Glenda Eoyang at Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum

Glenda Eoyang from the Human Systems Dynamics Institute presented at the Minnesota Independent Scholars Forum yesterday. She gave a polished presentation on complexity and human systems.

She started by distinguishing two perceptions of time: linear and pragmatic. Linear time is what we usually envision time to be - a straight line from the past into the future. There are a lot of problems with this view and we spent some time talking about them as a group. I thought we got bogged down in this area a bit. Then she introduced pragmatic time that incorporates a multitude of different paths from the past into a multitude of future paths. Getting away from the single line of progress seemed to be the ultimate upshot and was a useful message to promote.

Adaptive action is the core of her work and she summarized a simple three step process to help analyze situations.

First, what patterns do you observe? She offered three possible meta-patterns to classify observations: organized, self-organizing, and unorganized. Organized patterns appear familiar, predictable, reducible, replicable, stable, etc. Self-organizing patterns are constantly changing, irreducible, not replicable, emergent, interactive, familiar whole, surprising parts. Unorganized patterns are like a hot gas: constantly surprising, totally ambiguous, unpredictable, and unstable. Reminds me of classifying cellular automata a la Stephen Wolfram whom she no doubt has borrowed some ideas from although she didn’t mention him.

Second, so what does the situation demand? How should we intervene? Again she used the same typology for three types of intervention. If more control and predictability is needed then an organized intervention such as policy, procedures, team building, visioning, clear goals, branding, or six sigma will be appropriate. A more active response prompts self-organizing interventions: increase or decrease control, stand and watch, or jump in and play. Unorganized interventions such as telling stories, collecting histories, gathering data, anxiety containment, relationship building, or enjoying innovation may promote more random exploration.

Third, now what will you do to shift the conditions for self-organizing? You can change the:

  1. Containers that hold the system together until patterns form. Greater organization could come from fewer, stronger, or smaller containers; less organization from more, weaker, and larger.
  2. Differences establish the pattern and build tensions to motivate change. Again organization can be fostered by having fewer, clearer, and smaller differences. The reverse would lead to more, fuzzier, and larger differences.
  3. Exchanges connect agents together within the container and across differences. Tighter or looser exchanges move along the organized/unorganized continuum.

I liked the whole presentation. A lot of good food for thought. The container, differences, and exchanges typology sounded particularly interesting.

I had some questions:

  • How do you mediate between group and individual perspectives on pragmatic time? The number of histories that need attention grows quickly as the number of group members grows? This led me to thinking about Dunbar’s number and expanding the boundaries of our awareness beyond biological limits. Same for working memory, 7 +/- 2.
  • I was also reminded of the problems Anthony Giddens raises in The Consequences of Modernity regarding trust and self-reflexivity. Complexity analysis is good but hard to do in conditions of bounded rationality.