A Revolution in Science

Attempts to change organizations or society almost always have important unintended consequences and often end up making the original mess worse. If we are to succeed in, e.g., reforming the US electoral system or in truly supporting the ordinary family, we need to understand a little about how complex systems actually work.

Around 1940 we began to realize that some common patterns … laws and principles and types of structures … are found in all complex systems. These patterns are found in bacteria, animals, human brains, organizations, ecosystems, and computers. Furthermore, these common patterns determine the characteristic behavior of these systems, including whether they continue in one state or transition to some other state. These transitions from state to state may be minor (e.g., a person getting the flu or becoming fit via exercise) or major (e.g. bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics, or a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, or a an animal dying). These laws and principles of complex systems cut across and transcended all of the established scientific disciplines.

Prior to this “systems” understanding science proceeded primarily by taking things apart and studying the parts. This led to the joke that a successful academic scientist was a specialist who knew more and more about less and less. The new view was that complex systems could only be understood hollistically … taking them apart destroyed their essential characteristics. This view caused a lot of consternation among the old guard.

This holistic view originally went under the banner of Systems Theory or Cybernetics … The systems theory banner came largely from biology while the cybernetics banner came from a unique series of seminars that included a wide range of scientific backgrounds.

The scientific establishment continues to reward narrow specialization rather than understanding the big picture. Kenneth Boulding, a giant who made important contributions in half a dozen different fields and was one of the founders of the Society for General System Research, illustrates the point. At lunch with Boulding right after he retired, we asked him about his replacement in his university department. Boulding grimaced and said “They couldn’t wait to replace me with a nice, safe, mainstream scientist”.

In recent years, the work on the big picture in complex systems has continued under various labels including: chaos theory, complexity theory, complex adaptive systems, and resilience theory. In addition, Prigogine’s work in non-equilibrium thermodynamics and Jesse Henshaw’s work on  models of growth are part of this evolving theory.

The vast majority of scientists are still narrow specialists. These specialists are doing critical work, but they are not very helpful in undestanding the big picture. This section is an attempt to introduce the science that is helpful in understanding the big picture.

Leverage Points. Donnella Meadow’s paper on the leverage points for changing a complex system has become a classic. This brilliant paper is a good place for the layman to begin to grasp the importance of systems thinking.

A Primer on Systems Relationships. Gene Bellinger has spent a good portion of the last 30 years refining an introduction to help a layman think effectively about complex systems.

Management Cybernetics: Laws and Principles: Barry Clemson and Allenna Leonard outlined 22 laws, principles, and theorems that apply to the management of organizations.

Systems Thinking: Mechanistic / Linear / Reductionistic thinking vs Holism / Systems / complexity thinking

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