Re-Thinking Systems, Particle Physics and Candy Mints

CERTS: Is it a breath mint or a candy mint? It is perhaps the second most vexing taxonomic dilemma of the 20th century, with the wave-particle duality of quantum physics edging first place by a hair. CERTS is part of American advertising folk lore. Since we’re not gunning for a fight we’ll just call it a “mint” for the time being. Anyway, “the mint” was famously promoted during the 1960s and 1970s as one spokesperson would insist “CERTS is a breath mint!” while another, just as adamantly declared, “CERTS is a candy mint!” Before either a divorce or fist fight ensued an unseen announcer would resolve the issue by declaring: “It’s two, two, two mints in one!”

If CERTS can simultaneously, be both a “breath mint and candy mint” cannot a system be both open and closed at the same time (for the pedantic reader: they exhibit characteristics of both open and closed systems) ?  If this is so, it has profound impact on how we look at organizations and how we frame organizational/economic problems!

• An open system is inherently unstable, with multiple equilibrium points, complex adaptive, full of surprises and unpredictable; on the other hand…

• A closed system is stable, existing at or near one equilibrium point, entropic (with friction and the second law of thermodynamics kicking in), stable, deterministic, based on immutable doctrine, and predictable.

Think of it this way: there are “breath mint consultants, theorists, and vendors” and “candy mint consultants, theorists and vendors” out there….all competing for your attention and your money. And all are competing in good faith according to their paradigm or how they see the world. Some want you to think about your business as if it were a closed system, they believe in predictive metrics, reducing slack in the system and optimization. Likewise there are those who say “It’s an open, adaptive system! Don’t try to predict anything, be resilient and agile!” They will also help you redesign your business or government, and tell you about contingency management and increasing slack in the system (a philosophy that is diametrically opposed to optimization). Who is right???

It’s Not A Question of “Either/Or”……. Reality Is “Both/And”

I tend toward the complex adaptive
(open) systems point of view. But there is one embarrassing little problem with that: sometimes you can predict! And you can do so even for the most complex of adaptive systems!

Here is a good example from no less than the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA, April 26, 2006 – Vol. 295, No 16) who published a study: “Association Between Hospital Process Performance and Outcomes Among Patients With Acute Coronary Syndromes.” See the following blog post… The results: “A significant association between care process and outcomes was found, supporting the use of broad, guideline-based performance metrics as a means of assessing and helping improve hospital quality.” This means that performance based metrics can help save heart attack and stroke patients lives.

Does this mean I am turning in my membership card to The Complex Adaptive Systems or CAS Club? No, but what I am saying is this: Stop thinking in terms of “either/or” and start thinking in terms of “both /and.”

CAS theory works, but not all the time. Predictive modeling works, but not all the time….keep an open mind, if not an open system! Although space prohibits a full discussion of this theory, here’s a peek at some of the research I am doing on relating performance, predictive metrics, and risk. Let’s assume for a moment that businesses and governments go through a life cycle very simply depicted as follows: This is the “sigmoidal” or “S” curve drawn with a fore loop and a back loop (it’s really a Mobius Strip, but I’m not good at 3-D geometry) .

The area between the “r” and “K” is stable and we can use “predictive” modeling here, i.e. regression, time series, maybe some operations research modeling. Predictive modeling doesn’t work when you go past the tipping point at “K” and the system experiences catastrophic failure or, as they say in physics, a “step change.” But let’s go a little further:

1. It is a qualitative model, i.e. there are no scales on either axis of the graph (I have hopes of changing that)

2. Systems operating in the area between “r” and “K”  behave more like closed systems than open systems; and they are amenable to predictive modeling and performance optimization with techniques like linear programming.

Then the environment becomes more volatile and life throws us a curve.

3. At the top of the “S” curve, at “Kappa or K” we experience sudden and discontinuous change, e.g. a heart attack, a financial meltdown, nuclear war, or bankruptcy.  Such change reasserts the dominance of the political, economic, social, technological or climatic over our system.

4. This process is going on simultaneously in different parts of the organization and those parts will necessarily be at different phases on the cycle! Think of a series of “nests” resting one on top of the other….multiple hierarchies (or as C.S. Holling calls it, a Panarchy).

RESILIENCE: The model describes life-cycle.  All (open or closed) systems go through life-cycles. The model shows something that we intuitively know: sooner or later our system is going to go out of whack.  Thresholds, scales, feedback loops, and domains are going change in unpredictable Titanic[2]ways, and for that matter, the catalyst for this catastrophic change is probably going to be something that takes us by surprise. Think RMS Titanic, the ship that was supposed to be unsinkable and iceberg, that wasn’t supposed to be where it was.

You do not have to know how everything is connected to everything else, though you do have to have at least an idea about thresholds, scales, feedback loops and other elements of your system.  As Walker and Salt point out in Resilience Practice (p.23, Island Press, 2012) “Resilience thinking involves requisite simplicity: figure out the minimum but sufficient information needed to manage your system for the values that you hold to be important.”

N.B. This is easier said than done. Consultants take note. This is not an analytical exercise. It is an exercise in negotiating a story, a narrative, with clients , and doing so in an environment that can be highly political and fraught with uncertainty.

And one final point: a system can be both open and closed simultaneously, not unlike an electron can be both wave and particle simultaneously or, for that matter, CERTS can be both a breath mint and a candy mint! So keep an open mind.

John Marke © 2011


4 thoughts on “Re-Thinking Systems, Particle Physics and Candy Mints

  1. Note: Simultaneity is important…it is not like looking at a string of Christman tree lights that sequentially blink off and on, no more than an electron is sequentially a wave then a particle, or a CERTS is sequentially a breath mint or candy mint. The “S” curve exists simultaneously at different organizational or system scales, and the position on the curve is relative “to that partricular time and scale.” Noboddy said this stuff was easy (smile).

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