|Regular readers know one of my big pet projects is to create a framework for solving, or at least coping with, complex problems (in business and in society) using approaches suited to complex systems, rather than the failed approaches suited to merely complicated systems that, for the most part, have only made the world’s wicked problems worse.
This project was initially inspired by the work of complex adaptive systems theorists (like Dave Snowden and Otto Scharmer) and complex-system-savvy social activists and change consultants (like Open Space leaders Michael Herman and Chris Corrigan). For awhile, I used the name AHA!: Processes and Capacities for Complex System Learning & Discovery for this project. The idea was to create a ‘toolkit’ of processes and capacities that people could use to tackle complex problems, which might eventually lead to a collective body of knowledge or even a theory or set of methodologies that had been shown to work. I was aware, from Chris’ work, that these processes and capacities have in fact been around for millennia, long before civilization and its simplistic one-size-fits-all solutions (to be replaced next month by the next fad solution) came along. So in a way, AHA! was more of a project to rediscover and relearn these processes (including Open Space, Snowden’s ABIDE process, tapping the Wisdom of Crowds, and Scharmer’s ‘U’ presencing process, which is in turn based on Varela’s work), than to invent them. Recently I proposed a rough-hewn idea to try to integrate these four approaches into a single framework.
As I have studied different systems and ontologies, it has become increasingly apparent to me that all ecological and all social systems are inherently complex, and that, beyond minuscule scale, simplistic hierarchical decision-making processes (the ones that overwhelmingly prevail in business and political organizations today) are utterly inadequate for dealing with such systems. In fact, I am convinced that the myth that efficiency is achieved by ‘dumb’ hierarchical systems, and the myth that such efficiency improves rather than weakens these systems, is a colossal and self-serving lie that is in the process of being exploded, spiraling out of control, and is wreaking huge social and environmental cost and damage in the process.
I’ve also explained that business and politicians (and most adults) loathe complexity because it renders them powerless and shows their arrogant presumptions to have all the ‘right answers’ to be preposterous. Endless and intractable war, global warming, influenza pandemic risks, incapacity to deal with ‘natural’ disasters, and our general lack of resilience in coping with anything we don’t and can’t control (and every day we see more evidence of how little we really can control) all illustrate the absurdity of trying to manage what cannot be managed, predict what cannot be predicted, and get people to behave in ways they cannot and do things they cannot and will not ever do.
Complex approaches are more time-consuming, necessarily involve vastly more knowledge and understanding than is ‘efficient’ to obtain, require more patience and experimentation, require trust in the individual rather than the hierarchy to decide what to do and to take the responsibility to do it, and entail massively more consultation, attention, listening, competencies and constant adaptation and improvisation than merely-complicated approaches. Whereas complicated-system cause-and-effect driven solutions can be deduced by analysis, complex-system understanding of appropriate approaches can only emerge over time. Civilization society has little patience for this ‘inefficient’, exhausting, and imprecise way of doing things — even if it may well be the only way that can work.
The basis for sharing and building on this understanding of complexity is through stories and bottom-up working models, not top-down, hierarchical, constructed systems that everyone has to ‘buy into’. Stories for learning, working models for discovery — these are the means to emerging understanding and effectively and sustainably dealing with complexity.
A couple of times I have tried to see what we can learn about embracing complexity from indigenous cultures. Gatherer-hunters, after all, adapt to the complex environment, while civilized humans try to simplify and control it. Gatherer-hunters succeeded for three million years, while the civilized humans that exterminated and displaced them have made a mess of it, despite their best intentions, throughout the mere thirty millennia their model has prevailed on our planet. I attempted to catalogue a set of capacities of adaptation, discovery and learning about complex systems.
Building on this, Princen’s The Logic of Sufficiency has proposed an extensive set of (incomplete) principles, assumptions and theory for dealing with complex adaptive systems, drawing on learnings from businesses and local communities that have have achieved sustained success where competing hierarchical approaches and processes have, while achieving short-term profit and wealth, proved unsustainable and in the long run disastrous.
In order to learn more about indigenous (= born into and part of, rather than controlling/dominating) cultures’ approaches to complexity, I have been wading through anthropologist Hugh Brody’s far-reaching and scholarly personal memoir based on extensive study of such cultures, The Other Side of Eden, written six years ago. It is an indication of how radically my worldview has been changed by an awareness of how much civilization oversimplifies and ‘dumbs down’ our perceptions of reality that I read this book, an exhaustive panoramic view of six gatherer-hunter cultures, carefully and patiently. A year ago, even, I would never have looked at it — too many stories, too long, not synthesized down to the essential message and the proposed action plan — I would simply not have had time for such a book. But this is an immensely important work, because it attempts to tell us the stories of these cultures as much as possible on their own terms, in their own context, and in their own words (Brody took great pains to learn Inuktitut and a working knowledge of other gatherer-hunter languages, and explains how much is lost in a simple ‘translation’ of the stories of one culture to one that is so utterly different). Brody’s is no ‘noble savage’ portrait — the cultures he describes are far from perfect, but they are ‘right’ for the places in which they evolved. These cultures are extraordinarily different from civilization cultures, far more different than is apparent to anyone without the discipline that Brody takes to understand them, not as a means of contrast or reconciliation with our culture, but in their own, utterly, almost unimaginably different life-context.
All six gatherer-hunter cultures share an approach to life and to understanding of the world that is profoundly complex-adaptive. They had no choice — the rugged, demanding, unforgiving climates of these cultures cannot be controlled, tamed, imposed upon, civilized, planted, or ‘settled’. So for thousands of years the people of these cultures have figured out and followed what works. That means rather than changing the environment, trying to exercise Dominion over it, they have adapted themselves to the environment, and become (or remained) an integral part of it. In the arctic, subarctic, rainforest and desert areas where they still predominate in numbers if not in environmental impact, these cultures are like giant tectonic plates grinding up against and still coexisting separate from but alongside the tectonic plate of civilized, settled humanity, which now occupies 90% of the Earth’s land and comprises 99% of its human population. Civilized, settled humanity has not figured out, yet, how to settle this final 10%, but they’re working on it.
The Other Side of Eden is hard work, and mining the learnings about how gatherer-hunter cultures embrace and adapt to their complex environments takes great concentration, but it is a necessary process. The catalogue of learnings below is an extreme, possibly dangerous oversimplification of what came out, to me, from Brody’s astonishing first-person stories. I would urge readers who care about the malaise of our culture and want to understand how indigenous cultures succeed through adaptation to complexity, to read the whole book, just for the experience of trying to see the world through an utterly foreign, different frame.
Here, then, is the catalogue of my learnings and discoveries from this book. I think it takes us one step closer to an overall framework or theory for dealing with complex problems:
I confess I could not really fathom Brody’s arguments about how these cultures seem to be able to “allow one time to flow into another and also allow themselves to move about in time” — as much as I wanted to understand this, to see if it approaches the concepts of eternal, complex, multi-dimensional Now Time that animals are argued to live in except in moments of stress. I also could not fathom Brody’s attempts to explain the propensity of indigenous peoples to drunkenness as something more than addiction to a substance to which they had no natural ‘immunity’ or resistance. One day I hope to explore both these areas further, but I do not want them to detract from the importance of Brody’s work on complex-adaptive culture.
So where does all this leave us? I think we need to pull together the Snowden, Scharmer/Varela, Open Space, Wisdom of Crowds, Princen and Brody ideas on dealing with complexity, to create not just a toolkit and capacity/competency catalogue, but a theory, approach and/or methodology set that provides some framework for how to use the tools and capacities.
I’ve been muddling with what to call this (other than the cryptic AHA!). It is definitely not a complexity management theory. Spare us from any more terms with ‘management’ in them, especially when in complex systems the term is oxymoronic. Approach? Framework? And for what — dealing, coping with complex systems? With all ecological and social systems?
With considerable uncertainty, I’ve decided to coin a new word for what ‘this’ needs to be, because existing English terms are all inadequate. You probably won’t like it, but the word is Let-Self-Change. Here is why I decided on this rather clumsy name:
I recognize that the term, at least in English, will be seen as pretentious, a non-starter for serious theoretical development. But until I, or someone, can come up with another unambiguous term, Let-Self-Change will have to do. It’s growing on me. I have used hyphenated English terms to describe complex concepts before (“being-a-part-of”) and I think they have their place.
There are a whole series of urgent and important applications for a theory, framework, approach and/or methodology for Let-Self-Change. Virtually all of the critical problems facing our society and the environment-of-which-we-are-a-part require it, since none of the merely complicated approaches have even come close to addressing them effectively. That includes global warming, the many wars between the affluent and the desperate (the so-called “war on terror”), the threat of pandemic diseases (human, plant and animal), the utter failure of our political, economic, educational and health care systems, and on and on.
But I think the applications for Let-Self-Change are much broader even than this. I believe it may be key to the process of creating Natural Enterprises, both (a) the process of deciding, personally and with business partners, what business to create, at the intersection, the ‘sweet spot’ where your Gift (what you are uniquely good at), your Passion (what you love doing) and your Purpose (what there is a great need for) intersect; and (b) the complex, iterative process of researching and then creating, improvisationally, a Natural Enterprise.
And since our bodies are also complex systems, I believe Let-Self-Change may also be the key to taking back control of our bodies, our minds and our health and well-being from ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ with their one-size-fits-all solutions, their exclusion of the patient from the wellness process, their preoccupation with treatment rather than prevention, symptoms rather than causes, and single organs rather than holistics, and their lawyers’ insistence on prohibiting us from self-diagnosis and self-treatment and forcing us into learned helplessness.
A collectively-developed, evolving Let-Self-Change theory, framework, approach and/or methodology, and accompanying toolkit and capacity/competency catalogue, will give us a ‘map’ that will allow us, as individuals and as engaged and caring collective groups, to learn and discover faster and more effectively, and to develop working models of effective Let-Self-Change that others can study and, if appropriate, follow or adapt. It will also give us a common language (perhaps requiring a whole new vocabulary of intuitive, reflexive terms) that will allow us to share knowledge and work together more effectively, much as the incredibly sophisticated, detailed, and complex adaptive Inuktitut language has allowed the indigenous peoples of the Arctic to thrive in a seemingly ‘hostile’ environment, where, if they were dependent on the merely complicated languages and systems of civilized, ‘settled’ humans, they would surely have failed.
I’m open to ideas on where to go from here. I will be proposing some kind of collaboration, perhaps an Open Space event, among some of the complex adaptive system thought leaders referred to in this article, despite the fact that I know some of them don’t like each other very much. What else could/should I/we be doing to move this forward? And appreciating that this is an entirely unhierarchical and (at this stage anyway)unfunded project, can you see a role for yourself in it?
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I wish that just one time I could read your blog and go away and go away and go back to what I was doing and forget about it :)Seriously, the last time you asked this question I offered the phrase Human Emergence Movement without elaborating too much. Without getting too much into the science of emergence (which is out of my depth) the idea in a nutshell, would have been that 5 people, each of which can look at themselves in the mirror and say that they are authentic, can form a social group that is a stronger unit than the co-dependant family unit. I had thought that a network of such groups – or natural enterprises (as I understood the concept) – could form a movement that did not require central leadership and really could save the world. I kind of thought that was what you were getting at when you wrote about local work co-ops and the idea of keeping actionable ideas in ring binders. As usual, I read more into what you were writing than what you might have intended, but from reading today’s post it doesn’t seem like such a stretch from “self change” – the central idea is personal authenticity.
Well, Dave, you know where I stand. I’ll happily facilitate the event.the invitation is simple (and let’s keep it simple) – something along the lines of “How do we cultivate the capacities of Slef-Life-Change to live well in a complex world?”Give me a call and we’ll get it underway!
Well, this is not exactly the kind of supporting evidence you probably want: http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/globalguerrillas/2006/07/the_secrets_of_.html, but I followed a link from James Wolcott’s blog to this story about why Hezbollah is so effective in its strategy and tactics against Israel: decentralization is key, hierarchy is not. Your post explains, too, why traditional military forces are not going to be successful in this case (if they ever really are). Unfortunately, it probably won’t be read by those who are only too willing to sacrifice the lives of civilians, women and children to their “Ends.”Imagine, though, if Hezbollah’s strengths could be harnessed only for good…Before reading that post, though, I was just going to recommend to you two books: The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan, which is out of print and not easy to find, but worth the trouble, and Jasper Fforde’s novels about literary detective Thursday Next, some of which feature appearances by a small group of Neanderthals who have been recreated/cloned using modern technology (this is in the UK), and, who are clearly different than we are. Once I’d read a couple of those, I had to quit using a term I had coined for political & sarcastic purposes: Neandercons, which I decided was unfair to Neanderthals. ;~)I completely agree. Civilization is responsible for so much of what is wrong on the planet, and agriculture, ironically, is a big piece of the problem.
Personal authenticity — yes. For me the challenge here — the paradox — is that I want to encourage others to develop deeper, richer, more authentic, relationships and ways of thinking about situations. But I am tied up in this conventional idea that success is judged partly by scale of effect, just as Widget Corp measures its gains by units sold, Madison Ave Marketers counts the number of people who see its ads, and so on. “Go big or go home.” And yet the kind of advances we’re looking for seem to be the kind that are most difficult to “scale up”, precisely because they can’t be packaged into sound bites and slogans.
I don’t care what your motion/movement/metaphor is called; I want to BE a part of it to the greatest extent possible. And so this is only a quick note (an expression of great joy!) to let you know that I’ll definitely be thinking about this more today,and over the next week, especially with an eye toward practical direction. I like the notion of a framework, but I’m drawn, too, to articulating Let-Self-Change as a practice. It seems to be something that has the potential to be practiced, beautifully, over and over again by so many people, and there is something, as well, to the fundamental importance of the embodiedment of this approach. It’s something that can be talked about ad nauseum, but until it’s felt and lived and be-ed, nothing really would have occured. Documenting models is crucial, and even more important is the lived experience of creature-centered complexity. I can so easily imagine these practice (study/being) groups springing up . . . In any case, I’d love to do all I can to help spread these seeds.
I also wanted to add that the vision you seem to be articulating (as I understand it) is about more than just adapting (and I don’t fully see how native peoples have adapted) but rather it seems that it is or could be, more about an evolutionary leap that could conceivably emerge from the ashes of the 21st century. One in which people are bound as much by common goals and will power as by biology/tribal loyalties. A framework for civilization that is a synthesis of science and religion. OK, I’ve said enough. Great reading here, as usual.
Hey Dave –(Darn it, if anything is not correct, the comment fails AND gets deleted. The second try is never as well written….)You are echoing my own thoughts once again, Dave.Recently I spent some time studying Chaos Theory in response to a discussion over at IshCon.What I found is that chaos theory describes patterns (metaphors, if you will) that are totally intuitive, but that the way we have been tagught to think interferes with that intuition. We try to explain, calculate, PROVE our intuition and that alsmost invariably fails (because those efforts rely on reductionism). When we describe something as ‘counter-intuitive’ what we are actually saying is that the intuition fails when we look at and analyze it.This has led me to think that part of what we need, as humans, to face our complex world as our ancestors did, is a re-learning of how to think intuitively. How to think as children, how to think in pattern rather than in structure. I do not know how to do this, although I am gradually finding myself able to do so (Of course, explaining the process is another structure, neh?)I may not be explaining this very well, but hopefully, when one finds oneself DOING this, the ideas will resurface and provide understanding :-)Janene
Janene, I fully agree with you….- While reading “…. will also give us a common language (perhaps requiring a whole new vocabulary of intuitive, reflexive terms) that will allow…”. I recalled that lately, while writing, I´ve been needing some new words… for example, one word expressing think and feel together, another about thought and intuition together, etc….. my feeling was that as long as we do not create “unifying, or integrated” words, we will have a harder time in integrating this escinded aspects or processes of ourselves…(I hope i was clear enough explaining my take…)…we need to help this union to be through language…. Very clear take Dave… I was trying to invent some hybrids like pensar y sentir (think and feel):sensar …. or theel or feenk…. maybe we can begin playing around with new concepts and words….
This demonstrates in a spectacular way that the route to saving the world is neither technical nor organisational but cultural. In terms of identifying how fit an animal is (read human) to survive in its environment, it is its culture that should be analysed, its culture is the sum of all of the other stuff and more. Culture is defined in many ways, but you can observe culture through the behaviour of the organisms in the group or society. (One way to see it is this: If no-one ever pushed a gas pedal, there would never be any car exhausts.)Funny, most business leaders know that it is CORPORATE CULTURE that is the key to the firm’s survival.The challenge is immense as the group of humans that will be coming to the realisation that their culture is counter-sustainable and that it is afecting their own liveliehood must take into account the existing technical infrastructure as well as the somewhat degraded environment. Furthermore it has to transform quickly – as energy depletion descends on us. So,instead of an environmental service-preserving culture that evolved over many years and generations, we have to create one in one generation. At the same time handling the legacy of years of industrial emissions which will continue to degrade the environment through this period.At the same time the bulk of the population has adopted the religion of market and economic growth which, along with christianity forms a solid base for a counter sustainable culture.
Hi Dave, I am so pleased you made it through Brody’s book…and I’d even like to hope it was a recommndation I made to you as I am a dedicated Brody fan and I would love the idea of inspiring you. This is an incredible post and I am going to highlight it at my blog. I am participating in an blog experiemnt of commenting on 20 blogs every wednesday and making links.Your blog is comment #20 out of twenty.Cheers,Candyhttp://gnosticminx.blogspot.com/
HmmmmI may be the “only” one here who sees this differently. Civilisations come and go. They rise up out of their environment adapting to it according to their communal needs to survive. Sure! I can go with that. But does “language” really make that much difference here? Languages develop over vast tracts of time. How does language maladapt then? If a language is ill refined for a given environment/communal setting that language did not develop there – it probably should not exist there in that case perhaps! However in our “heirachial” systems in the North, these languages have also adapted over a long time and have grown up from within their own environment and the communal setting. Which then maladapts? The language, the environment or the culture upon which they influence? Saying that “English” is a “poor substitute” against indigenous languages is like saying that carnations are a poor substitute against desert flowers! English is a language that grew up out of its own indigenous culture and environment. It just “is”. It is however cool to keep defining new meanings and find new words to extrapolate and refine our understanding of our world… and english does this all the time too – “Podcast” is virtually hot off the press as a new dictionary addition for example! there are THOUSANDS of words in the english language derived from a vast collection of other languages. English is VAST in its exploration of ideas and concepts – Story! To say that it is too limited is …well… mystifying to me. Sorry Dave! :) Mitch
You should take a look a Fikret Berkes book “Sacred Ecology” it takes a complex systems approach to human ecology of aborginal people. Mostly in the canadian north.http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1560326956/103-2097225-2145413?v=glance&n=283155
Dave, Thanks. I found my way to your site via Siona.com. Have you read Lighting the Seventh Fire by David Peat? Here is a quote: “Western education predisposes us to think of knowledge in terms of factual information, information that can be structured and passed on through books, lectures, and programmed courses. Knowledge is seen as somthing that can be acquired and accumulated, rather like stocks and bonds. By contrast, within the Indigenous world the act of coming to know something involves a personal transformation.The knower and the known are indissolubly linked and changed in a fundamental way. Indigenous science can never be reduced to a catalogue of facts or a database in a supercomputer, for it is a dynamic and living process, an aspect of the ever-changing, ever-renewing processes of nature.”F. David Peat, Lighting the Seventh Fire, 1994I love the idea of always coming to knowing. I am hopeful that civil society with its new tools comes to know their own peaceful power in time to move away from the dependency on our current understanding of hierarchy and governance. Every day must be a new day for each and every one of us … separately, and together.
Dave I really appreciate your article – it came to me via Tom Atlee and the Levys, and helps put a lot of my work with elders into perspective.Let-Self-Change works for me, and I too was reminded of David Peat’s coming-to-knowing but from Blackfoot Physics.You might want to consider the Wisdom Council as another tool for letting the understanding emerge – this time through a sequence of perspectives or energies drawn from the wisdom teachings of the indigenous cultures of the Americas and mirroring the self organising nature of life.You can read more from a Fast Company article – http://www.fastcompany.com/magazine/01/rainbow.html and from feedback from Wisdom Councils we have lead – http://vitalelders.org/?page_id=67If you have a mailing list, please put me on it and keep me informed.RegardsMike
Wow — tremendously helpful insights and links. Thanks everyone. Now I’ve got to decide what to follow up with Chris Corrigan first — a Let-Self-Change Unconference or my New Enterprise Coaching Foundation proposal (though there is a connection between the two). And thanks to Candy for putting me on to Brody’s work.
Dear Dave – I just came here via your more recent post and like Chris want to offer my services to facilitate an ‘event’ / meeting of these groups you want to integrate (has it happened already!?) Recently I realised that my question: ‘why aren’t they talking / communicating’ has become ‘why aren;t we talking?’ ie what role do I have in the fragmentation and or integration of the world and its ideas…So yes, let me know how it went / how I can support the dialogue/conversation and emergence between your ideas and in making them accessible.
Hi Dave. I am a teacher of a Grade 5 class. A group of my students have decided on a project with the Central Idea being “There is a lot to learnt from Indigenous cultures and how they treat the environment”. The students are Italian and Japanese speakers, as you can imagine the internet is a daunting resource for ESL students. If you have any information, statistics or facts regarding farming techniques or hunting and gathering could you send them through to my email address. ThanksGerry
Reading this I was reminded of Chellis Glendinning in an interview talking about how native peoples in southwest US (she lives in Chimayo NM) are storytellers and relationships are mediated by stories rather than law enforcement/rules/etc. She has immersed herself in other culture. Also watching wonderful film Khadak about Mongolian herder who becomes shaman (Sarangerel, Mongolian shamaness, explained shamans are not like gurus or priests) to reconnect his people to their ancestry/dreamtime (“the ancestors are dreaming you”) also adaptive to extremely harsh landscape. And many years ago, reading ideas of Japanese architect Magoroh Maruyama about “mutual causal paradigms” – which fits Dave’s beginning description of complexity of natural systems … always enjoy reading here but like perhaps best the gift economy/non-hierarchical aspects.
“thinking like a child”, that might be why i relate so much to that “pattern” thoughts. Yep, I’ve allways too much of a rebel to allow teachers to impose their ways on me, and rejected any ‘adult’ lesson as corruption of soul.I would describe primitive inteligence as I have it, in the ability to adapt to any situation, here’s how:I try and copy, until fewer errors are made, for example when espousing another language or habits from a different culture. And I usually gather lots of observations, people stories, news, and let them cook in my brain until some global vision emerges itself out of my mind.That’s more than intuition, it’s visionary thinking. I can feel how the world evolves as a sum of peoples actions and pschologies.Therefore I’m never surprised, nor scared by accidents, like the current economic crisis, or the September 11th.I believe Let-Self-Change is crucial to us primitives, forced to adopt the ‘modern’ way of life, which is both alienating, and very challenging.