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The Leader and Expert’s Illusion in Complex Adaptive Systems

Jeff Mignon
Jeff Mignon
Chief Growth Officer

We, humans, love good and simple stories. We love heroes from Superman to Steve Jobs. The visionary. You know, this guy who always comes up with the right decision at the right time. The guy who saves us all. We all need hope. So, we all love to believe in the existence of this guy.

complex adaptative system

But, when facing a complex system, what if it was just a fable? A complete illusion. Just a Hollywood trick. What if the idea of leader was overrated? What if the expert had little to bring to the table?

Dave Snowden came up with the concept of the Cynefin framework. A handy tool for understanding what kind of problem we are facing. It proposes five states: disorder, obvious, complicated, complex, and chaotic. When you look around, many issues are complex. The economy is complex. The healthcare system is complex. As well as the financial system, education, security… You name it.

COVID has revealed the notion of complexity to many of us. Do we keep people home and kill our economy? Do we let people out, and kill thousands of us, maybe millions. How do we stop it? And so on. We are stuck. We are left with no clear answers. Why? Because it is a complex adaptive system. A wicked problem. There are no clear answers, as much as we would like to.

What are some of the key characteristics of a complex adaptive system?

It is not linear. It has many parts, heterogeneous, that interact. Those parts are autonomous. There is no central command. When one of these parts changes state, it has a ripple effect on some or many of the other parts, with often unknown and unintended consequences. Interdependence. As a result, the system state is continuously changing, continuously adapting. “Its state will never repeat, except by coincidence,” explains Snowden. So, as a consequence, building models using data of the past does not help.

Analyzing a complex system does not work either. You can’t have a reductionist approach, take it apart, and, this way, fix the system. A complex system is not the sum of the properties of each part, as explains the father of systems thinking Russel Ackoff. Its properties emerge, and none of its components have them. The human body is a complex adaptive system, for example. The city traffic is a complex adaptive system.

The only way to deal with a complex system is to interact with it.

Experiment, measure, learn, test again. There is no way we can predict its future state. We can try to influence it, at most. But not plan its future shape. Emerging processes are generally mostly unpredictable.

What does it say about experts?

“Experts are experts of the past,” like to tell Jack Ma, the Chinese billionaire, the entrepreneur, and the guy who couldn’t even find a simple job at KFC. Specialists are good at understanding parts. But what about how they influence the network, the ecosystem?

Every day, with COVID, we have heard experts after experts making statements proven wrong the day after. Our ego creates a lot of illusions about ourselves. We have been trained, by our education systems, to give the right answer, to know. To the point where many of us pretend even when they don’t know. No expertise resists complexity.

And what about the leader?

What is fascinating is that a disordered complex system tends to look for order. No one is in charge of the beehive. However, an order emerges. No bees are programmed to go after a specific flower. It is called autopoiesis. The system is looking for a state of equilibrium — homeostasis — that makes the system more efficient—a continuous evolution, through a distributed coordination named stigmergy.

Now imagine for a second that we, humans, could control each bee’s behavior in a beehive.

Do you think that we could make the system more efficient at producing honey?

Like me, you probably think, “not a chance”. However, we pretend that we can bring complex systems to an ideal state. We pretend that some leaders can understand enough of a complex system to solve it. Whatever “solve” means when it comes to complexity.

Dave Snowden likes to go after the concept of Lean Startup, developed by Eric Ries. It calls it a belief and insists on the lack of scientific evidence. “Did you study the failing companies?”, asked Snowden one day to Ries. The answer was “no, why?”. Because Snowden did when he was at IBM and they found out that failing companies were exactly doing the same things that successful companies. Depressing.

No leader resists any complex system, as the COVID 19 has been demonstrating.

All lost. And the more they think linear, the more they are failing. Complexity does not like ultra simplification.

The information society made more and more efficient by its networkisation can’t be managed by an old fashion pyramidal approach. The leader myth is over. Only teams can hope to find levers to make systems evolve. No one is a “holistic expert.” The past does not inform today, let alone tomorrow.

Humans are programmed for collective decisions. From political systems to company management, there is a need for embracing complexity and collective intelligence because, in 2020, the leader died. COVID got him. “Power, as we knew it, is over” (Moises Naim, The End of Power)


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