It’s more complicated than that

tufte-0003pn-10817Yet another scientific correction which finds that a system doesn’t really work the way we thought it did.

I was listening to a podcast discussing research recently published in Nature about the mechanics of memory. Specifically, long term potentiation and the re-enforcing binding between synapses which result in linked networks of memories (kind of).

I’m interested in the whole idea of neural plasticity and dynamic systems of consciousness – you might not be. What I found more universally interesting, was the description of yet another scientific correction – a finding that a system doesn’t really work the way we thought it did.

One of the common patterns I find in science – and even more common in management practices – is the decomposition of complicated (or even complex) systems into simplified views of cause and effect. In the memory discussion above, there had been a long held belief of the critical role of a certain structure of receptor area on a cell. All the memory research had shown that this structure was always involved whenever memory was being formed or damaged – so, it followed that it must be a critical enabler – cause and effect.

In the new research, scientists tried to find out the minimum conditions in which memory could be formed – and in the process were able to create an experiment in which the structure was not present at all. Even though the structure wasn’t there, memories still formed. The simple conclusion was that receptors were more ‘promiscuous’ than had been thought – in other words, that the complex organic system is more adapatable than had been thought. These results require ‘a fundamental change in our thinking with regard to the core molecular events underlying synaptic plasticity.”

Perhaps drawing a bit of a long bow here, but it reminds me of so much of the decomposition / mechanical mindset making conclusions at a level of detail which is part of a more complex/complicated holistic system which is being observed.

Early comments regarding the US President’s Brain Map initiative have similar reservations. No doubt there are a lot of fantastic insights which will flow from investments in this research – but – as many brain scanning studies are finding – beware of black and white conclusions regarding cause and effect.

I see a parallel here with some of the strategic management consulting that I’m involved in. The process of independent observation, insight, discussion and advice can be seen as an exercise in finding the critical receptors in an organisation. Often, the ‘best practice’ and cause and effect logic is presented as ‘evidence based’ and the recommendations which follow involve doing something that adds or changes the structures of the receptors. If you stick around long enough, you often find that the organisation finds a way to improve without any of the critical structures that were proposed. It does this by adapting (sometimes promiscuously!) and the improvement emerges through the complexities of the people operating within the management systems.

The learning from this is to embrace plasticity – in the brain and in an organisational context –  to be aware of the complexity – and to treat each intervention as part of an on-going range of evolutionary experiments rather than a prescription to ‘fix the problem’.


(image:  Edward Tufte, Complicated: yellow, print on canvas, 29 ½” x 29 ½”, edition of 3 )

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