We need variety to respond to variety

I had the pleasure of sharing our Experimentation Works experience with the GC Entrepreneur cohort during their States of Change session last month. We had a good exchange on public sector innovation and experimentation, opportunities and challenges, and ways we can support and learn from each other.

The conversation continued over a post-work beverage and a reoccurring issue was raised: when it comes to trying new things or doing things differently, we can sometimes be quite critical of our own and others’ efforts and offerings— even among and within communities and networks that share common values and goals.

I was thinking about why that might be…

  • lack of understanding, engagement or trust?
  • weak ties and relationships?
  • past and present experiences?
  • inflated expectations?
  • assumptions?
  • egos?

…when Sonja Blignaut tweeted out a reference to Ashby’s Law:

Among other things, might our skepticism of change initiatives, including public sector improvement or innovation efforts, be due to our discomfort with variety?

How many among us are comfortable with variety within our own and in relation to others’ projects and ways of working? There’s often comfort in what we know (or assume to know), established routines, and default approaches whether we’re delivering an existing service the way we always do, relying on our go-to research and engagement methods, or launching a pilot project with the hopes of scaling it.

And for those of us who are openly attempting to influence change in the public sector, does that initial embrace of variety continue after we choose where to focus and the path(s) we take? Does this matter?

Enter Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety

In colloquial terms Ashby’s Law has come to be understood as a simple proposition: if a system is to be able to deal successfully with the diversity of challenges that its environment produces, then it needs to have a repertoire of responses which is (at least) as nuanced as the problems thrown up by the environment. So a viable system is one that can handle the variability of its environment. Or, as Ashby put it, only variety can absorb variety. — John Naughton, edge.org

Ashby’s Law has implications, including how we mobilize ourselves to address complex challenges. David Komlos mentions that from a team or organisational perspective it means that the way to ‘solve’ a complex challenge (aka a “high variety” problem) is to apply an equal amount of variety to the challenge. “…And you do that by convening all the right players, the requisite variety of individuals, who have the combined knowledge, experience, expertise, know-how, and influence to actually deal with the challenge — to tackle it, solve it, mobilize around it.” I’d add that for truly complex contexts the assembled team(s) might have to apply emergent transition experiments as a means of learning and adapting until the pathway reveals itself.

Similarly, Ross Dawson states that leadership is about fostering the conditions required to enable collaboration and experimentation, again, to be as flexible as the variety of the challenges we face.

Ashby’s Law has implications and applications to us as individual employees too. In the latter part of his Tedx Talk, Embrace requisite variety by exploring the diversity of doing, Rick Altizer declares, we’re all free agents — “we choose where, and with whom [we work], and the kind of work we do”. It strikes me that he shares his experience from a position of privilege, but his recommendation to put ‘intentional experiential learning’ into practice as a means of embracing requisite variety on the job and over our careers resonates with me.

“when we consciously and intentionally choose new, uncomfortable, and unique experiences, we add requisite variety to our lives and we rebel against our own latent, lazy, fearful, complacent tendencies…and we grow, we learn, and we change.”

And according to Zoe B, the most flexible person wins. In How to Use the Law of Requisite Variety to Improve your Life, she recommends the following three-step strategy:

  1. Lower your expectations;
  2. Let go of trying to ‘control everything’; and,
  3. Change the way you view ‘change’.

So what does this have to do with public sector innovation, experimentation, and supporting ourselves and each other?

Try to think of a public sector change initiative (either an improvement or innovation effort) that does not relate to embracing requisite variety. I can’t think of one. In some way, shape or form, public sector change initiatives tend to encourage people, teams, or organizations to embrace discovery, new ideas, and diverse experiences and approaches. Whether it’s in our own learning and development or as we research, design and deliver new products, policies and services, we’re encouraged to embrace variety.

And if you’re reading this and thinking, “I’m not working on a public sector change initiative in my work", consider if or where your team or organization is working in a way that acknowledges variety. Maybe you’re engaging new and existing stakeholders on emerging challenges. Or perhaps your organisation has a variety of policy levers in play to influence systems and behaviours (or considering new ones). And it’s quite possible that there’s a recognition that your team or organisation can’t meet its expected outcomes in isolation of others. There may be opportunities to add variety to what you’re doing if you’re not already doing so.

Whatever the context we find ourselves in, we likely have at least one thing in common: we need to embrace variety.

I’m not championing variety for variety’s sake here. There are ways of creating the space to reflect on where we might benefit from variety in our lives and work, individually and collectively. We can embrace variety in relation to what we’re trying to do and accomplish, monitor what happens, and learn and adapt as we go.

We can also embrace variety in the open, amplify and learn from examples that demonstrate the values and principles we share and how we put them into practice. What we do and how we do it will be different given the needs we’re addressing, the contexts we’re working in, and the resources and capacity we have to mobilize efforts, but that’s ok…we need the variety.

Photo by Max-Jakob Beer on Unsplash