Control: Use or Abuse?

La RochefoucauldI am finally able to get a moment to respond to an emerging conversation in which Dave Snowden critiques one of my tweets and the rest of human systems dynamics as if it were captured in the same 140 characters.  It is always interesting to read a critique of my work, if only to tease out what it says about the critic from what it says about me and the work my colleagues and I do.  Our practice in human systems dynamics ( and adaptive action encourages us to turn judgment into curiosity; turn defensiveness into self-reflection; and turn conflict into shared exploration. We find these are good ways to control ourselves and the conditions that influence patterns in complex human systems. I share the following observations from this point of view without hope of control.

Dave is completely right on many things. Effective action in a complex system is taken in the present moment. Patterns and the intention to influence patterns inform that action-in-the-moment. Constraints, which can be intentionally acted upon, influence the path, speed, and outcomes of self-organizing systems.   

On the other hand, I think he is only partly right about some other important points. 

  • Controlling system constraints is not the same as controlling the system. My work on the conditions for self-organizing ( agrees with and predated Juarrero’s wonderful work ( Of course you manage system constraints in order to shift patterns in a system. You just get into trouble deluding yourself about controlling how the system responds to your “control.”    
  • Dave points out that boundaries (containers) and interactions (exchanges) are important as constraints in a CAS.  They are levers that one can use to set conditions to influence self-organizing processes in human and other systems. My work adds a third—differences.  We use differences to influence containers and exchanges to take intentional action in a human system. (We also use containers and exchanges to influence differences, and containers to influence differences and exchanges because the three are coupled by nonlinear dynamics.) Examples in the previous string, one about designing a complex self-organizing scheduling system and Dave’s familiar birthday party story, point out how important difference is (in addition to boundaries and interactions) in complex dynamics of human systems.
  • Taxonomies—descriptive categories—are not the answer when you’re dealing with human systems.  The clarity of the line of distinction and its fuzziness are always mucking things up.  Chaos/deterministic chaos; chaotic/simple/complex/complicated; conditions/system; control/not; demeaning/not; leadership/management—all of these are rather arbitrary and emergent in human systems as well as in human discourse.  The net is full of blog posts that waste time and energy fitting things into categories rather than considering the underlying dynamics.  Such conversations are not supportive of wise practice because they are about symptoms and description rather than about underlying dynamics and explanation. When we see adjectives as differences within contexts (containers) and as opportunities for inquiry (exchange), then we might get somewhere.  When we reify them into nouns, then we leave the real world and enter one of self-involved, rather than self-organizing, discourse.     

My final point here is one about power and perception in human systems. The original tweet was a quote from a client who was learning to hold organizational power after seeing the emergent nature of human systems. “In complex system the trick is to give up control to succeed.  Counterintuitive?  Depends on your intuition.” Her praxis was transformed when she recognized that her power was limited to influencing the conditions—rather than controlling the outcomes—for herself, her organization, and her community. Counterintuitive? Depends on who, what, and how you intend to control.           

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