Before looking at my own complexity, I want to explore a common misunderstanding. I invite you to consider the following question for a few moments:
What is your immediate reaction to the idea of ‘a complex situation’? What are the images that come to mind?
I ask this question because many people unconsciously believe ‘complexity is bad’. They immediately identify complex with problematic. Perceiving something to be complex is usually a response to experiencing it as difficult to understand or taking a lot of words to describe. Sometimes the word complex is used as if it were synonymous withproblematic. This leads on to the notion that dealing with complexity necessarily means simplifying complexity. Systems thinking is not about simplifying complexity but about simplifying one’s thinking about complexity.
Short term brain activity can only deal with approximately seven concepts at once , and so anything more complicated than this is difficult to think about rigorously. But ‘problematic to think about’ should not be confused with problematic per se.
In fact, I would like to celebrate complexity. For me, the world is interesting and beautiful because it is complex. I don’t understand it, so I can wonder at it. I perceive it as being capable of almost infinite variety and exhibiting a density of interconnectedness beyond human comprehension.
The variety and interconnectedness of the human organism and the human brain allow people to survive and thrive in a variety of environments, including those generated by human activity. This interconnectedness makes the human organism, and its relationship to its environment, problematic to understand but not problematic in itself – quite the reverse.
Variety and interconnectedness enable me to deal with the world. Ross Ashby, one of the founding fathers of cybernetics, recognised their importance in adapting to circumstance and proposed his now famous Law of Requisite Variety. An informal statement of this law, attributed to Ashby, is:
If you can describe complexity, then it’s not complex any more.
This observation captures the implications of the law very neatly. To describe variety and interconnectedness in something, I need at least as much variety and interconnectedness myself, otherwise I could not perceive or describe the complexity. Extending this argument, I have to have variety and interconnectedness myself to manage variety and interconnectedness. By extension again, to adapt and survive I must be capable of at least as much variety as the environment I must respond to. This brings us to the way the law is more formally understood.
When a system, such as a human being, is exposed to perturbations in its environment, it may have a number of responses. These responses lead to a number of possible outcomes. Of all the possible outcomes, only some will be ‘acceptable’ in terms of the system’s purpose or survival. This is as true of organisations, baggage-handling systems, telephone-enquiry systems and other purposefully-interconnected systems as it is of humans and their society. In practice, the Law of Requisite Variety says that, in order to fulfil its purposes and survive, the system must be capable of a greater variety of responses than the variety of perturbations in the environment. The fewer the number of acceptable outcomes, then the more the variety of possible responses must exceed the variety of perturbations. The system then has requisite variety – the variety it requires to survive and fulfil its purpose.
This is why I want to celebrate complexity. The very human variety that can be so infuriatingly difficult to understand is the variety that enables the human-person system to survive in an environment that also exhibits astonishing variety. Returning to the context of systems thinking, and the significance of bringing all my human variety to situations I perceive as complex, I need to be capable of variety in my thinking, actions and emotions to respond appropriately to the complexity I perceive in the messy situation. This is what Ashby meant by requisite variety.
While I bring requisite variety to the task of improving a messy situation, I find myself asking, ‘How can I be sure I am not contributing to the process that keeps the mess in place?’ ‘How can I be sure that some of my variety of actions, thinking and emotions is not getting in the way of improving the situation?’ I am thinking here of my confusions, prejudices, preferences, entanglements and blind spots. These too are manifestations of my variety and, unless I can account for them in some way, they can make the situation even more difficult to understand than it was before. I need awareness of how I interact with situations that I am trying to improve. This means I have to be aware of how I see the situation (my perspective ); how I understand the situation; how I distinguish systems within it; how I communicate my understandings to other stakeholders; how I act in it; how I see and recognise the outcomes; and how I evaluate the outcomes.
All these issues are explored in the rest of Chapter 4 of Growing Wings On The Way.
More about the book:
Buy the book
Diagrams/Images from the Book
Tools & Techniques
(Extracted from the book):
Systems Thinking Skills
(Extracted from the book):
Read the Introduction
The Search for Leadership