Inside Complexity: On Sense-Making, where Context Rules


“Where does a system start and end?” asked the bird outside the cage.

Hardly a day goes by that I’m not thinking about complexity, and how we might get better at understanding it.

Unlike the structured, linear, mechanized world that we’ve learned better how to control, we’re now learning that the vast majority of the world’s soscial systems, and all of it’s natural ones – including humans – 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 potential.  It’s how plants and animals evolve according to diverse environmental factors. We can’t know with certainty how these systems will evolve. There are too many variables.

But we can learn how to better anticipate trends and patterns, and perhaps even have an influence.

The are the challenges of getting our head around complex systems in social spaces, places like teams, where work needs to get done.

Enter context.

My latest thinking on this emerged from a conversation on Twiter between Jan HoglundMaz IqbalNora Bateson, Dil Green, and a host of others, discussing the challange of multiple system layers, as they cross-function 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 can seem profound, but there limits.

Here’s the thread on Twitter, definitely worth a look.

When thinking about complexity in layers of systems, its easy to “max out” due to the number of variables. Our mental models of the moment essentially crash.

As an example, consider a person in a meeting at work, who is likely to experience some of these simultaneous influences, to varying degrees:

    • mental health – happy, angry, curious, distracted
    • subject matter – interesting, germane vs limited relevance
    • biological – nourished, energized, alert vs lethargic, restless
    • physical – comfort, safety, temperature
    • social – promimity to others, nature of relationships (friends, strangers), trust
    • culture – family, community, nation, ethnicity, gender roles, demographics

In any given moment, individuals sense these things. They impact thoughts, focus and concentration.

On a team, we can’t understand the combinations of factors like these in any moment, because, again, we’d “max out” from too much data.  The crossover effects are mind boggling. Instead, whether as observers (facilitators) or actors (the person in the room) we can hold personal health and values constant for a moment, and focus on a group objective. We move forward with shared purpose. This works for a short while. Until it is time for lunch and bio breaks, when individuals get to refocus and recharge, tending to needs of their individual systems.

All models are approximations of what’s really there.  A good model needs to allow enough clarity to make sense of what’s happening, at a level that makese sense for the problem we’re working to solve. We can’t “let all the complexity in” at once, or we drown in information.

When we’re sense-making, we need to let in some simplifying assumptions.

This is especially true for complex adaptive systems, that learn – like humans – where it is essentially to hold most variable and external factors constant, in the context of the moment, so that mental faculties can be focused on a problem. Both individuals and groups can do this for short periods. Some individuals and larger groups may struggle. The duration must be limited, the quintessential ‘time box’.

Ulimately, this is how we achieve results in a team settting, moving beyond idle thoughts and actions to purposeful work. We try to focus our energies like this every day. So often, we struggle.

It is the process of complex adaptive (human) systems functioning in the world, not only surviving, but learning and creating. And all of it, ultimately, is fueled and driven by our individual and collective ability to make sense of what matters in the moment.

In my view, 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 vet 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.

Context, like the lens, is our principal tool for understanding complexity. To the deep thinker, the student of complexity, it takes some mental gymnastics when learning to shift or hold context on demand. Doing it a group is harder still.

Harder. But not impossible.

I’ve laid out some of these dynamics in my first book.  As we speak, I’m compiling more practices for complexity sense-making in my second, now in progress.  It’s already proving to be a fascinating and exciting journey.  And it starts with looking around.

Join me.

Chris Jones aka @sourcepov Charlotte NC US