Tuesday, July 26, 2011
The deficit showdown reflects a challenge of modern times: how can government – and society – deal with increased complexity? A new book may point the way.
The deficit showdown reflects a challenge of modern times: how can government – and society – deal with increased complexity? A new book may point the way.

Noted government observer Donald Kettl, wrote several years ago that the government of the future needs to develop three things to deal with increased complexity:  knowledge-driven organizations, the agility to deal with non-routine problems, and the capacity to implement non-hierarchical solutions.

In a post I wrote back in May, I reflected on what I learned from several panels at the annual conference of the American Society for Public Administration  that focused on complexity theory as it relates to government.  There, I describe the roles of emergence (where individual choices become collective choices), transparency, and collaborative governance.

Well, as part of its 100th anniversary, IBM commissioned a book, Making the World Work Better, that also addresses the need to deal with complexity, but from a societal perspective. Author Jeffrey O’Brien says: “‘complex’ is a synonym for ‘unpredictable’ -- or at least not easily predictable.”  In complex systems, “interactions are not linear, but emergent.”

He goes on to say: “We can’t untangle complex systems in our minds, and we can’t intuit our way to a better-working world.”  He says that computers can help, but “They must be augmented with perception, reasoning, cognition and intuition.”

“Making the world work better is about untangling and managing complexity,” he says, adding:  “Change is easy.  It happens by itself. . . Progress, on the other hand . . . is deliberate and difficult.  But it’s not random.”  O’Brien offers a five-part model on how to spark progress in the face of societal complexity:  seeing, mapping, understanding, believing and action.  He says we can master complex systems by following a discernable path:

Seeing.  Every phenomenon is a set of data points ready to be captured, such as telescopes to see the universe.

Mapping.  Organizes data into a meaningful map, such as a map of the solar system.  “However, to be useful, any map must present data selectively.”  “The power to map is the power to define.” “. . .without context, data is just noise. To be useful, it must be organized.  That’s precisely what maps do.  Maps tell us where we are.” A Ted Talk by ecologist Eric Berlow says you can’t look just at individual links.  You need to look at the broader system to seen the sphere of influence of other links.  And good visualization tools (aka maps!) allow you to step back, when looking at complex problems, and they give you a chance to find simple answers. 

Understanding.  The basis for describing and anticipating complex behaviors, such as the laws governing astrophysics and rocket propulsion.  The goal in industry is to model customer behavior to make predictions in real time, to anticipate future behaviors.

Believing.  Believing is about inspiring the confidence that progress is possible, such as sending three astronauts to the moon and back.

Acting.  Enabling forward thinkers to design, build, adapt, optimize and automate the world’s systems, such as the Apollo 11 team of scientists and engineers.  “Complex systems aren’t static.  They react to our interventions.”

O’Brien concludes, optimistically: “We have the tools.  We know the path.”  I’m not so sure I see such certainty based on what I see, but O’Brien’s framework does seem to help shine a light on the path!


Graphic Credit (a cloud of l00,000 starlings in flight):  Daily Echo