Learning About Systems And Complexity

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Rain dancing.

Russell Ackoff said most strategic planning is like a rain dance, it’s more about the dancing than about the rain. One may say the same thing about teaching, and management and leadership courses.

A few years ago, I attended a course about systems thinking and complexity which is part of a portfolio of leadership courses. If you think about it, the course is based on assumptions about learning systems and social complexity as follows.

There are many different interpretations for what systems means, but in the field of systems thinking it means several components interacting to produce an outcome more than the sum of the parts. To most people in the field, it means systems have boundaries, and fit together like pieces of a puzzle or a Russian doll. That’s mechanistic thinking. Another, different perspective, is our world is interconnected and interrelated and to understand it, its useful to look at aspects of it as if it were systems. That’s complexity thinking. It means we choose what to include or exclude, which matters a lot, because every component you change changes the composition, dynamics, and outcome of the system of interest. If the entity was a system with properties of a system, how does it help us to better understand it.

Most learning assumes expert teachers transferring knowledge they have through some sort of approach to learners who don’t have it. There is an endpoint where one can test if the transfer was successful. If insufficient learning took place, it’s because the learner, teaching process, or teacher failed. That’s mechanistic thinking. An alternative, different perspective, is everyone has some knowledge, and if willing to question it can transform it, which creates a new perspective of a situation or the world that can be used in practice. In other words, learning means transforming what we know individually and collectively, and there is no teacher, only a facilitator. It also means outcomes vary and are difficult to measure, the only real measure is how effectively the learning works in practice, and there is no endpoint to it. That’s complexity thinking.

Most people look at complexity as a property of something; what they look at is aspects of the world as simple, complicated, or complex. It means one can analyze, understand, and use complexity to your benefit. That’s mechanistic thinking. An alternative, different perspective, is complexity is not a property, whether an entity is complex or not depends on how you look at it. The more components and interactions you include, the more complex an entity becomes, and the more you take away, the simpler it appears. If you strip away the leaves and branches of a tree, eventually you end up with a simple stick, if you add more trees and animals, you end up with a forest. The one is simple, the other complex.

The Latin root of social means companion or ally, suggesting we interact and do things together. It follows our interactions and interrelationships create immense complexity. From that perspective a course such as the one I attended is an individual and collective learning system based on collectively interacting, not a simple transfer of knowledge and skills, and floats on immensely complex social interactions and interrelationships.

The course I went to was designed according to the same mechanistic boilerplate as all courses in the series. The purpose for signing up for the course was to learn to understand and practice systems thinking, and how to make complex systems understandable so you can manipulate them. There was also a defined learning outcome; acquiring skills to make decisions in complex environments, the ability to recognize patterns causing obstruction to change, and learning to manage relationships.

Clearly this creates contradictions between the course objectives and its subject material. It assumes complexity is a property of something, hence our world is not complex only aspects of it are, and one can influence that complexity which goes against the principles of complexity. Secondly, although it is a course about systems thinking, learning does not take place against the background of a learning system, hence is neither systemic nor complex. In short, although the course was about systems and complexity, it acknowledged neither the systemic nature nor complexity of the context in which it took place, which is a contradiction in terms. It taught about systems and complexity without showing the living proof of it in the interactions and interrelationships taking place.

At the end of the course, we were asked to fill in a questionnaire about whether we liked the teaching, the teachers, the venue, and whether we thought we learned anything useful. Such questionnaires for multiple reasons are useless, what we should have been asked is do we have a better understanding of systems and complexity and why, and after about a year or so later, how what we learned changed how we see and do things in practice. In other words, the feedback system sought neither systemic nor information about social complexity. So the course was about dancing, not about rain.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to give presentations about and teach systems thinking myself. With hindsight, I only had a vague idea of what I was doing and made the same mistakes as in this course because, like all of us, I was still a mechanistic thinker at heart. The difference is, as part of my own learning system, I kept questioning what I knew and was doing, and now have a much deeper and richer understanding of systems and complexity. If by some sort of magic, I could have a do over, I would do things very differently today.

I would understand that to the extent there is a goal in a course, it is a guide, not an endpoint. I would understand it is a process of individual and collective learning with different, unpredictable outcomes. I would understand I am not the producer of learning, but a co-producer and facilitator within a learning system, and my role is helping people understand what they know and assisting those willing to question it towards a different perspective of what they do and how they fit into it. I would understand that as a complex social system a course evolves unpredictably, and for the same reasons, no two courses can ever be the same. And I would also understand engaging in the course changed my understanding of the course and myself.

I attended many other courses and educational opportunities about systems thinking and complexity before and after the course, but they were all the same mechanistic kind and based on the same mechanistic assumptions as this course. Most of my learning about the subjects came from rigorously questioning my own knowledge base, biases, and assumptions, adjusting it, applying the new knowledge in practice, observing the outcome, and starting all over again, rather than from teachers and attending courses. I had to teach myself how to live in and appreciate a complex world of systems.

I noticed recently the course I attended was optimized over the years to make it more streamlined and efficient, but it is still not truly about systems and complexity, and the learning still not complex adaptive. Unlike true complex systems, it didn’t adapt and evolve. Hence, it doesn’t practice what it teaches and you must practice what you teach, otherwise all you do is play a game. Or having a good time dancing and not caring about the rain. That goes for all the other learning opportunities I had as well.

That the world we live in, and particularly our human world is complex is beyond dispute. And so is the fact that acknowledging and embracing this complexity and looking at aspects of it as if it is systems is useful, if we are to make a meaningful difference towards the many complex problems facing us. What is lacking is learning opportunities for more people to transition from the time warp of mechanistic and biological thinking, trapping us in a mindset becoming less useful by the day, to one providing the skills needed for our current reality. People stuck in dancing say the ideas I talk about are esoteric and opaque; they are not, they are of practical use in our daily lives. They say this because dancing matters more to them than rain. If you want to know why that is so, you need to understand the hidden human complexity I talk about.