Knowledge Press

Solving Complex Problems in a Complex World


Overview: Making Things Work

The book is organized into two parts. The first part introduces and discusses basic concepts from the study of complex systems. The second part applies these concepts to some very complex problems: military conflict, health care, education, third world development, and global ethnic violence and terrorism. A brief overview precedes an in-depth discussion of each issue.

PART I: Concepts

1. Parts, Wholes and Relationships

The first chapter introduces the study of complex systems and the concepts of emergence and interdependence. Conventional science learns by taking systems apart, looking at each part separately, and then continues to learn by further dissecting these parts. The study of complex systems considers relationships and how parts interact with each other to form collective behaviors and their interactions with the environment. The idea of “emergence” pertains to understanding how the details about parts (e.g. the trees) relate to the behavior of the system as a whole (the forest). Interdependence is about the effect of changes in one part of a system on the other parts of the system. Using these concepts we can start to identify important attributes of complex systems.

2. Patterns

The second chapter is about how self-organized patterns of behavior arise from interactions between the parts of a system. The development of a human being from a single fertilized cell to an intricate structure of tissues and organs is an example of such pattern formation. Many patterns of social behavior can be understood from the same pattern-forming processes. For example, simple models of influences between people can be used to understand seemingly mysterious phenomena like fads and panics. Slightly more elaborate interactions create cliques. The same rules are relevant to a wide variety of types of patterns in physical, biological and social systems.

3. Networks and Memory

The third chapter extends the ideas of pattern formation to describe how patterns emerge from networks of interacting elements. Models of influences in networks can be used to study highly complex patterns of social behavior, or the patterns of behavior of neurons in the brain. Using these patterns, the network structure of the brain can be related to abstract properties of mind. As an illustration that is unique to this book, we describe the origins of creativity and how it relates to the particular network structure of the human brain. Similar ideas apply to social networks, revealing how people can be arranged to promote creativity on the level of organizations.

4. Possibilities

The fourth chapter considers not just the pattern of behavior that a system is in at a particular time, but rather all of the possible patterns a system could be in—the space of possibilities. It also deals with how to describe complex systems and how our ideas about complexity can be made more precise. Unique to this book, we show that complexity turns out to be intimately related to scale: they are balanced against each other. Large scale behaviors consisting of many individuals acting uniformly together can only happen when individual behaviors are restricted, reducing the complexity of the actions of individuals. Here, the word scale is used just as in phrases like "economies of scale" or "scale of operation" referring to the scale of the activity that is taking place. Complexity and scale are both related to the space of possibilities—the set of things an organization can do.

5. Complexity and Scale in Organizations

Continuing from the fourth chapter, the fifth chapter considers what we can learn about organizations from the notions of complexity and scale. It turns out that what an organization can and cannot do—and how effective it is at a task—can be directly related to complexity and scale. Specifically, for an organization to be effective, its own complexity and scale must match the complexity and scale of its task. The balance between complexity and scale helps us understand how social systems are organized today and how historical changes in society are necessitating new types of organizations.

6. Evolution

The sixth chapter is about evolution and how making many small incremental changes can be an effective way to create complex systems. The classic way to think about evolution is to consider the competition for survival as the cause for long-term changes. It is important to realize that this picture is not complete. To understand evolution we have to recognize the roles of both competition and cooperation. An essential part of evolution is the formation of interdependent groups and collective, cooperative behaviors.

7. Competition and Cooperation

Continuing from the sixth chapter, we describe, in an approach unique to this book, how cooperation and competition always coexist. Using team sports as an example, we dispel the notion that competition and cooperation are antithetical and replace it with the understanding that they are actually complementary. Competition between teams results in cooperation within teams, and cooperation within teams is necessary for the competition between teams. Cooperative behaviors are what enable competition, and competition leads to cooperative behavior. The insights from this understanding shed light on the evolutionary process and the formation of complex systems whether biological or social. In particular, these insights are key to forming effective teams in organizations.

PART II: Solving Problems

8. Solving Real World Problems

This section provides the transition from the scientific principles to their real-world application. The purpose of the case studies presented is two-fold: they are intended both to offer a paradigm for solving these particular complex problems, and to demonstrate the power of the principles of complex systems as problem-solving techniques.

9. Military Warfare and Conflict

The effectiveness of the U.S. military today arises at least in part from its understanding of how organizational form is related to the ability to perform tasks. Understanding the roles of scale and complexity enables us to explain how the military can further enhance its capabilities, as well as how we can apply these concepts to other areas. The lessons of combat in Vietnam have led to the use of a radically different military strategy in Afghanistan from that used in conventional warfare, such as the 1991 Gulf War. Tank divisions like those used in the Gulf War are effective at large-scale, but not complex, warfare. On the other hand, the Special Forces deployed in Afghanistan are effective at complex, but not large-scale, warfare. Recognizing the complexity of terrain, enemy forces, political contexts, and their impacts on goal setting, strategy, operations and tactics is key to effective action. Success in any campaign requires matching the complexity and scale of the force with the complexity and scale of the task. Trade-offs of scale and complexity can be found in all parts of the military: Navy ships, tank divisions, heavy and light infantry, Marines and Special Forces. In many contexts, the military has explicitly stated its recognition of the role of insights from the general study of complex systems. Still, these ideas were not adequately considered in the current conflict in Iraq.

10. Health Care I

The healthcare system today is widely recognized as providing a low quality of care and high level of medical errors. A complex systems analysis shows that these arise because of the overall structure of the healthcare system and the forces that act upon it. Complexity and scale are the keys to understanding and solving these problems. The centralized flow of money into the healthcare system couples a simple cost control mechanism to the highly complex task of medical treatment. This dichotomy, contrasting large-scale to complex, is like sending tank divisions into jungle warfare. How should restrictions in the flow of money translate into the actions of physicians who are treating many different patients with different problems? Efforts to lower costs by increasing efficiency are incompatible with complex specialized treatment and are leading to increasing medical errors and decreasing quality of care. The solution to this problem is to recognize which parts of the system can and should be made more efficient and separate those from others that should not be. This is analogous to creating tank divisions and Special Forces for different kinds of tasks. Among the key large scale tasks, and therefore those that should be made efficient, are population-based care for healthy people including screening tests and immunizations. By separating these health care tasks from treatment of individual medical problems, and using different organizational forms for each we can achieve greatly improved efficiency while providing high quality care.

11. Health Care II

Between 50,000 and 100,000 people die each year from medical errors in the U.S. Most of these errors are not because of the failure of individuals, but because of failures of the system. Rather than looking for a scapegoat, we have to understand how communication and coordination problems lead to organizational ineffectiveness. We show that the problem of errors is related to the space of possibilities, the possible things that an organization could do as compared to the possible things that it should do. For example, the large number of prescription drugs that are available to physicians increases the chances that a patient will receive the wrong drug or that a particular combination of drugs will be harmful. By analyzing the communication channel between physicians and pharmacists, we show how communication can be improved so that the system can effectively deal with these many possibilities to reduce dramatically or eliminate errors. Other sources of medical errors can be similarly analyzed.

12. Education I

The complexity of a system must be matched to the complexity of its environment in order for it to be effective. In a complex world, every environment has the potential to be overly complex for the people who are in it. Since children are not in control of their learning environment, there is a great potential for mismatch. If a classroom or learning environment is too complex for children they will suffer greatly. Quite possibly, attention deficit disorders originate in a child being unable to process the complexity of his/her environment. On the other hand, if the environment is too simple children are likely to be bored, their capabilities will be reduced, and they are likely to be disruptive. The difficulty in solving this problem in the current educational system is that children are treated in similar ways even though they are intrinsically quite different from each other. The solution is to recognize the importance of individual differences, and to design the system to accommodate these differences.

13. Education II

The traditional approach of solving social problems with simple, large-scale forces is now being used to tackle the complex problems of the education system. While the failure of many schools to provide quality education is real, trying to solve this problem through standardized testing is anachronistic. Standardized testing for the evaluation of students, teachers, schools, school systems, and curricula is an industrial era approach suited for mass production of uniform products. Our complex information age society needs people with diverse and specialized skills, and, needless to say, individual desires and talents are not fulfilled through mass production of students to have similar capabilities. The solution is to recognize that the education system needs to provide a greater variety of pathways for students to follow, and to create a process by which each child (along with his or her parents) can be involved in determining the education he or she receives through selecting alternative pathways.

14. International Development

A functioning economy is a highly complex organization. Anticipating, designing, or planning the behavior of such a system does not work. Still, detailed planning of interventions for desired outcomes is the main approach used by development agencies like the World Bank. Almost any large-scale intervention is likely to be destabilizing because they are fundamentally incompatible with complex socio-economic interdependencies. This is analogous to the problem of large-scale cost control in the complex healthcare system. Moreover, any intervention itself becomes entangled with the system’s functioning so that the goal of promoting an effective and independent economy by direct intervention is paradoxical. Insights into pattern formation and evolutionary dynamics are needed to overcome these obstacles to economic improvement efforts. The key is to use a multi-scale approach consisting primarily (though not exclusively) of small interventions that address local issues based on local information. These interventions must be designed to promote the formation of progressively larger units of effective social organization.

15. Enlightened Evolutionary Engineering

In the mid 1990s, after twelve years of effort and a cost of $3-6 billion dollars, a project to redesign the U.S. Air Traffic Control System was abandoned without replacing a single part. The existing system, developed forty years earlier (1950s), was still using vacuum tubes. There are many other examples of similar failures of systems engineering projects. The problem of designing or replacing highly complex systems that are critical for the government (military or civilian) or major corporations has repeatedly proven to be beyond the capability of traditional systems engineering practice. The reason, again, is that planning highly complex systems does not work. In particular, decomposing a complex system into component parts to be designed separately virtually guarantees that the system will fail when the parts are put back together. The solution is to mimic the process that produces complex systems in nature: evolution. As discussed in Chapter 6, evolution uses multiple parallel incremental changes to create complex systems. To design a system by evolution one must create an environment conducive to this process.

16. Global control, Ethnic Violence and Terrorism

The challenge of modern terrorism and asymmetric warfare should be understood from the perspective of global change. The world is undergoing a differentiation between fundamentally different cultures. The Islamic world and the West differ in the way that their social organizations balance scale and complexity. The “clash of civilizations” is not, by and large, a desire for conquest but rather a process of clarifying the boundaries between distinct cultural systems. These systems are not compatible in the same place at the same time, so mixing them together locally does not work and clear boundaries are needed. The result is a kind of global pattern formation where the cultures separate from each other into distinct regions. Accelerating the establishment of well-defined boundaries appears to be the best strategy to achieving global peace. It is key to reducing the desire and ability of extreme groups to conduct terror operations. Traditional warfare, and even targeting “hubs” of a terrorist network are much less likely to succeed, and are often counterproductive.

17. Conclusion

The conclusion summarizes the concepts of complex systems that are essential to creating effective organizations. It recaps how these concepts can change the way we approach problems, and gives examples of several organizations that have succeeded at complex tasks by addressing these issues (whether expressly or not).

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