Complexity

“Complexity: Richly organized patterns, sometimes stable and sometimes unstable, sometimes finite and sometimes infinite, but always with the fascination of living things.”
– James Gleick in ‘Chaos: Making a New Science’

Resilience seems to be the most notable quality of oscilloscopes; once they start spinning, they fall in love with the axis around which they develop their revolving fate. You can apply an external force and deviate their spinning axis for a while but, as soon as the external force ceases, they immediately return to their beloved pivotal position. Such obstinacy is common to all spinning objects and is what causes spin toys to dance standing on a precarious impossible point or bicycles to ride certainly long distances by itself with a single push.

Spinners are simple objects, but there are compounds of multiple individual objects which aggregated behavior presents the same obstinacy to remain faithful to an specific pattern against all external forces that affects them. This compounds of objects, so called complex systems, don’t spin around an axis but present extremely complex behaviors driven by extremely simple set of rules known as attractors.

Attractors arise out of the interaction of the individual objects, and once they come to existence, the reinforce the same behavior pattern that gave birth to them in the first place and, at its time, reinforce the set of rules. The soul of the complex system is hence a reinforcing feedback loop that gives to the system an extreme resilience and makes it almost impossible to change them by means of applying an external force, but very feasible to cause behavioral change by acting on the basic rules that conform the attractor.

“When we come across a system that doesn’t work well, there’s no point in denouncing the use of feedback itself. Better to figure out the specific rules of the system at hand and start thinking of ways to wire it so that the feedback routines promote the values we want promoted.”
– Steven Johnson in ‘Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software’

The behavior is said to emerge out of the attractor, and the attractor is said to generate the behavior. Complex systems are said to be defined not by the function of their components but by the interaction between them, and that is the reason why emergent behavior is said to be impossible to be deducted by the analysis of the behavior of the components of the complex system.

In my entrepreneur experience I have found that the most transcendent objects of management are instances of emergent phenomena: strategy, information, software, knowledge, infrastructure, culture, expertise, capabilities, quality, motivation and, specially, teamwork. If we consider that each organization is actually a social experiment which development is driven by intrinsic forces (attractors) that generate the aggregated behavior of the individuals that conform the team, we can see that the only possible way to influence such behavior is by acting directly upon the behavior generators in order to propitiate the required behavior to emerge. This knowledge give rise to a very personal approach to leadership.

“We don’t stand out the complex system we are trying to change: when it changes, we do; when we change, it does.”
– Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton in ‘Getting to Maybe’

In order to exemplify how this approach to management and leadership works, I am going to tell the story of the first time I became a COO, which happened in year 2000 when I worked for a software factory. The company had have a fast growth that complicated the scope management process and the previous COO and I decided to implement a Scope Management process based on PMI framework. We found that the complexity raised from the diversity of crew members expertise, problem domains, clients profiles and platforms was such that the effort required to implement the Scope Management mechanism designed to deal whit it cause the projects to develop faster than our capacity to implement the practices required to keep them under control. So I inherited six large software engineering projects out of control with no end date defined.

I knew I had to implement some mechanism to palliate the problem while, as I naively believed was possible, the crew finally domain the Scope Management process. So I drafted a memo addressed to the project leaders with three simple rules that must be addressed every time a client requests for a change in the product specification:

  1. Every time a first line programmer receives a change request that he or she evaluates that has a significant impact on the effort originally estimated for that product item, he or she must escalate the request to the project leader.
  2. When the project leader cannot trade off a compensation for a change request, he or she must escalate the request to the COO.
  3. The COO must trade all change requests that reaches him or her directly with the project sponsor in the client side for financial compensation.

This set of rules was intended to mitigate the scope management problem but what actually happened is that all six projects fell under control just like magic. It was some sort of eureka moment to me that shook my concepts of leadership and management to the bases and for ever.

“Complexity Science” … is the search for the operative principles and concepts, as opposed to the reductionist study of detail.
– Philip W. Anderson in ‘More and Different’

I have to say that I was also lucky because I used exactly three rules to model the number of levels where the scope could be managed. If there was one more level the resulting attractor might not have worked so well because, as Frances Westley, Brenda Zimmerman and Michael Quinn Patton explain in their book Getting to Maybe, attractors expend energy from the system to generate behavior and every rule, known as heuristic, increases this energy expenditure. The authors also describe some simulations that have proved that when an attractor has more than three heuristics, then amount of energy it consumes is bigger than the amount of energy that the emergent behavior can collect from the environment, causing the system to collapse due to “inanition”.

The bad part, I became a challenging character in a world of deterministic mind set managers with their linear approach to problem solving that found my non linear approach uncomfortably disruptive. Conflict was around the corner as is well known by those who embrace complexity.

Shallow ideas can be assimilated; ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility.
– James Gleick in ‘Chaos: Making a New Science

Originally published at hugolvcdotcom.wordpress.com on September 22, 2015.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.