Observing Complexity

To me, observing real life systems is something like this:

A real life System comprises of a meaningful set of objects, diverse in form, state and function but inter-related through multiple network of interdependencies through mutual feedbacks enclosed by variable space, operating far from its equilibrium conditions not only exchanging energy and matter with its environment but also generating internal entropy to undergo discrete transformation triggered by the Arrow of Time forcing it to behave in a dissipative but self organizing manner to either self destruct itself in a wide variety of ways or create new possibilities in performance and/or behaviour owing to presence of ‘attractors’ and ‘bifurcations’; thereby making it impossible to predict the future behaviour of the system in the long term or trace the previous states of the system with any high degree of accuracy other than express it in terms of probabilities since only the present state of the system might be observable to a certain extent and only a probabilistic understanding may be formulated as to how it has arrived at its present state and what would keep it going, thus triggering creative human responses to manage, maintain and enhance the system conditions, function and purpose and create superior systems of the future for the benefit of the society at large.

Such a representation of an observation looks quite involved. Perhaps it might be stated in a much simpler way. Most real life systems behave in a complex manner creating multitude of problems of performance and failures. But how do we get rid of complexity and uncertainty as exhibited by systems? We may do so by deeply observing the complex behaviour of the system to improve our perception to gain insights about the essence of the system; find out the underlying ‘imperfection’ that causes the apparent complexity and uncertainty and then find ways to improve the existing system or create new system and maintain them in the simplest possible manner. We do this by applying the principles of chaos, reliability and design. Surprisingly, the same process might be used to troubleshoot and solve problems we face on a daily basis. If done, we are no longer dominated or dictated by the ‘special whims’ of the system.

The crux of the matter is how we observe reality and understand it so as to make meaningful choices as responses to life and living.

The Secret of Everything.

The heart of all issues

This I think is the secret of solving or resolving any issue or creating anything worthwhile in the world, however difficult or hard that might appear to be.

It doesn’t matter whether it is a problem or issue of physics or a problem of engineering or a management problem or a personal problem.

So, taking time and patience to learn and master “connectedness” is worth spending a lifetime upon.

One can’t force it to happen. But when it happens consider it as a extremely rate and valuable gift, worth more than its weight in gold.

When one plays with this gift with perseverance it turns into the rarest of rare talent available to the world.

Possibly, we will never have a “Theory of Everything” but we certainly have a “Secret of Everything.”

So why wait to master that secret?

The Bird Bath And The Restaurant

As a student of Class III, my attention was more than riveted to a picture of a bird bath in my science book. I imagined: only if I could make one like that I would attract different birds to my bird bath. I would not only delight myself viewing a variety of birds but also help them in a way by offering them food to merrily feed on.  During the mild winters of Kolkata, migratory birds flock to the city from distant lands making it a very colorful event. Only an insensitive person would care not to notice and enjoy such an event in the city.

So, I designed a simple bird bath made out of a discarded pan lying in my mother’s store. I fixed a sturdy base plate and filled it up with water. Then I planted some grass and kept in our courtyard. That evening I came back from school with great expectant excitement to see birds flocking to my ‘bird bath.’ Unfortunately, when I saw none, my heart sank.

Thinking that I haven’t quite rightly placed the bird bath; I placed the bird bath on the top of a water reservoir at the back yard of our house. But still no bird arrived. This time, however, I thought of enticing them by placing some grains on the base of the bath, for them to feed on. Rushing back from school, I ran to the backyard only to find that my bird bath wasn’t visited at all by any of my feathered friends. The food was left untouched.

Though disappointed, I did not give up. Thinking that my beautiful bird bath wasn’t quite visible to attract birds, I painted it with some bright yellow color from my paint box. Still no birds arrived.

Then I again re-located the bird bath. This time, I placed it on a wall that hedged our courtyard from that of our neighbors. Lo and behold! birds flocked the place and happily twitted and chirped as they plunged in my bird bath; picking on the grains. It was a loud flock and a grand delightful sight to sink in.

But fair to say, I did not have an inkling of why birds chose to visit that place in preference to other places I tried out, which I thought were safer places for them to play and rest for a while.

Yesterday, I visited a small restaurant in our locality. The owner, Ganesh, was a chef of a more well know chain of restaurants in the city. He was known to me since I often visited his place along with my friends for an occasional cup of coffee with delicious peppered mushroom and baby corn salad and sandwiches. He was an excellent chef and turned out terrific dishes to relish. But what I liked about him most was his insatiable desire to take feedback about his dishes once I have had a few nibbles. He would then stand by to explain how he made this sauce or that and what went into making the ‘garlic fish’ which is one of my favorites. One day, we just came across each other in the local fish market where after exchanging usual pleasantries he informed me that he has had opened a small ‘take out’ or ‘sit in’ shop in a corner of our locality. Before saying goodbye, Ganesh  politely asked me to drop in some time.

As I savored the Chinese meal he dished out and enjoyed the company of a special friend who accompanied me, I noticed a glitzy eating joint, promising the most mouth-watering gourmet dishes,  right across the busy road; just opposite to Ganesh’s small makeshift one.  The shop was very well designed. Through its wide clear glasses I could feel the lights were just right for any romantic date and the place proudly flaunted a cosy ambience.  However, for the two hours of the rather lazy afternoon I spent at Ganesh’s, I just did not see any customer step in the well designed shop; while all along, customers just kept pouring in Ganesh’s improvised family run shop; keeping it animated.

That reminded me of the story of my bird bath.

Even with the most well-intentioned designs, we are never quite sure whether birds or humans would drop by – or whether a desired exchange would take place or not.

We are never quite sure.

Design is about Changing the World; Not Selling Stuff

It generally feels so good to see a talented person getting interested in the work one does.

I felt the same when a pal of mine shared a paper entitled, ‘The Osmotic Bubble: Design Synchronicity: Unconscious Learning Through Osmosis: How Emotions and Intuition Empower Us to Imagine“, written by Niberca Polo

In Michael Josefowicz’s (her teacher in design) words:

“She teaches design as a praxis. She is the one who designed the Digit Bcorp website and the logos for Digit, Arrival City News and ACPress.  She is also a latina with deep roots in Dominican Republic with an understanding that design is about changing the world. Not selling stuff.  I have worked with +niberca lluberes over the course of many years since she was my student at Parsons. Awesome smart, gr8 dna, and a Latina spirit who has absolutely no time for bullshit. :-)”

Now the relevant snippet from her wonderful paper: —


The International Nemetics Institute (TINI’s), in India is doing very interesting work on what they call Emotional Entrepreneurship, and the relationship between “feel+think+design”. “Nemetics (Notice, Engage, Mull, Exchange, Train/educate) is a biomimicry model of information transfer” (https://rgbwaves.wordpress.com/institute/).

The term neme—sensori stimuli—is used to combine memes and genes in the service of understanding complex systems—where art and design are considered complex systems in dynamic interaction within networks (Josefowicz, 11.18.2012). When stimulating the Bilateral Brain in a learning environment that fosters intuition through sensory experience and emotions (nemes) design students will be able to learn how to design intuitively, and acquire tacit—unspoken, implied—knowledge, that can be archived in the long-term (implicit) memory through a process of unconscious (implicit) learning. Johnson in Emergence (2012) describes learning in a cellular scale as the iteration of circuits (neurons) where “memory creates a mental vocabulary” (pg. 133). Tacit knowledge is the source of our intuition—our gut feeling (Gigerenzer 2007)—and our capacity to adapt to new environments and situations, and evolve as one with technology and nature (Reber 1993).


Learning Complexity — Leadership Series – 1

Here is one of many toys I use in my classes on Leadership in Complexity to demonstrate complexity through play. It is a simple and common toy – a double pendulum. It is interesting to see how interactions between few elements really produce complexity. So, the question that I ask at the beginning of a session – ‘Can we predict what is going to happen?

We have made a video demonstration of it. It is about 5 mins. Hope you would find it engaging. You may choose to skip it if you like. I suggest a try. While you are viewing it mentally start predicting what might happen the next instant…

Predicting Complexity? ( <– click on the adjoining link to view the video)

What do you find?

Is complexity predictable or not?

On the face of it it appears that it isn’t predictable at all. The movements of the loose limbs of the double pendulum simply go crazy. It is not or nearly not possible to predict. Every time we think something like this might happen it usually turns out to be something else. It appears that there are no definite patterns about it. It is too random to make sense. No doubt this is what always happens in complex adaptive systems.

But then I show how complexity can be predicted along with many of its principles.

At first it feels rather strange to realize how all complex systems or complex adaptive systems are inherently predictable as an ensemble in the short run and how they all follow the same rules of the game.

That is really fascinating. It gives us tremendous hope to embrace complexity with faith. There is no point in ignoring complexity since we are entangled with it every moment of our lives. But once we embrace it knowing fully well how to read, learn and go about it —  life is simple indeed. The objective of learning about complexity and applying its principles is to make life simpler; not more complex.

That promises us an alternative way to lead our own lives through creativity and adaptation.

This alternative Leadership path can be summed up by three simple rules, which are —

1. Explain what is happening.

2. Institute methods to Foresee what might happen in the short term

3. Envision desired Interventions to make the system flow in the right direction.

Three of the best designed interventions that I found are a) Education b) Interactions c) Design. These give long term ongoing benefit for many.

So what do you feel and think about it?


(I personally thank my colleague Trichur for prototyping complexity through this model. )

SOPAL – Self Organized Peer Assessment and Learning for Recruitment


This post demonstrates a new process of recruitment for a multi-national manufacturing company. Every year this company recruits interns from very elite and prestigious engineering and management institute in India as Summer Interns to work on new designs and ‘wicked’ problems.


1) Come up with patented products to improve their market share and to penetrate niche markets.

2) To solve some of their ‘wicked problems‘ in different areas.

For this the design and management interns work during their summer vacation for a period of 60 days on a paid basis – the payment for which is quite handsome.

This has been applied for the past 3 years which has produced about 12 patents and solutions to at least 5 difficult management problems. The design interns work up to the prototype stage before they leave to join their college sessions. Similarly, the management interns submit and present a written document of their findings along with their solutions.

Institutes from where selections are made:

1. Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur

2. Vinod Gupta School of Management, Kharagpur

Highlights of the selection Process

1. A Self Organized Peer Assessment & Learning Method was used.

2. This consisted of two portions — a) written peer assessment b) interactions over Twitter (introduced from this year).

3. The written assessment was for a day for both streams

4. The interactions over Twitter continued over a two day period for each stream.

5. This year, while 40 MBA students challenged the assessment 85  Engineering students (from Mechanical, Manufacturing and Industrial Engineering) challenged the assessment

6. While 4 MBA interns were selected to work on management problems, 14 Design interns were selected for design related work

What are being assessed? 

Participants were assessed for the following: –

2.Ability to think on one’s feet
3.Problem Solving Skills
4.Quality of Interactions with peers
5.Lateral Thinking
8.Quick Learning ability
9.Ability to retain, organize and apply information in a complex environment
10.Clarity of thinking
11.Ability to abstract complex thought into 140 characters or fewer
Part 1: Each participant in the MBA course was asked to frame a question that can’t be directly ‘googled’ for an answer. This was to check their ability to ask original questions. Similarly participants from Engineering were asked to work on a problem that can’t be found on Google. This was to check their originality of observing and identifying a problem that is yet to be addressed in the manner the participant proposes to do. The basis is ‘Internet has answers but no questions’.
Part 2: Participants assess each others work and grade them. However their grading is checked by facilitators for accuracy (absence of any logical errors), degree of fairness and their openness to accept ideas of others.
Part 3: The participants tweet — their questions and their understanding of the issue (for MBA students) or tweet about the problem they identified from an user’s perspective along with the constraints, the way they modeled the problem and came up with minimally invasive solutions that were good enough to overcome the constraints (for Engineering students).
Part 4: Participants from both MBA and Engineering Streams then interact on Twitter with facilitators and other ‘tweeps’ across the world for 2 days (Twitter Tennis) to demonstrate high level of cognitive abilities.
Why Twitter? 
“To  really engage with Twitter (through interactions) requires lateral thinking and attention. It’s an ever-changing, information sharing platform and does require a greater degree of attention, concentration and the ability to retain, organize and apply information And to drill down a complex thought into 140 characters or fewer requires problem solving skills and clarity of thought,” she said. Plus those who can effectively use Twitter had the “highest cognitive abilities” .

(Source:  http://www.mediabistro.com/alltwitter/smart-twitter-users_b30041 )

The #tags

1. For MBA students see #ddintern on Twitter

2. For Engineering students see #ddinternit on Twitter

More Details

You would find some more details in the following slideshow:

SOPAL – Self Organized Peer Assessment & Learning for Recruitment


Would love to have your comments on this SOPAL process.


I gratefully acknowledge the help provided by Mr. Michael Josefowicz (@toughloveforx) Mr. D C Padhi (@humanatom) Ms P Thornton (@rotkapchen) Mr. Shouvik Sil (@shouviks) Mr. Kaushal Kishore (@Kaushal239) Mr Abinash Singh in this assessment process.