A Convergence: Complex Systems Theory, Open Space Technology, Frames, Freakonomics, and the Wisdom of Crowds

In some recent work I have been doing, it occurred to me that Open Space Technology might provide a framework for capturing the Wisdom of Crowds to resolve complex problems. This draws together three very timely business concepts, and I thought it might be worth exploring this further on these pages. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

First, a recap: A complex problem or situation is substantially different from a merely complicated one. Here’s how you know a problem is complex:

  1. There are too many interrelated variables to manageably map and show causal relationships between. In other words it is far from perfectly ‘knowable’.
  2. It’s intractable — it has defied previous attempts to resolve it satisfactorily.
  3. It entails many human factors and hence is subject more to human nature than definable rules.
  4. Clarity about the problem co-emerges with ideas for its possible resolution.

A simple example can be found in the accounting profession. Accounting is complicated — there are a set number of well-defined rules and principles that the accounts either conform to, or do not. By contrast, auditing — the art of verifying whether errors or fraud have occurred in the accounts — is complex. The new Sarbanes-Oxley rules notwithstanding, there is no set of procedures that can be performed that will definitively determine whether errors or fraud have occurred, and there are an infinite number of ways such errors or fraud can arise.

Another simple example concerns the occurrence of earthquakes. Designing a bridge that can withstand a 9.0 magnitude earthquake is a complicated problem — there are a finite number of considerations, so engineers can state with a high degree of certainty that the bridge will stand up to such a test. Predicting when and where a 9.0 magnitude earthquake will occur is a complex problem — at least with today’s science, there are simply too many variables, and their interrelationship too indeterminate, to make a prediction with any useful degree of reliability.

This is the challenge we currently face with another complex problem — global warming. There are so many variables, and causality is so difficult to determine, that some industry spokespeople have even been able to deny it is occurring at all, or, if it is, to deny that human industrial activity causes it or affects it significantly. Even though there is much compelling evidence of correlation between CO2 emissions and average surface temperatures, its very complexity provides enough ‘wiggle room’ for skeptics and procrastinators to forestall any meaningful action to address climate change. Similar challenges face us in grappling with other complex, ‘wicked’ problems and intractable problems like designing an effective health care or education system, resolving crime, security issues, poverty, and our propensity for violence, and achieving sustainable energy self-sufficiency..

Dave Snowden, who I think is the leading expert on the application of social complexity theory to business, has suggested that Open Space Technology offers a methodology that might be well-suited to addressing complex problems. Here is how I think such an approach might work:

  1. Invitation: The people invited to an Open Space event would be selected in such a way that they meet the criteria of a ‘crowd’ specified by James Surowiecki in his book The Wisdom of Crowds: mutually independent, objective-minded, reasonably informed, and diverse. 
  2. Focus and Framework: The conversations and stories that occur during the Open Space event would be focused on surfacing a broad understanding of what is happening in the system, including an awareness of previously-ignored externalities — factors and variables that have an impact on the issue at hand but are usually considered to be irrelevant, inconsequential or outside the control or responsibility of the people addressing the issue. To do that, a framework to define the ‘topology’ of the issue would be drafted before the start of the Open Space event, sketching out an incomplete set of aspects of the issue, and ‘creating space’ for each aspect or characteristic for problem articulations and missing data (“what we don’t know”), stories, relevant data, observed patterns, correlations, and measures (“what we do know”), and hypotheses, assumptions, ideas, theories, models, approaches, and potential resolution methods (“what we suppose”). Open Space events, after the formal introduction of the issue or problem, normally begin with participants rising in turn and suggesting an aspect (or facet) of the issue they think needs to be explored, and the ‘convening’ of scheduled conversations on each aspect so identified, which participants can then ‘sign up’ for. I’m suggesting that these aspects should also be ‘mapped’ onto the topology framework for the event at the same time, both to give participants a sense of how each conversation could contribute to the resolution of the overall issue, and to identify aspects of the issue that have not yet been scheduled for conversation (and perhaps should be discussed). The topology map might well evolve as the participants point out aspects of the issue that were overlooked when the topology framework was drafted.
  3. Training: The participants would be taught to recognize and appreciate different frames of reference and perspectives of participants, how to probe the system, and how to recognize existing and design new attractors and barriers that currently influence, or could influence, the system.
  4. Responsibility & Trust: Participants would be responsible and trusted to self-organize, to identify and perform the optimal actions, individually and collectively, to resolve the issue at hand.

In an audit, there is no ‘invitation’ per se. The audit team interviews client personnel, asks them questions about internal controls (barriers to error and fraud) and conducts analytical and other tests on the accounting records, and ‘reasonability’ tests on ‘soft numbers’ that rely on subjective estimates. Recently, as a result of the Enron fraud, some additional standard tests have been mandated under Sarbanes-Oxley and similar audit regulations. These procedures, however, have the effect of trying to reduce the complex audit ‘problem’ (detecting any material errors or frauds) to a merely complicated problem. There remain many opportunities for material errors and frauds to occur, though experienced auditors tend to use a variety of intuitive and judgemental procedures in addition to prescribed ones. Even in the aftermath of Sarbanes-Oxley, the number of financial statement ‘restatements’ (mostly downwards) of prior year results attests to the inadequacy of ‘complicated problem’ checklists to resolve a complex problem. And we’ll certainly see some big frauds that these procedures failed to catch.

If we wanted to address the challenge of global warming sensibly, we might use the Open Space process above. The invitation would include anyone who cared about and was reasonably informed about the problem, including the skeptics — any point of view is welcome if it is engaged by the invitation. A partial framework or topology of the entire global warming issue would be sketched out by the event facilitators, and enhanced and mapped to the ‘convened’ conversations as different aspects of the issue were selected and scheduled for discussion. And the ‘scribes’ for the conversations might structure their notes on each aspect according to the nature of the contributions made during the conversations: problem articulations and missing data (“what we don’t know”), stories, relevant data, observed patterns, correlations, and measures (“what we do know”), and hypotheses, assumptions, ideas, theories, models, approaches, and potential resolution methods (“what we suppose”).

Participants would be trained to recognize and appreciate (“open themselves to”) different frames of understanding, perspectives and points of view. They would need to learn to develop critical capacities to understanding complex systems, and to appreciate those capacities in others. And they would be taught to recognize and seek the probes, attractors and barriers through which complex systems are explored and influenced, so that, in starting to put together personal and collective action plans, they would talk specifically of probes (that would ‘test’ the “what we suppose” assumptions about global warming and solicit further information to resolve “what we don’t know”), and of attractors and barriers that would appear, respectively, to encourage behaviour that the participants believe would help ameliorate global warming, or to discourage behaviour that they believe would aggravate it. This, according to social complexity theory, is as close as one can get to ‘solving’ a complex problem — which is why they are so intractable.

Near the end of most Open Space sessions, there is an opportunity for each participant to reflect on the conversations in which s/he has been involved, put together a personal action plan based on the understandings that have emerged, and then approach others to combine, where it makes sense, personal actions into collective actions.

In their book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner studied exhaustive data sets that confirm the most compelling correlation with (and most likely cause of) the decline of crime rates in many urban areas of the US in the last few decades is the Roe vs. Wade decision, which finally opened opportunities for legal abortions to many of America’s urban poor. While this assertion is highly contentious, I wonder if an Open Space event focused on similar types of complex mysteries might be able to reveal other astonishing and unsuspected correlations with far-reaching implications, in areas where statistical data is much harder or even impossible to find?

If we used the approach suggested above, the overall structure of a Complex Problem Open Space event might look something like this:

  • Advance Work
    • Crafting and Sending the Invitation: to meet Wisdom of Crowds specifications for diversity etc.
    • Drafting the Issue Topology Framework: to suggest the breadth of the problem, possible aspects to address, and types of “what we know”, “what we don’t know” and “what we suppose” information that might surface during the event
  • Day 1
    • Training: in Open Space method and practices, complexity theory, frames and capacities
    • Opening session: issue statement, opportunity for participants to suggest aspects of the problems or issue for ‘conversations’, assigning time and place for each conversation, mapping scheduled conversations to the pre-developed topology framework for the issue
    • Marketplace: time to review which conversations are where & when and discuss and decide which to attend
    • Working sessions: conversations, each with an assigned scribe keeping notes using the “what we know/suppose/don’t know” framework, and governed by the ‘vote with your feet’ rule (you can move from one conversation to another that seems to be more valuable or to which you feel you can contribute more, without repurcussions or causing offense)
    • Evening news circle: logistics, comments, ideas, feedback
  • Day 2
    • Morning news circle: facilitators and others suggest additional ‘conversations’, possible re-groupings of other conversations
    • Working sessions: as in day 1, all day
    • Evening news circle: as in day 1
  • Day 3
    • Results circle: complete ‘journal’ of day 1 &2 conversations is handed out to each participant
    • Reflections period: reading and setting personal action agendas, done by each person alone
    • Re-opening circle: suggestions for collective and collaborative actions are proposed by all (after contemplating which items in your personal action agenda would need or benefit from involvement of others in its realization)
    • Action project conversations: people volunteer for proposed collective & collaborative actions/projects
    • Closing circle: individuals’ comments, assessments of the process, and farewells

Conceptually, this seems to me to be an ideal melding of the best of social Complexity Theory, Open Space Technology and the Wisdom of Crowds principles, and bringing in learnings from Lakoff’s Frames theories and Freakonomics methodology, to provide a means by which intractable problems could be addressed in a flexible, constructive, and yet highly disciplined way, so that a broad and deep understanding of the issue could emerge, and where resolutions that might never be revealed in more traditional ‘problem-solving’ venues might be identified and pursued by those ‘responsible’, in a self-organizing and very fluid and dynamic setting.

What do you think?

This is a convergence of ideas suggested to me by Chris Corrigan, Michael Herman, my business partner John Sutherland, George Lakoff, Dave Snowden, Steven Levitt, Stephen Dubner and James Surowiecki, all of whom I thank, and to whom I apologize for any misrepresentation ormisapplication of their concepts or practices.

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11 Responses to A Convergence: Complex Systems Theory, Open Space Technology, Frames, Freakonomics, and the Wisdom of Crowds

  1. Dale Asberry says:

    Looks like it would be a very fun event. Count me in!

  2. theresa says:

    This topic is probably way over my head but since nobody else has taken it apart I will try to figure it out. From what I understand you are suggesting, the open space participants, focusing on the intractable or wicked problem from various perspectives, would generate enough material so that both desirable and undesirable patterns associated with the problem would emerge. They would then turn their focus to encouraging the desirable patterns and discouraging the undesirable ones. Discussions about an intractable problem – the problem of sustainability and over consumption for example – would unearth many desirable trends which have sprung up concurrently (paradoxical phenomena in keeping with a complex problem) for example the recent fad for slow food among more generally well off consumers might be one, eco-tourism another – phenomena generated by wealth which seem to buck the trend toward global collapse. These are not solutions of course but maybe part of a larger unseen pattern or one of many patterns working at cross purposes with the still larger pattern which is marching toward un-sustainability and chaos. There are probably more interesting examples of counter-trends than those two, I just can’t think of them. It would be a matter of identifying and encouraging enough such patterns to tip the balance, direct a “surge” or bring about a sea change. Snowdon speaks of swarming as a tool to manage problems of chaos but could it not also apply to problems of complexity which are advancing toward chaos? Another way to look a swarming would be to see it as a point of enlightenment, but for now I will just call it a surge at the point where enough constructive patterns emerge to reverse a destructive course of events. I don’t quite see how the methodology of Freakonomics fits into Snowdon’s theory. The questions generated by that book seem to have come out of the singularly bizarre imagination of Steven Levitt. The collected narratives or solutions generated byan open group might show an unusually theme but perhaps not original questions like the ones posed by Levitt. The strange phenomena he addresses – why during the 80s lucrative crack cocaine market, drug dealers were willing to do such dangerous work for less than $3hr for example – go from the unknown to the known: he has the help of the meticulous accounting records preserved by a drug gang, plus what is now known about how Oscar Danilo Blandon, (the so called Johnny Appleseed of crack), with his Nicaraguan connections to the CIA sponsored Contras, facilitated the crack boom of the 1980s. He uses the newly known facts to shed light on a complex problem/puzzle but he doesn’t get there through the wisdom of crowds. The chapter on sumo wrestlers and schoolteachers has an interesting discussion about the economic vs moral incentives for cheating, It is encouraging to see how powerful moral incentives can be. This brings to mind another topic from your list of intractable problems reforming and encouraging corporate conduct. Corporations may be notoriously without conscience but they are not necessarily without people of conscience.

  3. Dave, I’m throwing this one over to the Open Space List (OSLIST) for some comment and input.This is how we work, and there are many, many examples out there of using Open Space, and this very same format to make distance in a world of complex problems. Most often, what is needed is not “solutions” per se but a combination of navigation and infrastructure to support an unfolding, collaborative learning journey. THe navigation piece is a social meaning making exercise, in which particpants share their thoughts and experience of the problem and convene dialogue on a number of facets. It helps to locate where people are in the field and explore ways in which we might move from this spot. The action that flows from an OST event is typically directed towards leveraging efficient infrastructure (learning networks, task groups, ongoing dialogue) to make some progress. Complex action is required to work on complex problems. One cannot address a complex problem at a lower level than that at which it emerged. Good stuff, as always.

  4. Brett says:

    Dave,As I read through this (excellent, as always) post, I found myself taking your ideas and figuring out how I could apply them to a controversial question I’m involved in: the nature of autism. A key challenge in discussing autism (cause, cure, etc) is the fact that so many people have so many different opinions. Unfortunately, many of these opinions are so entrenched in personal beliefs that some have trouble even listening to other opinions. Its not a matter of right and wrong, it is a matter of belief.I think, though, if you could get these diverse people together as you discuss here, and apply these techniques, we could really get somewhere. Thanks for some thought provoking stuff.

  5. Kit Stolz says:

    Interesting…but although as you say it’s absolutely true that global warming is a complex problem, does it follow that it requires a complex solution? James Hansen, probably the leading expert in the field in this country, argues that to avoid disaster, what we need to do now is not build a new infrastructure of power plants, especially coal-fired plants. Yes, of course that’s easier said than done, but as solutions go, it’s relatively straightforward. Although I like the idea of applying “the wisdom of crowds” to the challenge, especially given the total lack of leadership on this issue from the White House, I’m not sure we need the perfect solution so much as we to start to act to reduce carbon emissions and to prepare for the changes that are coming. More than that would be welcome, and probably will be called for in years to come as the public begins to confront the issue, but at this stage, I don’t think a new methodology is as crucial as simply acting on what we know already.

  6. lugon says:

    “Simply acting on what we know already” is the tricky part. When we say “we” know a pandemic (or all those other nice things coming) might come – who is “we”? Who is the “we” who acts?It (uselessly) enrages me that either myself or my local situation or both are not yet (judging by the facts) ready for open space.

  7. But lugon…when you are in a situation where you seem not to be ready for open space, that is exactly the time when you need to open sapce. In Harrison Owen’s latest book, the Practice of Peace, he talks about the conditions that produce conflict simply being a lack of time or space. When you are feeling constrained that is exactly the time to issue an invitation and get the space opening. Your invitation itself might simply be that question: “who is the we that acts?” And then you take it from there.

  8. Steve Wohlrab says:

    While I liked Dave’s approach to dealing with complex problems, I respectfully disagree with what he identifies as the actual problem. Given the seriousness and urgency of the situation, framing issues such as global warming as “complex” seems to only perpetuate the problem. I would argue that the topic “global warming” is not complex – one might even argue that the solutions to this problem are not that complex – it’s their implimentation. While the science of global climate is indeed complex the fact that the earth is warming is undeniable. Although I like the format for the workshop and the underlying methodology discussed in dealing with complex issues, the actual problem we’re facing involves cultural transformation. How do we transform the seemingly intractable hearts and minds of those who deliberately mislead the masses and continue to influence and manipulate public policy for their own benefit. How do you change a system that prevents real solutions from being implimented, a system whose self-serving ways blind citizens to its detrimental consequenses? How do we transform an entrenched attitude that believes that we are entitled to live as wastefully as we do? It’s like debating whether or not the Bush Administration deliberately mislead the country into war in Iraq – or whether the Johnson Administration deliberately mislead the country into a war in Vietnam. There is overwhelming evidence that they did – it’s blatantly obvious to anyone who honestly examines the record. Suggesting a “debate” only serves to reinforce the perception of controversy where none in fact exists. That people are unable to examine evidence with a critical eye seems a key issue. The process of choosing the appropriate topic for a workshop then becomes essential. Perhaps more thought needs to go into pre-planning of workshops – presenters need to question their own assumptions beforehand. Otherwise we might unintentionally give creedence to what is a deliberate attempt to further mislead, confuse and shield the perpetrators – perpetuating a problem that instead requires urgent, dramatic action.

  9. Jon Husband says:

    Nice thinking and synthesis. Scale is an issue, I think, when considering open, passion-and-purpose based bottom-up processes, I think.Invitations based on who is interested and engaged is important, but when I am thinking about scale I am also thinking about strata of influence, power, etc.Sor the complex (even if they are simple, scale for issues such as global warming make it culturally and (especially) politically . Issues such as global warming are understood well enough thart to encourage any of the initiatives that may result in real positive change invites in-depth engagement with such fundamentals as the core assumptions of capitalism, growth, what is public and private and .. I would argue .. beg the backing of large citizen movements which (I am pretty sure) could only ever be a tangential outcome of the processes you describe above .. as they are still seeking THE solution as oppposed to focused on growing a present sense of the critical, survival-based need to make makor changes (i,e,, so as to befin reducing the impacts of global warning.We see this all the time .. for example, there are no shortages of sustainable developments iniitatives, sponsored by provincial givernments, universities, corporations who have unfurled the social responsibility banner, etc.Lots and lots of talking .. all the time .. by people who would argue they are deeply engaged – and no doubt most of them are .. but in changing what – the ways we are governed, the ways wealth is re-distributed and invested or re-invested in a society, our reciprocal responsibilities to other humans in other countries and cultures, etc. ? In a higly-structured society of legacy political and cultural systems such as ours, these tyypes of changes can on;ly come from overwhelming pressure to change .. and that won’t come from any proposed solution(s).I grow increasingly convinced that no one … at the levels of influence or with the public profiles necessary to catch and sustain attention, and then engage people everywhere in deep deep reflection and courageous purposeful action … no one will come along or has the strength of conviction. Mandela and Stephen Lewis can’t do it .. Bill Gates can’t do it in Africa … and so on.I suppose it depends on how complex *complex* is, and to what degree does it involve (or not) clear challenges to the existing power structures and vested interests, and to what degree does any rational response to the complexity involve such wrenching lifestyle / cultural change that deep change is essentially off the table.i understand your thinking, and have some familiarity with the principles and processes you cite … I see it working for communities. organizations and the like where the complexity has been reing-fenced in some ways .. either by some commonality between the issue and its constituents, or by geography, or values.I see more promise if some basic patterns and hybrids of combinations of these processes become *just the way people do things* when they have to cope with a change or design a response to makor community changes, etc. Like now when there’s a change, *they* still write new job descriptions and cram people full with the propaganda about a new direction, or alignment with the vision and mission ….. but you are, i believe, talking about fostering deep change in response to deep accumulated complexity .. and there I see movement building, political consciousness, etc .. not incremental, solution after solution all addressing the non-systemic issues that are really only the symptoms of complexity, not the root causes. Those involve working to dissolve old power structures and to help set up, create and nourish new widely accepted forms of consensus building and decision-making.

  10. Jon Husband says:

    This initiative is probably an early example where some form (or some aspects) of the processes you suggest might be useful as it unfolds / evolves.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Thank you everyone. Once again, the comments probably shed more light than the original post.Theresa: Brilliantly put. I see Levitt as a complex problem solver — he looks for patterns beyond the obvious ones, especially when they can be tested using statistics. It takes enormous lateral thinking to conceive that the real cause of decreasing urban crime is increased access to abortion a generation earlier — when everyone is implausibly claiming that it is due to stiffer sentences or more cops or gun control.Chris, Lugon: Thanks for the clarification. Chris has a tendency to be modest about the potential of Open Space (which he’s expert in), but I really believe the process has the strength and resilience to support the ‘weight’ of my three add-ins: (1) the ‘wisdom of crowds’ invitation list, (2) the draft topology map/framework, and (3)additional training for participants in ‘presence capabilities’, complexity theory and Lakoffian ‘frames’. Kyoto has really highlighted for me the futility of forcing “who’s going to do what by when” resolutions on events that are focused on complex problems. Having a bunch of Kyoto signatories who agree on principle (but know they won’t meet their commitments) is discouraging — what’s important is that each person who attends an event on, say, global warming comes out with a vastly increased understanding of the problem and the options, sufficient to allow self-made commitments, personal and collective, on what she/he/they think must be done, that is within his/her/their capacity to do. We need to stop telling people what to do (which never works) and start enabling and trusting them to learn and decide what they must do (which might work).Kit: I’m dubious that coal is even a part of the answer to the end of oil or global warming (it is clear that coal and nuclear will be, in the absence of more than the usual knee-jerk, old thinking, the solution of most affluent nations to the end of oil). I doubtthat there are simple answers to any complex problem — I’ve never seen any that have worked. But then, I’m not sure that there are ‘answers’ at all, the way we are accustomed to thinking of them, to complex problems. There is, rather, adaptation and approaches to coping, which is better than no answer.Steve: The whole point about complex problems is that you need the knowledge and interaction of all participants to surface understanding and evolve approaches to addressing the problem. No one knows as much as everyone. While I agree that corporatists are prone to mislead people about global warming, they need to be at the table, to hear the real science and have their minds opened — it’s the former chemical scientists and engineers at the big oil companies coming out and saying ‘Prepare for the end of oil’ that is giving much-needed attention to this problem. A convert is a very powerful ally and influencer. And we need to really flush out why the Lomborgians are so determined to ignore mountains of evidence, without pre-judging their reasons. The process needs to run its course if it is to have full effect.Jon: You may well be right. There are probably complex problems that will never be solved, some of which could well swamp us all. My argument is that we must try these ‘open’ methods, because all the closed, simple, and complicated ones have failed, so that’s all we have left. You are right that propaganda and ‘top down’ implementation will never work. Bottom-up, consensus-building, virally-disseminated alternatives might. And re: your second comment, Messrs. Weinberger and Blaser’s ORGware tools are just that — tools. What is needed, I think, is method, and face-to-face conversation.

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