Taking on Complexity


In my last bunch of posts, I have noticed a pattern that seems worth making explicit. The hardest part of the work I have been doing is to come up with practical responses to the critical analyses. I have been seeing a tiny bit of evidence that the basis of my critique is catching on. Even if the specific remedies I have been proposing are not getting a lot of traction, the sense that something radical is needed is a recognition that our problems are paradigmatic, not merely malfunctions in the current modern culture and its machinery. Of course, misguided efforts like those behind the recent Ecomodernization Manifesto suggest otherwise, but, like those who deny the reality of global climate change, they have adopted much too narrow a frame. And that gets me to the theme of this post.

The problem with this approach to fix up the system is that it fails to recognize the complexity of the system that would be repaired. Whatever is to be done under their rubric is inevitably only a partial solution because the whole system is not included in their thinking. While the internal logic underlying the analysis may appear to be well-grounded, it is so only because important parts have been omitted. Opponents of such works are asked to come up with a better analysis and, too often, get drawn into a food fight as to which has started with a better set of premises. But that is the wrong result; neither can be better, a priori, as long as both fail to accept that the system being addressed is complex. Any analytical model is bound to be partial and abstract. How well it actually describes the system can be discovered a posteriori, that is after the system, modified as the models prescribe, responds. There is a better way to deal with such complex systems.

Complexity, as I will state in a moment, is the more common system description out there in the world, but our norm is to ignore this and treat everything as analytically tractable. If we are to begin to clear up the increasingly persistent problems showing up in both human societies and in the non-human world around them, we have to make a paradigmatic swerve and start with the presumption that all persistent problems are complex. This does not mean that we have to punt, but it does mean that we have to address them very differently.

The first requirement is that we try to match the real world out there with our mode of thinking. We have such a means at hand: systems thinking. Unlike analytic methods, there is no fixed way to proceed, but there are some very useful tried and effective practices. The first and most important is to make sure that the framing of the situation is not unknowingly constrained by analytic thinking. It’s important to start with the understanding that the “solutions” that are eventually chosen are always partial and the system will need constant observation and adjustments. The 10 principles created by Rittel and Webber in their timeless paper on “wicked systems” should be read every time a complex problem is being faced. I have listed and discussed them earlier in this blog. This link is to my introductory blog that presents their general argument and is followed by a series of posts that probe each of the ten principles they develop. The original paper, itself, is publicly available at this link.

Systems thinking has been around for a while as a subject in engineering and management. Some of its better known contributors are Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Stafford Beers, Peter Senge, Russell Ackoff, Jay Forrester and Dennis and Donella Meadows. Others can be found in the Wikipedia article on the subject. One name not mentioned there is Gregory Bateson. Bateson was a polymath, whose is, perhaps, best known for his work on the mind and thinking, Steps To an Ecology of the Mind. He is responsible for one of my very favorite aphorisms, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.” He says in this single sentence what it takes me pages to express.

Almost all of these systems thinkers proposes a different process to address complexity. Not surprising since the intrinsic nature of the systems precludes any single procedural method. I have found that almost all can be placed in the single framework of pragmatism, a philosophical concept related to epistemology, the way we come to make sense of the world. Although complexity was not explicitly present as the subject evolved, it was clearly hanging around in the wings. The originator of the concept, C. S. Pierce, came up with it as a means to “make our ideas clear.” Clarity was determined by examining how well the ideas fitted practical situations. The more accepted methods of theoretical logic and analysis were tossed out. The importance to complexity should be obvious. If one wants to understand and interact with complex entities/systems, what matters is that the concepts being used for both explaining and manipulating the system should be effective in practical, not theoretical, terms. Real, down-to-earth performance is what matters, not some abstract set of expressions or sentences.

What we really need to know about things like climate change is how the system works and how anything we do, deliberately or unthinkingly, affects it. Pragmatism offers a more fitting approach than does positive science, which always requires some degree of abstraction and generalization. One can use scientific methods to probe the systems, but only if their limits are always in view. Bateson argued, passionately, that Western science creates hubris, a sense of (false) rightness about the world that prevents attaining real understanding and subsequent appropriate action, the components of wisdom. Systems that involve human beings (that’s about everyone that is important) are inherently complex because human action is itself the outcome of complex human beings. The Greeks knew that it took a special kind of knowledge, phronēsis, to govern human systems, distinct from knowledge about the non-human world, epistemē. The best current equivalent for phronēsis is wisdom.

The understanding of systems that come from pragmatic thinking and investigation is more like wisdom than epistemē or its modern equivalent, objective, scientific knowledge. There certainly is a lot of bona fide pragmatic thinking around, but it is rarely identified as such. The well known and widely practiced lean manufacturing system developed by Toyota utilizes basic pragmatic principles to improve the functioning of their manufacturing systems and to solve problems that arise within them. Inquiries are performed by people involved with the system, independent of their organizational status. Solutions are held as contingent, and the system is constantly monitored to prepare for the inevitable future issues that will crop up.

The Toyota Production System (TPS), as it is called, is, importantly, run along democratic principles during the inquiry processes. Developers of pragmatism, especially the American philosopher, John Dewey, wrote that whatever group carried out pragmatic inquiries toward understanding complex systems should be democratic in composition and process. Concern for the outcome trumps general theoretical smarts. Technically trained participants need to be aware of their inherent hubristic biases. In a sense, getting to know a complex system, after Bateson, requires thinking like the system might, metaphorically speaking. That’s very, very hard for scientists and engineers or other disciplinary professionals who always come into an inquiry with preconceived methods and solutions. One of the most plaintiff essays I know on our human interconnectedness with the world was written by Aldo Leopold, is entitled, “Thinking Like a Mountain.

Pragmatic processes are messier than their nice clean academic counterparts. One can never declare the process has gotten to the end. Rittel and Webber’s corresponding Rule 3 is, “Wicked problems have no stopping rule.” No more sending the consultant home after she has delivered the report. “Efficiency” hides behind much of what today goes for institutional strategies, especially those of businesses. Pragmatism/complexity demands the use of “effectiveness” instead. It is not about cheaper or faster; it’s always about some other qualitative criterion. Often, ex post assessments are simply asking if the system is working as desired. Are its normative outcomes closer or farther from its targets?

I close today with what I hope are some practical actions to take to deal with complexity. Whenever one encounters persistent problems or failures that have resisted solution via expert-based procedures, you can be pretty certain that you are dealing with complexity. Changing consultants or computer programs will not clear anything up. It’s time to switch paradigms and begin systems thinking. Then read Rittel and Webber. Then select a pragmatically-based inquiry, planning, and implementation process. Enlist a group of thoughtful concerned participants and go. Try various of the methods out there, like the TPS, or Argyris and Schön’s double loop learning, or Senge’s Fifth Discipline, or any others. Put on your patience hat. If needed, hire a skillful facilitator but, please, not another expert. When you begin to get good at doing all this, turn away from your own problems and take on the problem of (sustainability-as-)flourishing, or more to the point, the absence of stable, universal flourishing in our complex, existent, modern world.