Applying Complexity Thinking to the Real World


The eleven ‘Principles of Practice’ below have been derived from the experiences of practitioners (people who are responsible for bringing about real-world change) which are discussed in a companion book “Complexity Demystified – a Guide for Practitioners” (downloadable as a PDF from here).

An example of how these principles can be used is shown by the ‘Liveable Cities‘ project which, in 2017, published a series of short booklets illustrating complexity thinking at work.

The principles below indicate that, in practice, integrative and iterative approaches are essential to bring about desired changes – and so doing minimises ‘unintended consequences‘:

• Principle 1: Dynamic, ongoing change can be influenced purposefully. This is because: a) the underlying ‘drivers of complexity’ have been identified, and b) practical techniques are available to purposefully engage with and shape the underlying drivers.

• Principle 2: Context understanding and perceptions are diverse – there is no ‘single view of the truth’. The experienced complexities of stakeholders are necessarily different, as are their knowledge and information needs.

• Principle 3: Change is ongoing, dynamic and multi-level – there may be no end. This means that trends, flows, gradients, potentials and other ‘energy metrics’ are appropriate dynamic indicators of the progress of practice.

• Principle 4: There are many qualities of power and influence to accommodate. These affect people’s ability to adapt and may arise from individuals, their beliefs and vulnerabilities, or from community values, from gender issues, institutional structures and the political economy, and from the changing environment and so on.

• Principle 5: It is necessary to appreciate who is / what are best placed to bring about change. Given the inevitable natural complexity of practice, those tasked with achieving change may not be the ones best placed in a situation to be drivers of change. Given the time horizons, practitioners should work adaptively through those who are best placed.

• Principle 6: Interventions must have the necessary requisite variety, i.e. have appropriate complexity-worthiness given the desired changes. This insight arises from Ashby’s ‘Law of Requisite Variety’ (1957) which states, in essence, that to influence something your practical behaviours must be equivalent to, and preferably exceed, the repertoire of behaviours of that which you are trying to influence – i.e. to deal with innovation by innovating.

• Principle 7: Practice is not just about adapting, but is also about being able to adapt the adapting and learn. This is because people are in continual co-evolution with the environment and, as there will never be a ‘steady-state’ balance or equilibrium, anticipatory innovation will always be required. One cannot adapt once and then stop.

• Principle 8: Different decision-making and problem-solving styles are required for different situations. Because practice involves inevitable novelty and change over time, there can never be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution, nor can ‘optimized’ processes be used as ‘best practice’ in all situations. Indeed, many modelling tools are just not fit for purpose in the face of real-world complexity.

• Principle 9: When reasoning about change, past evidence does not guarantee future prediction. This means that, though we may have evidence of a past train of events, there is no guarantee that we can extrapolate a reliable prediction from this into the future. As there are limits to what we can know and observe, there will always be uncertainties and unknowns, and that we must accept this as a given. A key skill for practice and risk management is envisioning, and being prepared to act on possible, not probable, futures.

• Principle 10: When innovating, transition to new forms may be the only valid option. Because of the inevitable novelty already mentioned, the transformation from non-adaptive capabilities to being appropriately complexity-worthy will require purposeful, ongoing, innovation and adaptation. Gradual, superficial, incremental transition is just not an option in some unsettling circumstances.

• Principle 11: Change will be impeded unless appropriate degrees of freedom and ‘wiggle room’ are available. Being open to change means appreciating where the ‘spaces of possibilities’ are, and how to maximize and exploit them. A misplaced drive for control, repeatability and certainty may clamp down on the very space that is needed for adaptive behaviour to flourish.

———————- 0 ———————-

This entry was posted in Adaptation, Agility, Appropriateness, Change, Complexity Demystified, Complexity-worthiness, Contextual complexity, Experienced complexity, Influence, Liveable cities, Natural complexity, Opportunities, Possibilities, Practice, Prediction, Purposeful, Reflection, Transformation, Transition, Unintended consequences. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Applying Complexity Thinking to the Real World

  1. Pingback: Why are ‘unintended consequences’ inevitable? | Harnessing Dynamic Change

  2. Pingback: Complexity Demystified: A guide for practitioners | djmarsay

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s