The Downside of Control: Brittle

The Downside of Control: Brittle

Smart guy Joe Gerstandt referred me to another smart guy, Dave Pollard, who wrote an interesting blog post about groups actually resolving their own inadequacies (wouldn’t that be nice?!). In the post, he talks about complex adaptive systems:

Nature’s way of ‘dealing’ with complexity is to make these complex systems self-managing. A balance is found, and as the infinite number of variables constantly and inevitably change, the entire system itself collectively seeks and finds a new balance, a new equilibrium. The physical and social systems of our world are complex because, in Darwinian terms, they work. They are less brittle than simple and complicated systems — cars break down much more easily and frequently than ecosystems and societies. If an ecosystem has a quintillion components, it makes far more sense to have all these components working collectively to resolve their problems (the resolution is then said to ’emerge’), than expecting a single superior intelligence, or even a single species, to try to manage the system and impose ‘solutions’ on it.

We have all heard it ad nauseum: change is moving at a faster pace, the world (your world) is more complex than it used to be, we need to be more flexible and agile. Flexible and agile are the opposite of brittle. So you think we would all be moving in the direction of self-managing systems, right?

The problem is, deep down we like brittle, because its ours to control. The automobile is an amazing engineering feat, now there’s a 429 cobra jet for sale in great shape for you to check. The engineers used their smarts to create this complicated machine so that it works. It was designed and it works. Well, until it doesn’t, and then another engineer (the mechanic) fixes it. As much as that can be a pain, we like it. We like to create and then fix things. It shows us that we are powerful. What we create may be brittle, but we controlled the creation and we’re enjoyably busy with the fixing, so we’ll live with that.

And, of course, in the case of the automobile we don’t have much of a choice (at least until the machines become sentient and take over the world!). But with organizations, we have the option of letting the system do the adapting, rather than keeping all that control in the hands of the few people on top of the organizational chart. Open source software design  is showing us the power of that. Social media is showing us the power of that. It’s not brittle AND we can’t control it AND amazing things can happen as a result.

And it strikes me that our most powerful leverage in this new context is to build the capacity of the system to correct itself. We’re behind on this one, so we should start now. Like the quote I’ve been seeing on Twitter a lot these days: The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is right now.


  1. 08.07.2009 at 3:47 pm

    well my favorite metaphor for this is an intersection with the broken traffic light. have you ever noticed when the lights are broken, there is almost never any backup, as everyone just gets thru quickly while being collectively careful, whereas any time a traffic cop is running things, it takes forever? not a slam at policemen, just an instance where collective collaboration is often better than centralized control. –jl