A Pragmatic Approach to Human Social Complexity

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Incubated learning.

This is a companion piece to my previous blog, A Perspective of Social Complexity. Any perspective, theory, model, etc., of complexity must have practical implications to be useful, which is what this is about.

I believe to competently interact with complex phenomena in a complex world, there are five things to consider. Those are not the basis of a methodology, or formula, since no single methodology or formula can manage complexity, and particularly human complexity, instead it is a set of principles for a flexible framework within which complex phenomena may be approached.

Note each principle is a complex emergent phenomenon, and all interconnect and interact. Some may look at it as a system, but it is much more complex than that.

The first is, any approach to complex entities and problems must be complex enough to match that complexity.

When humans are involved, all interrelationships and interactions are complex, hence approaching them requires an in-depth understanding of complexity, and the behavior of complex phenomena. It also requires an in-depth understanding of the complexity of human social behavior, and some sort of model of complexity able to accommodate the complexity. The point of departure is a complex reality, not a complex subcategory of a simple reality.

It means understanding you deal with emerging phenomena we typically name and put in categories. That makes them real and simple to us, but emergent phenomena emerge from complex interactions that never remain static, which you must understand. It means you are compelled to look at them as distributions without, or with unclear boundaries. Penciling in boundaries is a design choice, not reality.

Additionally, since predictability rapidly deteriorates over time in complex phenomena, you must accept there is no formula or method to apply, just a set of principles that may be helpful. Complex phenomena have features simple ones don’t have; they self-organize, respond to what is around them, adapt to that, and learn, they are non-deterministic, small events can have big consequences, and the past matters. How we believe the world works determines how we respond to it and act.

The second principle is no-one individually or collectively can fully see and comprehend a complex phenomenon. Hence there are always multiple perspectives, or viewpoints of it which depends on your position relative to it, and that perspective is always incomplete and partial. Perspectives can be individual or shared, and depend on our prior beliefs, norms, ideologies, cultures, experience, personal and collective histories, education, etc. The assumptions we make puts boundaries around what we do and don’t see, which creates a worm’s eye rather than bird’s eye view.

To build a more complete picture of reality, we must sweep in different perspectives to broaden our understanding of what we are engaging with. Considering different viewpoints based on different assumptions force you to consider your own assumptions and beliefs, which may change your own beliefs, which is foundational to learning, and learning is foundational to adapting to complex issues.

One such viewpoint relates to the reality we are immersed in and experience every day. Our world is dominated by two perspectives, the religious one, which is useful for bringing about cooperation and order, encouraging altruism, and suppressing freeloading, and a mechanistic perspective on which modern science is based, and which is useful for gathering knowledge about things that are simple or complicated, but not when things are complex. A third that of yet has little traction, is that of a complex world.

The third principle is learning and adapting.

We learn from our actions. We act, observe the outcome, compare that to experience, or memory, what we learned from others, or observed them doing, then change what we know and act accordingly. This means we individually and collectively learn incrementally, and sometimes in giant leaps, and we learn better when we do so consciously and collectively, particularly about ourselves. Learning prepares us to better respond to the future, or, in other words, adapt to the constant change within complex entities. We try to make sense of unique situations based on memory and experience to respond appropriately, hence the ability to learn actively and consciously enables us to learn our way out of complex situations. Existing change methods lack the ability to deal with novelty and constant change.

As humans, we act, and in a complex world we act and react all the time, adapting to it, retaining a memory for future use. Acting and reacting creates the data and knowledge we need to learn, which is therefore an ongoing process. In a mechanistic world, the emphasis is on avoiding mistakes, in a complex world on learning from mistakes.

The fourth principle is cooperation. Humans evolved to cooperate to thrive and survive. The better we cooperate, the more we thrive and the better we survive.

In a mechanistic world, cooperation is a thing that can be analyzed and manipulated. Experts and superiors make plans and tell us what to do. We often know the plans will fail, but for sociopolitical reasons are obliged to play along, and fail. They use formulas for gaining or forcing cooperation with plans.

Planning for a complex world is different. You know you can’t make long-term plans because the outcome will be unpredictable, hence it makes more sense to plan how to react to the unpredictable based on a set of principles more likely to work. By including different viewpoints and allowing people to co-create a collective response pattern, trusting them, and providing them with resources, they become better positioned to respond to the unknown and learn from it. In this scenario, cooperation means a shared understanding of the environment, one’s role in it and how it impacts on others, and how roles collectively allow the group to respond. Cooperation becomes a living, changing, creating, adapting, learning entity.

The fifth and final principle is conversation drives human interaction and by extension action, learning, and cooperation. Conversation is complex, adaptive, and riddled with mistakes, which creates an opportunity for dialogue and learning. Paying attention to conversation and dialogue increases our ability to act, adapt, and learn collectively and personally. The key is active listening, or dialogue, to build understanding. Conversation is not communication, which is a mechanistic interpretation of it, and dialogue is not debate, which is a zero-sum game. Conversation and dialogue are absent in most organizations I know, as opposed to communication and debate, which is the default.

The five principles mean changing the way we see the world, which changes what we believe, assume, etc., which changes us individually and collectively. It emphasizes conversation and dialogue, the importance of cooperation, which leads to action, but acting purposefully, rather than just reacting, to which we must agree, and measurably observe the outcome, and finally, based on what we observe, determine what we must do to adapt and learn. A mechanistic plan is an endpoint, a complex plan is a starting point, with an expectation what happens next will be unplanned and unpredictable in many ways.

I looked at numerous strategic planning, planning, policy, change management, etc., methodologies and approaches over many years. Some claim to be systemic, others that they have a complexity orientation, but none pass the law of requisite complexity, or adhere to the five principles above, other than one. What they all have in common, except the latter, is they fail 85-95% of the time, and only 2% will meet their objectives, on time, on budget, and be beneficial. The exception has a documented failure rate of 15%.

Strümpfer calls his approach incubated learning, which in my opinion is a complex adaptive learning approach. The theoretical foundation behind it is rooted in systems thinking, and specifically the work of Churchman, Checkland, Vickers, and others’ human systems orientation, adapted pragmatically through experience. As such, it is not explicitly based on a complexity ontology or complexity principles, but the complexity of the theory behind it meets the law of requisite complexity, and an in-depth analysis of it shows that in spirit it adheres to the five principles pointed out above.

The approach does not start with a plan or solution to a problem, it starts by having a series of conversations, from which the problem and its nature emerges. Its purpose not to the frame the problem or find solutions to it, but to find questions that will contribute towards understanding the problem context, from which actions may emerge worth trialing to change it.

It does not have a methodology as such, but is associated with several useful tools to be used when the need arises. The methodology you use depends on a situation and context, hence one cannot know in advance which one needs to be used and when. There is not planner in the traditional sense, just an experienced facilitator with a network of cooperating associates whose skills can be brought in as needed.

Conversations start other conversations in a ratchet mechanism and never-ending cycle. The basis of conversation is inquiry based on systems thinking principles (I would add those of complexity) that will contribute to appropriate knowledge enabling effective action. What emerges is a consensus and change in mindset about what is happening, which becomes the basis for cooperating towards acting in ways that may change the existing situation to an agreed-on goal. Participants trial promising actions, the results are fed back, and the cycle is repeated. In principle, it never ends, and Strümpfer said success means a self-organizing perpetuating entity no longer needing a facilitator, other than maybe for tune-ups in the future.

As things start to shift, people individually get a deeper understanding of themselves as social beings, their roles, and a social world of interrelationships and interactions in which their actions matter and have consequences. This approach not only grows people, but also organizations.

Such an approach takes time, although one can observe beneficial movement from early on, which is why it is not popular in our world, in which we want and expect instant answers and solutions. We are addicted to the game, not its outcome, which is part of complex human society. No-one can seriously claim knowing you have an 85-95% chance of failing and constantly repeating that is anything but what Narcotics Anonymous calls insanity.

Both Strümpfer and Flyvbjerg point out that no method, including theirs, work when confronted with situations in which politics and power games dominate, which is a growing problem in our world. I personally believe with an in-depth knowledge of the social complexity behind power games, and using the principles described, it is in principle possible to sometimes bypass them, but admit there are times all you can do is walk away from the problem context, and watch the unfolding tragedy from a distance.

I find that a difficult reality, because belonging to a complex social world means most of the time we share a bus, hence there is no getting off and walking away. We share complex problems and if through ignorance, wilful ignorance, pride, arrogance, power hunger, or stupidity refuse to admit that, everyone ends up in the ditch, whether you want to or not.