A Personal Journey Towards Understanding Human Social Complexity

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Learning versus an education.

That my journey towards understanding human social complexity was social and complex, and perfectly illustrates what I tried to learn should be no surprise, although I didn’t see that at the time. There is no single way towards understanding complexity and its implications. That is a basic tenet of complexity. There is also no right way. Each journey is unique, and all of us must make sense of it in our own way.

Looking back, there was no single important step towards how I understand human social complexity today, just what I understand, with hindsight, was a complex unfolding, saturated with stops and starts, serendipity, chance meetings and readings, etc. As much as I would like to claim I am where I am today through choice and free will, that is not what happened; I am where I am by accident, without planning, and with little control. That itself is an immense lesson I wish I learned much earlier in my life.

My initial formal education was in human biology, which is a hard science, and therefore mechanistic. I stumbled across a diagram connecting all the biochemical cellular processes in a physiology textbook one day, which I copied and carried with me ever since. That was the first time the notion of complexity became real me.

Later, I participated in a failed change initiative, from which I came away with my big question; why do most change initiatives fail?

To try to make sense of it, I signed up for a postgraduate degree in systems thinking, but, as luck would have it, at the same time came across Waldrop and Lewin’s books on complexity, and Gleick’s on chaos, followed with Kauffman, Holland, and Arthur’s contributions, who at the time was at the Santa Fe Institute. The upshot was a trifecta of biology, systems thinking, and complexity science, melded into one. It meant from the very beginning, I interpreted and saw systems thinking as a perspective of complexity, as opposed to the mechanistic approach others see and take, which put me in opposition to and on a different track from them.

I still couldn’t solve the implementation problem, and made a detour through mechanistic business science. What I encountered was a discipline of extreme reduction, that attempts to devolve all problems to 4×4 grids and elevator pitches, and without a clue the implementation problem exists, or what to do about it. I am still astonished by the extreme confidence of the business world, founded on nothing more than quicksand it has no understanding of. What it did, was force me to look at the phenomena in its terrain not as simple, as I was taught, but complex and human.

I spent the next 10 years working on the problem by myself, swimming in molasses, but, as all things complex, small incremental movement is useful and productive movement, solidifying what I knew at the time. At the end of it, I came across a complexity program based on Stacey’s complex responsive processes of relating, which I specifically signed up for to attempt breaking the gridlock towards solving my question. As I progressed through my formal studies, I developed a sense of unease about it, which I couldn’t clearly articulate at the time.

The subject matter of my dissertation was my toxic workplace, and the toxicity, and unease with the theory, put a stop to my journey. I often look back at that as another serendipitous moment, although it didn’t feel so at the time. Had I completed the formal education, I would have been locked into its theory. Instead, I was given the opportunity to play with the Rubik’s cube and dissect it, until, one day, there was an aha moment.

I realized everything I learned and knew about complexity until then, suffered from the same flaw; it was based on a mechanistic perspective of reality, that wants to simplify and control everything, including complexity. Taking everything I learned, and my life experience itself, as complex, and real, and using that as a new foundation instead, upended everything I thought I knew.

There is a scene in Richard Bach’s Illusions in which the messiah figure asks him what if the ground he walks on is not solid, and he is suddenly swallowed by the sand under his feet, leaving him choking and struggling to get out. That was the feeling I had after taking off the mechanistic blinkers society and my education put on me. For a while, it was disorientating and I was uncertain of what I was seeing or could believe, and then, gradually, things came into a new focus.

I started writing down an explanation of what I was seeing, but no longer from within the straight jacket of a single discipline, academic writing, or striving to give accurate descriptions of what experts and others wrote, and thought; I took pragmatically from around me what works. What evolved, unplanned, and with little control, was a complex perspective of reality, that, to me, accurately explains the mechanisms driving actions in our human social world.

The perspective is not frivolous, it is backed by careful logical argument, and supported by verifiable evidence to meet Popper’s challenge of falsification. The emerging argument is an interconnected network of multiple connections, inserting additional layers of complexity, hence is not an easy one to follow and assimilate. At the same time, it is a complex emergent phenomenon, hence constantly evolves with use, adapting and learning, and it can never be complete.

Philosophically my roots are in pragmatism, hence the perspective must have practical use, and if it doesn’t, must be reconsidered and adapted. To test it, I applied the perspective to a large-scale failed change initiative I personally experienced as a participant, and to the Covid-19 pandemic to explain it from a complex social perspective, and it passed on both counts.

Based on this work, I also revisited the implementation problem, asking from a complex human perspective, what conditions prevent strategies, plans, policies, change, etc., from happening, and which need to be present for a better chance to succeed, and then, based on this, which change methodologies and strategies meet these criteria. I found only one. What this exercise taught me is why most initiatives fail, but could it also explain why the lonely exception succeeds?

Strümpfer’s incubated learning is theoretically a very complex approach, and I don’t claim I fully, or correctly understand it, but from my perspective and understanding, it meets the criteria I identified. It is rooted in systems thinking, but, given my perspective of systems as complex phenomena, in spirit, if not by design, is complex and satisfies the criteria of complexity.

This is not a sales pitch for any one approach to change, rather it is a call for better understanding the complexity of change through a lens of complexity in general, and human social complexity specifically. Also, what happened to me is not for everyone; the eclectic nature of my learning eliminates me from the academic world and academic discourse, which requires signing up to a group, and playing the game by its rules. Had life chosen that route for me, I wouldn’t have developed the understanding I have today.

Complexity theory suggests no-one will interpret what I write the way I intend, because we all come along different paths; educationally, thorough life experience, the assumptions we make, what we believe in, the ideologies of the groups we belong to, by the disposition with which we approach life and problems, life experience, etc. But if the idea of complexity is what we share, it is possible to use it for a conversation and dialogue, not knowing where it will go. My experience is that the very social and human complexity we are part of, is also what prevents conversation and dialogue. Seeing and understanding that is a requirement to overcome that barrier.

Revans said we learn by questioning what we already know. To which I add, one must be both willing and able to do so. You can know a lot, but if you are unwilling to question that, won’t learn, and if you know little, or is prevented from knowing, you will learn, but it is a longer journey. What prevents us from questioning is social roles, like expert, leader, professor, etc., the ideologies of groups we belong to, and our need to belong, our beliefs and assumptions, our organizations, social rules, etc. And what we know is tainted by the ways we are educated, which is social and a game, the groups, and organizations we belong to, the control of knowledge by business, the media, other organizations, etc.

Unsurprisingly, my learning journey is a perfect example of the complexity I try to describe. It was a journey depending on interconnections and interactions that unfolded in unplanned and surprising ways, during which I acted and reacted to others and the material I engaged with, and incrementally learned from it. It was one of many conversations and dialogues during which even small interactions with people who had no interest in what I was trying to say influenced what emerged as my perspective of complexity. Small changes had big consequences later on, and what I already knew mattered for what followed. It would have been impossible without the cooperation of and sometimes exclusion by a fluid community of others, whose complex interrelationships and interactions is my subject matter. Above all, it changed my understanding of myself and the world I live in, and I don’t regret that.

One unplanned consequence of upending my perspective, and indeed my whole life orientation and understanding, is the difficulty of functioning in a society founded on, and populated with people with a mechanistic understanding of reality. Make no mistake, I’m not against such a perspective, a complex perspective includes it, and draws lessons from it, but at the same time, using it in the wrong situation has consequences, which, as members of an interrelated interconnected network we all suffer.

Having the ability to see why this happens, or what may happen next, and what can be done to take a different, perhaps more productive tack, but being impotent to communicate it to most people I encounter, or influence it, is not easy. What sustains me is the belief a shift in paradigm, perhaps not in my lifetime, is coming, and, based on what I know, and my practical experience, a complexity perspective is worth a try.