In this post I would like to describe the Nemetical strategies and tactics we have in hand to adapt to complexity so as to make our lives better. Without these strategies I think it would be completely meaningless to embrace uncertainty presented by our relationship with the complex environment we presently live. Without knowing how to adapt we would be forever going round in circles in despair. In other words we can say these strategies and tactics, as described below, would help us to stay and remain agile, resilient and sustainable. However the tactics and strategies mentioned here are the fruits of our research in the field of Nemetics which synthesizes various disciplines such as Complexity science, Complex Adaptive Systems, System Dynamics, Chaos and Design. This gives the discipline of Nemetics its own distinct character and versatility. Moreover the strategies and tactics, described below to engage with complexity are not to be found elsewhere so far as my knowledge goes. It is hoped that it would help people to provide better leadership in whatever field they have chosen to engage.
We know that we operate mostly under complex environment swamped by complex problems often referred to as ‘messy wicked problems’.
Of course one might ask, ‘Where do I find complexity that generates such wickedness?’
It is just like asking, ‘What are my chances of finding non-tigers if I visit a zoo?’
Well I think you got it.
Given that we are constantly playing around with complex issues and problems we must then find solutions and strategies to play the game well; just like any footballer would know when to dribble, when to race forward and when to go all out for a goal and where exactly to aim for.
To me complexity is the game of life. And if I am unaware of the rules of the game and how to play the game I would simply act like a dumb spectator to this game of life.
Imagine I am standing somewhere and looking at a game of bridge over the shoulders of four players. Now, if I know the rules of the game of bridge and know what one should do then I would be intently engaged with the game. Otherwise I would be acting as an utterly bored bystander yawning at times and looking stupid.
What then makes me feel confident when I am playing the game of life if I simply don’t know the rules of the game and how to get a handle on it?
So without wasting much time let us see what complexity is really made up of (like the protons, electrons and neutrons of an atom).
The 4 aspects of Complexity
Complexity has four parts, which are the following:
If these are the four things that make our situations complex what drives all these? It is non-linear relationships between different entities. Obviously the possible solutions then lie in re-designing or tweaking these four parameters and also learn about the number of ways I can tweak each of these parameters. Once I master that I can then tweak the various parameters in different ways either individually or in combination to resolve a given issue without creating undesirable long-term consequences that harm the collective interest.
Let us get to it one by one.
A) Issue = Diversity
General Solutions = 1) Tune Amplitude or numbers. 2) Tune alignment 3) Tune Shape
In a complex system Diversity generally causes problems in ‘sync’ (or synchronicity). Sync is responsible for causing periodic oscillations to happen. We know when periodic oscillations happen the system is in harmony. When things are out of sync messy problems and failures take place. In organizational terms things are not aligned to each other.
If Diversity is the main issue in a Complex Adaptive System then the ways I can handle that is by changing the ‘Amplitude’ or aim for better alignment. In simple terms ‘Amplitude’ means amount. That is I can either increase or decrease the amount of diversity.
For example, if an organization is handling too diverse an operation that is creating messy problems it can either choose to decrease diversity if it is also affecting their profitability. However, if diversity is necessary for their profitability then they can choose to create separate divisions or groups to manage several portions of the diversity independently thereby reducing the diversity of the whole. That is one of the ways in which the organization can change or tweak their shape to manage diversity. Or the organization may also aim for better alignment between different ‘diverse’ operations and entities so as to allow them to work with more synergy without breaking down the system.
Or for instance, changing amplitude might mean something like changing interest rates or changing the degree of intensity of intervention etc.
B) Issue = Interconnections
General Solutions = 1) Tune Frequency 2) Tune Tightness/Looseness or Rigidity 3) Tune membrane porosity
We can’t help being interconnected and remain so. This character of interdependence is scale free. A useful way to think about it is through an image of being coupled to each other in a vast and ever-expanding network. We might imagine each entity as an oscillator. There is no harm in imagining so since every entity is a bundle of energy, which vibrates on its own. When connected to each other we behave as coupled oscillators, i.e. we start moving and dancing together.
This is where the problem starts. As soon as we couple two oscillators the phenomenon is no longer linear. It immediately turns non-linear which is not prone to easy mathematical manipulation or treatment. Now imagine thousands and billions of such coupled oscillators jumping around a the same time. It becomes immensely complex — something quite beyond our comprehension and simple mathematical treatments.
However, we are fortunate in two significant ways. First, when many oscillators couple together they form a general group pattern. Appearance of such a group pattern is what is known as ’emergence’. Thus our task perhaps simplifies to understanding and interpreting such patterns exhibited by group behavior, which are simply known as emergence.
Second, we know that by creating small changes in either the relationships between different entities or the entities themselves we may significantly alter the quality and nature of the interdependent network.
Hence faced with an issue on ‘interdependence’ we have two tasks ahead of us. First is to understand and interpret the group behavior and patterns that emerge. There are several ways of going about it. One of my favorite is to see the wave patterns generated. The idea is to identify the type of wave and the type of attractor that it might be associated with.
Having understood that we can then go about our task to bring in the needed harmony by adopting any or all of the strategies or solutions as listed above, i.e 1) tune frequency 2) Tune rigidity 3) Tune membrane porosity.
For example, tuning frequency might mean — a) Frequency of communication or interactions b) changing the time interval c) Raising or lowering the frequency of anything d) Changing quality of the frequency e) Creating resonant frequencies in various manner.
Similarly, tuning rigidity might involve — a) Strengthening a relationship b) Weakening a non-linear relationship c) Cutting off a relationship d) Adding more entities to a relationship e) Changing rules and regulations f) Changing critical parameter that contributes to non-linearity. etc.
Likewise, tuning membrane porosity means a) changing the sizes of pores b) changing the number of pores c) changing the number and quality of pores d) changing the number or nature of agents that assist exchange across membranes through pores e) Changing the quality or strength of the material across the membrane — all aimed at altering the rate or quality of the diffusion process across membranes.
Perhaps it is order to have a quick word on ‘membranes’. For any exchange to happen whether meaningful or not, membrane and pores are required. A very simple example of a pore would be a window. Think of a wall as a membrane that stands between two entities (inside and the outside) and the windows on the wall as pores that let in sunlight, wind, dust, moisture and lets out bacteria. This exchange phenomenon can be assisted by agents like fans, blowers and air conditioners.
Now if we look around us we would see the presence of membranes and pores virtually everywhere. It exists in plant roots, metals, furnaces, organizations, national boundaries, lungs, departments, …. so on. And across each membrane are agents who are either helping or inhibiting the process of exchange. For example, setting up ‘trade barriers’ is also a type of membrane with pores with agents helping or hindering the process on either sides. Or there is a membrane between an organization and its business environment which operates with agents on both sides of the membrane (like marketing people and law enforcement officers) who are either assisting or blocking the process of exchange.
So a leader might choose to focus on membrane and pores and choose to alter their characteristic and quality to moderate the flow of energy (in the economic world of business that would translate into ‘money’) that either strengthens or weakens the exchange that sustains or demolishes the interactions.
C) Issue = Interdependence
General Solutions = 1) Tune Coupling strength 2) Tune Phase 3) Tune Speed
The important thing to understand about the concept of ‘interdependence’ is the non-linear dependence of one element of the system to overall goal of the system. Let us take a simple example. We fix nuts and bolts to obtain strength of a joint. But the strength of a joint is proportional to the square of the diameter of the bolt. Similarly the moon and the earth are interdependent on each other and the stability of the interdependence is governed by gravitational attraction, which in turn is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Likewise the spread of a virus or disease is exponentially distributed – again a non-linear characteristic. Similarly, non-linear relationships are driving other things like happiness, earthquakes, tsunamis, organizational growth, employee attrition, etc.
Such non-linear interdependence creates the complexity, which at times enables a system, under certain conditions, to fly off towards chaotic states.
So, in a way the strength of the coupling (since all are interconnected as a whole) is dependent on the quality and strength of the non-linear parameters. Therefore, the only way we might have a handle over such interdependence is by paying attention to ‘non-linearity’. We might do so by tweaking the strength of the coupling or the phase of its relationship or speed.
For example, if we want to ensure the strength of a bolted connection we must make sure that a nut and bolt are tightened to a particular torque, which incidentally is proportional to the cube of the diameter of the bolt (our situation gets more serious – no wonder nuts and bolts loosen up easily).
Similarly, we can play around with the phase of vibration of the two entities dancing in relation to each other. For example, two nations at war are completely out of phase with each other. To improve the quality of the interdependence we might try to get them talk at the same table in an attempt to bring the two hostile parties in phase. Likewise, two departments, (say for example, engineering and purchase), within an organization may inadvertently be out of phase with each other where each department pursues the given objective or identified performance or result area of the department. Management might then try to bring in better harmony between the two departments by tweaking or changing their rules and policies so as to bring them in phase.
The third option is speed or more technically velocity. Hidden behind velocity is ‘energy’, which again follows a non-linear relationship since kinetic energy is proportional to square of velocity. So wherever we get to see ‘velocity’ energy follows. And it is this energy that sustains the interdependence. In general it helps interdependence. But if wasted it affects the quality of the interdependence. Hence velocity or speed by default becomes a critical parameter that might be tuned to obtain the desired degree and quality of interdependence in order to improve system performance.
D) Issue = Adaptation
General Solutions = 1) Damping or conflict 2) Changing Gradients/Authentic Constraints 3) Redesign, Re-position or Change System
Perhaps the most important part of Complex Adaptive Systems is ‘Adaptation’. That essentially determines whether we survive or die. By nature adaptation is basically a question of redesign.
The first of the general solution is 1) Damping or Conflict. In simple terms ‘damping’ or ‘conflict’ means ‘friction’ or ‘resistance’. Needless to mention the importance of ‘damping’. Without it we would not be able to even walk (except for ice skaters perhaps). Damping changes the characteristic of the system. It can help maintain the stability or throw the system into chaos to create a new order. Strikes, trade embargo, conflicts, wars are simply various forms of damping that change the performance characteristic of the system. Hence its usefulness or uselessness.
The second general solution is ‘changing gradients or authentic constraints. It is worth remembering that any flow takes place against a gradient. Water flows against a gradient. So does heat or electricity, which also flows against gradients. Similarly traffic, economic aid, economic exchanges, money and in fact any system operates by flowing against a given gradient. If the gradient isn’t sufficient flow stops unless sustained by additional forms of energy. Hence a gradient in a given context forms the boundaries between two opposing constraints known in Nemetics as Authentic Constraints.
Hence it is clear that by changing the authentic constraints we can change the system dynamics the way we want. It creates new opportunities.
The third option is the re-design the system either in whole or in parts in order to achieve the desired ‘sync’ between different parts of the system. It is an option we all have. We may change our course completely by leaving behind or destroying the present system or parts of the system to either create a new level of system performance or create a new system.
Field of Applications
I am almost tempted to say, ‘any field’ which has some worry or the other, some problem or nagging issues that refuse to go away.
However, to my mind, the potential fields of applications are the following:
b) Manufacturing organizations
c) New non-manufacturing organizations.
d) System Design and Architecture
e) Product design
f) Organizational Sociology
h) Business and business strategy
This in brief are the Nemetical strategies and tactics we have in our hand to create something better than what we presently have without creating long-term adverse consequences and aimed at improving collective benefits. These strategies can be applied either individually or in combination as situation or context demands. Skillful use of these strategies would not only make our lives better but would also enable us to live life with a big smile on our faces.