Complex Systems are made of many moving parts and besides specific agent characteristics such as dimensionality, ambiguity, deception, incorrect or incomplete information, there are emergent effects. Analyzing a holistic complex system by breaking down the parts usually leads to ignorance of the emergent effects. Analyzing a rabbit’s behavior in the lab is different from analyzing a rabbit in its natural environment. To study and analyze complex system, an approach where a slow composite is built over time is better than rational thinking or critical analysis methods. Human body and mind is a complex system and the environment in which we operate is also a complex system. The economy is a complex system, Social Networks are complex systems and indeed anywhere we look, we will find complex systems. We can also learn fairly quickly that reductionist approaches do not work to understand complex systems.
We like to fix the anomalies of a complex system by carrying out piecemeal or reductionist patchwork. We also tend to believe that the patchwork significantly solved the problem, for now. However, fixing a complex system requires a multi-prong, complex strategy built incrementally over time. I work as a strategy consultant and have used the above methodology quite successfully in achieving desired results for clients. Incidentally, my work is sought only after previous consultants with rational and top-down strategies have either led to poor results or damaged whatever was working successfully. The core reason for major dissatisfaction in the consulting field is applying cookie-cutter strategies to unique and complex problems. Guess what, every problem is unique and due to the workings of a complex system, one man’s strategy soon becomes another man’s poison.
Complex Systems which are fixed using piecemeal, reductionist, non-unique, top-down strategies also routinely experience what we call “Brittle Failure“. Everything seems like it is working fine and nothing could go wrong, but, suddenly a shock event jolts everyone out of their slumber. To understand “Brittle Failure” we should borrow some concepts from “Material Science”. Materials scientists emphasize understanding how the history of a material (its processing) influences its structure, and thus the material’s properties and performance. Any material is obviously a complex system as it’s composition, it’s history and it’s various components behaving independently in an environment creates emergent effects.
As a reverse engineer in a previous career, we saw examples of brittle failure every day and material failure during mission-critical operations was a major problem. As such, we used to work diligently with material scientists to understand the failure points. We also designed material compositions so that they either do not fail at all or they fail incrementally over time, if possible, with some kind of early warning system. In most cases, we were able to avoid disaster by carefully observing any plastic deformation (Experienced Strain) on the material as we applied more stress to the material (see Stress-Strain curve below).
Occasionally, we used to experience what is called “Brittle Failure”where, without any warning, the material used to fail catastrophically. “Brittle Failure” is a well-known concept in material science and engineering, however, it is not understood well in the complex systems domain. Any patchwork of complex systems without fixing the core design problems that create the problems will eventually lead to brittle failure. Brittle Failure in complex systems is almost always accompanied with “Prediction Failure”. The emergent negative effect is “Catastrophic Failure”. Sometimes, emergent effects can also be positive and create “Surprise Windfall Outcomes”, but they are experienced by a rare few as it requires to be in the right time at the right place to gain from them.
Economic Recessions and Depressions, Political Upsets for incumbents and victory for “Political Unknowns”, Rise of Constructive (Entrepreneurs) and Destructive Entrepreneurs (Gangs, Criminals) are all examples of such emergent effects on a spectrum of brittle to a ductile range.
We hyperforecast using a core methodology which analyses all systems as complex systems, understand their ability to throw up positive and negative emergent effects and try to understand how to minimize the negative emergent effects. Before we close this quick read, I will give you an example of brittle failure in software systems. A man in Malaysia was surprised to receive a $ 218 Trillion telephone bill. Obviously, the bill was generated in error due to how the automated systems generated monthly bills and processed “Owings”. The company admitted its error a few days later and after some initial research, it was evident that the problem of wrong or inaccurate telephone bills were rampant in this company. The software and functional engineers kept on doing patchwork to the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) software and the problem would go away or become invisible. Eventually, the whole system experienced a brittle failure.
This brittle failure occurred in a telephone bill. Imagine if a critical care hospital ventilation system experienced the same thing. Further, imagine, what would happen, if the power grid of essential/critical infrastructure experienced the same failure? A progressive failure with an early warning system with preventive maintenance is way better than a system with No Warning and Catastrophic Failure”. What if this would happen in our personal and professional lives? Well, I should know better, for the first 25 years of my life, brittle failure was my best friend. Not only I used to fail consistently, but my failures were always brittle failure.
Guess what, our “Intuitive Framework” is designed to “search for” and “respond/react” to all kinds of dangers evolving in our vicinity. However, in a majority of the individuals due to cultural and educational frames impact, the “Intuitive System’ is practically shut down. Most of us will experience “Prediction Failure” without any warning accompanied by “Catastrophic/Disruptive Failure” at some point in life. Specifically, in periods of uncertainty and accelerating change as we experiencing right now, the possibility of “Brittle Failure” is becoming more probable.
The solution is to carefully watch developments beyond your immediate surrounding, sense the changes and evolution, make predictions and then take evasive or opportunistic action (Respond/React). I would strongly recommend looking at the S-Curves analogy and note that we have limited time before we enter a strong and self-sustaining decline phase. Opportunistic Action is better than Evasive Action and Evasive Action is better than No Action. For the rest, “Prediction Failure with Disruptive Consequences” await them.