Tag Archives: systems thinking

My Worldview in a Nutshell

I've never read this book, the cover just looks cool.

I've never read this book, the cover just looks cool.

Pretty much everything worth talking about, from global civilization to a human relationship to an individual thought, is an example of a complex system with emergent properties. [Oh noes! Math!]

These systems are driven by the evolutionary algorithm: differentiation, selection, and exploration. When differentiation, selection, and exploration happen you get thinking, relationships and cool civilizations, when they fail you don’t.

Exploration is about going down a path and discovering a punch of other paths. It requires the time, energy, and information to properly explore.

Differentiation is about understanding which options are worth pursuing. It involves looking at a bunch of options and saying “these few are the interesting ones.” It’s often about understanding, expressing, and absorbing emotion. If you don’t pay attention to emotion, you’ll go down a path that makes people cranky.

Selection is about making plans to explore an option or a set of options. It involves good planning, solid commitments, mobilizing resources, and having the necessary expertise. Selection requires tasklisters, trust and training.

The evolutionary algorithm tends to operate across scale. An evolving highschool is made up of evolving groups, which are made up of evolving relationships which are made up of evolving conversations which are made up of evolving thoughts. This creates a fractal-like structure. It also creates “Black Swan” uncertainty in which big, totally unexpected events happen out of nowhere.

Our brains are tribe machines. (If I’m reading Dunbar right.) We evolved them to think about relationships with other people, not to do abstract algebra. This means that we’re much, much better at thinking about the way that human relationships evolve than we are at thinking about anything else.

Unfortunately, the way that we talk about relationships fundamentally limits this power. The concepts that we use to describe relationships (“finding the one,” “just friends,” “networking,”) tend to prevent meaningful connections from forming. They get in the way of the evolutionary algorithm doing its thing. Someone could probably find a nifty way to blame this on something, but I don’t really care.

This means that in most human situations the evolutionary algorithm is somehow being suppressed. If you know how to identify and remove that suppression, you can create disruptive self-organization pretty much anywhere.

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A Hot Rock and a Classroom

Sometimes chaos can be complicated and beautiful.

  1. Relationships can be created and destroyed.
  2. All relationships tend toward empowerment.

I want to tell a few stories about complexity, which isn’t something that we understand that well. I studied physics in undergrad, and learned that really complicated things can be understood the way that we understand heat. When you leave a rock out in the sun, all of the molecules in that rock start vibrating in really complicated ways. In thermodynamics, the physics used to describe pretty much anything that’s really complicated, we use the word the word “entropy” to describe the process of the molecules in the rock going crazy. Entropy is disorder, entropy is chaos. The lecture bugged me because it was happening in a classroom which existed on a giant rock (the earth) that had spent several billion years out in the sun. The fact that the classroom existed meant that the molecules on the rock didn’t JUST get crazy, they also get complex.

In thermodynamics, we take matter and energy to be a unit of analysis. Thermodynamics looks at the way that stuff moves around closed systems like coffee cups. It has two big limitations. First: matter can’t be created or destroyed. If you want more stuff or more energy to move it around, you’ll need to get it from somewhere. Second: all systems tend towards entropy. In the long run everything everywhere gets more chaotic and jumbled. If you want to put milk into your cup of coffee, all you have to do is pour it in. The law of entropy will take over (facilitated by a little stirring), and you’ll get an even mix. Thermodynamics says that taking milk OUT of your cup of coffee is much harder. It’s technically possible, but it takes a lot of energy, way more energy than it takes to put the milk in. Things like to mix together, to become disordered and homogeneous. That’s just the way of the world.

What thermodynamics isn’t good at describing is the way that this tendency toward entropy can create elaborate, beautiful types of order. We know that things go from ordered (milk and coffee) to homogeneous (milk in coffee), but we don’t really get what happens in between. Those elaborate, beautiful swirls as it reaches out to the edge of your cup are an example of the fascinating complexity that happens as systems disorder themselves.

A coffee cup is one example, another is the planet. For eons, the planet earth has functioned a little like a radiator. Energy from fusion in the sun bombards the planet’s surface, and an equal amount of energy gets radiated out into space as heat. No energy is created or destroyed, we’re doing things by the book.

What’s interesting is what HAPPENS to that energy between hitting the planet’s surface in a focused beam and getting radiated off in all directions. This process used to be fairly simple: the earth was a big rock, and it radiated heat just like any other rock left in the sun. But something strange happened. The system which absorbs the sun’s energy and radiates it out again got LESS homogeneous and more intricate. Like the spirals in a coffee cup life shot up from the surface of the earth, steadily growing in complexity until it created all of the complicated problems that our complicated brains grapple with all day. This is the irony: in tending towards disorder, systems generate infinite complexity. That’s what I want to talk about.

In order to think about this complexity, we need to stop thinking about matter and energy. Following an imaginary photon from sun to sugar to lion and back out to space is an interesting exercise, but it doesn’t tell us much about how the lion got there or where the lion’s going. Instead, the only meaningful unit analysis is the FLOWS of matter and energy, the relationships that evolve to get energy from focused to dispersed. Thinking in terms of relationships lets us name and analyze things that are otherwise impossibly complicated. Technically, your relationships with your Aunt Gertrude is a flow of matter and energy- a few soundwaves here, a few electrons shooting through the internet there, but if all you do is track the electrons you’ll have a hard time understanding what’s going on. As a unit of analysis, relationships are a powerful way to understand complexity, and they turn the limitations of thermodynamics completely upside down.

Relationships can be created and destroyed.

The first big bummer of thermodynamics is that it’s zero sum. If I’ve got a system and you’ve got a system, the only way for me to get more stuff is to take it from you, since neither of us can create stuff out of nothing. But relationships are different. If I measure a system not by the amount of stuff but by the sophistication and complexity of its relationships then I CAN make something out of nothing. Without increasing the amount of matter and energy I’m using I can make my system better, and you can make your system better. Relationships allow for the notion of a win-win.

This idea that systems of relationships can get richer and more complicated over time is called emergence, and scientists are just beginning to wrap their heads around how it works. Emergence describes the evolution of life on earth, the creation of the internet, the birth of the civil rights movement and the way that people fall in love. Wherever relationships evolve and change, emergence tends to show up. Think about the difference between a pool table and a classroom. The pool table has plenty of interactions- between the eight ball and the five, between the cue and the table’s edge- but few real relationships. As the pool table busies itself getting played on year after year the eight ball and the five don’t get to know one another any better. They don’t evolve a more sophisticated connection or find new and unexpected ways to suddenly connect with the trimming, they just interact and wear out. A classroom is different. A classroom is greater than the sum of its parts. The kids and the teacher all get to know one another, their interactions evolve to get more sophisticated over time, and an emergent property called education happens as a result. Interactions are boring, they happen again and again until entropy breaks them down. Relationships are self-organizing, they get deeper and they spontaneously branch out to form new relationships.

Of course, there isn’t a binary distinction between interactions and relationships, between pool tables that degrade and classrooms that evolve. Most complex systems have properties of both. When things interact the laws of entropy wear them down, and when things relate the laws of emergence build them up. Thermodynamics has the wearing down part pretty well mapped, the trick to understanding the emergent part is understanding what those relationships are reaching for.

All relationships tend towards empowerment.

I know, I know, I just brought a new age social justice word into a discussion of thermodynamics, but bear with me.

As quickly as you can, please define the following words:


Nice work! Now define these words:


Why are some definitions fairly straightforward, and others the cause of timeless philosophical debates? You can pick up a muffin. It’s got a certain shape, a certain smell, and other physical properties that distinguish it from a lug nut or a cupcake. But you can’t pick up love. I’d like to argue that that’s because the words in the second list are all emergent properties, concepts that relationships organize themselves around which have no tangible manifestation. These abstract concepts that relationships reach for all have similar properties. I like to call these sorts of emergent properties empowerment.

Let’s go back to our imaginary classroom and look at Tania, one of those fidgety kids in the second row. What determines how that particular node in the system will form relationships with the rest of the classroom? Since we’re analyzing things in terms of relationships we need to see her not as an object, but as a big knot of threads. Her relationship with her parents is telling her to sit still and do well, and also telling her to rebel and do poorly. Her relationship with her friends is telling her to act cool and seek respect, her relationship with her body is telling her to run around outside, and bat eyes at the girl in row three. Her job is to optimize across all of these relationships as best she can, to find a course of action that empowers all of these relationships as much as possible. The result is behavior that’s incredibly complicated, but remarkable for it’s ability to hit all the marks. She raises her hand eagerly, waving it back and forth to give her muscles a mini-workout. When the teacher calls on her, she demonstrates that she understands the civil war (to keep her parents happy), then asks a question to undermine the point that the teacher was making (to rebel against her parents), then sits back smugly (to impress her friends), and glances at the girl in row three. There isn’t a supercomputer in the world that could answer the question that well.

For Tania, something is empowering if it lets her optimize across the complicated web of relationships that define her life. If she sees a new relationship that let’s her optimize better than she was before, say a relationship with a new smartphone, she’ll focus on building that relationship. She’ll earn money to buy it, spend time learning how to use it, and otherwise increase the intricacy and complexity of her existence. Every waking hour of her life, she’s working to build new, empowering relationships and to maintain and deepen the ones that she’s already got. It’s this optimizing behavior that leads to the incredible complexity and beauty of emergent systems. When your body optimizes itself you get health. When your relationship with your spouse optimizes itself you get love. When your mind optimizes itself you get intelligence. When Tania optimizes herself she gets happiness. In order to understand the complex matter and energy reality that we live in, we need to understand how relationships reach for this type of empowerment, and why they sometimes fail.

I’ve got a nifty theory for how this “reaching” happens, but I’ll stop before going further out on this intellectual limb (going from thermodynamics to love is already a cardinal sin of physics!). If you’re reading this, I would love your thoughts. What holes exist in this idea? Does it work as an intellectual party trick? Could it be functionally useful to solve problems? If so what sort of problems?

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De-Nerding the Integration of Emergence, Fractals, and Uncertainty

I read The Black Swan about a year ago when Hunter recommended it. Since then I’ve been diving into the world of scale-free networks and emergent systems, and I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for Taleb’s idea of fractal randomness.

In essence, Taleb argues that shit happens. It always has, and we might as well get ready for it to happen in the future. He rejects the idea that randomness happens only in neat bell curves, which are useful when systems are built for a particular scale (ie the length of a snickers bar) and completely useless when systems operate without regard to scale (ie the number of computers infected by a particular virus.)

Towards the end of the book, Taleb hand-waves at the notion of fractal randomness, which sounds really flippin’ cool but which I can’t seem to find anything on. (Lovely and brilliant man, but his website looks like a word doc that got the shit kicked out of it in the playground.) I think I see what he’s getting at. I’m not certain that I can de-nerd the integration of emergence, fractals and uncertainty but here’s a shot:

What’s the difference between a box and a tree? (Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.) A box relates to the world at one scale, and a tree operates across scales.  If you’re a 2’x2’x2′ box, then 2′ is about all that you have to say to the world. Things can go into you if they’re not bigger than 2′. You can stack on something if it’s around 2′ or larger, and it can stack on you if it’s around 2′ or smaller. What’s the probably that a box coming out of a 2′ box factory will be exactly 2′? Probably pretty good. That probability probably looks something like a bell curve.

Compare that box to a tree. A tree relates to the world across scales. Picture it’s root system. The trunk of the tree needs to get water and nutrients from the soil, so it shoots out roots to get them. Those big roots ALSO want to get water and nutrients from the soil, so they shoot out smaller roots, and so on and so on until you’re down to a microscopic level. The tree does one basic thing, drawing matter from the soil, across a wide range of scales. As a result it’s geometrically far more complicated than the box. It’s not going around saying “2 feet,” it’s going around saying “water” from the molecular level from the molecular level all the way up to the width of its trunk.

Got it? When relationships operate at a particular scale (like the box), you get bell curves and neat, easy geometry. When relationships operate regardless of scale (like the tree) you get batshit-crazy geometry and a wholly different kind of uncertainty.

The interesting thing about fractal uncertainty (and Black Swans), is that Taleb’s NOT saying that anything can happen. As Taleb outlines it, he’s actually making a pretty clear prediction about what kind of crises to expect. He’s not saying that the box factory will suddenly pump out boxes 2 miles high, or that the laws of physics will up and change on Tuesday. He’s saying that anything that can happen at a small scale in a scale-free system can also happen at a large scale, provided that the basic relationships stay intact. Can your small business fail? Well guess what: so can the global economy, and probably for the same basic reasons.

Taleb isn’t telling us to throw our hands in the air and just expect the unexpected. He’s telling us to watch the systems around us for changes that can scale up, and to be do our best to be ready when they catch us off guard.

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On Listening for Silence

Reading Blue Ocean Strategy, I’m struck by a strong common theme in the six paths to Blue Oceans. The book seems to advocate that businesses understand their market offerings as existing in a system, one with complicated relationships between groups of buyers, types of industries, psychological forces and periods in time. Once those complicated relationships are understood (though they can never be understood fully), there is a subtle art to laying out the system and exploring the gaps that might help it to hum.

The book reminds me of the group facilitation training that I received at a young age. I was taught to listen not for what was being said in conversations, but HOW it was being said. By examining the assumptions, power dynamics, and conversational flow within the group it was easy to see how I could introduce a missing element in the conversation to move it forward. This stance, that of facilitator, is fundamentally different than that of a conversational participant. I cannot simultaneously focus on the dynamics of the conversation and focus on developing my own opinions as a participant. Facilitation requires that I hold myself back from being invested in the elements of a conversation (who is right in an argument, which idea the group will accept, etc) and instead focus on seeing the conversation as made up of equally important complimentary parts.

This detached stance seems like an important part of embracing blue oceans, and of strategy in general. To see a company operating in a broader system, one must become emotionally detached from the value of it’s product, the extraordinary qualities of it’s employees, even the survival of the firm. It means accepting that the system surrounding a company has the inalienable right to let the organization thrive and to rip it to shreds. Only when stepping away from the value of my own opinions and my own fate can I maintain the clarity necessary to see a system for it’s glorious silences and the endless opportunities nested there.

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Why we’re wired for systems thinking

Monkey's big brains let them understand complex social systems.

During a recent lecture at the Presidio MBA program my professor gave us a taste of systems thinking. In a PowerPoint slide with text to small to read he showed us a nest of boxes and arrows, stocks and flows describing just a few of the millions of complicated relationships between a company, it’s environment and the society in which it operates. Systems thinking, he explained, is about taking all of these complex interconnections into account, a daunting task for an oversimplified system that is too dense to read let alone memorize or understand the implications of.

It’s my personal belief that at it’s core systems thinking is a lot simpler, even instinctual. This view of systems thinking comes from the Ngorongoro crater in northern Tanzania, where I stood just a week before viewing my professor’s PowerPoint slide. Covered in grass, zebras and thick brambles, Ngorongoro is the stomping grounds of human evolution, where we acquired the big brains that have let us build such miraculous (and destructive) systems across the globe. Staring down hippos and herds of wildebeest, I reflected on what we evolved those big brains for.

The famous research of a man named Robert Dunbar indicates that our big frontol lobes are designed by nature to deal with a very specific type of complex system. Dunba found that brain siz in animals correlates directly to the size of complexe groups. If you’re in a zebra herd or an ant colony you don’t need to think that hard-just react instinctually to the other animals around you. But if you’re in a wold pack or a monkey troupe things are different. You have to pay attention to ever-shifting hierarchies and alliances in the group, there are dynamic relationships to navigate and politics to understand, and that understanding takes grey matter. The advantages are obvious- the group can respond dynamically to its environment, strategically seizing on opportunities and fending off threats.

We have big brains so that we can think about relationships and communities, and we are incredibly, incredibly good at it. For an illustration of exactly how good, ask a 14 year old girl to explain the complex system of friendships and romantic relationships in her social group. You’ll get an answer whose complexity puts six-figure stock analysts to shame.

This implies that there could be a much more intuitive way to approach systems thinking than my professor’s daunting slide: approach a complicated system like you would get to know a community. Focus on building relationships, human and otherwise, and let those relationships evolve until we understand how they interconnect. For many of us this process is intuitive. How many of us have computers that “like” to behave a certain way or that “don’t get along” with their printers? Human relationships are potent metaphors for how complex systems work because they’re what we’ve evolved to understand.

What does it mean to approach complex systems like communities? I’ll throw a few principles out there for discussion:

1) Relationships can always get deeper. You never fully understand your best friend or the soil that grows your crops.

2) You can understand someone by understanding their other relationships. You get to know someone new by asking about their family, their job, their passions, and all of the other things that bind them to the world. You get to know soil the same way.

3) Don’t take relationships for granted. The more that you rely on someone or something, the more you can benefit from a deep understanding of them or it.

4) Prioritize the relationships that put you in balance. In an infinitely complicated world, focus on building an understanding the relationships that let you survive and thrive.

5) Look for integration. Strong communities are built on things that benefit lots of relationships at once. If you know how to look for them such opportunities usually abound.  Be wary of a good thing that benefits one relationship at the expense of others.

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