Catalyzing Story: Complexity in Action Series

Buck The System: Sense-making and Acting Into Complexity at the United States Department of Labor

Acting into uncertainty, ambiguity, and complexity requires continuous rational cognition, discernment, action, reflection, and adaptation.  Bruce Waltuck shares his story of acting to create change without the awareness of the optimal patterns and methods for acting into complexity, and the consequences that followed.  Each of you reading this will bring your own experiences, knowledge, understanding, and insights.  As is the case with truly complex situations, we are compelled to look back at what we have done, and what we think happened.  We hopefully learn in retrospect, and with new knowledge and understanding, consider what we might have done differently- and will do differently in the future.

Learn about the language & concepts of complexity referenced in this story.

A complex, nonlinear, interactive system which has the ability to adapt to a changing environment. Such systems are characterized by the potential for self-organization, existing in a nonequilibrium environment. CAS’s evolve by random mutation, self-organization, the transformation of their internal models of the environment, and natural selection. Examples include living organisms, the nervous system, the immune system, the economy, corporations, societies, and so on. In a CAS, semi-autonomous agents interact according to certain rules of interaction, evolving to maximize some measure like fitness. The agents are diverse in both form and capability and they adapt by changing their rules and, hence, behavior, as they gain experience. Complex, adaptive systems evolve historically, meaning their past or history, i.e., their experience, is added onto them and determines their future trajectory. Their adaptability can either be increased or decreased by the rules shaping their interaction. Moreover, unanticipated, emergent structures can play a determining role in the evolution of such systems, which is why such systems show a great deal of unpredictability. However, it is also the case that a CAS has the potential of a great deal of creativity that was not programmed-into them from the beginning. Considering an organization, e.g., a hospital, as a CAS shifts how change is enacted. For example, change can be understood as a kind of self-organization resulting from enhanced interconnectivity as well as connectivity to the environment, the cultivation of diversity of viewpoint of organizational members, and experimenting with alternative “rules” and structures.

See: Adaptation; Emergence; Genetic Algorithm; Self-organization

Bibliography: Dooley (1997); Gell-mann (1994); Holland (1995); Kauffman (1995)

Bruce Waltuck,
Bruce Waltuck,Master of Arts in Complexity, Chaos, and Creativity
Bruce is an award-winning designer and facilitator of organizational change initiatives. Bruce brings a unique perspective and approach informed by his deep understanding of the complexity inherent in human systems. He has taught and presented to more than 25,000 people throughout the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and Southeast Asia, helping others achieve improved Adaptive Response Capacity.