In this month’s ATTRACTOR, Glenda talks about distribution of power and accountability in a complex system. How can you decide who makes what decisions and who holds what accountability at the different scales of any complex system? HSD does offer unique insights for your consideration.


Power used to be simple.  It was held by men with wealth or position. That was true when the world was simpler.  Boundaries were clear; societies were (or considered themselves to be) homogeneous; and relationships were simple and direct. For some—particularly men with wealth or position—those were the good old days. Whether you liked them or not, those days are gone. Today, power and its uses create complex questions in all areas of human interaction. Where does power reside in a complex human system?  Who decides?  Who decides who is to decide?   

If society is a complex adaptive system, every person has the power to use local information to take individual action to influence the people around them. That kind of power can be relatively simple.  I choose to see what I see, understand what I understand, and influence what I can influence. My subjective truth informs me and drives my choices.  From this perspective, I am free, and my power is limitless.   

My world becomes more complex as other people also exercise this agent-based power at the same time and in the same space.  My actions and theirs have consequences that empower or injure others. What I do influences the options of others, and I end up negotiating for control over them, myself, and the environment that surrounds us.  Sometimes these complex interdependencies result in patterns of health and productivity such as  collaboration, shared innovation, community development, and non-violent resistance.  Sometimes the patterns are not so positive: bullying, character assassination, violence, bias, and xenophobia. As rational, civilized societies, we would hope to set conditions that encourage healthy emerging patterns and discourage the others. Sometimes we succeed. Sometimes we fail.

Political, social, and religious institutions have emerged over time and across the human community to help us succeed. Governments, corporations, and non-governmental organizations have worked in our society to build capacity for creating healthy patterns. Traditionally, when decisions were simpler, choices about shaping those patterns were simpler, and the power of those institutions was rarely questioned. Today, when the rules of engagement are changing, the choices we make about power and influence will define our shared patterns long into the future.  We must choose carefully.  

One design principle in complex systems can help inform our choices:  Heterarchy. An integration of bottom-up control (anarchy) and top-down control (hierarchy), heterarchy supports both the power of the individual and the power of institution. Both are valued, but neither has the final say in questions that concern a larger community. Individuals and institutions have power to create or to destroy, so each one must bound and regulate the other for the benefit of all. The principle of heterarchy helps define appropriate opportunities and limitations of each source of power to ensure optimal health and sustainability for both.  When each kind of power is applied in its appropriate sphere, then the society supports health and happiness for the whole. 

Complex dynamics of physical systems and history of social systems can inform us about the roles of power that are most fit for function. 

HSD Power Table

When individuals or groups of individuals try to step into the realm of institutional power, the greater good is sacrificed for the lesser.  This was the pattern that doomed many school-based decision arrangements in the latter part of the 20th century. When individual schools were allowed total autonomy, they were unable to sustain healthy patterns across the greater system that ensured equitable access for all. That extreme form of shared decision making has, over time, given way to a greater balance of systemic and local decision making.

When institutions try to step into the realm of individual power, then the individual good is sacrificed for the greater good. The Bill of Rights, first ten amendments to the US Constitution, were intended to ensure that the government not infringe on the rights and powers of individual citizens. 

As you can see, these two sets of conditions do not contradict each other.  Both are necessary, and neither needs to interfere with the other.  When they come together in a heterarchical design, they create the conditions for a civilized society in which each person contributes what he or she can and benefits from the contributions of others.

In a practical sense, when you are confronted with a possible abuse of either institutional or individual power, ask yourself and others the following questions:

  • Is this decision more likely to have an impact on an individual or group of individuals, or is it likely to have an impact on interactions and interdependencies across individuals and groups?

  • What will bring the greatest good to the greatest number?

  • What (or whose) information should influence this decision? Is it information that is private or public?

  • Is this decision about individual resources or about shared resources?

  • Who benefits from and who is potentially injured by this choice?

  • What might be future ramifications of this choice for individuals at various places within the community or institutions?

  • What will be lost and what will be gained by individuals, groups, and institutions touched by the choice?

  • What can you do, given the current situation, to contribute to individual and collective well being?

Then take action and look for the “what” of your next cycle of Adaptive Action.  


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