Complexity is a signature characteristic of nature that challenges our ability to stay in control. We are confronted more than ever by the reality there is no guarantee when we try to make change that our actions will have the intended results. Organizations need to be able to deal with turbulence – staying alert to changing conditions, being agile in responding, and above all being able to learn. This is the foundation of the Integral Strategy approach.
We use ‘change’ casually, as if this word alone could describe all of the subtle behaviors of complex systems. When we look more deeply, we see a richer reality. Like the Inuit in Canada’s Nunavik region, who have more than 50 words for snow, or the Sami people in the Scandinavian Arctic who have more than 180, perhaps someday we will have a better understanding of change and the words to describe it. For now, we largely have to make do with analogies.
Water in Motion
In one place the water is dark, silent and still. In another it is white, roaring and wild. Complex systems behave in ways that are similar to the changing conditions on a whitewater river.
Paddlers have to use different skills depending on the nature of the challenge. In quiet water they can relax and enjoy the scenery. In turbulent water they have to read the waves and react in an instant. A flurry of paddle strokes moves a canoe erratically, but safely, downstream – skirting boulders, plunging over sharp drops, jetting through narrowing canyon walls in a thunder of surging water.
There is a similar parallel with conditions at sea, illustrated by Alexander Goulielmos and Constantinos Giziakis in a paper on marine safety (“Marine accident prevention: an evaluation of the ISM code by the fundamentals of the complexity theory.” Disaster Prevention and Management: An International Journal. 2002.).
Class I systems are unchanging. Class II systems are periodic and predictable. Class III systems are unstable and unpredictable. Class IV systems are complex, serving up both order and chaos. The zone between order and chaos is referred to as the ‘edge of chaos.’
The Dynamics of Change
Simple diagrams can be used to describe these behaviors. Systems move from one state to another in a ‘phase space.’ If they tend to gravitate toward a particular end state, that state is called an ‘attractor.’
Class I Systems – Stasis
Class I systems have a point attractor. Regardless of where they start, they converge on a single stable state. A marble dropped in a bowl behaves like this, ending up at rest on the bottom. This is the equivalent of still water.
Class II Systems – Order
Class II systems trace an endless loop regardless of their starting point. They have a periodic attractor. A planet orbiting around a sun is an example of such a system. This is the equivalent of a regular and repeating wave pattern.
Class III Systems – Chaos
Class III systems behave chaotically. They are said to have a strange attractor. They are very sensitive to initial conditions. Weather is a good example. A small difference in the initial state of the atmosphere can have a major impact on what happens, while a large difference may have little effect.
MIT meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered this phenomenon while testing a computerized weather model. A small rounding error in the inputs produced a major difference in the predicted weather. Lorentz described this in a paper he titled playfully “Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?” (1972). It became known as the ‘butterfly effect.’
Chaotic systems have multiple attractors. The marble analogy is helpful. If a marble is dropped in any basin, it heads with certainty to the bottom. If dropped on a ridge, it ends up on one side or the other depending on a very small difference in the starting position. This is chaotic (unpredictable) behavior.
When dynamic systems are stressed, chaotic behavior is multiplied. The number of attractors increases as each attractor splits in two. This is called a ‘bifurcation.’
Principia Cybernetica Web – an online encyclopedia created by scientists on topics in cybernetics, systems theory and complexity – described elegantly how this works.
“[I]magine that you let water run through a tap. When the water runs very slowly, it comes out in regular, periodically falling drops. When you open the tap a little bit more, it may happen that there are two patterns of running: either big drops succeeding each other quickly, or a thin, continuous stream. Sometimes you have the one pattern, sometimes a slight fluctuation in the pressure makes the water switch to the other pattern.
When the stress is increased further, more bifurcations take place, and the attractors split up further. First, you have 4 possible regimes, then 8, then 16, then 32, and so on, ever more quickly. At a certain point, the number of attractors becomes infinite and the system is erratically jumping from the one to the other all the time. This is true chaos. The behavior of the system has become totally unpredictable. Coming back to the water tap, this is what happens when the tap is opened fully and the water is running out turbulently, in one big, irregular waterfall, with droplets spraying in all directions.”
Class IV Systems – Complexity
Class IV systems (between order and chaos) demonstrate pattern emergence. They maximize stability while maintaining the capacity for change — creating order some of the time and chaos some of the time. Intermittent periods of stability are referred to as ‘long transients.’ Long periods of steady state are separated by short disruptive bursts — a pattern called ‘punctuated equilibrium.’
Like a whitewater paddler, we need to understand the behavior of the systems we are dealing with, and summon the appropriate skills based on different conditions. In turbulent systems we may be pushed to the limit of our understanding and ability to respond. Different management practices are required in each case, as outlined in Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework, described in a previous article.
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on April 17, 2018, on LinkedIn.