Over the last few days I’ve been listening to Dave Snowden’s recent presentation in Singapore. He’s talking about complexity in government but nearly all of it applies to a lot of other contexts.

Dave’s posted slides and podcast and it’s serious brain food. Although I’m increasingly familiar with his work I really appreciated being able to process it in chunks rather than all at one go.

There are a ton of ideas here and I can’t do them justice in a single post. If I had to pick single argument out, it would be this:

In nature, stability and resilience are opposed. A stable system lacks resilience and a resilient systems lacks stability. So it’s ok to stabilise things if you’ve got certainty of future; if you’ve got uncertainty you can’t afford stability you’ve actually got to introduce inefficiency.. if you don’t have a degree of inefficiency in the system it loses its evolutionary potential.

I made some other notes of ideas Dave put forward. I strongly recommend hearing them all in their proper context.

High efficiency = high risk during change

Complex systems are inherently unpredictable. Eastern philosophy allows for a non-causal system.

There’s isn’t a reason for things to be, and next time things will only be the same by accident.

Retrospectively a complex system appears to be ordered. Retrospective coherence or the benefits of hindsight. Hindsight doesn’t lead to foresight, can be a dangerous thing.

Human beings don’t think in logical ways unless they’re autistic. We make rapid decisions based on patterning.

Importance of weak signal detection to spot sooner emerging patterns and act accordingly.

Move from fail-safe design to safe-fail experimentation/intervention… do lots of small things and see what works.

Rigid boundaries have a tendency to become brittle.

Catalytic probes… amplification and dampening…

Complexity as a way of managing more with less

Disintermediation, decision-maker has direct contact with the raw intelligence… more layers of intepretation -> slower, higher cost

Dave says you have to give up micro-level control – (JM maybe it’s about a kind of micro-sensitivity instead?)

How do we relax the constraints without destroying Singapore society? Management as relaxation of constraints and monitoring the impact

Tightening constraints creates a different type of danger, that of being surprised by unexpected events

I can’t analyse this because analysing changes it

Sense making: date precedes framework; categorisation framework precedes the data

Human beings are not termites and are not birds. Human beings have multiple identities, (JM –

human identity is contextual)… so models are unreliable

“The only valid model of a complex system is the system itself” (Axelrod?)

Senge metaphor hearts, legs, soul is a closed-system model

A symbiotic assembly of different living organisms – Portuguese man of war

Theory-informed practice = praxis, good theory, sound experiments ? sustainable development . Applying past theory or things that have worked for others, you don’t get that

Aim to generate dissent; aiming for consensus reduces the range of things you scan; ritual dissent increases the scanning range


1 thought on “Complexity

  1. Geoff Brown

    I’ve been listening to a range of Dave’s podcasts of late and will check out his slides.

    I agree … serious brain food and as I start to understand and apply this stuff to the so-called ‘behaviour change’ projects around adoption of sustainable practices it opens up a whole new world of project ideas, approaches and ways of evaluating/measuring success.



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