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Dave Snowden

The adjacent possible

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I spent an enjoyable day with the LINK research group at UTA. A mixture of conversation and presentation with more to come this evening and tomorrow. One of the things which came up in a variety of contexts is how do you achieve change in a system which has stabilised around a belief or attitude which is near impossible to disrupt. Universities perverted by measurement systems, silicon valley libertarianism and political extremes dominating an uncritical public were just some of the examples. My general perspective on all of this has changed from my more revolutionary days when I believed you could destroy all to create anew. Yes that might be necessary but in extremis and it as likely to create a replacement tyranny. I should state that I am no less revolutionary in intent and purpose but I am better informed on the science and more pragmatic in desire.

So how do you change a system which is entrained around perverse behaviour? And this applies to culture change in organisations as much as it does to wider society change. I’ll leave aside for the moment how you make that judgement, that is a whole other post. From my anthro-complex perspective the following stages are necessary:

  1. Map the current dispositional state of the system.  What are the attractors in play, how stable are they?
  2. Within those maps identify what Kauffmann created the adjacent possible, patterns of behaviour adjacent to the present but in a more desirable position.  Radical change is hard and may have unintended consequences, smaller shifts are easier to achieve.  For types of attractor and possible actions see my earlier post on the evolutionary potential of the present.
  3. If there are no adjacent possibles, or the nature of system is such that the energy cost of escape is to great, then you need to take actions that disrupt or perturb the existing attractor mechanisms to allow the adjacent possible to emerge.  Until that happens change is very difficult.

As in previous posts this needs short cycle feedback loops and monitoring. You have to change the dispositions to allow the potential for something new to emerge. You need the patience to wait for the right moment, but also the courage to act if time is not with you. Wisdom lies the ability to distinguish between those two states.

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