Dave Snowden

Can using complicated tools to solve a complex problem make you ill?

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My initial contact with Cognitive Edge was stimulated by a question; does anyone out there have experience of applying a complex adaptive system approach to business? The root of the question arose from an earlier one of “how do you build bodily health” and curiosity as to whether the answer to that question had insight for building organisational health.

I had developed an understanding of the physiology of the human body through research and self-experimentation, and came to conclusion that our bodies are non-homeostatic open systems, but was surprised that a big chunk of medical science is derived from model of closed-loop steady state. Thus we manage this Complex system with Complicated and Simple tools (to our detriment) , and the analogy to Business seemed worthy of further investigation.

This post might be controversial, so let me state that this is my journey, the views are my own, and the conclusions are specific to me. In self-experimentation, N=1, and your mileage may vary—and so on and so forth with all the other liability disclaimers.

Some 10 years ago, I was the grateful beneficiary of the outstanding skills of neurosurgeons and supporting staff in the NHS. Thanks to them and my family, I am alive today. On the road to recovery and with an immune system battered by exposure to various treatments. Determined to re-build my health, I read extensively on the physiology on the human body.

I started off my research by being clear on what the mind and body are designed to do? Anthropology suggests that my (and your) genotype is at least 125,000 years old and has changed little ever since. From that time forward, the majority of the population have been hunter-gatherers, only turning to farming approximately 11,000 years ago.

The hunter-gatherer lifestyle seems to have consisted of short periods of highly intensive dangerous activity (flight or fight). Between the hunt or the fight there were long periods of languid playfulness during which hunting and martial skills were developed through relatively safe game playing. Like carnivores, we developed into continuous metabolisers, intermittent eaters and needful of long periods of sleep. Our activity and our food ingestion patterns were fractal, but followed a long term pattern.

Our physiology too reflects the power-law distribution of this life style. We have hormone networks that interplay, are non-linear and cascade, and are governed by thresholds and power-law distribution. In both activities and physiology, past events condition future events. If you have a successful hunt, you are more likely to have another successful hunt. If you exert yourself and resultantly tear but not destroy muscle, the muscle responds by rebuilding itself to adapt to the stress, giving you greater power for subsequent exertions. To be a good hunter-gatherer you needed to be able to deal with extreme and often unpredicted events. You needed to be resilient rather than robust. You needed to be a 200 metre runner more than a body builder, and the key to resilience was a healthy metabolic headroom.

At that I was living the antithesis of a hunter-gatherer/fractal lifestyle and my ignorance of the consequence was aided by bad science conducted in some of the world’s most sophisticated research establishments.. Our living system is fractal but the most influential health scientists were treating us as linear. The impact for the general population is that we are living longer, but spending more time in disability.

A quick compare and contrast;

1. Exercise. Hunter-gatherers expended high levels of energy in short bursts. This contrasts with the admonitions of our health professionals and personal trainers who recommend industrial recipe workouts in which we spend extended time ‘in the zone’ and whose impact is, paradoxically, increasing incidences of heart disease and other injuries associated with inflammation. Who needs to run 18K? I am more likely to need to sprint for 50 metres in an urban setting knowing that most assailants give up after 30 metres. We are built to explosive over short distances (flight or fight) but modern exercise regimes diminish these key ‘fast-twitch’ fibres. In fact jogging trains us to be slow, and the pedantic pace fuelled by a mis-perceived need to burn calories leads to injury through over exercising. Injury would have been a death sentence for our ancestors. We have allowed acute exercise to be replaced by chronic exercise.
2. Lifestyle. Though participating dangerous activities in bursts, hunter-gatherers did (and do) spend a large amount of time socialising, playing and developing skills. They also sleep extensively through the day. They do nothing obsessively and nothing too routine. Modern man (ie me) gets up, drives to the office, sits for 8 hours, eats in set patterns, and drives home. Jet lag or other disturbances disrupt our sleep pattern, and throughout it all, the chronic stress of modern life (paying the mortgage, career expectations) pumps out high levels of cortisol stress hormones which our chronic low-intensity physical activity is unable to dissipate.

In many ways we have lost the manual on how best to use our mind and body and we have generally not been helped by the scientific community. We have been seduced by what we can measure, and confused a fixed point of a dynamic process with a set point. We are open energy ,self-organised system in a world of stochastic energy supply and demand, but models of human physiology have been based on a steady state because that is easy to model in the lab.

Fortunately, research is changing helped in no small part by groups like Cognitive Edge whose materials (S Curve, Cynefin, Robust vs Resilient) are providing language and frameworks to aid expression on the limits of certain paradigms. The internet too has helped by catalysing communication between self-experimenters who share their results and therefore probe the limits of the understanding of experts.

One of the challenges I have set myself (and would love to hear your perspective) is how this insight can be applied to an organisation. For example, how can organisations be fractal in their behaviour in order to become more resilient in complex environments? What is the implication for social structures and ways of working? What the implications for strategy generation and execution? There will be challenges to our current models of strong leadership. How will the current cadre of senior executives react when they are told they can only control inputs but stochastic variation will take it where it is going to be. When they have been used to describe the idealised end state but then realise there are a number of paths radiating forward, and the choices we make will set the starting conditions but not the ultimate path. How will they manage building in redundancy of resource to cope with a wide range of outcomes, when their previous focus had been on just-in-time with minimal resources. Resilience versus robust would lead to quite a different future conversations in most boardrooms.

As for me? I now apply some of the learning from anthropology, biochemistry and complex adaptive systems—for the most part. I try to replace maladaptive chronic stress with brief acute stresses that bring (positive) adaption. I try to have a broad and varied diet composed of vegetables and meat, and limit the foodstuffs from the recent past (ie 10,000 years) to which my body is less well adapted. I try to get decently long periods of sleep and to maintain a quiet mind. But I live and work in the modern world, and sometimes all of best attempts come to nought. However, I do feel much, much healthier and far more resilient. For me, this stuff works and why not? I am hard-wired to live this way and I no longer fight it.