Getting the Hang of Super-Smart Democracies

Episode Two: Why ‘Super-Smart’

For a long time, I was using ‘Super-Competent Democracies’ as the title of my new book. But, ‘Super-Competent’ is a bit of a mouthful, and ‘Super-Competencies’ is even worse.

‘Super-Smart’ is easier to say, even though ‘smart’ has somewhat dubious overtones .It doesn’t sound intellectually respectable or serious: ‘Smarty-Pants’, ‘Smart-Arse’, for example.

However, the Thesaurus says it means ‘showing mental alertness and calculation and resourcefulness’ and links it with being shrewd, intelligent, canny, astute, clever, cagey, street-wise.

I think those are the right kinds of connections, and besides I’m talking about Super-Smart DEMOCRACIES, not super-smart individuals. The whole point of the Super-Smart model of democracy is that it is a system of government that emerges from the collective thinking, creativity, decision-making, and endeavours of millions of ordinary citizens.

My working definition is that

Super-Smart Democracies will emerge when the people, the systems leaders and the technical professionals learn how to use ensembles of participative, soft-systems and cybernetic processes to co-create increasingly just, sustainable and super-smart communities, organisations, enterprises, municipalities, services and states.

To understand what this definition means, almost every word of it needs to be explained. In later posts I will explain the meaning and relevance of : ‘emerge’, ‘the people’, ‘systems leaders’, ‘technical professionals’, ‘ensembles’, participative, soft-systems processes’, ‘increasingly’, ‘just’, and especially, that much abused word, ‘cybernetics’.

For now, however, I want to start with a brief explanation of why a Super-Smart system of democracy needs to have all those features if we are ever to have a future that I assume every sane person wants: one in which we have communities, organisations, enterprises, municipalities, services and states that are just and sustainable.

To get to there from a universal climate of injustice, unsustainability and incompetence, we will need to engage in a multitude of processes of transformation on many different scales. It is the ‘complexity’ of our communities, organisations, enterprises, municipalities, services and states, and of the problems facing them, that makes it essential for us to learn how to use those ensembles of unfamiliar system-transformation processes.

The (fairly) Simple Truths about Complex Problems

Do we agree on what our societies and governments should do about complex dilemmas like inequality, the economy, corruption, education, global warming, health services? What about reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases and environmental pollution, corporate crime, inter-ethnic conflicts, immigration, street crime, homelessness, social housing, terrorism, poverty? No, of course we don’t. We are all affected by these issues, but we don’t have anything approaching a consensus on any of them. And, if we don’t have a consensus, then how do we solve them?

We don’t have a consensus because they are examples of complex problems. This is a distinct class of problem that seem to be beyond the understanding and competencies of our current governing and managerialist elites.

They are not ‘simple’ problems like re-wiring a house or baking a cake.

Nor are they ‘complicated’ problems like building a suspension bridge or a skyscraper or transplanting a heart or putting a man on the moon.

Simple and Complicated problems can be ‘solved’ with the application of sufficient human resources, technical know-how, money and time. You can show the results of the problem-solving process, take pictures of the achievement.

Complex problems, however, cannot be ‘solved’ with even the most lavish application of traditional smarts, technological ingenuity and human resources.

As David Snowden and Mary E. Boon explained in the Harvard Business Review,

  • Complex problems involve large numbers of interacting elements
  • The interactions are nonlinear, and minor changes can produce disproportionately major consequences.
  • The system is dynamic, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and solutions can’t be imposed; rather, they arise from the circumstances.

To meet those dilemmas, Snowden and Boon emphasise that managing complexity requires:

  • A deep understanding of context, the ability to embrace complexity and paradox, and a willingness to flexibly change leadership style.

Moreover, as E. Jeffrey Conklin and William Weil say in ‘Wicked Problems: Naming the Pain in Organizations.’

  • There is no definitive statement of the problem. You don’t understand the problem until you have developed a solution.
  • The problem-solving process is fundamentally social because there are many stakeholders, people who care about or have something at stake in how the problem is resolved.
  • Getting the ‘right answer’ is not as important as having stakeholders accept whatever solution emerges.
  • We live in a rapidly changing world and thus the constraints on the solution, such as limited resources and political ramifications, change over time.
  • Operationally, the constraints change because many are generated by the stakeholders, who come and go, change their minds, fail to communicate, or otherwise change the rules by which the problem must be solved.
  • Since there is no definitive Problem, there is no definitive Solution. The problem-solving process ends when you run out of time, money, energy, or some other resource, not when some perfect solution emerges.

From Managerialist Elites to Liberating Leaders

Systems thinkers like those I’ve quoted above have been saying these sorts of things since at least the late 1960s. Yet, in 2005, a Price-Waterhouse Cooper’s survey of 1400 CEOs. found that,

  • 70% of CEOs, said managing the increasing complexity of their organisations was a high priority,
  • 91% believed that this required special skills, tools and approaches, but only 5% believed they had the skills needed.

If most of the men and women occupying senior positions in corporate management have little or no knowledge of the ‘special skills, tools and approaches’ (aka Super-Smarts) that they need to respond effectively to the increasing complexity of their tasks, the same is undoubtedly true of the power-elites who occupy the highest levels of government, the public services, the media and academia.

Thus they go on trying to deal with complex problems as if they were merely complicated, or even simple.

The folly of a simple-minded, managerialist approaches to complex dilemmas is illustrated by the notoriously destructive effects of Tony Blair’s Deliverology Unit, led by Sir Michael Barber.

Here is the impact of Deliverology on the literacy-problem in British Education, as described by John Seddon in Systems Thinking in the Public Sector: The Failure of the Reform Regime… and a Manifesto for a Better Way,UK: Triarchy Press. 2008

… the unrelenting pressure on teachers to deliver the improving test statistics by which the outside world judges them is proving counter-productive. Schools have been turning increasingly into exam factories… Intellectual curiosity is stifled. And young people’s deeper cultural, moral sporting, social and spiritual faculties are marginalised by a system in which all must come second to delivering improving test and exam numbers.

Snowden and Boon warn us that trying to ‘solve’ complex problems as if they were simple or complicated ones leads to the emergence of dangerously ‘chaotic’ environments in which

There will be high turbulence with no clear-cut cause-and-effect, many unknowables, and many decisions to make with possibly no time to think.

There are dozens of books and hundreds of learned articles on the special kinds of problems that arise out of the complexity of our enterprises, communities, cities and states.

There are many examples of how they can be tackled successfully by the application of ‘ensembles of participative, cybernetic and soft-systems processes ‘ that are core components of Super-Smart Democracies.

But, learning how to apply ensembles of participative, cybernetic and soft-systems processes does not fit with the ‘command-and-control’ mind-sets of even the most radical progressives or Greens and are anathema to ‘moderates’ and autocratic right-wingers of any stripe.

There seems to be one exception to this generalisation: Jeremy Corbyn.

If he is given the chance, he seems genuinely determined to try to be what I call ‘a liberating leader’.

He expresses his very unconventional view of leadership when he constantly repeats his commitment to introducing a much more open and participatory politics – and, hopefully, government – into this woefully elite-centred society.

Corbyn has not spelt out what he means in practical terms by ‘participatory’ but I have been studying and working on participatory processes for successfully improving complex systems many decades now, so the next episode will be about what liberating leadership means and how it can be applied at every level from the street to the state.