“Where does a system start and end?” asked the bird outside the cage.
CHARLOTTE, NC – May 2020. With the global spread of COVID, I’ve been thinking about the many factors that influence social ecosystems large and small, and our (in)ability to affect outcomes, at least to the degree we’d prefer. We just want it to stop. But it’s not that simple.
There are some important stories to unpack.
Unlike the structured, linear, mechanized world that we’ve spent a century learning to control, we’re now realizing that the vast majority of the world’s social ecosystems, and all of it’s natural ones – including humans, and unfortunately, viruses – are guided by unstructured, dynamic modes of interaction. It’s the organic, adaptive approach of complex systems. It’s a place of uncertain outcomes, but significant implications. It’s how plants and animals – and pandemics – evolve according to diverse environmental factors.
We can’t know with certainty how these systems will evolve. There are simply too many variables.
We can, however, learn to better anticipate trends and patterns, and perhaps even have some influence on things. Economists and meteorologists – good working examples of what I call “mainstream complexity” – can report some forecasting improvements over the last few decades, fueled by data, tools and experience. We still can’t stop tornados and hurricanes, but we better understand them. And now, living a global pandemic, we’re consumed in learning how to “flatten the curve” via social distancing, which is proving a critical (but still evolving) mission.
Getting our heads around complex systems is not easy, especially in social spaces like teams, where work needs to get done.
This is where context enters the narrative.
A DIALOG ON ADAPTIVE SYSTEMS
I was part of a fascinating conversation in July 2018 among several thinkers in the compexity space, related to systems thinking. The pop-up discussion was on the challange of multiple system layers, as they interact in shifting contexts. To paraphrase the thread, it’s very hard to visualize all the layers of a complex system interacting with all the external variables, in one coherent view.
Our sense-making abilities and mental models, while powerful, have practical limits.
I’ve always loved Twitter because insightful conversations can “pop-up” around useful hashtags. Here’s one on the topic of systems:
My takeaway on this? When thinking about complexity in layers of systems, its easy to “max out” due to the number of variables and interactions. Our mental models of the moment essentially crash. We need a way to manage this.
When we’re sense-making, we need simplifying assumptions. Our mental models can help us. All models seek to approximate what’s really happening in front of us, and a useful model needs to allow enough clarity to make sense of what’s going on, at a level that makes sense for the problem at hand. We can’t “let all the complexity in” at once, or we drown in information. So in the above example, we must simplify things, by saying to ourselves, usually subconsciously “I’m in a reasonably trusting group that needs my input; let me focus on the question.” Anything short of that personal investment finds us in another useless meeting, with limited value and virtually no collaboration.
Holding context – think of it as focus – is especially important for complex adaptive systems, that learn – like humans – where it is essential to hold most variable and external factors constant, so that mental faculties can stay focused on a specific problem, in a specific context. Both individuals and groups can do this for short periods. Some individuals and most larger groups will struggle. And I’ve found the duration for holding context, for true focus, must be limited, working inside the classic psycho-physiological ‘time box’ – no more than 60 to 90 minutes.
Ultimately, this is how we achieve results in a team setting, moving beyond idle thoughts to useful actions and purposeful work. We try to focus our energies like this every day.
Often, we struggle.
It is the process of complex adaptive (human) systems functioning in the world, not only surviving, but learning and creating, which means navigating context is a core (if not subconscious) element of our creative process. And all of it, ultimately, is fueled and driven by our individual and collective ability to make sense of what matters in the moment.
The key is setting and holding context while we make sense of what’s happening. When we have an idea, a few theories, something to work from, only then we can shift that context, and let in more or less data, to further refine our thinking. The lens can zoom in, or back out. It can expose more details of a system, and it’s subsystems, or less. Neither are right or wrong to the sense-maker – only more or less useful, in the moment.
And (this is also key) we must capture takeaways. We need contextual stakes in the ground, to inform and spark follow-up, the critical, final learning step that most philosophers called “synthesis” – but that’s another thread.
Much to process. But more and more, I see it like this:
Navigating context is our principal tool for understanding complexity. To the deep thinker, it takes a flexible process and some mental gymnastics to learn how to hold and ultimately shift context on demand.
Doing it a group is harder still. Harder. But not impossible.
I’ve laid out some of these core, interdependent dynamics in my book on collaboration. As we speak, I’m mulling ideas for two additional books, and a 2nd edition of the first. The journey of deeper learning starts with looking around, and asking better questions.
Join me for conversation here, on Medium, Linked-in and/or on Twitter
We have much to discuss.
Chris Jones | Charlotte