Category Archives: complexity

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 )

Makers – Making Trouble?

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Anyone following any kind of technology news can’t escape the growing interest or hype in 3D printing. The ‘Maker’ movement is being propelled by the lowering of entry costs of systems which can combine easy-enough-to-use design software with easy-enough-to-use 3D ‘printers’ which can sculpt an object, usually using lasers, according to the design you ‘draw’ with the software. The printed object is becoming price competitive to low volume alternatives provided by traditional large scale industrial processes.

There are a number of heavy evangelists promoting the concept and it is taking on a kind of cool-tech arts & crafts guild image. Chris Anderson, the foresight focused founder and ex-CEO of Wired recently left that organisation to pursue his dream of the Next Industrial Revolution where Atoms are the new Bits. It sounds great to me and for those as old as me to remember, very Jetsons. I can see some of the tremendous opportunities and give full credit to people like Chris who are willing to craft a new personal brand around this concept.

Chris’ move (at least as it’s been reported) reminds me a little of when Shai Agassi left SAP to set up Better Place. I don’t know about the timing of the Maker movement over the Electronic Refuelling movement, but if things proceed, I hope Chris can learn something from Shai’s own journey. After evangelising the concept around the world, setting up a company to show that it was possible, and raising hundreds of millions of dollars, Shai was fired by his board.

Perhaps unlike the electronic refuelling idea, the consumerisation of technology has a more inevitable momentum behind it. On a positive note, there is already a growing market for small, industrial ‘craftshop’ businesses using the technology to provide widgets designed by people who can’t afford the whole at-home-printer set up or who don’t think it is quite easy-enough-to-use. Already you can find small shops willing and able to print you a gun, a bike, an action figure, and even a car.

The big question for me, is – why are we so excited about the Next Industrial Revolution – when we haven’t completed the last?

A couple of weeks after reading Chris’ article about the brave future awaiting us, I read an interesting assessment of Boeing’s Dreamliner aircraft issues by Paul Marks, New Scientist’s chief technology correspondent. Paul’s opinion was that the complex federated supply chain model used by Boeing was always going to be a high risk because of the lack of end to end quality assurance running through the vast network of suppliers to suppliers to suppliers to assemblers etc..

Ironically, the Dreamliner was slated to be the first, best, biggest, brightest plane every built completely off a shared digital design. It is a great example of a Global Maker. Thousands of ‘makers’ working together, sharing the same software designs and ‘printing’ parts to fit together perfectly like a great Lego set.

While the Dreamliner project did struggle with many technical challenges, the biggest challenge was, and remains, with the human system – not the technology. The people running the workshops have multiple agendas and mixed incentives.

It seems to me that we have here a perfect snapshot of a point in the evolution of society and technology. Unlike Chris Anderson however, I believe that the Next Industrial Revolution will occur in the way that distributed networks of people work together to achieve results which have higher quality and are more resilient than anything they could print for themselves.

Clearly, we still have some ways to go. Viva la revolution!

Jumping out of the goldfish bowl – part 1

goldfish

In yesterday’s post, I presented a goldfish bowl-half empty view of the prospects we face to internalise insights from cognitive science and develop new behaviours to better deal directly with our complex environment.

Now, I’d like to start considering more of a goldfish bowl-half full view and ideally, get some ideas on how we can escape the loop of forgetfulness (or denial).

To start, and in keeping with the historical references behind some of these ideas, let’s begin with Heinrich Hertz’s introduction to The Principles of Mechanics in 1899.

The most direct, and in a sense the most important, problem which our conscious knowledge of nature should enable us to solve is the anticipation of future events, so that we may arrange our present affairs in accordance with such anticipation. As a basis for the solution of this problem, we always make use of our knowledge of events which have already occurred, obtained by chance observation or by prearranged experiment…… When from our accumulated previous experience we have once succeeded in deducing images of the desire nature, we can then in short time develop by means of them, as by means of models, the consequences which in the external world of models, the consequences which in the external world only arise in a comparatively long time, or as the result of our own interposition. We are thus enabled to be in advance of the facts, and to decide as to present affairs in accordance with the insight so obtained….

The images which we may form of things are not determined without ambiguity by the requirement that the consequents of the images must be images of the consequents. Various images of the same objects are possible, and these images may differ in various respects. We should at once denote as inadmissible all images which implicitly contradict the laws of our thought. Hence we postulate in the first place that all our images shall be logically permissible – or, briefly, that they shall be permissible.

You hear in these words, some of the fundamentals of science, the principle of rational analysis and decision making behaviours and, by extension, the fundamentals of risk management.

What happens when nature is found to be contradictory to current knowledge? What happens when our knowledge of previous events does not prepare us for the future or leads to assume incorrectly that we are ‘in advance of the facts’?

Clearly, in some situations, the quality of our evidence may be poor and a lack of logical consistency might be proof of poor data and rightly ignored.

Scientific discovery often introduces new evidence which contradicts the ‘facts’. Over time, experimentation and consistency of evidence leads to new ‘facts’. The more counterintuitive, the harder it is to accept these new facts. In 1899 Hertz wrote about ‘mechanics’ – the ideas of that time are now taken for granted and we have moved on to grapple with quantum mechanics.

If we are to accept the growing body of consistent evidence regarding the psychology (and possibly the underlying physics) of our behaviour, we will need to find a way to apply Hertz’s framework to a world which we are beginning to realise remains largely unknown from the past and contradictory to our present common sense.

Instead of expecting tomorrow to be like yesterday, we will need to learn how to expect the unexpected.

Strategic Risks and Opportunities to Accelerate!

In the November HBR there’s a new piece by seminal uber guru of change management John Kotter called Accelerate! in which he proposes that organisations formally adopt a second, fundamentally different, strategic system of management to complement their operational management practice.

He claims, and my experience mirrors and agrees, that while traditional hierarchies and management processes do well at keeping the lights on in the short term, “what they do not do well is identify the  most important hazards and opportunities early enough, formulate creative strategic initiatives nimbly enough, and implement them fast enough.” Despite 15+ years of attempts to improve these processes, the pace of change is simply outstripping the ability of this system to cope. Organisation that face real threats or eye new opportunities or compliance requirements try – and fail – to cram through some sort of major transformation using change processes.

Kotter’s been researching, mentoring and watching transformation programs for more than 40 years and it may well be that these traditional change processes (many of which he influenced) did work in the past. In my own 25+ years observing hundreds of transformation programs of different scales, only a handful could be said to have delivered on their original promise. Irrespective of just when the myth may have started to overshadow the reality, Kotter now sees that the old ways are not going to work any longer and is prepared to call the Emperor naked.

His solution, in a nutshell, is to leave the traditional management structure to do what it does best – work on the assumption that your market will remain stable long enough to execute a pre-formulated strategy and ask most people to shut up, take orders, and do their jobs in a repetitive way. This will deliver returns for a while – until the environment changes to such an extent that your strategy is no longer relevant. This reminds me of Stuart Kauffman‘s use of the concept of fitness landscapes in evolutionary complexity.

In parallel with the traditional structure, Kotter proposes that you proactively engage a ‘strategy system’ which uses a structure of a distributed, loosely coupled network of peers across the organisation who’s passion for new ideas brings them together to develop more holistic situation awareness to identify extreme risks and opportunities and iteratively evolve new execution models to deal with those. This more agile approach ties in with much of the current state of the art in complexity and extreme risk management which proposes running many ‘safe to fail’ experiments in order to have the best chance of landing on the next fitness peak in the landscape.

The role of the traditional organisation structure is to facilitate the strategy system and foster new structures which may, in turn, one day evolve (devolve?) into another traditional management organisation suited to the next landscape.

In order to provide some kind of continuity and overall stakeholder / shareholder returns, it seems to me that the Board of Directors or equivalent governance body needs to have an influence on the assurance of informed decision making which sits at the intersection of the two systems.

Peter Whyntie, Executive Director of Compliance Australia recently wrote an article in the Chartered Secretaries magazine entitled “Strategic risk management – the neglected element of ERM'”. The article is behind a membership wall, but you can listen to a podcast summary here. Peter comes from a risk management perspective and, it seems to me, arrives at a similar place. Longer term strategic risks need to be seen through a much wider lens that the traditional risk and control structure found in operations management. The key difference is that strategic risk assessment is externally focused using the lens of your risk appetite.

My impression of much of Kotter’s earlier work is that it has been internally focused around leadership, culture and change management within the organisation. The strategy system he proposes now is focused externally and places the organisation in a role as an adaptor and adopter, resilient to change and co-creating in a complex environment where the distinction between internal and external is being redefined.

The take away from both of these is that you need to be more aware of your external environment and the assumptions you make as to how fit you are to exploit it and survive in it. This will require participation by a broader group of stakeholders who can help to formulate a more holistic common operating picture and show that there are many different senses of common sense out there.

An extreme impact exercise is a good place to start a process which leads you to exercise the unexpected.