Life is complex and when I say “life” I mean all aspects of life… Finances, biology, ecosystems, love, intellect, etc. 

The feeling of being “right” is nice, but the more I dig into complexity, the more I realize, we’re NEVER “right”, we’re just a little “less wrong”. This is important, so I’ll repeat it… You’re NEVER “right”, only a little “less wrong”. 

Once you’re able to truly internalize this idea your decisions, opinions, predictions, and assumptions all transform… They transform into more of a spectrum (grey) and less binary (black and white). Living in that in-between space is much more enjoyable, rather than always aiming to be “right”. 

In a world that’s as complex as ours, no one will ever be “right”, only “less wrong”. 

So… This week’s topic is all about “complex systems”, but more specifically “systems thinking”. 

Living in a complex world

Before we talk about “systems thinking” we’ll first need to understand what a “complex” system is… And like any other “hard” topic there’s plenty of jargon when diving into this realm, but luckily there are general “rules of thumb” we can use when considering if a system is “simple” or “complex”. 

A system is basically a group of individual elements working together within a set “boundary” (see image below) and that system has some kind of output feeding into a wider environment. 

Simple systems are usually easy to predict and can be artificially recreated… An easy example here would be a clock. We know how clocks function, we can take them apart and predict what they’re going to do. 

Most “system thinking” gurus disagree on an exact definition for “complex” systems, but they generally agree that there are three big pieces involved.

  • Interactions –  A complex system will have way more interactions between elements, than elements on their own… Imagine the internet (image below) with computers and the connections between them, now think about there being double or triple the number of connections to computers, and BOOM you’ve got complexity!
  • Emergence – Emergence is interesting! Basically what happens here is that when two elements are isolated from each other they have specific behaviors, but when combined they begin to behave in new/different ways. Think… 1 + 1 = 3
  • Adaptability – Any system that’s able to change and “adapt” to what’s happening outside of it is usually labeled as complex. For example, stock markets, the brain, ant colonies, and many other things.  

A system that’s complex will have a little of each – heavy interaction, emergent behavior, and adaptability. 

These systems are all around us! The ecosystem we live in (e.g. planet Earth), the societies we’re a part of (politics, corporations, etc.), and the devices we interact with (e.g. the internet). 

The amazing thing to me is how clueless we are when it comes to understanding how these systems actually work. One example that blew my mind was the Grey Wolf population in Yellowstone National Park and how their decrease in population completely changed how the land was shaped… Literally changing how rivers flow! Don’t believe me?! Check out this short video

Outside of that example, there are hundreds, if not thousands of other examples where we thought we understood how a system worked but completely shot ourselves in the foot (cough cough – Climate Change). 

The goal of “systems” thinking is not to completely solve this problem of ignorance in understanding complex systems, but it’s a step in the right direction… Making us a little “less wrong” throughout life. 

Thinking in “systems” 

There are two major ways of thinking about a problem… “Reductive” and “Holistic”. 

Most of us were taught how to think through the “reductive” process, which is basically breaking things down into their separate parts, then understanding what each part does. This approach works wonderfully for many problems, but in certain areas, it falls short. For example, if you wanted to understand how a cow functions, you wouldn’t be able to break it down into pieces to understand how each piece interacts, without you knowing… Making hamburgers. Ha! 

Systems thinking takes a different approach. With systems thinking we’ll actually look at a problem more “holistically”, focusing on the interactions between pieces, instead of looking at each piece individually. This emphasis on interactions over individual pieces is hard to do in the beginning, but it’s a useful perspective to have. Once you start thinking about the whole system you’ll start to see that everything and I mean everything is interconnected to some degree. 

While digging into this type of thinking I’ve come across some mind-blowing ideas and below I’ve shared some of the most interesting. 🙂

Life lessons from a “systems” brain

Interacting > Predicting

  • We, humans, love to predict. Our obsession with seeing into the future to either protect or benefit our lives is something we constantly do. Sadly, trying to predict or model a world drenched in complex systems proves useless. An alternative to predicting is actually “interacting”. Dave Snowden summarizes this beautifully in a talk here… His basic idea is to interact with the system around you to better understand what possible futures could unfold. For example, when trying to figure out the unexpected consequences of a decision, your best bet is to run small experiments to figure out which decision does the least amount of unexpected harm. 

Feedback Loops

  • In the world of complex systems, there are two types of feedback loops. “Reinforcing” and “Balancing”. The more I learn about each, the more I’ve fallen in love with “balanced” feedback loops.
    1. Reinforcing: A reinforcing feedback loop feeds into itself, growing quickly and eventually reaching a limit. This limit could either prevent future growth or the growth bubble could pop (e.g. financial collapse)… And that’s not to say being a part of the reinforcing feedback loop is bad, but you’ll need to “predict” (remember what I said about predicting) when it’s best to get out before the parties are over.
    2. Balancing: Balancing loops actually remove excess when there’s too much or add stuff when there’s too little. A simple example of this would be how our body’s temperature stays roughly 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Our body adapts to the world around us, using more energy to keep us warm and making us sweat when it’s too hot. The more systems you discover you’ll start noticing those with balancing feedback loops last much longer.  

Accepting Ignorance 

  • Almost everything in our world is complex and with my newfound understanding of complexity, I’ve accepted how truly ignorant we are. Ignorance isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but being ignorant of how ignorant you are, can be… My goal is to adjust the lens I look through when predicting or advising others, with a more “grey” picture of the world, instead ignorantly acting with certainty. 

Bigger isn’t better

  • The bigger they are, the harder they fall. If there’s one single thing you walk away from this post it should be this section… When researching complex systems you’ll quickly figure out that the larger and more dependent a complex system is, the higher chance it has of dying. Smaller and less dependent systems have a much higher chance of survival. For example, most companies die after massive growth because they’ve fallen into the “explore/exploit” conundrum… In the beginning, these companies explore different product/service ideas, then exploit the one that’s most loved by their customers, which leads to eventual death. The main takeaway here is to stay as small as possible in every way… Stay small with your costs, the amount of stuff you own, how much you depend on a single company and many other areas. 

We live in complexity, but that’s ok! 

Just remember you’re never “right”, only a little “less wrong”.