Nature’s Model to Harness Uncertainty for Performance

Uncertainty & its Importance

In business, as in life, we are always faced by uncertainty. That not only puts us into a tight fix but also makes our lives extremely difficult to live. This is because it is difficult to make sense of what is going on around us, how the future would unfold and what we are supposed to do now. It is difficult to think why things are the way they are and what steps might prove appropriate to tide over uncertainty to survive and improve performance.

Higher the degrees of uncertainty bigger are the risks and the problems. Over the years we have therefore searched for models, theories, ‘five best ways’, best methods practices, rules of thumb and techniques to tackle such uncertainty so as to act in a sensible manner. But we are always unsure about the effectiveness of our decisions and actions. Only after an action is taken we might get to know through hindsight whether it proved effective or useless.

Use of Models

To lessen the risk of such uncertainty we tend to use models. There are different types of models. Most models present us with calibrated yardsticks that try to tell us what is going wrong with the present operation and how much off we are from the ideal target or plan. There are some that try to tell us what and how to predict the future while others tell us what is the ideal thing to do (does not quite matter what we do — growing a business or raising a child) and how that might be done best. And there are models that inform whether we are on the right track and how to monitor so that we don’t slip or accidentally fall off the edges. There are still others that tell us what others are doing and how we might catch up with the best in the field. The range and gamut of the models are mind boggling. For an organization juggling with so many models some of which might be in conflict with each other and tending to them can prove to be a bewildering task with the limited manpower they always like to have.

In spite of so many well meaning models for monitoring, growth and performance enhancement we have seen businesses fail miserably, economies collapse all of a sudden and nations going bankrupt overnight. That is unfortunate. But why is that?

Why Models Fail?

Is there something common that runs through all these models? Most models that we presently have are a sort of idealistic abstractions of the human mind. That is we first think of an ideal that we hope to achieve and then find ways and means to achieve that without considering the ground reality the organization, society or a person is in. We then try to impose that ‘ideal way’ to deal with a current situation with all the techniques and methods outlined in such and such model. The focus is to neatly fit the model onto a given reality without even trying much to understand what gives rise to that reality.  Naturally, the model would refuse to fit.  But we don’t give in. We then measure what or how much of present situation goes outside the boundaries of imposed model and try to trim the excesses or eliminate them so as to forcefully fit the model or framework to comfort us that everything is going smoothly as it should if the model is to be applied.

For example, most economists think that having a huge population would only make a country poorer. The leaders in India were concerned. They found that on an average most Indian families have around five children. That they thought is way above the ideal level of two children. The current reality wasn’t quite fitting into their economic model. So they went about sterilizing people by force. People reacted to this and in the next election overthrew the government. If they took time and effort to understand the underlying reality of the present situation the solution would have been rather different. Indian parents tend to have more children, especially boys, as an insurance to support them in their old age. If only the leaders understood this reality the huge sums of money they spent on ‘mass sterilization’ would have been well spent to start old age pension and medical schemes. That would have been more beneficial to assure Indian parents to limit the size of their families.

Similarly, great efforts are underway in the Indian manufacturing sector to enhance quality and systems mostly through Japanese models of improvement. There is nothing wrong with the models as such only that these are applied to completely different context. As a result they simply produce poor cosmetic output that does little to help a business in the long run. The workers don’t understand what is going on and why they are being asked to do things which they think are queer. The underlying reality is that the workers are mostly poorly paid and undereducated. So, would it make more sense to put efforts to educate the workforce rather than thrusting upon them methods which they can’t make any sense of? For example, if the worker does not know how to estimate the volume of fluid he regularly handles how can one stop him from wasting material? 

So, ‘idealism‘ is a basic flaw in all the existing models that we have seen till date. It is this all pervading idea of idealism that transforms all these models into highly abstract and arbitrary ones. Hence, these models suffer from the disease of an ‘absolute idea‘ and everything is forced to fit into that ‘absolute idea’. It simply does not matter whether we are fitting that ‘absolute idea’ onto nature, societies and organizations or onto our personal lives without taking into account the current realities and how these have come about.

Therefore, we are confronted with the classic ‘To be or Not to be’ case. The question is whether we construct a theory in our minds based on some ‘abstract ideal‘ and apply it to a given situation or do we gain insights and understanding of a given situation and then think of what best can be done or achieved under the given circumstances and what might be the consequences of our designed actions? In other words, do we arbitrarily foist our ‘idea’ on the world to forcefully bring about a change or do our minds reflect the world and translate the reflection into actionable thoughts and designs to adapt and change the world or ourselves?

Obviously, the first method hasn’t worked well enough and clearly isn’t going to work at all. The alternative is to look at the other approach.

Nature’s Model – The Alternative View

The difference between the two approaches lies in the perspectives they take. The ‘Absolute Idea’ model is a static framework to achieve an ideal irrespective of the given circumstances. Since the alternative approach is grounded in understanding ‘movement‘ it is then akin to developing a model based on the reality and modulating it as changes take place. The advantage of doing so is obvious. Nature moves. So having a model that faithfully reflects and replicates that movement is advantageous than having to fit a pre-formed ‘idea’ model to the reality of movement, which simply wouldn’t match. We would call this the ‘Nature’s Model‘, which is a context specific model that can be applied to various issues as opposed to ‘Absolute Ideal’ model, which is an ‘idea’ specific model looking for applications. 

What would this ‘Nature’s Model’ involve? When we consciously contemplate about the world around us, we see an immense and amazingly complex series of phenomena, an intricate interrelated web of seemingly endless change, cause and effect, action and reaction — in short we see ‘Uncertainty’ enveloping us. The motivation to construct a contextual Nature’s Model is based on our desire to obtain insights into this bewildering labyrinth of uncertainty, to understand it in order to harness it for the collective good without unintended consequences to Nature and our future generations. We would then look for laws which can separate the general from the particular, the accidental from the necessary, and enable us to understand the underlying themes that give rise to the phenomena that envelope us. We would do that by considering motion or movement as the basic underlying characteristic of all phenomena.

Why would we consider ‘movement’ to be the basic characteristic of any phenomena? This might be best answered by the words of David Bohm the celebrated physicist and philosopher:

“In nature nothing remains constant. Everything is in a perpetual state of transformation, motion, and change. However, we discover that nothing simply surges up out of nothing without having antecedents that existed before. Likewise, nothing ever disappears without a trace, in the sense that it gives rise to absolutely nothing existing at later times. This general characteristic of the world can be expressed in terms of a principle which summarizes an enormous domain of different kinds of experience and which has never yet been contradicted in any observation or experiment, scientific or otherwise; namely, everything comes from other things and gives rise to other things.” 

The fundamental proposition of Nature’s Model is that everything is in a constant state of movement and developing new states. Even when it appears to us that nothing is quite happening, in reality, matter and things are always changing. Molecules, atoms and subatomic particles are constantly changing place, always on the move and always developing new states — always in a state of becoming something else than what it were. Thus Nature’s Model is essentially a dynamic interpretation of the phenomena and processes which occur at all levels of both organic and inorganic matter to help us take critical decisions about adapting and/or changing and living moment to moment to survive and perform.

Richard Feynman had this to say, “To our eyes, our crude eyes, nothing is changing but if we could see it a billion times magnified, we would see that from its own point of view it is always changing: molecules are leaving the surface, molecules are coming back.” It is the flux of movement that surrounds us creating the ‘uncertainty’ that we hope to harness for our betterment. 

However, this idea of motion and change as the fundamental characteristic of Nature is not new to human understanding.

Aristotle wrote: “Therefore…the primary and proper meaning of ‘nature’ is the essence of things which have in themselves…the principle of motion.”

This is not the mechanical conception of motion as something imparted to an inert mass by an external “force” (Newton Laws) but an entirely different notion of matter as ‘self-moving‘. For them, matter and motion (energy) was one and the same thing, two ways of expressing the same idea. This idea was brilliantly confirmed by Einstein’s theory of the equivalence of mass and energy.

The germ of this ideas of self movement and self creation or self organization can also be found in ancient thoughts of Hindus through their metaphor of Shiva (chaos), Vishnu (order) and Brahma (self creation) and in Chinese thoughts captured through their metaphor of the Yang-Yin and the Buddhist thoughts of Flow, Change and Interdependence of all matter and phenomena.

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Therefore, the model presented reflects this reality of movement and change in Nature. Matter flows from one state (State 1) to another state (State 2). The path is both linear (ordered) and non-linear (chaos) to reach its highest potential. This is done through a series of internal self-movements and self creation (or self organizing) through a number of internal contradictions or paired opposites helped by a series of interdependences. While this goes on, the quality of the state of matter continually changes. Once it reaches its highest potential (when the number of interdependences are the highest the system becomes too rigid to hold on by itself and loses its resilience to changes) there is a sudden change and collapse of the state (releasing energy) and the highly interdependent state changes to a new state which rushes back to the previous state from where it started out but at one level higher and more complex in nature and behavior. A number of such spiral transformations of ‘uncertainties’ are going on simultaneously in a system at any point of time. It is a combination of slow gradual changes, medium short term changes and quick and rapid changes.

How is the Model Useful?

But what useful thing can happen by understanding movement and change of state? It simply helps us to think about the decisions we might take to flow with the changes and not resist them to self destruct ourselves or make things better.

So when the system collapses our decision would be to innovate and restructure the system based on its present level of complexity and behavior. We would have to carefully look for the smallest favorable movement the collapse has brought about that might take us forward or change course in a new direction. For example, if the new state of communication is ‘social media’ then businesses might do well to think how to innovate to change their brand images through social media. There would be little point in sticking to the older forms of brand building exercises, which are bound to prove futile or counterproductive with the sudden change of state of communication.

Similarly, when the system starts its upward movement our decision would be to institute a number of small changes to help the growth and development towards the new state, if desirable. Such an effort would be a summation of numerous micro changes to boost self organization or self movement to its desired potential (the maximum the state might reach before it collapses again and tries to go back to its previous state).

But when the state matures to its highest potential then our efforts might be directed to maintaining the state as long as viable without being blind to the fact that all that stability that we enjoy would soon collapse to a new state. Hence our decision might be to maintain stability and prepare for the collapse at the same time. 

So our decisions would change as per the circumstances we are in. Broadly there would be four states — initial, growth, stability and collapse and creation of a new state. In each case the type and quality of decision to be in the flow would be different. Accordingly the quantity and quality of our efforts would also change depending on the state we are in.

However, it is important to assess the situation as accurately as possible. This can be done through insights that can be gained through our observation of the reality. Gaining insights of the reality (mistaken as uncertainty) has another advantage. Gaining insights from the present movement would also help us to assess how the movement would change within a given time and space and whether it distorts them. Having said that we must implicitly assume the fact that accuracy of such assessment might be off by a wide margin since it can not be predicted accurately. Nonetheless it would be useful to have a general idea of the movement and about what time the collapse might take place.

It is important to remember that our insights would always be context specific and therefore ever changing. Previous insights wouldn’t hold true as soon as the context or the movement changes. That calls for mechanisms to have snapshots of the present reality and monitor the changes with respect to previous states. It would always be a work in progress.

Limitation & How do we overcome that?

There is one inherent danger in gaining insights. Gaining insight starts with observation. And that is where the potential difficulty lies. Observing is a state where the confluence of  time, space and observer’ mind take place. And there seems to be no guarantee that the mind of the observer would faithfully reflect the state of the reality. The mind of the observer might change the reality instead of faithfully reflecting it leading to distorted understanding and insights. Such irrationality of the human mind is expected due to the interaction between the characteristics of the mind and reality. One way to get over this difficulty is to cultivate the discipline of an open, supple but critical mind. The other way would be to expect and allow failures, be responsive to it and instantly learn and correct the mistake so that reality is not reflected in a distorted manner. Of course the best way forward would be to follow both ways.

Conclusions

We might now conclude that ‘uncertainty’ is only a delusion. Movement is real and that is the truth behind every phenomenon that we encounter. There is nothing like an ‘Absolute Idea’ or ‘Absolute Ideal’. So, by understanding and gaining insights from ‘movement’ we can change and adapt to the flow of movement in forms of appropriate decisions and actions. But that would call for understanding the laws of Nature to interprete reality as accurately as possible. That is what Nature’s Model hopes to achieve. The leverage that might be gained is enormous. Since the model replicates the movements in Nature it can be easily applied to a host of issues in organization development, business performance, economic viability, sustainability, personal growth and development, design and thinking. One model serves different roles and purposes. Aren’t we fortunate? Perhaps!

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