt.
Ulrich, W. 1996. A Primer to Critical Systems Heuristics for Action Researchers. Hull: Centre for Systems Studies, University of Hull.
Thanks to Bruce McKenzie for putting me on to Ulrich’s work.
Farida Hasanali works at APQC and coordinates their communities of practice. She has written a series of interesting posts from a practitioner’s perspective. Farida covers ROI, IT support, roles, activities and all from a personal perspective.
I’ve just been reading about wicked problems and I’m struck by the similarities between the characteristics of a complex system and how Rittel and Webber defined a wicked problem back in 1973. Jeff Conklin nicely summarises wicked problems as follows:
- You don’t understand the problem
until you have developed a solution
- . Indeed, there is no definitive statement of “The Problem.” The problem is ill-structured, an evolving set of interlocking issues and constraints. Rittel said, “One cannot understand the problem with knowing about its context; one cannot meaningfully search for information without the orientation of a solution concept; one cannot first understand, then solve.” Moreover, what “the Problem” is depends on who you ask – different stakeholders have different views about what the problem is and what constitutes an acceptable solution.
- Wicked problems have no stopping rule.
- Since there is no definitive “The Problem”, there is also no definitive “The Solution.” The problem solving process ends when you run out of resources, such as time, money, or energy, not when some optimal or “final and correct” solution emerges. Herb Simon, Nobel laureate in economics, called this “satisficing” — stopping when you have a solution that is “good enough” (Simon 1969)
- Solutions to wicked problems are not right or wrong
- , simply “better,” “worse,” “good enough,” or “not good enough.” With wicked problems, the determination of solution quality is not objective and cannot be derived from following a formula. Solutions are assessed in a social context in which “many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge [them],” and these judgements are likely to vary widely and depend on the stakeholders independent values and goals.
- Every wicked problem is essentially unique and novel.
- There are so many factors and conditions, all embedded in a dynamic social context, that no two wicked problems are alike, and the solutions to them will always be custom designed and fitted. Rittel: “The condition in a city constructing a subway may look similar to the conditions in San Francisco, say, … but differences in commuter habits or residential patterns may far outweigh similarities in subway layout, downtown layout, and the rest.” Over time one acquires wisdom and experience about the approach to wicked problems, but one is always a beginner in the specifics of a new wicked problem.
- Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation,”
- every attempt has consequences. As Rittel says, “One cannot build a freeway to see how it works.” This is the “Catch 22″ about wicked problems: you can’t learn about the problem without trying solutions, but every solution you try is expensive and has lasting unintended consequences which are likely to spawn new wicked problems.
- Wicked problems have no given alternative solutions.
- There may be no solutions, or there may be a host of potential solutions that are devised, and another host that are never even thought of. Thus, it is a matter of
- to devise potential solutions, and a matter of
- to determine which are valid, which should be pursued and implemented.
And here is how I’ve roughly paraphrased Paul Cilliers description of complex systems:
- Complex systems have a large number of elements.
- The elements must interact.
- The interaction is fairly rich, i.e. any element in the system influences, and is influenced by quite a few other ones.
- The interactions are non-linear.
- Interactions have a short range, i.e. info is received primarily from immediate neighbours.
- There are loops in the interactions: positive and negative.
- Complex systems are usually open, i.e. they interact with their environment. Actually it is difficult to define the borders of a complex system. Therefore the scope is defined by the purpose and therefore influenced by the observer position.
- They operate far from equilibrium. Equilibrium equals death.
- They have histories. The past influences current behaviour. Must take account of time.
Each element is ignorant of the behaviour of the system as a whole, it responds to information available locally.
It is interesting that these two perspectives don’t make much reference to each other. While there is mention of social complexity in Jeff’s work, there is little said about complex systems from a complexity science perspective. On the other side I’ve never seen wicked problems or Rittel and Webber mentioned in the complex adaptive systems literature.
Rittel, H. & Webber, M. 1973. Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4: 155-169.
Cilliers, P. 1998. Complexity & Postmodernism. London: Routledge.
Conklin, J.; Wicked Problems and Social Complexity; http://cognexus.org/wpf/wickedproblems.pdf; 25 January 2005.
My first ‘real’ job was working as a research assistance at the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies. We had a similar setup for our Tektronix terminals taking snaps of primitive geographic information systems.
In our work to design complexity-based interventions our aim has been to create small initiatives, which in themselves are designed to address specific issues, that when taken together over time have a widespread effect on the broader system (organisation, division, team). Today I discovered Gareth Morgan’s description of essentially the same approach which he calls the 15% concept. Here are a couple of quotes:
Most people have about 15-percent control over their work situations. The other 85 percent rests in the broader context, shaped by the general structures, systems, events and culture in which they operate.
The challenge rests in finding ways of creating transformational change incrementally: By encouraging people to mobilize small but significant “15-percent initiatives” that can snowball in their effects. When guided by a sense of shared vision, the process can tap into the self-organizing capacities of everyone involved.
Gareth illustrates the approach with an example of education reform and the evolving relationship between teachers and parents within a school.
The key point is to get people identifying the 15% initiatives where they can make a difference and the broadscale transformation will emerge.
The concepts of an attractor and strange attractor from complexity science can be difficult ideas to grasp, but I came across this metaphor by Bill McKelvey which you might find useful.
“As a metaphor, think of a point attractor as a rabbit on an elastic tether—the rabbit moves in all directions but as it tires it is drawn toward the middle where it lies down to rest. Think of a strange attractor as a rabbit in a pen with a dog on the outside—the rabbit keeps running to the side of the pen opposite from the dog but as it tires it comes to rest in the middle of the pen. The rabbit ends up in the ‘middle’ in either case. With the tether the cause is the pull of the elastic. In the pen the cause is repulsion from the dog unsystematically attacking from all sides.” (McKelvey,2004: 43)
McKelvey, B. 2004. “‘Simple rules’ for improving corporate IQ: basic lessons from complexity science.” Pp. 39-52 in Complexity Theory and the Management of Networks, edited by P. Abdriani and G. Passiante. University of Lecce, Italy: Imperial College Press.
For one month Edward Tufte is making available a chapter from his upcoming book, Beautiful Evidence. Tufte wrote 3 of my favourite books which I love because of their simple beauty and their insightful portrayal of how to best convey information with graphics: Envisioning Information , The Visual Display of Quantitative Information , Visual Explanations.
Ken Baskin presented this paper at the 2004 International Workshop on Complexity and Philosophy. I haven’t had a chance to read the paper yet but the topic seems interesting.
Thanks to Fabio Boschetti at CSIRO for alerting me to this one.