Simple, Not Easy: Living the Future Today

Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.
Soren Kierkegaard

In this time of COVID disruption, we are missing two things that are essential to decision making: 1) Complete information and 2) Reliable connections with a community to create a meaningful, shared reality. In the absence of these, how do we make decisions and feel good that those decisions are both appropriate and effective? “Simple Rules” can supply us with what we need.

On March 29, 1998 a tornado hit St. Peter, Minnesota. City and state government, schools, hospitals, businesses all had emergency response plans. Dusty books on many shelves held the detailed instructions for what to do if and when “all hell breaks loose.”  When it did, though, those books did not save the day. Instead, people stood up, came together, did what needed to be done. The response and recovery were so efficient and effective the state wanted to figure out what went so right. I facilitated a focus group of citizens and professionals to deconstruct their success. This is what we found . . .

They relied on some very simple principles to make decisions:

  • Pay attention
  • Know who is most prepared, and do what they say
  • Put safety first
  • Share resources

These principles weren’t explicit. No one negotiated. They didn’t wordsmith. They didn’t even write them down. When people reflected on the experience, though, they all agreed. These simple principles had informed individual decisions and shaped collective action. Each person applied the principles in a different way, depending on where they were, what they knew, and what they were able to do. Each one did their part, and together they saved the town.

Complexity science has a name for this phenomenon. Simple Rules. General, system-wide rules, influence individual and local behavior, generating patterns that make sense across the broader community. The classic case of Simple Rules applies to a flock of birds. In 1986 Craig Reynolds developed a computer simulation. It showed how birds could flock if they followed three “simple rules:”

  • Fly toward the center
  • Match the speed of your neighbor
  • Don’t run into anything (or anyone)

No one really knows what the birds think or how they make decisions, but we do know that computer programs, can identify a short list of simple rules that yields patterns that look like flocking birds. Without a leader, without detailed instructions, each bird interprets the rules to match its context. It makes a decision, takes action, and contributes to a coherent working whole. 

Instead of requiring complete information, Simple Rules support efficient and effective decision making with whatever data is available locally. The residents of St. Peter didn’t know what the damage was. Some of them didn’t even know where their children were, but they could “Pay attention.” By making the most of local, limited intelligence, each person contributed to the systemic, coherent intelligence of the whole.  

Simple Rules create the shared reality we need to support individual and collective decisions. They are a simple, elegant, flexible, and adaptable way to come together in collective action. Individuals hunger for personal and emotional stability. Families and neighborhoods look for patterns of shared experience, mutual support, and safety. Local, state, and federal governments—both elected and bureaucratic—struggle to serve a collective goals. In St. Peter, they discovered that when each person “Puts safety first,” regardless of who they are or where they are, patterns of safety emerge across the city. Each individual decision contributes to the overall community.

At the Human Systems Dynamics Institute, we often use Simple Rules to support systemic change for our clients and their organizations. Culture, poverty, corruption, and trust are examples of the patterns we help organizations and communities understand and influence with Simple Rules. Over the past week, our community has considered the patterns we would like to see emerge from this time of massive disruption. We offer these in hopes that they might ease anxiety and improve results as we face our current dilemmas.

  • Turn judgment into curiosity
  • Zoom in and zoom out
  • Focus on what's true and useful
  • Connect with stories and impacts
  • Celebrate life

Stacy has her own Simple Rules that are guiding her choices in this Age of Uncertainty:

  • Take what you truly need, give what you can
  • Believe in your capacity to change the world with everyday and small actions
  • Be gentle

Never in modern history has the world stood face to face with death, as we do today. We must take these moments to see the patterns that create and sustain life. The patterns we create with our choices and actions today will persist long after our physical selves have passed away. We can create patterns of caring, connection, concern. We can celebrate those patterns wherever we find them and remember them in moments when they are not to be found. When we act on our own Simple Rules we are living the future we want today. Each choice, each action contributes to the emerging future for ourselves and others.

These are the patterns we hope for us and our world, and the behaviors we believe will create those patterns. These rules may not fit you, your life or community, or the world you want to create. We invite you to reflect on your hopes and dreams and expectations. From those, select a short list of Simple Rules to guide your decisions, when, like the storm in St. Peter, rules and habits of the past no longer serve.

If you want to create your own, consider these Simple Rules for Simple Rules:

  • Start with a verb. It is about what you DO, not what you think or believe.
  • Make the list short. If you have more than seven, you won’t remember them, and they won’t be useful in the moment when you need them.
  • Be sure they are positive. A negative rule prohibits, but it doesn’t inform. You need actions that will positively move to create the pattern you want.
  • Reflect on the rules that shape your behavior now, even if you haven’t been aware of them in the past. Anyone who lives in community already follows Simple Rules. What are yours? Are they useful today? Will they serve the future you want to build?

Share your list with us and visit us at

On April 2, at 11:00 AM (CDT), I will lead one of our regular, free Live Virtual Workshops, Learn from Failure: Risk in the Age of Uncertainty. We will use Simple Rules to manage risk in this turbulent time. Register HERE.

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