It is the most human thing to recognize patterns. We are attuned to rhythms in nature that repeat: seasonal changes in the land around us, the ebb and flood of the tide, migrations of birds, the ripening of fruits, flows of water and the rhythms of the day.
We also see shape and line and image, and our brains even impose order on otherwise random images like cumulus clouds in a summer sky or inkblots on a therapist’s couch.
As babies, we recognize the similarities and differences that are crucial to our survival. The sound of our mother’s voice, the patterns of contrast on the faces of our caregivers, the smells and tastes of our parent’s skin. Familiar patterns distinguish safe situations from dangerous ones and they help us to stabilize and regulate our emotions.
Patterns are simply things that repeat and that we recognize as being similar to something we have seen or experienced before. Patterns may vary in detail, but they repeat in form. You recognize a house, even when all the houses in your village are different. You can feel anger even when different words are said. You know a soccer team is playing a high press or a low block tactic even when different teams use the strategy. The presence of patterns is the absence of randomness.
When you see a pattern there is likely a good reason for it. Nothing in nature repeats unless there are underlying conditions that cause it to repeat. In complexity, these are called constraints, and once you start understanding them, you begin to develop a range of options for seeing, creating and shifting patterns.
Constraints and Cynefin
One way to think about Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework is to see it as a spectrum of constraints. Moving from clear to chaos, you can think of different problems as systems as exhibiting less stability, more self-organization and emergence until you get to a totally chaotic state in which everything appears to be unconstrained and random. This little diagram above shows you what I mean.
Moving from left to right, constraints get tighter, situations become more stable and more predictable. Any move in this direction will make a pattern more stable and enduring. It also requires more energy and resources to maintain it, so one has to make choices about which stable pattern to invest in. Creating a fixed relationship between agents in a system means that it is harder for them to form connections outside the system. That is desirable when you need a guaranteed repeatable outcome, such as on an assembly line, but it’s a bad way to create community.
In contrast, moving from right to left, constraints get looser and situations get less stable. Any move in that direction will break down stability and allow for new patterns to emerge. However, because you are introducing more randomness into the system, you can never be sure if the new patterns will be helpful or not, so you have to watch them very carefully and support the ones that give you what you want. You can try to influence the emergence of beneficial patterns by trying new things, to see if new relationships will form. If they do, and things work well, you can create agreements to stabilize what is working. But if you go too far in breaking down existing patterns you can create chaos.
In Chaos, the only thing that helps is the rapid establishment of tight constraints to create some stability. Think of what happens when first responders arrive on the scene of a fire. You get authoritative directions and are told what to do and where to go. You accept a level of bossiness from others that you would never accept in your daily life. In Chaos it is easy to impose constraints, but very difficult to loosen them. Just think of your experience with the pandemic.
Constraints: places to intervene in a complex system
In her classic on systems thinking, Donella Meadows writes about the 12 places you can intervene in a system. These are useful for nested and ordered systems, and in some ways, her typology moves from clear to complex as it moves up in scale from local to global. It’s helpful, but the work of Alicia Juarerro, Dave Snowden and Glenda Eoyang provides a simpler way into understanding the places to intervene in a complex adaptive system.
If we are looking to create or change patterns around us – to stabilize things that are beneficial or disrupt things that aren’t working – complexity thinking gives us a few things to try. In my practice I have these down to five constraints that you can try influencing:
Connections. One way to identify a pattern is to see how the elements in the system are connected. Connections limit action, as I point out in the example above. If I have to report to you every day in person at 9am, that constrains my action. The people in my community share a kind of connection with me that others don’t. Those with whom I make music, or study complexity, or support the Vancouver Whitecaps FC, have a different connection. If I want to change my life I can sever or create new connections with others. I can tighten up a connection – call your mother! – or loosen one (let your child explore the world a little more on her own).
Exchanges. If you think of connections as a kind of fibre optic cable then exchanges are the data and information that pass through it. You can have more or less bandwidth in an exchange and you can choose what to pass over it and with what quality. For example, I have a high bandwidth exchange with my partner in which we can talk about anything, in virtually any way, and that comes from 30 years of being together. In other relationships, I exchange different information in different ways.
Information in connections and exchanges is influenced by things such as power. A twelve-year-old child shouting obscenities at me is quite different from my boss doing the same thing. When you have power, you have to be aware of how you are using it, because it affects the system. If our connection is rigid – for example, if I am a prisoner and you are the prison guard – your power over me can be coercive and brutal if you want it to be. If you can use violence against me, I will either have to submit to you or fight back. But in more equitable relationships and connections, the exchanges can be reciprocal, power can be shared and what is exchanged is more creative, collaborative and emergent.
Connections and exchanges between agents or parts in a system are a rich place to intervene. But connections and exchanges are also constrained within what we call “containers.” These are spaces and contexts, physical, social, even psychological, inside which people act. Containers are made up of Attractors and Boundaries. Attractors bring us together around something and boundaries create differences. If you want to change the container or the context in which things are happening, you can try creating an alternate attractor and see if the system reorganizes around it. We do this all the time with rewards and other extrinsic motivations. If my kid can’t see that good grades are their own reward, gamifying school work with different rewards and levels might help to pick up the grades. Or not. It’s worth a try. Likewise if I feel that my relationship to a person is stuck in a rut, we might do something different together, go on holiday or climb a mountain, or meet in a different place and simply having a different attractor in our midst will help us to relate differently. This is why groups often use things like ropes courses to explore collaboration. A different attractor catalyzes different actions.
Attractors influence patterns of attention. If you are wondering why no one comes to your events, it’s all down to how you compete for their attention. Marketing is all about attractors.
Boundaries are what we usually think of when we picture a “constraint.” It gives you images of a fence or a wall inside which something happens and outside of which something else happens. Boundaries create differences and differences help new patterns to emerge. If our boundary is too tight, we can become too inwardly focused and learn nothing new. And so we talk about “expanding our horizons” or “getting outside the box” which is an indication that if we are to discover different things, we need to open up the boundaries that keep us separate from the world.
But sometimes we need to tighten boundaries as well to differentiate ourselves from others. We are currently doing this in the pandemic at a personal and a national level, managing bubbles, trying to find the right balance between being safe and being connected. We could stop the pandemic by having everyone spend one month in isolation, but the cost of that to people’s mental health would be immense. So managing boundaries is critical.
Issues of inclusivity and exclusivity are always at play when you create a boundary. Someone is always left out. Removing boundaries altogether does not create a more inclusive situation, it creates chaos. Inclusivity is about providing different ways for people to enter into a context, and then how to connect and exchange once they are there.
If there is a pattern of differentiation to address there is almost always a boundary constraint that is giving rise to it. Changing boundaries changes the way one context is different from another. Sometimes you need more difference and sometimes you need less.
Identity. In most natural complex adaptive systems, the above four constraints – connectinos, exchanges, attractors, boundaries – are the ways in which the system organizes itself. In human systems, however, and in the field of anthro-complexity, identity is a crucial fifth constraint. Identity influences much of how we show up as humans. It can create new boundaries and attractors and it influences how we connect and exchange. Identity can create commonalities or differences – both of which can be helpful or destructive – and changing identity is perhaps the hardest thing for humans to do. We are built and maintained by the stories we have about ourselves and the stories that others tell about us. To make matters more confusing, we all have multiple identities. Within us intersect our nationality, gender, race, history, culture, age, status, power, role, family and so on. We can lock into people that we perceive as the same as us – which is helpful for safety and having a shared context – or we can actively seek out people that are radically different from us – which is necessary for learning, creating new things and developing resilience. In my own practice, I choose to work on teams that have much diversity – focusing specifically on diversifying gender, cultural background and expertise. Even small teams of two or three people with as much diversity as you can find end up being incredibly resourceful for working with all the aspects of complex systems because we can centre or de-centre particular identities given the changing context.
Recognizing taht we all carry multiple identities allows us to be different from each other when we need to be, and come together around commonalities when we need to be. In healing divisive dynamics in a system, finding common identities is crucial, even if these identities are not exactly relevant to the problem at hand. In overcoming problems of stuckness, where we are falling into an echo chamber, differences of opinion are essential if we are to confront an ever-changing world together.
In human systems identity is everywhere.
Constraints are your friend. Becoming good at spotting them and then experimenting with them is the journey towards the artistry of complexity work. It is creative, collaborative work as well, needing lots of eyes and ears and hearts and minds to discern what is happening and look for ways to make things better, to stabilize the things that are working or to break down the patterns that don’t.
How are you using constraints in your work and life?