Rapidinnovation – Understanding Complexity

As Problem Solvers we sometimes misunderstand complexity and the play of complex adaptive systems. We can become so obsessed with the solutions we come up with that we forget to take notice of the interactions and interdependence between things and how our proposed solutions might affect the existing web of interactions and interdependence, creating more difficult problems for us to tackle in the future.

For instance, in the late 1800s rangers at Yellowstone National Park saw that the population of elks was dwindling. They reasoned that the elks were not getting enough food to sustain and grow. Hence they came up with the bright solution that the elks must be ‘forced feed’ by human beings so that their population would substantially increase avoiding a possible ‘risk’ of extinction.

The solution seemed viable and nothing seemed to be missing. So the rangers of Yellowstone park brought in the U.S. cavalry to implement their solution to hand-feed the elks. And as expected the solution worked wonders. The elk population swelled. 

But that is not the end of the story. As the elk population swelled the elk started eating aspen trees. But aspen trees were what the beavers were using to build their dams that caught the runoff in the spring, which allowed trout to spawn.

Now with less and less aspen trees there were less and less dams and with less and less dams there were less and less trout to spawn. So more elks equaled less trout.

Why did this happen? It happened since we did not recognize that we were dealing with an ‘adaptive system’ which by nature, exhibit complex and often unexplained emergent behavior.

The seemingly ‘good’ solution of ‘force feeding’ elks led to a series of cascading events that were completely unanticipated.

We most often seek to improve complex adaptive systems, sometimes with disastrous consequences.

It doesn’t take a lot of stretching of our mental awareness to make comparative understanding of complex adaptive systems of the elk ecology to the ecology of organizations and economy. Even with our best intentions in place, there seems to be really no way we can anticipate the ultimate results with ‘tinkering’ with complex adaptive systems. .

The important question that we must ask ourselves is, “What conditions have to be in place to actually solve these kinds of challenging problems? It does not matter whether we are attempting to solve organizational problems, or machinery problems, ecological problems, economic problems or grappling with design problems.

For some strange reason they are all complex adaptive systems exhibiting their strange behavior through ’emergence’.


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