From the Good Ideas and Good Thinking File: Principles for Improving Complex Systems (know any?)

There’s a sizeable portion of the Local Economy Revolution that could be summed up as follows:

Communities are way more complicated and messy than we usually admit professionally, although we know that in real life.  Because we live in places.  But complexity is messy.  And hard.

Because of that, we often come up with simple things that we think will fix everything (“Casino!!” “Urban Renewal!!” “Big Road!!” “Bicycles!!”  And then we get all surprised when it doesn’t work.

What we really need are methods for dealing with the full complexity of a community, instead of banging on our one favored button and believing/hoping that will cause All Kinds of Good to happen.

I think I also indicate in the book that I don’t fully know what a better way to handle things is at this point.  I talk about bits and pieces, like the Little Bets strategy that makes up one of the chapters, but I didn’t pretend to write a Here’s All the Answers You Ever Wanted  book.  If I did, that would be selling snake oil.  As a culture, across many disciplines, we’re working on it, but we ain’t got no easy to follow recipe yet.

That’s why I liked this blog post from the UK-based consulting network Cognitive Edge.  This brief essay gives a bit of insight into how organizations are starting to work out the elements of a complexity-sensitive system of designing “interventions.”  And it gives a good extension, I think, of the Little Bets idea that we introduced in the book.  I have added bolding to the text for a little extra emphasis.

You need multiple parallel experiments and they should be based on different and competing theories/hypotheses.

They must be safe-to-fail, which (to state the obvious) means that if they fail you must be able to survive and consequences and recover

A percentage must fail, if not you are not stretching the boundaries enough and your scanning range is reduced in consequence

Each experiment must be coherent, not just a stab in the dark… Ideally coherence should be based on evidence, at a minimum ritual dissent should be used to test the ideas.

Actions speak louder than words, if you are trying to counter a negative story then taking small visible actions that make the story impossible to tell is the best policy. Countering stories with stories rarely works as does countering them with facts. Doing things makes all the difference.

You don’t start any experiment, safe-to-fail or otherwise unless you can monitor its impact in real time, or at least within correction time..

[You must have a] Damping or amplification strategy. Working both out in advance is key, so you are ready to respond quickly to either success or failure.

Its worth noting that an experiment that fails may provide a better route forwards than one which succeeds

It is important to realise that a lot of conflict happens in the complex arena. The reason for this is that many theories can be coherent to the facts, so a right answer cannot be determined by further analysis (that is for complicated problems). By allowing anyone with a coherent theory to construct and implement a safe-to-fail experiment you radically reduce conflict in decision making.

I would love to see local governments and their consultants start to design new programs this way.  I’d especially love to see that last bit.  In most of my public engagement work, and in the Meaningful Public Engagement book that should be coming out of Wise Fool Press next month, I emphasize that you want your detractors to be part of the solution.  That’s not just playing nice, that’s being practical.  If you’re part of the solution it’s much harder to be part of the problem.

The last thing I would note here is that, while it’s important to do real experiments when feasible, in our work we can often use Thought Experiments more effectively, and that’s something that we should do more.  A Thought Experiment (Think theoretical physicists, or the guys on the Big Bang Theory if you have to), is just as rigorous and systematic in terms of its logic and testing of hypotheses as an actual scientific experiment.  Thought Experiments are used frequently for things that you can’t directly manipulate (like subatomic particles… or a galaxy… or most of our communities).

We need Thought Experiments and other kinds of Fail-to-Safe experiments.  Mostly, we need to get going on all that experimenting.  And stop taking the Magic Solution bait.

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