On Ontological and Descriptive Complexity

There’s a duality between descriptive and ontological complexity (Emmeche, 1997) and in socio-complex systems we are dealing with both. Defining ontological boundaries in complex adaptive systems is difficult because they are open systems, in constant interaction with their environment. How do we determine which parts belong to one system and which ones to another? The boundary isn’t clear and we can define the system arbitrarily.

Cilliers (2001) wrote “Boundaries are simultaneously a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved. In other words, we frame the system by describing it in a certain way (for a certain reason), but we are constrained in where the frame can be drawn. The boundary of the system is therefore neither purely a function of our description, nor is it a purely natural thing.”

The boundary, therefore, is phenomenological as well as ontic-epistemic. It cannot be clearly defined, it’s fuzzy and has descriptive and ontological properties.

Cognitive Edge’s SenseMaker® can give us a good idea of a system and its boundaries by identifying patterns, attractors in the system, stability and fitness landscapes, and in a continued research showing their dynamics over time. In a broad sense the boundaries are constrained by the signification framework, but the narrative fragments themselves aren’t rigidly constrained and can contain anything and extend beyond what are regarded as boundaries. It does, however, provide a way for comparative ontology by combining quantitative and qualitative research, and I think it’s about the best we can do.

Emmeche (1997) said “we cannot a priori decide whether descriptive complexity entails ontological complexity.” It may, but it may not. Boundaries, likewise, can be descriptive or ontological, or both.

I suggest we could look at boundaries as a form of descriptive-ontological dualism; the descriptive aspect being crossing a domain boundary, while the ontological aspect being an ontological change, a transition in the state space, a phase shift in the system dynamics. Even highly constrained systems don’t exist in isolation and have varying degrees of freedom and connectivity – only constrained – and may be perturbed to induce a transition in the state space, so we don’t even need to limit ourselves to considering only ontologically complex systems.

(Originally posted as comments to Dave Snowden’s blog entry about Boundary conditions.)

Briefly On the Domain of Disorder in Cynefin

I consider the domain of Disorder key in Cynefin and sense-making, and understanding its significance was a Heideggerian moment of poiesis for me; the bringing-forth, unconceling something that was concealed, to quote from my polemical essay on Authenticity.

I went through my Twitter history on Disorder, and aggregated some thoughts on Disorder, as they would appear relevant. I’ve expanded some of them from the brevity of Twitter.

The most neglected domain in #Cynefin – disorder, inauthentic – is also probably the most important for understanding the nature of Cynefin.

Inauthentic(ity) (disorder) is a type of an ontological error and a cause for cognitive bias. It’s where we are most of times.

We engage in sense-making to move towards authenticity of agency but it’s a dynamical process, not a one-off categorisation.

Sense-making in Cynefin begins from the domain of ‘Inauthentic’ Disorder, from phenomenological apperception.

Inauthenticity is always present as a gradient in every Cynefin domain as fuzzy boundary conditions.

Inauthentic disorder is why we engage in sense-making and why Cynefin is dynamical sense-making framework.

Inauthentic refers to inauthentic ontological awareness. We engage in sense-making to shift agency towards authenticity.

Authentic agency is ontologically advised and epistemically validated motivation.
When our actions are informed and autonomous, not compliant or conformist, when they are consistent, aware and situated, they’re authentic.

Sense-making can advise agency towards authenticity, while true authenticity remains unattainable.

Briefly on Complexity and Chaos

Anthony Wilden said that organised complexity is constrained diversity. Cilliers agreed with that and said that the principle of organisation makes sure that complexity is not confused with chaos:

“Complex systems are constrained, they have an organised structure, but within those constraints the system has to diversify maximally” (Cilliers).

He didn’t see much utility in deterministic chaos, saying it “does not really help us to understand the dynamics of complex systems”.

Chaos theory and the study of chaos is different from complexity, and while the definitions and boundaries between chaos and complex adative systems theory overlap and there are variations in the literature as to their definitions, they are considered distinct. Yaneer Bar-Yam defined the difference thusly:

“Chaos is concerned with a few parameters and the dynamics of their values, while the study of complex systems is concerned with both the structure and the dynamics of systems and their interaction with their environment”. (Bar-Yam)

I think it’s a good definition.

I find that in socially complex systems there’s greater practical utility in the constraint based definition of complexity (Juarrero, Cilliers, D. Snowden) than in non-linear dynamics of deterministic chaos.

Hunting a Woozle – A Case for Authenticity

There’s a delightful old story about Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where they are hunting a Woozle.

As we all well know, having read our A.A. Milne and Winnie-the-Pooh stories as children and now as adults finding deeper philosophical meaning in same, Woozles are rather cunning creatures. They have an affinity to honey and are hard to identify by their tracks. Some of them inhabit the East Pole. And sometimes tracks on the ground may lead to a Woozle, but sometimes they don’t. It’s all rather complicated and serious, this business with the Woozles (and Heffalumps), and you really should read more about it in the books.

“Tracks,” said Piglet. “Paw-marks.” He gave a little squeak of excitement. “Oh, Pooh! Do you think it’s a–a–a Woozle?”

“It may be,” said Pooh. “Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. You never can tell with paw- marks.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

The story “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle” appears in A.A. Milne’s original “Winnie-the-Pooh” novel, in its third chapter. In that story Pooh finds tracks around a spinney of larch trees and begins to follow them. Piglet runs after Pooh and joins the hunt. The tracks seem to go around the spinney and soon Pooh and Piglet notice that there’s a new set of tracks alongside the first; another Woozle, perhaps! As they brave onwards, they find that a third set of tracks has appeared next to the other two (might be a Wizzle), then a fourth (another Wizzle).Two Woozles and two Wizzles. It’s quite an adventure for Pooh and Piglet.

Now we know how this story ends, of course. Christopher Robin arrives to explain that they’ve been following their own tracks. This rather depresses Pooh for a brief moment, but Christopher Robin cheers Pooh up, as friends do, and it’s nearly Luncheon Time anyway so all’s well.

There are many tracks to follow in professional coaching, organisational development and management consulting communities as well. Some of them may lead to the Woozle, but often people quite happily follow their own tracks and those of their friends and peers, going in circles around a metaphorical spinney of Agile, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, Complexity or whatever is touted as the next paradigm. Citations are taken as evidence and parroted around in professional circles until they begin to be taken as facts. A Woozle effect forms.

“The Woozle effect, also known as evidence by citation, or a woozle, occurs when frequent citation of previous publications that lack evidence misleads individuals, groups and the public into thinking or believing there is evidence, and nonfacts become urban myths and factoids.” (Wikipedia)

The Woozle effect, or a woozle, then is a form of a bias; a combination of a number of logical fallacies such as arguments from authority and argumentum ad populum, but more fundamentally a pattern of social behaviour demonstrating an alarming lack of individual critical thinking, falling into groupthink and succumbing to fads. One only has to browse the management book sections at airport bookstores to find numerous examples of Management by Fads; glossy, embossed book covers with catchy titles, content awash with impressive sounding terminology that would win every possible variation of the Bullshit Bingo before reaching the end of Chapter One.

Words are not to be afraid of, of course, but their meanings must be understood and the weight that they carry appreciated. Unfortunately, scientific sounding terms are often thrown around with abandon in order to impress and to claim faux credibility, and those using specific language in correct context may get ridiculed for using “big words”. Properly used, established terminology and references allow us to follow proposed ideas and what’s being said, claimed and written to their source. The purpose of using specific language and references, therefore, isn’t to make things less understandable, but to make them more understandable. Explaining new ideas in old terms to ‘make things familiar’ carries the real risk that the target audience inauthentically rationalises what’s new and transformative as same-old, only with new words. But I digress.

In this article, when I talk about management or organisational development I’m referring to a broad range of professional roles, like developers, organisational coaches, consultants and other ‘knowledge workers’, not necessarily only those in actual management positions. 

The danger of Airport Management Book style of professionalism lies in that nuggets of facts and useful, validated information is mixed with hokum and nonsense, the modus operandi of pseudoscience. Structurally and intellectually incoherent after briefest of scrutiny, yet communicated with deceptive clarity.

But clarity of communication doesn’t guarantee quality of substance, and a high degree of coherence isn’t requisite for high levels of consensus. Pseudoscience and other hokum continually proves this. The lower the coherence of a concept, the greater the degree of subjective interpretation there will be and personal entrainment bias. When proper constraints are in place and the process is managed, this can be beneficial. For example, Cognitive Edge’s method ‘Ritual Dissent’ works with the dynamics of coherence-consensus, but low coherence can also be exploited in order to manipulate like in pseudoscience, let alone in pure hokum like astrology, horoscopes and so on.

The Woozle effect is endemic in organisational development circles where much of the management rhetoric is self-referential metadiscourse, abstracted from a naturalised base. Validity of existing models, methods, approaches and concepts is sought and asserted by referencing other models referencing the one seeking validation, while both lack sufficient evidence and scientific research to be authentically valid. New models, methods, approaches and concepts are constructed based on same self-referential communally reinforced fallacy. There are nuggets of gold among the silt if you’re expert in panning with a trained eye, but most can’t tell fool’s gold from real gold and invest the fool’s gold at their organisation’s peril.

How’s one to tell which tracks belong to the real Woozle then, and which ones don’t?

By taking management and organisational development practises back to basics. By naturalising management and organisational development and striving for authenticity of agency. It’s necessary but not sufficient, and remains contingent, but it holds the promise for greatest impact.

This means taking management practises in all forms back to natural science and liberal arts base, validating/invalidating established approaches by peer reviewed science and research and building new ones on researched and established knowledge. Philosophy, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology should be at the very heart of the broad field of management and organisational development practises including Agile, Lean, Complexity and other fields, economic and engineering disciplines withstanding.

“It’s a very funny thing,” said Bear, “but there seem to be two animals now. This–whatever-it-was–has been joined by another–whatever-it-is– and the two of them are now proceeding in company.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

The concern is not only with management or organisational development in general. The crux in all forms of work is to leverage what we already know about the human condition and of our environment and to use that instead of trying to create pseudoscientific constructs, dependency models and inauthentic methods to replace authentic, valid research. Managing an organisation requires not only business understanding but also understanding of how social systems work; how we humans behave and why. Professional circles invest huge amounts of time and effort into trying (and failing) to discover what is already known and established in the academia.

Apart from economics and engineering the aforementioned disciplines – philosophy, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and evolutionary biology – aren’t broadly represented among management professionals. It’s a frustrating situation; those in management positions, struggling to understand the socially complex human networks so that they could effectively carry out their work often lack the training to do just that.

Because they’ve not studied anthropology they don’t really understand the meaning of value in human systems, yet the word value is probably on every slide deck that’s presented to their senior managers, customers and to their own organisation. But are we talking about economic value, sociological value or linguistic value, what’s the difference, and why does it matter? They talk about culture without understanding what it means in cultural and social anthropology or how culture, customs and conceptual schemes are related but not the same thing. Or why any of this matters. They see ritualistic behaviour in their organisations daily, but fail to recognise them as rituals or to see how they could benefit the organisation. Training schemes are developed, doomed to fail because they fail to account how human beings learn and how the brain works. Critical thinking, reasoning, logic and clarity of thought are wanting because philosophy wasn’t part of the MBA curriculum and probably wasn’t taught at school. Words like ontology and epistemology are alien, yet understanding them might provide a foundation for understanding one’s own environment.

Without knowledge of these subjects, in so many ways key to their work, people plod along in a state of not knowing what they don’t know and act within those constraints. The unfortunate result of this is that in order to make sense of their environments and organisations, they start creating obtuse models based on a narrow, limited and biased understanding of said environments, and assume novelty and universality. They go on writing books and creating presentations on things like organisational effectiveness, change management, developing a corporate culture and going Agile, filling those airport bookstore shelves with equally vapid, thick books adorned by glossy, embossed book covers with catchy titles, none of them based on actual, verified academic research. Instead, they refer to probably a dozen other thick books with glossy, embossed book covers with catchy titles on the same shelf. Authored by mates.

It does not follow that managers and professionals should all get academic degrees in philosophy, anthropology, evolutionary psychology, biology and cognitive neuroscience, although any of those would probably be a great boon to anyone. But instead of taking that next corporate training course on effective team management, a basic course in cultural anthropology or philosophy might provide longer lasting benefits. For personal study, there is ample opportunity for on-line courses held by respected universities all over the world. Conference presentations could start including references to literature and research to foster enquiry and engagement, and to establish validity.

Advocating theoretical enquiry is rarely met with enthusiasm in organisations. It’s usually dismissed as a waste of time, and practise reigns. Practise is regarded as honest, value adding activity, which under the right circumstances it is. But knowing the ‘how’ only takes one so far. To go further, one must also know why something works, and this is the domain of theory and scientific enquiry. Unfortunately dichotomising things is common where anti-intellectuality raises its atrophied head. Theory is posited against practise, and never the twain shall meet. Good or bad? Black or white? Yes or no? It’s the tyranny of absolutes.

“There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” -Kurt Lewin, 1951

There are notable exceptions in the field, however. Dave Snowden, the founder of Cognitive Edge is a pioneer in naturalising sense-making. Perhaps best known for Cynefin, a multi-ontological sense-making model, the entirety of Cognitive Edge’s methods builds on a wide body of peer reviewed research and thinking, covering philosophy, natural sciences and liberal arts. Not only does this bring validity and authenticity to their methods, it provides a sound basis for those seeking to understand, employ and build upon Cognitive Edge’s unique methods and tools. One can always refer to research and literature that the methods build upon to gain a deeper, broader understanding on why they have developed to the form that they currently have, or for peer review and reasoned critique. Cognitive Edge’s approach at its core isn’t about tools and methods. Instead of providing cookie-cutter tools and recipes, it encourages independent thinking, and in that regard it’s a deeply philosophical approach. It is praxis at it’s purest; theory-informed practise. Disciplined enquiry into the wide academic body of knowledge and research of natural sciences and liberal arts, and using that as a lens to make sense of our world with practical applications. It’s looking into what we already know and using that knowledge and research creatively to “make sense of the world so that we can act in it” (Dave Snowden). Naturalising sense-making. Naturalising management.

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote about ‘clarification’ and seeking ‘clarity’ in his earlier Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and later in Philosophical Investigations. He saw that philosophy should aim to seek clarity of thought, and that clarity could be achieved through activity. Instead of presenting a solution to a problem, Wittgenstein preferred active participation, investigation and dialogue, and wrote Investigations in this style, engaging the reader in a process of discovery instead of presenting a fait accompli (Kuusela). Epicurus (341-270 BCE), too, believed that philosophy should be practical (N. Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy). Heidegger talked about poiesis, the bringing-forth, unconcealing something that was concealed. This is what we as professionals should endeavour to attain; clarity of thought and authenticity of agency, unconcealing knowledge and practises that in the professional community have been regarded as esoteric, even, yet can open a door to enlightenment. The Greeks called bringing-forth aletheia, revealing. The Romans translated this as veritas, truth. Heidegger initially referred to aletheia as truth, but later corrected this association (Wikipedia, on Aletheia. Heidegger.)

“Instead, Heidegger focused on the elucidation of how an ontological “world” is disclosed, or opened up, in which things are made intelligible for human beings in the first place, as part of a holistically structured background of meaning.” -Wikipedia on Aletheia

This is a wonderful description for what I consider authentic agency or foundations thereof. I suggest that authentic agency is ontologically advised and epistemically validated motivation. In other words, we can find intrinsic motivation to consistently exercise our capacities over time, to act in the world, advised by our awareness of what is, and how and what we can know about it. When our actions are informed and autonomous, not compliant or conformist, when they are consistent, aware and situated, they’re authentic.

Daniel Brudney and John Lantos had this to say about authenticity and agency:

“To see the difference between agency and authenticity, note that agency can be fully exercised at each instant. Each choice can completely exercise the capacity. Authenticity, by contrast, must be exercised over time, sometimes over a lifetime. Over time, my authenticity projects me, my individual persona, onto the world. Authenticity is a sustained achievement, agency a momentary one.” -Budney, Lantos, “Agency and authenticity”

Naturalising management, naturalising sense-making, seeking clarity of thought and authenticity of agency, and bringing forth that which hides in plain sight: theoria, poiesis, praxis and logos.

“There was a small spinney of larch trees just here, and it seemed as if the two Woozles, if that is what they were, had been going round this spinney; so round this spinney went Pooh and Piglet after them.” A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh


A.A. Milne, “Winnie-the-Pooh”, 1926

The Development of Wittgenstein’s Philosophy, Oskari Kuusela

Budney, Lantos, “Agency and authenticity”, DOI 10.1007/s11017-011-9180-2

Rudyard Kipling, The Ballad of East and West

Nigel Warburton, A Little History of Philosophy

Heidegger, M. (1977) The Question Concerning Technology, pp 3-35

David E. Waddington, A Field Guide to Heidegger:Understanding ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, Stanford University

A personal thank you to Dave Snowden who, unbeknownst to himself, over 15 years ago showed me how to tell which tracks really belong to Woozles.

On brevity and the 140-character constraint

It often begins with a tweet, doesn’t it?

So, yesterday Jabe Bloom tweeted:

“Might it be possible that instead of the world “getting more complex” our aging models don’t fit a world, we’ve radically changed, anymore?”

As always with Jabe’s tweets and blog posts, it was another thoughtful and thought provoking question. Is the world “getting more complex” or is it a question of observational scope and trying to make everything around us fit into the models that we’re familiar with and which create the illusion of order? I replied with:

“Certainly. Due to co-evolution, expanded temporospatial and ontological awareness and bounded applicability of models.”

Now, the wording in that reply was deliberate as I was trying to compress four aspects I felt were relevant into the constraints of Twitter’s 140 characters. Specific words convey more context relevant to the ideas being put forth. But they can also appear as so many fancy words.

Ari Tanninen, my new chum who’s as sharp as they come (and if you’re interested in Agile, Lean, SW dev, complexity, you’d do well to follow in Twitter & elsewhere), replied to me saying: “I understood some of those words!”

Cheeky bastard. He understands them all (I told you he’s sharp).

But it’s a good point, and I thought I’d briefly open up the choise of wording in that tweet of mine.

Coevolution. In Complex Adaptive Systems, the agents and the system co-evolve. Agents (people, ideas, etc) acting in the system, through interaction with each other and the system, modify (change) the system, and the modified system changes the agents acting in it. My point was that due to coevolution, our models will never be accurate in the first place. The only accurate model of a complex adaptive system is the system itself. Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety comes to mind, yet again.

Temporospatial. This simply means relating to time and space, or distance. I wanted to suggest that largely through advances in technology, we’re more aware of what goes on around us. We’re increasingly connected, not only acting in the immediate physical here and now. The notion of locality and time has changed. We’re connected to more and wider networks than we used to be even ten or twenty years ago, let alone 50 years ago. The observational scale we choose determines the degree of perceived complexity.

Yaneer Bar-Yam writes in his paper Multiscale Complexity/Entropy:

“The complexity as a function of scale of observation is expressed in terms of subsystem entropies for a system having a description in terms of variables that have the same a-priori scale. The sum of the complexity over all scales is the same for any system with the same number of underlying degrees of freedom (variables), even though the complexity at specific scales differs due to the organization / interdependence of these degrees of freedom. This reflects a tradeoff of complexity at different scales of observation.” -Yaneer Bar-Yam, New England Complex Systems Institute, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Ontological. A philosophical term in metaphysics meaning the nature of things. We’re more aware of the nature of things around us. The way things are determines what we can know about it and how we can act in it. Ontology precedes epistemologyEverything isn’t the same around us, and there isn’t a cookie cutter way of working. This is a reference to Cynefin and multi-ontological sense-making.

Bounded applicability. This ties into the notion of ontology, and means that there are natural limits to the usefulness of things. The context advices the approach.

So has the overall complexity of the world around us grown in real sense, or is it a question of scope and view, and how we choose to define the boundaries of the system we’re investigating? I think it’s a question of the scale of observation and inauthentic ontological awareness. Googling for entropy and complexity, I came across Yaneer Bar-Yam’s paper on Multiscale Complexity/Entropy. Sounds like the right avenue to continue exploring this topic.

iPhone 5 – a reality check

Apple just finished the highly anticipated iPhone 5 event and rest assured, the Comic Book Guys have been on the Internet within minutes to register their disgust throughout the world.

One well-known Finnish technology writer was quick to dismiss iPhone 5 with sharp analysis:

“”The most advanced operating system in any mobile device.” with old-fashioned, static icons? LOL”

Apparently it’s the icons that define how advanced an operating system is.

I would have expected less teenager lolling and more in terms of actual analysis from him, but the reaction wasn’t unexpected, let alone the only one of its kind. Before the event I said that it’s become almost impossible for Apple to meet the expectations of the market, let alone the fanboys – and obviously nothing Apple releases can ever be met with approval by those who for whatever reasons just hate Apple and everything it stands for.

Of course, the real reason why the market may be disappointed with the iPhone 5 and iOS 6 is that the jury is still out on what kind of a company post-Jobs Apple is, and whether Apple can still shake the markets and awe us with products and services that almost feel like they’ve come from the future.

Apple is smart enough not to jump onto that bandwagon, but to steadily execute on their strategy, and quite honestly it surprises me that the markets aren’t intelligent enough to understand how this is A Good Thing. Time will tell when or if Apple will truly wow the market again, but my bet is that they will. When the time is right, and everything is dialed in.

The situation isn’t new. When Nokia was the king of the hill in mobile phones, it reached a similar situation where it became almost impossible for them to release anything that would impress the market or the hard-core users. Nothing was good enough. Now, for different reasons, ironically Nokia finds itself again in a somewhat similar predicament. Lumia 920 seems brilliant, yet even that wasn’t enough for the market. Of course it wasn’t. Technological prowess, not even beautiful design isn’t enough for Nokia at this point. They need to build trust and show that their strategy carries in the long term, and to make the entire ecosystem as polished and attractive as their latest phone. It’s about technology and liberal arts, bringing together advanced transformative technologies, consistent, polished usability, and services that make a difference to people. Nokia may get there yet, but they have some ways to go to build an ecosystem that consistently delivers, not just on one area. I wish them luck, sincerely.

Now, back to Apple: valid criticism towards products and services is valuable and stubbornly defending a position that deserves criticism is naïve. Hard core Apple fans are as guilty of that as others, yet the knee jerk reactions to iPhone 5 are strange. When you look at what was announced, it’s hard to see how it’s a let-down. Apple delivered an evolution on a product that was already extremely well polished, and made it even better. There wasn’t a need for a revolution. Not yet.

Apple didn’t have a faulty or a broken product they needed to fix before the release of iPhone 5 and iOS 6, quite the opposite. The whole package, the hardware, the operating system, the App Store, integration with the Apple product family all worked smoothly – not quite without a hitch, but very smoothly.

Apple chooses the technologies it introduces carefully, and even more carefully those that it leaves out either for good (like optical drives) or until the market and the ecosystem exists to make them viable. And if such an ecosystem doesn’t exist yet, Apple has the resources, the track record and the leverage to bring it about as has been demonstrated before. It all has to come together. For Apple it’s never about the technology alone, but transforming a market and a user experience enabled by technology.

Expectations of iPhone 5 features ranged from NFC to fingerprint recognition, and after Nokia’s Lumia 920 announcement also wireless charging and PureView-challenging optics were speculated. NFC will find its way to a next iPhone, when Apple considers the market penetration and service offerings have reached a level of maturity they’re comfortable with. Apple didn’t leave NFC out of the iPhone 5 because they couldn’t technologically deliver it, but because they chose not to. And Apple always has good reasons for choosing not to include something in their products.

But my point isn’t to go into platform and ecosystem comparison. So let’s do a reality check, and see what Apple delivered with iPhone 5.

A better, faster, thinner version of an already incredibly polished product and ecosystem. More screen estate without sacrificing usability (you can still access the whole screen with your thumb). iOS 6, building on an extremely smooth user experience of iOS 5, delivering new features and functionality. Improved services with iTunes, social media integration, maps and navigation, et cetera.

Better hardware, better software, better services, and a continued, consistent user experience without disruptions.

It’s not a let-down. It’s exactly what I expected Apple to deliver. A great looking product, solidly building on an established market, evolving a product when the time doesn’t yet call for a revolution.

Complexity and all that jazz…

One thing I’ve always liked about Twitter is how it sparks new thoughts and ideas.  It’s fragmented nature lends itself to serendipitous discovery and connection of thoughts, people and ideas.  Not always profound, but often delightful, and interesting enough to explore a bit further.

Like a couple of days ago.

With CALMalpha, which I’m eagerly anticipating, only a few days away now I’ve been thinking about the nature of complexity perhaps more than usually. Now, complexity and complex adaptive systems theory are getting traction as the next Big Thing in management and social business – a thought that quite frankly scares the hell out of me.  Complexity and complex adaptive systems theory, among other disciplines like evolutionary biology and cognitive sciences have real utility in management science (and I use the word science here only illustratively), but they are also easy prey to airport management book authors who get enthralled by the language and references to natural systems, and quickly churn out a new book and a series of keynotes and lectures with complexity slapped on as a superstructure to old thinking and old ideas.  Dave Snowden speaks about this often, and addressed it in a recent blog post, and I agree with him.

So I recognize the folly of trying to see complexity in everything because not all systems, human made or natural, are complex adaptive systems.

But sometimes complexity metaphors – even imperfect ones – have utility, which takes me back to a Twitter exchange earlier between Heimo Laukkanen (@huima) and myself.

It happened to be about jazz.

Heimo tweeted that he’d been searching for jazz playlists on Spotify (an indication that he’d become an old fart nearing retirement age – his words), and being a jazz devotee of sorts myself, I replied with a couple of recommendations of the usual suspects.  Turned out that Joseph Pelrine, another complexity scholar and part of the CALMalpha faculty, had beat me to it with great recommendations so I wrapped up by saying how it occurred to me that jazz and complexity have interesting parallels, and with a few caveats jazz serves as a useful metaphor for a complex adaptive system.

Complex adaptive systems have certain common characteristics, such as self-similarity, emergence, and self-organization (Wikipedia).  They have high degree of adaptive capacity, and they’re resilient to perturbations.  Complex adaptive systems have many independent but interacting agents acting mostly locally but with global, system wide consequences.  The agents and the system co-evolve.  Small changes may have system wide results, interactions in the system have feedback loops, the systems are dynamic and dissipative exchanging energy and never functioning at an equilibrium.  It’s also impossible to determine the system’s behavior by observing individual agents; complex adaptive systems exhibit emergent behaviour, and their dynamics evolve towards a representation of the systems typical behaviour, an expression of the dynamics of the system at some point in time, also known as an attractor. The system’s history defines its future states, the agents and the system co-evolve, and the system’s boundaries may be fuzzy.

Jazz is a mix of musical styles, and it’s probably easier to say what is not jazz than what is, although even then interesting debates would surely follow.  There are certain common characteristics, including improvisation, and group interaction, call-response patterns, use of blue notes, polyrythms, syncopation and swung notes (Wikipedia), but jazz is constantly evolving and seeking new paths, experimenting and breaking form, exploring and stretching its boundaries.  Trombonist J.J. Johnson has said “Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will”, and according to Pat Metheny, it’s not the music of Kenny G.

It’s not a big stretch to draw parallels and to create a metaphor of complexity from jazz.

Finding self-similarity in a jazz combo is perhaps a bit of a stretch. I suppose we could imagine jazz exhibiting self-similarity with regard to the size of the combo and the dynamics of jazz, in the rhythmic patterns of instruments and so on, but there are better parallels.

Like unpredictability.  As with a complex adaptive system and its agents, a jazz band’s performance and what kind of music they will be playing cannot be determined by listening to the individual players. We’ll only know when the musicians start playing together, and the band starts swinging – when the system starts exploring its phase space, the possible outcomes of the session.  A jazz session doesn’t have a set destination which has to be reached. Instead, to borrow Snowden, the musicians explore the evolutionary potential of the present.

Small changes may have large consequences. Musicians play off of each other, picking up subtle cues and responding to them.  Every new note played, every bar, every modulation is like a probe into the complex adaptive system of a jazz combo, a safe-to-fail experiment, using Cognitive Edge’s Cynefin


The Cynefin framework

terminology.   If the response of the experiment is beneficial and the band picks up on it, it gets amplified.  If it doesn’t get picked up and reciprocated, it gets dampened. It’s a constant feedback loop, where improvisations, cues, notes, melodies, body movements, and even audience reactions affect the future direction of the music.

The history of the system determines its future direction, and history is created every second.  Every note played up until any given time determines the direction that the music will take, and this gets repeated every moment.  It’s a dynamical session.

Jazz sessions are also irreversible.  It is not possible to call “halt”, rewind back time and start over, playing exactly like before.  Everything in the band (the system), including the players (agents) and the band have changed, co-evolved, and what has happened is not perfectly repeatable.  It may be close, but not just like it.

Emergence is an obvious characteristic of a jazz session.  Swinging, improvising, experimenting, interacting, will produce patterns that we perceive as pleasant or exhibiting coherence.  The musicians call it the groove.  Groove is not a pre-decided goal where the jazz session is merely the means of transport towards it; instead it’s an emergent pattern arising from the complex interactions of the jazz band and the session.  Groove is an attractor of the system of a jazz band.

Modulators.  To quote Wikipedia, modulation in music refers to “the act or process of changing from one key to another”.  Modulations “articulate or create the structure or form of many pieces, as well as add interest.”  In complex adaptive systems modulation is a form of perturbance, an intentional or unintentional influence on the system tending to alter its behaviour.  Modulation is an oblique way, as opposed to a direct driver, of trying to influence the behaviour of a system.  In jazz and in music generally, (musical) modulation techniques belong to the fundaments; they are a part of improvisational techniques and constructs of melodic and harmonic progressions.  They’re also system modulators.  They perturb the system by introducing variations, gentle nudges to the rest of the band to keep exploring the possibilities and to avoid an equilibrium.

While jazz can serve as a metaphor for complexity and emergence, obviously grooves and albums like Kind of Blue don’t ‘just happen’ through emergence if you put a bunch of musicians in a room with instruments, and make them play.  Even jazz has constraints, and creative processes can be managed, only not directly; in a complex space you “manage the beneficial coherence within attractors, within boundaries.” (Dave Snowden, Cognitive Edge).

Other parallels could easily be drawn for instance between jazz and Cynefin domain boundaries, but that perhaps goes beyond what my intention was writing this entry.  Mostly, I’m just thinking out loud by writing.

Metaphors are useful because they can have a basis in everyday experience, and therefore have a subjective interpretive layer.  Interpretation introduces variation to the sense-making process between individuals, and helps to avoid early convergence of thoughts and ideas.  In discourse it increases beneficial dissent and as a consequence improves decision making and scanning range of available options. In short, it makes for more interesting conversation.

But when I put on Kind of Blue, there’s no room for analysis.  There’s only music.