Discussion Report 4 Marc Steinlin - Playing with Complexity

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Playing with Complexity

Marc Steinlin


1. Jess 2. Riff 3. Manuel 4. Ewen 5. Allison 6. Nancy 7. Barbara 8. James 9. Andrew 10. Claudia 11. Maggie 12. Caroo 13. Eva 14. Carl 15. Nadja 16. Paul 17.Dorine 18. Christian 19. Karel

Key Activity

We played a short game in various variations (cf. this game description media:Playing_with_Complexity_V1_0-web.pdf) On this basis we discussed what the game can teach us on complexity and how to transfer this into our working reality.

Moving persons deliberately creates more "chaos", resulting in unpredictable movements of the entire system, thus contributing to even more confusion of the observers.

We found that it is almost impossible for 3 change agents (who follow their own instruction being shared among the 3 but different from the rule of the others) to move the entire system. It might help if they would know each other, but if they can't coordinate, it's virtually impossible.

Addition to the game by Nancy

See the game description first to understand the basic set-up

Determine 3 persons who are not allowed to move and put them in 3 corners of the field: the effect is that after an initial rush, the entire system comes to a complete stop and nobody is moving anymore. The system finds a stable equilibrium.

Comments and observations by the participants

"A good exercise to visualise and become aware of

  • our interdependence
  • limitations of our analysis, planning and frameworks (especially the linear ones)
  • a certain blindness and biasdness we always have (can we understand a context fully and at once?)
  • direct, side and indirect effects
  • need for process orientation and constant negotiation
  • need to avoid assumptions about causality
  • the danger of trying to do either too much by trying to influence and/or interact with too many people or processes at the same time without being aware of their interdependence) or too little (where we focus on one or two, but are therefore not able to have an impact because of other dynamics of which we are not aware of or not engaged in)
  • thinking of complex systems as 'objects'....why should we think we know how people, communities, projects, etc., should work? Who are we to say?"

"Is this theory of complexity using equilibrium on dynamic models? Maybe look at the book "Critical Mass" and also at the STEPS centre at IDS-Paper on Dynamics."

"What I learn: do appropriately set rules! Not too many, not too few. Then: leave the system sketch and its rules."

"Lesson: 3 change agents not collaborating can confuse their target group."

"How does behaviour of complex syxstems change if you allow for communication about links, goals, etc?"

"The game makes complexity immediately «feelable»."

This game triggered 5 insights for me: 1) We should focus a lot more on the organisations around us as opposed to activities we carry out with (or without) them, as sometimes our organisational agenda is too inward-focused and loses that sense of looking around and adapting to complex behaviour issues. 2) One way to correct this bias is to communicate and share knowledge between stakeholders so as to know each other better and understand what each organisation is trying to do, with whom etc. 3) If change agents get together to 'influence' a particular actor it is more likely to succeed than doing it alone 4) this game is a clear call (in my view) to develop a multi-stakeholder cooperation process. If various stakeholders move together and talk to each other we are more likely to map relations and cause-effect patterns than just by observing each other. 5) As any other behaviour change, it takes time for people (and organisations) to really 'move' in one direction, let alone the one we desire. Isn't it all about gently bending the tree (i.e. the organisation[s] we may wish to influence) so as to create shade for the flowers behind, rather than cutting trees and planting them elsewhere?