The Problem of Complex Coercive Systems

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Flood and Jackson created a grid for grouping problem contexts in the 1990’s, with one axis representing the nature of reality, or systems, consisting of simple (closed) or complex (open) systems, and the other, social relationships divided into unitary, or what I’ll call shared interests and agreement, pluralist, or compatible interests open to compromise, and coercive, or conflict and disagreement. The purpose of the grid was to assign and use systems methodologies according to their strengths. As it turned out, there is none for addressing a complex reality and complex social relationships, which, in my experience, is where most of the big problems of our time resides, which is creates a big question I’ve been struggling with for many years.

It means problems difficult to describe and solve because of both the complexity of the situation and the associated human dynamics involved, demanding that progress must be negotiated within a context of power differences and political maneuvering. We simply don’t understand and know how to manage that problem space, other than muddling through.

Rittel and Webber pointed out the dominant approach to social planning is mechanistic, which works well if you can simplify problems, but fails when confronted with the complex context in the grid. Elliott expanded Rittel and Webber’s grid to talk about wicked messes, or Horn social messes, when you are confronted with both complex dynamics and complex social interactions. The fundamental problem with Rittel and Webber’s, Snowden’s Cynefin model, and Flood and Jackson’s grid, is, to the extent they recognize the complexity of the situation, it is from a mechanistic perspective of reality, rather than complexity as reality. There is a big difference between how those realities operate and play out.

To make sense of the black hole, the first and most important step, and in many ways the most difficult one, is to step away from our default dominant reductionist perspective of reality, by acknowledging reality is complex, and plays by different rules than the perspective of reality we are used to. Knowing that means you can’t plan for, predict, or control the problem space, but can learn from small experiments, observe the outcome, adjust, and try again, until potentially helpful interventions emerge that won’t make the situation worse.

A second step is to gain insight into some of the dynamics of the social complexity involved.

I propose filling the social complexity component of the social mess category as follows.

We are born with a complex biological potential interacting with the social world we are born in, which not only shapes and prunes the biology, but also a personal sense of identity we may call an I.

Humans evolved to work together in groups for survival, from which follows a sense of belonging, and to feel valued, or a self-esteem. From our interrelationships and interactions with others in groups, we take on and integrate shared values norms, behaviors, habits, etc., from which emerges a social identity, or us. From the interaction between the personal I and social we, a sense of self emerges we may call a me.

To meet collective goals requires different roles, and we evolved to attach value to those roles which we rank socially. We signify the value of roles with social status, which feeds back to our self as a measure of how much others value us, which affects how much we value ourselves. Status in formal hierarchies flows from assigned authority, in which power is more likely to be used to intimidate, coerce, or for violence, which can be through social sources of advantage.

Social rank also forms the basis of emerging hierarchies, which, conceptually, can be divided into prestige-based and formal hierarchies. We voluntarily assign status based on prestige, which means we can also withdraw it, hence those with prestige-based status are obliged to use their status and power democratically through dialogue, negotiation, and compromise.

Social status gives you access to and control over resources, of which there are various kinds, which means their unequal distribution, social advantage, and social inequality. Social advantage not only gives you social rewards, you can expect better outcomes biologically, economically, and socially, which spills over to your descendants.

What the argument above gives one, is a foundation for understanding the background interrelationships and interactions of the social complexity of Flood and Jackson’s complex coercive space, which play a critical role within it.

We resist taking the first step to understanding complexity of complex coercive systems because of human psychology and behavior. Kuhn pointed out we hold on to outdated ideas that no longer work despite contrary evidence, and Festinger that it causes mental distress which we try to explain away, until we can’t any longer.

We are psychologically attracted to the reductionist perspective because it gives us the illusion of stability, predictability, and control. Going the opposite direction is destabilizing, and requires an openness to responding to, rather than trying to control an unpredictable reality, and accept you have little control over it. At a collective level, it means swimming against the prevailing stream, and, as the saying goes, becoming the peg sticking out that gets hammered down. Our need to belong and to be socially recognized rubs up against questioning large collective ideologies existing to create stability, predictability, and control.

The reason wicked, or social messes are so intractable, isn’t that there isn’t a different way to think about it, but that we refuse to do so out of fear and necessity. Gharajedaghi said things appear chaotic to us when we lack mental constructs for explaining them, once we have such constructs, they no longer appear chaotic.

Systems methodologies and other change and planning methods regularly fail because they are task orientated, and ignore the fact all problem solving, planning, and change take place within a human social context. They treat that as a black box, yet it’s what happens within that box that determines success, or failure.

The elephant in the room is social power, conflict, and coercion. In autocracies, one is a majority, and most Western organizations and bureaucracies today are functional autocracies.

Politics is about power, and as Clausewitz argued, war continues politics through coercion and violence as means to an end. Social wars play out within and between organizations and groups, and the tools of coercion, as Bourdieu pointed out, are social. We kill and annihilate others socially without bloodshed, and, like real wars, social wars die down to flare up again, so they are seldom resolved. Both Flyvbjerg and Strümpfer pointed out, if the game is coercion and social violence of any form, there is little you can do other than to wait for the coercion to play out, and hope once it does, the possibility may arise to engage again. I would agree with Ulrich that one cannot avoid having a conversation, if possible, about power dynamics.

What problem solvers and planners miss, is all problem solving, plans, etc., in one way or another potentially rearrange hierarchies, threaten status, and potentially affect self-esteem. If you don’t consciously recognize and address this, the swamp of your social mess becomes a tornado. Even if you do recognize it, if it is a taboo to talk about, or if rank, hierarchies, status, dominance, and inequality is deeply entrenched, there is little or nothing else you can do. Which is the default in most large organizations and bureaucracies today, which become obstacles to change. According to what Kelly called the Shirky Principle, organizations and institutions then become the problem, preventing solutions from emerging.

A workaround may be using complexity principles and the potential network effect of small groups. As Belbin’s research showed, small groups are more efficient than large groups, and Shirky argued most innovation and creativity comes from such groups, who can rapidly come up with ideas, trial it to see what works, adapt to what doesn’t, and wash, rinse, and repeat, until something workable emerges that is not perfect, but good enough. Many attempts will fail, that is part of complexity and learning, and we cannot predict what will or will not work, nor whether people will find it useful and adopt it because designers are not the users, hence the only option is to try. And, if adopted, users may in turn make modifications, improving the solution based on their local conditions, which can potentially and unpredictably lead to large-scale adoption of new solutions.

To close the loop, by unpacking the social complexity of social messes, albeit superficially, a picture emerges of its social and psychological dynamics, making the problem less intractable.

The key is understanding not the threat out there, but how we respond to the unconscious threats within, that prevent us from dealing with the threats out there, often to our own detriment.

We can make this unconscious dynamic conscious, which, by itself may be threatening, or liberating, create a truce via a common threat that can only be solved collectively, as Sherif’s Robber’s Cave experiment showed, or make change less threatening through small-scale experimentation and implementation, which can result in large-scale adoption.

If the gorilla is intimidation, coercion, and violence, the only options are meeting force with force, submit, or organized resistance, which is meeting force from a power disadvantage. That may be difficult, and come at a high cost, and, ultimately, as Sharp, and Orwell in Animal Farm pointed out, meeting the threat usually ends up in new institutions and bureaucracies of domination and inequality, which does not solve, just repeat the cycle, and nothing changes.

Some research suggests the dynamics of many of our institutions today select for managers and leaders with borderline personality disorders. What happens, as LaBier pointed out, is psychologically normal people begin to believe there is something wrong with them, and seek help, and abnormal personality types thrive, because that’s what their organizational environments select for and rewards. Bakan took this one step further, by arguing in North American law organizations are individuals, and in terms of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, most of our modern organizations are sociopaths. Jackall wrote about how much of that dysfunction emerges from the very serious social and political games playing out in the background, which we are only vaguely aware of, or not at all, but is the real engine driving organizational dynamics and behavior. We think we control and steer the vehicle, without knowing the mechanics of what makes that vehicle move in the first place.

In my opinion, Flood and Jackson’s wicked, or social mess box is not empty, provided you look at it differently. And we can make a difference to that space, at least sometimes. The gist of my argument is we can know some of the technological complexity of the problem space, but currently don’t have a satisfactory explanation of the social complexity, which means we ignore, or simplify it, which doesn’t work. Most of that complexity plays out in the background, which means we are not conscious of it, but it critically determines the dynamics playing out in complex coercive systems, or wicked problems. A better understanding of that complexity requires a paradigm shift towards accepting complexity as reality, which has implications for what we can know about and how we understand human social systems, and what we can and cannot do within them.