The Complex and the QuantumSeptember 10, 2010 Leave a comment
I was recently sorting through some of my thoughts and feelings about complexity and social change when I arrived at a question to gnaw on – What is the difference between taking an “emergent” versus a “quantum” approach to complex problems? We are told that complexity does not lend itself to existing, linear, cause-and-effect responses. The multiplicity of factors contributing to complexity make it difficult for traditional kinds of expertise to grasp. So what is one (or many) to do?
On the one hand there is the notion, a la David Snowden’s work around the Cynefin framework, that we convene “the system” (diverse stakeholders) to wrestle with the issue, poke and prod it, and arrive at collective and emergent solutions. This might be done by pulling people together through dialogue, World Cafe, Open Space, or some other “co-intelligence” method.
On the other hand (or is it the same hand?), there is the take of the likes of Scott E. Page that complexity, especially when working with the challenge of human behavioral change, recommends a quantum approach. Looking at public health interventions, for example, Page suggests that when they work it is “because they have spun the balls of motivation in a large group of individuals, and for a subset of these individuals, the balls hit the necessary trigger point, arrived in the proper order, arrived while the person was in the right state, and fit and stuck to their motivational receptors.” What this means is that a single intervention in a single instance is no guarantee for success. Rather it may behoove us to throw spaghetti at the wall a number of times to see if something sticks.
For me there is an important take-away that when we sit down to collectively address a complex situation, we be mindful that we are not necessarily looking for one answer or something we have never tried. Perhaps we have not tried something(s) often enough, in the right combination, or at the right time. In other words, beware belief in a bright new shiny silver bullet. I also appreciate both Page’s and Snowden’s reminder that we not approach everything as a complex problem. Part of the work of leaders and change agents is to sort out what lends itself to linearity and expertise and what does not.
Please and by all means, fellow spaghetti throwers, jump in . . .