Thursday, September 23, 2010

Motivation through the ages

While rewriting Working with Stories I've been making the rounds through some old projects and visiting some of my favorite patterns. One particular pattern has come up in so many projects -- ten? fifteen? -- that I think it might be of interest to others. It has to do with generations, organizations, and motivation. Now note that this is not a formal meta-analysis, and I haven't actually brought any real data together (and probably won't, because of client confidentiality and varying data formats). I'm content to observe and comment, and don't claim to have proven anything. Probably lots of other people have already proven all of this. But I find it interesting anyway.

Youth and middle age

So, what I've seen is this. As people begin their careers, or periods of involvement with an organization (as employees, volunteers, even customers), they start out telling fairly uniform stories.

Many of the stories by younger people display an abundance of energy but little power. These stories could display frustration at the situation, but often they  don't because they don't show a strong desire, involve big challenges, or demonstrate an obligation to make a difference. Nor do they involve knowledge to carry out complicated plans. These stories are involved and sometimes passionate, but loosely, contingently, experimentally so.

As people enter middle age, their stories tend to show growing power mixed with an increased desire to create change, challenging tasks, a feeling of obligation, and knowledge of how things should be done. You could say that the power evidenced in these stories is just enough to make their tellers want more; so the frustration level rises to a peak just as energy levels start to decline. In contrast to the earlier stories, these are committed, not exploratory; but their commitment is sometimes a seat belt and sometimes a straitjacket.

Engagement and detachment

At this point the dynamic splits and one graph becomes two. At some point in middle age, the stories diverge into two groups. The people don't split into two groups; but the mixture of tendencies expressed in their stories shifts as people get older. I've taken to calling the two sets of stories:
  1. engaged stories about people (usually their tellers) doing things in the organization, and  
  2. detached stories about people (usually their tellers) dealing with the things other people do in the organization. 
For whatever reason -- energy, perseverance, connections, skills, personality, attitude, background, luck -- some people begin telling more stories that feature an element of power. By power I don't necessarily mean organizational-chart or powers-that-be power; I mean the confidence that comes from knowing one can achieve one's goals. That sort of power can come from many places.

In engaged stories desire, knowledge, challenge and obligation all rise together to a peak. At the same time energy decreases as people age. This creates some degree of persistent frustration -- not at being out of power, but at not being able to use the power they have as effectively as they would like to create the change they want to see happen.

Detached stories, on the other hand, show a decrease in power as well as energy. You might think this would increase frustration further, but the reverse happens. These stories are all about pulling away, giving up, learning helplessness, reducing desire and avoiding obligation. Evidence of knowledge continues to grow, but not at the same pace as in the engaged stories, because the stories are largely devoid of challenge. These stories aren't always negative; sometimes they are just about people showing practical sense in a world they can't control. But there is definitely less positive energy here than in any of the other story sets.


I've noticed some places along the sets of curves where I think organizations might release untapped energy based on these observations. Points one and two are the same in both graphs (because the graphs are the same up to the middle point), and points 3a and 3b refer to only one group of stories.

 1. The plums on the cliffs. Young people have lots of energy but don't know where to put it, so "Youth is wasted on the young." I find that this proverb makes more sense to me every year. If I could go back in time ... But in a way, organizations can go back in time. Reducing the gap between youthful energy and all the other low-in-youth elements in my graphs above could create tangible benefits for organizations. Of course, giving the most inexperienced people with the least interest in becoming involved lots of power would be a mistake. But small changes in this area could result in large gains. I remember being at IBM and interacting with two summers worth of interns. These young people brought fresh eyes to old problems and had amazing amounts of energy, but much of it was dissipated as they scampered around the mossy stones standing nearly motionless in the offices and corridors. I was young enough to feel some of their frustration myself: those boulders just wouldn't move. Using young interns to "shake things up" is an area where I don't think many organizations have gone beyond the lip-service level.

A crazy idea for harvesting cliff plums: Mix interns with regular employees, but don't label them as interns. Give them titles that don't sound temporary, so that people don't reflexively discard their ideas. Involve them in the actual infrastructure of the organization. Don't hold special fake-involvement meetings where the interns present their mini-projects and everyone pats them on the head and goes back to "real" work. Don't quarantine them in young-people's meetings devoid of anyone over thirty. Instead of giving them tiny or fake projects to work in, give them real power in real projects. But be prepared to intervene swiftly in case of problems. Instead of having them swim in a wading pool, send them out into the ocean -- right next to a great big ship loaded with rescue equipment.

2. The swamps of sadness. Vast quantities of frustration and disappointment come spilling out of stories told by people in their middle ages. Many of these people are having their mid-life crises and asking themselves what they will leave behind. Many are having children and wondering what they will leave for them. Many are developing confidence in their own abilities at the same time as they develop an overwhelming disappointment at their ability to get the rest of the world to join their earnest efforts. Here again, it's possible that relatively small changes to organizational systems might free up energy that is otherwise wasted. Paperwork, wasted meetings, contradictory messages from management, great ideas unheeded, change programs full of pretense and empty of action -- all of these things can be improved upon, and sometimes with a far smaller amount of energy than is released as a result.

A crazy idea for draining the swamps of sadness: Tap volunteerism among frustrated do-gooders. Tell people that, say, everyone can leave at three o-clock in the afternoon on Fridays, or they can use that time to work on things they think the organization needs. (3M famously does this, or at least that's what I've heard...) Give people a little freedom and power to do what they think will work. Employees need confidence in the organization as well as in themselves, and it seems to be in the middle ages when this begins to decline.

The hard part of this crazy idea is that to do this, those in charge (those who decide what people will do on Friday afternoons) have to share the organization's vision and values with those under them. And by share I don't mean "tell them about it." I mean let them have some of it. Some people at the top don't want to share the organization's vision because they consider it their vision. I've seen people in power squirm and argue and stalk out when confronted with the possibility that those they have hired and paid might also have hopes and dreams for the organization. In some places it seems almost taboo to mention it. But a factory worker can be just as proud of the car they helped create as its designer, and rightly so. It takes maturity to share an organization with everybody in it, but it pays off.

3a. The mountain paths of the masters. Another opportunity is in supporting people who have run a good race and can tell stories full of wisdom and understanding, but can no longer produce the volume of output they once did. These are the masters of organizations (and they may not be the CEOs). I picture them walking slowly along well-worn paths with accolades following them catching the nuggets of wisdom they drop; but in fact many such masters walk their mountain paths alone. Finding the organization's masters and helping them make the most of their remaining energy is another opportunity often lost. People nearing or just after retirement from organizations are usually given far less attention than is productive (or even respectful). Keeping these people in the loop can help organizations avoid costly mistakes nobody else can see coming and discover opportunities nobody else could imagine.

A crazy idea for walking the mountain paths: Don't make retirement a step change. Make it both a gradual decrease (in time and energy) and a transition to a different sort of contribution. As with interns, don't sequester retirees; keep them deeply involved. But increasingly tap lower-energy reflection and advice while decreasing expectations of energy-consuming production. It's true that younger people will work longer hours for less, and it's true that younger people are more malleable. But the old people know what's what. It's like that old story about the plumber who goes into the factory, taps one pipe, walks out, and sends the factory owner a bill for $50,050. When the owner balks, the plumber explains. Tapping the pipe: $50. Knowing which pipe to tap: $50,000. Don't tire your masters out tapping all the pipes in the factory, but do keep asking them which ones to tap.

3b. The valley of the shadow of giving up. When people tell stories of detachment, they (or those parts of them) represent not only a danger to the organization but an opportunity as well. In many of these stories I find a sense of lingering desire, a dormant hope that the storytellers could once again be useful and take action with confidence. With some help even the most jaded can take on new challenges and provide the benefit of their knowledge.

When people tell these stories they are like the Beatles' nowhere man, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. The thing is, some of those plans are actually pretty good. Do you remember what Ringo said to the nowhere man in The Yellow Submarine?
Ringo: Hey, uh, Mr. Boob - you can come with us, if you like.
Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD.: You mean... you'd take a nowhere man?
Ringo: Yeah. Come on, we'll take you somewhere.
A crazy idea for raising the valley: Take your nowhere people somewhere. Literally. Find the people who could contribute to your organization but don't. Ask them to come to a special meeting or lunch or retreat. Discover the desires they hide, the challenges they wish they could approach, the knowledge they may not know they have, the power and confidence that would enable them, the barriers that stand in their way. See if you can reduce the gap between their desire and their (real and perceived) power and confidence so that they can have a positive impact on the organization.

So there you go. I find thinking of this set of forces that impact motivations to be helpful in my own efforts to get people to do things (don't we all). Hopefully some other people will find it useful as well.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

George Williams

I was saddened today to hear that George Williams had recently passed away. George was one of my advisors at Stony Brook and a big influence on me.

When I say I'm a slow thinker and proud of it, I always think of George. I used to sit with him in his office, pose questions, and wait for minutes for a response. I learned it was worth the wait because he always had amazing things to say, things I could never have thought of. George always had a way of looking at things with new eyes, even when nobody had done that in a very long time. It was a rare gift. I would have liked to have stayed his student, but I got to know him just as he was about to retire, so I had to move on and choose another advisor who would have more time for me. But I continued to visit him for some time. I wish I had known him for longer still.

In George's lab at Stony Brook there was a clock high up on the wall. It was too high to change every time daylight savings time came and went, so he just put a sign under it that said "Standard time - more or less." That was pure George.

I defer to Richard Dawkins, who said:
A wonderful scientist and a great gentleman, sadly missed.
My condolences to George's family.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Uncanny 2.0

I've been thinking all week about the uncanny framework I wrote about last week (it seems to want to be called that). I have to say, this has been a slippery beast to fight/dance/play with! I keep being reminded of Jacob wrestling with the angel, and of holding onto greased pigs, and of fish slipping away from my grasp, and of bars of soap slipping out of my hands in the bathtub. I've only done one of these in real life (I'll let you guess which) but my point is that this framework is uncanny in more ways than one. I must be on the right track.

To avoid having to go back and explain the whole thing over again, I'll just say that if you are encountering this post and have no idea what I'm talking about, you have three options. Option one: read the post before this one then come back. Option two: go away and come back when I start talking about more sensible things again. Option three: struggle through this and see if you can understand it anyway. (Yes, to the cynical devils out there, option four is indeed "go away and never come back." Meant in jest! In jest!)

Fields of gold

Tom Graves, who has been generous in talking with me about previous versions of this framework (it was a mess to start with), posted some very useful comments to the last post. Some of them were useful because they were insightful, and some were useful because they misunderstood my intent. I've also gathered some useful insights and misunderstandings from others around me since (yes, that is code for "I cornered my poor husband yet again").

A bit of unsolicited advice to all the other framework builders out there: When you are developing ideas, treasure your misunderstandings. They are pure gold. They are not, as some think, proof that your audience is stupid and not worth designing for. They are valuable, irreplacable insights (and usually, evidence that your work needs more work). However, abide by the old rule of software design: listen to your users, but don't do what they say. When people misunderstand and propose alternatives, treasure the misunderstandings but beware of the alternatives. When you design software you see this all the time. People say things like "I wish I could see these things sorted by size and relevance. You should [do something that would make the program worse]." This is not because the user is stupid; it's because they can't see inside the program and into all the other objectives and plans and structures you are juggling. But hold on to those misunderstandings!

I'll limit myself to explaining just a few of the most useful things I've learned since the last post.
  1. Predictability is confounding. For some reason on this particular framework extra axes have kept creeping in unnoticed. I think I've discovered and extricated something like six extra axes lurking in the shadows. (It's downright uncanny!) I don't think we need a predictability element here, since by definition in the uncanny area predictability is low. So we can put that aside.
  2. Explanation is misleading. Even when I try to say that the purpose is not to "pin down" anything, I think the word "explanation" leads people towards it. I'm thinking the word "perception" is better, because it makes it clear that we are talking about what people believe about what they see, not what they can prove to others. When Tom started talking about objective and subjective, I knew something had gone wrong, since I meant for this framework to map only subjective interpretations. Objective truth doesn't enter into it, except as one more perspective (the most universally accepted one). That doesn't mean I think there is no objective truth in uncanny patterns of sparse connection; it just means that defining and declaring what is objective isn't as useful in this context as exploring the universe of perception.
  3. Color doesn't work for validity. Tom rightly pointed out that even though you can use color coding for validity (as a way to squeeze another dimension in), it creates a simplifying effect and also reduces your ability to talk about change. In retrospect: of course, of course. I see it all now.
The baby takes another step

With those adjustments the framework now looks like this (call it uncanny 2.0):

This graph has the perception of intelligent agency going from none on the left to high on the right. This is a blended axis where the inanimate forces of nature mix (in the middle) with the animate forces of agency. You may recall that I previously had these as two separate axes. Why did I collapse them into one? For two reasons. First, I needed an axis for the perception of validity, because I needed people to be able to draw movement in it; so something had to go. Second, I noticed that in my earlier mystery-agency graph, the lower left corner (low agency low mystery) left the uncanny framework entirely and moved into the areas of confluence where things become predictable. That didn't suit the purpose of the nested framework. So if that corner was not needed, I could merge the two dimensions and consider relative balance.

Now I'll do the same thing I did the last time: go through each extreme corner, then try a bunch of stories and viewpoints out on it. Remember (as I forgot to label the last time) that these descriptions fit the extreme corners of the space, not large areas of internally uniform space.

Perceptions of valid mystery (upper left corner). In this corner go perceptions of validity in forces of nature. When there is no animate agent involved, our evaluation of validity is of the phenomenon itself. The dominant question is: Are we looking at reality or illusion? Things in this corner are perceived to be real phenomena that may not be understood or understandable but are nonetheless not illusions or fakes. Here we place perceptions of things "beyond science" such as proven chaotic system behavior. (Well, beyond current science if not beyond all science.)

Perceptions of invalid mystery (lower left corner). This is the point where no intelligent agencies are perceived to be operating, but what appears to be operating is not a real phenomenon either. It is an illusion, a confusion, a distraction, a false start, a dead end. It doesn't add up, it doesn't hold up. Here is where I would put phrenology, the geocentric solar system model, Luminous aether, and other scientific mistakes -- from our perspective today. In their day, these phenomena did not qualify as uncanny because scientists thought the phenomena were understood, except for a few niggling details that would not come right.

Perceptions of valid agency (upper right corner). On the side where intelligent agency is strongest, what matters most to validity is whether the agency is desirable (safe, functional) or undesirable (dangerous, dysfunctional). In this corner an agent has a positive impact, even though their action is uncanny and appears to "come from nowhere." I'm not sure I should have said before that "this is the area of recipes and instructions" because uncanny agency cannot be so easily described and passed on. (You see, I slip out of the uncanny too -- I think we all have an instinct to avoid it.) This corner is more like when a person has a force that is undeniable but inexplicable, like a great speaker who moves people to action but can't explain how they do it. You could say that this corner will never be well populated, because how could uncanny agency not include natural force? But again you would be descending into definition. I can imagine situations in which a person perceives uncanny patterns to be attributable to strong agency -- God, for example. God doesn't need "natural forces" to impact things; He just commands and the universe turns on a dime. The fact that my perceptions will not often enter that corner does not invalidate the framework; it proves its utility, in fact. The whole point is to consider perceptions you do not perceive, so as to get closer to making decisions that take into account views you do not share.

Perceptions of invalid agency (lower right corner). In the far corner where undesirable agency is at its worst is where our villians and demons live, real and imagined. Conspiracy theories, paranoias, xenophobias and demonizations feature aspects close to this corner. Even with severely psychopathic behavior, however, not all perceptions of the behavior put it in this corner. Some see natural forces at work in the warping of the human brain by inherited dysfunction or trauma. I remember reading a New Yorker article once about how a lot of the people in prisons had been dropped on their heads as children. (I'm not saying I agree or disagree with the article, just that I found the perspective relevant.)

The stories take a ride

Having defined our space we can now go back to our items from the last post, with a few extra ones thrown in to make eight. I've arranged these so that the first four items are multiple-perspective comparisons, and the last four are bona fide stories.

1. Caisson disease. Back to this useful case again. In 1860 when the doctors and bridge builders were watching their men come back sick and dying from the caissons, they saw the phenomenon as high in natural forces, but beyond their current science: valid mystery. I wouldn't put their perception at the very corner, because they did have a few smidgens of explanation, such as that large men suffered more than small "wiry" specimens, and they tried to use those tidbits of understanding to help those affected. Our view today of what happened then falls into the extreme corner of confusion: they couldn't see what we see, so the men suffered for what seems like no reason today. Many perceptions of the behaviors of others fit near this corner. In fact, it might be reasonable to call this corner and the lower right the "knee-jerk" corners, because this is where perceptions land when people say things like "those people are unreachable" or "you can't trust people like that." I wonder if my placing the 1860 doctors there shows some prejudices on my part. We in the world of technology do tend to look down a bit on people in less informed times, don't we? Perhaps we lose something by it?

2. Traffic jam. Here my caricature of an irate driver thinks the situation is invalid and undesirable, but mainly because "some idiot up there" did something stupid. And my caricature of an enlightened engineer sees the situation as closer to desirable (from his helicopter he can see that the jam loosens up a mile ahead and the driver won't be irate much longer) and less a result of stupidity (things always jam up here on Friday afternoons).

3. Auras. Again we have the true aura believer and user, who places the phenomenon high in a mixture of functional agency (their honed skill) and real mystery. I, on the other hand, place it in a mixture of undesirable agency (con artists) and illusion/confusion. Note however that I don't drag the thing all the way down into total invalidity, though certainly some would. I follow the aphorism of "Keep your mind open, but not so open that your brains fall out" which describes well my middle placement of the dot.

4. Synesthesia. I see the phenomenon of synesthesia as high up in valid mystery, though some people might not place it into the uncanny framework at all. It's possible that I only place it here because I learned about scientific explanations of synesthesia after experiencing it personally for some decades. Perhaps people just finding out they have it now, say when they are ten, but immediately finding scientific explanations for it, would not place it here at all. A synesthesia sceptic (and yes there are people who disbelieve current scientific proof, given that it has not always been proved correct) might place the phenomenon closer both to invalid agency (self-promotion) and invalid mystery (illusion/confusion).

By the way, have you noticed that in three out of these four multi-perspective situations, where a sceptic or generally not-very-involved person has had a perception, the perception has inhabited the middle area of the space? It makes me wonder if distance from a perception creates a sort of comfort with ambivalence, in the does-it-really-matter sense. Perhaps when you are close to a thing it is more likely to take up a stronger position.

5. Scooby Doo. As I mentioned before, every (old) Scooby Doo episode started with the team encountering some apparently bona fide (valid) mystery. And every episode ended either with a bad guy being carted off to jail or Fred giving a lecture on some obscure scientific phenomenon. I can draw the start of the story as at the upper left, in valid mystery, and the various stories splitting and going off to either extreme dysfunctional agency or a revelation of illusion or confusion. The fact that these stories inhabited only the extremes (at least in my memory) demonstrate how the show was a grand and fun caricature of life.

6. My car accident. This is a new one and one I'll have to explain a bit. Many years ago I bought a car. I was very proud of this car. It cost four thousand dollars, and it was only four years old. (That both dates the story and explains what sort of car it was.) I bought it at an actual car dealership. I beamed with pride. I changed the oil myself and washed it frequently.

One Christmas my sister (who shall remain nameless and blameless) came to visit and a strange series of events unfolded. First, she put something big in the back of the car and closed the hatchback on it, shattering the window. Fine, anybody could do that, we got it fixed. Then we went to the city where she lived, and somebody promptly smashed one of the side windows and stole our Christmas presents. We got that fixed. Then we started to drive to my parents' house. Because I was still having a lot of back problems at the time, I let her drive, which in retrospect was a bad idea because living in the city she had grown unused to it.

Middle of the night, rainstorm, poorly marked road with crossing railroad tracks that appeared to be a fork in the road, and soon after we found ourselves crashed in a forest. We were fine aside from my strained wrist, so luckily (or mercifully) that is not the point of this story. The point is what happened during the few seconds of the accident. It's probably one of my best uncanny stories ever. When I saw that my sister was rapidly losing control of the vehicle -- I'd felt that swish swish Swoosh SWOOSH before and knew what was coming -- I said to myself, "I'll relax. They say you should relax." So I laid my hands in my lap and relaxed. From the marks we found afterward, we could reconstruct that the car rode the guard rail for something like a hundred feet, apparently pirouetting once or twice, and then ripped through something like a dozen small and medium-sized trees before coming to rest on its side, with a tree-sized dent about one foot in front of my legs. Every single window was broken, including the two we had just replaced, and the rear view mirror was in the back seat. There must have been a terrible clamor.

Here's the uncanny part: I remember it differently. I experienced this wild ride as a peaceful drift through space, gently wafting down without a sound into the forest. It was almost beautiful, really, the way the trees spread their arms to receive us. And the other weird thing is that my sister insists that I told her out loud to relax, and did. I'm sure I didn't.

So, how would I place that experience on the uncanny framework? It certainly does belong there! At first I placed the experience squarely into the undesirable agency: it was somebody's fault. I should have known better, my sister should have been more careful, the powers that be should have marked the road better. But later, with the distance of time, my perception of it migrated to the middle area (there's that distance again). It was not so horrible; we were lucky; and some natural forces were involved: the rain, the night, the forest. The really surprising thing was the creation of a new perception. I consider this to be one of the most precious gifts I've received in my life (from whom? from life itself?). It must have been horrifying to experience that crash. But all I can remember is the peace of it, the blissful floating into a loving place of rest. I've looked back on this aspect of the story many times and found it reassuring. Whatever the explanation, I don't fear trauma as much as I did before that accident. I feel that something -- myself, my brain, nature, what? -- might protect me in the same way another time. I place that aspect of it here mostly in valid mystery, but not at the extreme. (My confidence in it is not that high.)

7. The psychedelic comic. I might as well use the fascinating story Tom told in his comment to the last post (did you read it?) about his injury and fun-with-morphine experience after it. (Beware all ye who comment, for your stories shall be used in ways you had not imagined. Bwahahaha.... Sigh. According to the urban dictionary, this is an "Improper use of the much maligned correct Muahahaha." Can't even get super-villianry right.) Anyway, I'm guessing at a perception here, but it seems like at the time of Tom's experience, what he saw seemed an entirely valid case of mystery, like how in dreams everything is nonsensical but makes perfect sense. Probably later his perception changed to one that admitted of some illusion and confusion. (Though I don't put it in the extreme because I know Tom's a pretty open-minded guy so he would leave some room for curiosity.)

A longer story joins in

8. Karain. This last story is one I recently stumbled on serendipitously, and it fits perfectly. It is a short story by Joseph Conrad, and I only found the book it is in because I was on my way to the bath and haunting my fiction shelves looking for something, anything, I hadn't read. Sadly this story has no Wikipedia page as of yet (can you hear me Wikipedia), but you can read the story here. I'm giving this story more space because it seems like it was written precisely to work with this framework (oooooh, uncanny).

Let me see if I can summarize the powerful story briefly without trashing it. Three travelers, gun-runners selling illegal firearms to natives, repeatedly visit a small native village in some sun-bleached Asian paradise. The leader of this village is a man called Karain. He impresses the traders with his overpowering authority, strength and self-confidence.
He seemed too effective, too necessary there, too much of an essential condition for the existence of his land and his people, to be destroyed by anything short of an earthquake. He summed up his race, his country, the elemental force of ardent life, of tropical nature. ... He gave [his people] wisdom, advice, reward, punishment, life or death, with the same serenity of attitude and voice. He understood irrigation and the art of war--the qualities of weapons and the craft of boat-building. He could conceal his heart; had more endurance; he could swim longer, and steer a canoe better than any of his people; he could shoot straighter, and negotiate more tortuously than any man of his race I knew. He was an adventurer of the sea ... and my very good friend.
Even as they marvel at the grace and power of this natural-born leader, the travelers also notice that he always keeps near him an old man who shuffles along staring at the ground. They ponder why such a powerful man should keep such a hindrance near him.
Karain never moved without that attendant, who stood or squatted close at his back. He had a dislike of an open space behind him. It was more than a dislike--it resembled fear, a nervous preoccupation of what went on where he could not see. This, in view of the evident and fierce loyalty that surrounded him, was inexplicable.
On one visit they discover the source of this fear. Karain refuses to see them for some days, pleading illness. Then one night he appears on their ship, bedraggled, thin, and in panic. And he tells them a story, something like this. Once Karain had a friend who was like a brother to him. That friend had a sister, and the sister committed the unpardonable sin of leaving the village with a white man. Karain swore to accompany his friend in order to deal justice to both the sister and the man, as was the custom. The two brothers traveled far and wide, but as they went, Karain began slowly to fall in love with the absent sister. She begged him for her life in his dreams and in his waking visions. Finally the two found the sister, and, unable to stop his friend, Karain instead shot him to spare the woman he loved. After this, Karain's friend began to follow him in death, to haunt and taunt him without mercy.

The old man found Karain, spoke words of power and magic, and sent the spirit away. Now the old man was dead, and Karain was before them.
Not one of us doubted that we were looking at a fugitive, incredible as it appeared to us. He was haggard, as though he had not slept for weeks; he had become lean, as though he had not eaten for days. ... Of course it had been a long swim off to the schooner; but his face showed another kind of fatigue, the tormented weariness, the anger and the fear of a struggle against a thought, an idea--against something that cannot be grappled, that never rests--a shadow, a nothing, unconquerable and immortal, that preys upon life. We knew it as though he had shouted it at us. 
Why does Karain come to the gun traders? Because they have something he can never have.
With you I will go. To your land--to your people. To your people, who live in unbelief; to whom day is day, and night is night--nothing more, because you understand all things seen, and despise all else! To your land of unbelief, where the dead do not speak, where every man is wise, and alone--and at peace!
The traders confer and agree (in English) that Karain could never go with them; he would not survive in their world of exploiters and exploited. But then Karain has an idea:
"Give me your protection--or your strength!" he cried. "A charm . . . a weapon!"
They respond with only confusion to this at first, but then Hollis, the youngest of the three, goes off to his bunk and starts rummaging around.
Then Hollis reappeared, holding in both hands a small leather box. He put it down gently on the table and looked at us with a queer gasp, we thought, as though he had from some cause become speechless for a moment, or were ethically uncertain about producing that box. But in an instant the insolent and unerring wisdom of his youth gave him the needed courage. He said, as he unlocked the box with a very small key, "Look as solemn as you can, you fellows."
Probably we looked only surprised and stupid, for he glanced over his shoulder, and said angrily--

"This is no play; I am going to do something for him. Look serious. Confound it! . . . Can't you lie a little . . . for a friend!"
Hollis presents his sixpence calmly and with confidence. Karain responds:
"This is the image of the Great Queen, and the most powerful thing the white men know," he said, solemnly.
Karain accepts the gift and its power, and is restored. He returns to his village triumphant, the coin in a little leather sack tied round his neck. Years later, the narrator of the story comes upon Jackson, the third trader, in a busy port town. They fall to talking about Karain. Says Jackson:
"I wonder whether the charm worked--you remember Hollis's charm, of course. If it did . . . Never was a sixpence wasted to better advantage! Poor devil! I wonder whether he got rid of that friend of his. Hope so. . . . Do you know, I sometimes think that--"
I stood still and looked at him.

"Yes . . . I mean, whether the thing was so, you know . . . whether it really happened to him. . . . What do you think?"

"My dear chap," I cried, "you have been too long away from home. What a question to ask! Only look at all this."
He gestures at the hustle and bustle of agency all around them.
"Ye-e-e-s," said Jackson, meditatively.
The story ends with these words:
"Yes; I see it," said Jackson, slowly. "It is there; it pants, it runs, it rolls; it is strong and alive; it would smash you if you didn't look out; but I'll be hanged if it is yet as real to me as . . . as the other thing . . . say, Karain's story."
I think that, decidedly, he had been too long away from home.
Aside from this being an amazing story well told, it presents a useful case for testing the uncanny framework. I'll give it its own canvas here.


Karain's perceptions of the ghost and the charm are simple and extreme, as befits his role as a caricature of native belief. In his mind the ghost is an undesirable agent, and the charm carries valid natural forces from the world of the white man. Karain is correct in his assessment that his ghost can have no power over his unbelieving friends, for they inhabit an opposite corner to the one that haunts him.

Hollis presents the charm to Karain as a deliberate "lie for a friend," devoid of natural forces but hopefully helpful in action. I would not put Hollis' view at the absolute top of valid agency because even he is unsure whether it is the right thing to do. All the traders at the time place the phenomenon of the ghost squarely in illusion, and all of them go along with Hollis' plan, agreeing that it is a kind act but meaningless. The narrator plays along with Hollis:
I pointed at the curved line of yellow sands.
"He is not there," I said, emphatically, to Karain. "He waits no more. He has departed forever."
[Karain exclaims that the ghost is gone.] 
We assented vigorously, repeatedly, and without compunction. The great thing was to impress him powerfully; to suggest absolute safety--the end of all trouble. We did our best; and I hope we affirmed our faith in the power of Hollis's charm efficiently enough to put the matter beyond the shadow of a doubt.
They are feigning confidence, using the force of their benevolent action to propel Karain to a place they themselves have no wish to visit. In the coda to the story, the narrator meets Jackson and hears him admit that his perception of the story has drifted part of the way into true mystery. This is countered reflexively by the narrator with a retreat to the safe corner of perceived illusion.

Of course by posing these questions to us, Joseph Conrad is asking us to place our own perceptions in the space. Notice how the story covers most of the space. Like this framework aspires to do, it presents a canvas on which we can map our own perceptions of the uncanny in our world, and in other worlds, and thereby learn more about the world, ourselves, and those around us.

In conclusion, I think this framework is starting to grow up and stand on its own. And as before I'm profoundly grateful for any feedback, insights, and perceptions.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Deeper confluence: Explanation in the uncanny world

I'd like to introduce yet another new framework for sensemaking in this post, one I've been pondering for a while. This morning I woke up and said to myself, "It's time." So here we go.

Note: The framework described in this post has been superceded by an even better, shinier framework described in the next post. So don't read this! It's drivel! (Unless you came here looking for an explanation of the later drivel....)

Surface and depth

Let me start with a bit of background for those who haven't been following the story so far. I've been developing and using what I call the confluence framework (described here and here) for about ten years, earlier in collaboration with Dave Snowden (and his Cynefin framework) and more recently on my own. Just so you don't have to go look it up, here is a picture of the confluence framework.

A while ago, through a beneficial accident of multiple perceptions, I came to consider ways to think usefully about the ways in which organization and self-organization (hierarchy and meshwork) intermingle and interact. That led to this post and what I've started to call the "mixing" framework, which (again so you don't have to go find it) looks like this:

After that useful accident, I was juxtaposing these two frameworks (confluence and mixing), and I thought: Why stop there? Why not come up with a series of frameworks that together cover the confluence space more fully?

So I thought about what sorts of other frameworks might be useful to sensemaking across the space, and I came up with this:

What that diagram shows (badly because I can't figure out how to get PowerPoint to do what I want) is that each of four "deeper confluence" frameworks is most useful in one area of the surface-level confluence framework, and its appropriateness declines as you move away from that area.
  1. The mixing framework (orange) is most useful where hierarchy and meshwork mix the most strongly, in the upper right-hand corner.
  2. The explanation framework (red) is most useful in the lower left where connections are few and/or weak.
  3. The complex framework (green) gets more useful as you move upwards.
  4. The complicated framework (blue) gets more useful as you move to the right.
The way I see these frameworks being used in sensemaking is this. People might start using the simplest "surface" framework with regard to the situations or issues they care about. Then, after considering things at that level, they might choose one or more of the deeper frameworks and consider other aspects of the issues that are most pertinent to specific areas within the larger framework. Different issues and contexts and goals and groups will gain benefit from different constellations of deeper frameworks, so that the whole package of five frameworks can adapt to the needs of the moment. Also notice that in the middle area of the space, where it is most difficult to guess what is going on (and interpretations are likely to vary the most), all four deeper frameworks can provide help to sensemaking.

Explaining explanation

So, having the mixing framework already, my attention has turned in recent weeks to the lower left corner of the confluence space. This is the area where the connections between components are few, weak or both, and where prediction is impossible. I call this space by various names: the uncanny space, the space of sparse or loose connections, the space of isolation, the space of incoherent and undirected patterns, the void. I also like Tom Graves' term that this space is one of inherent uniqueness. In general the important thing about this area is that patterns do form here, but it is hard to say why, and we have little or no control or predictive power over them.

I've watched people address this uncanny space in quite a few workshops where we derived the Cynefin framework (in its confluence-like pre-boundary form). I've noticed two things people do with this portion of the space. Sometimes they avoid the area and place nothing there, essentially creating a limited framework. Other times they use it as a dustbin and put the most unpleasant or uncomfortable things there, apparently in the belief that things placed there need not be considered further because they are impenetrable. I've long felt that people need more sensemaking help in the sparse area.

As I started thinking about patterns in uncanny space, I kept recalling that old television series "The Unexplained." Paranormal activities, auras, crystals, divination, ghosts, life after life, angels, aliens, NLP, reiki, acupuncture, alternative medicine, and all sorts of things some people believe in and others dismiss, disdain or make fun of fit here (even a list of what fits here will vary depending on your beliefs -- excuse me if I offend anybody on either side!).

On thinking about it, I realized that the reason people call things in this area "unexplained" is not because nobody has explained them. It's because everybody explains them, but everybody explains them differently. My explanation is your un-explanation, because you reject it; and vice versa. So I began thinking about variation in explanation as important to this area.

As a sort of method, I looked up several phenomena and pondered the explanations of a variety of people (myself included) about them. I asked myself: What do people say when they are talking about these things? How do they explain these things? What are the elements that can be found in all such explanations? And how can a framework help people capture similaries and differences in those explanations? How can I help people explain explanation?

This is what I have so far. There are three questions I see people often asking and answering about patterns in the uncanny, sparse area of the confluence framework.
  1. Is this pattern true? Is it real? Is it valid?
  2. Who is behind this pattern? Who is doing this? 
  3. Is this pattern tractable? Is it predictable? Can we control it?
I noticed soon after deriving this list of questions that it matches Harrison White's three evaluations of social identity interaction, which came from observational work done by Bales on how people evaluate (or explain) the actions of others in social situations. The first question here is one of purity for selection; the second of power for mobilization; and the third of quality for commitment. (For more on White's identity interaction categories and their relation to sensemaking frameworks see this paper.)

Taking these three questions and making them into dimensions, I end up with:
  1. the dimension of value (purity)
  2. the dimension of agency (power) 
  3. the dimension of mystery (quality, though this is actually the reverse of quality, because I want to talk about the presence of unpredictability)
Trying the dimensions out in the case of auras, some people believe there is a mysterious force operating in the universe that only some gifted people can perceive (or that everyone can perceive with adequate training). Thus their explanation has strong elements of mystery and value, but little to say about agency. Other people believe there is no mystery involved in auras, only the agency of some smart people making a fast buck by duping some credulous people desparate for something to believe in. These are strong elements of agency and value, but little to say about mystery.

It's difficult to support sensemaking in three dimensions, so I needed to choose two to graph and one to superimpose. Here is the graph, with mystery and agency only.

I show mystery as a cloud, agency as an arrow (of intent) and the lack of either as a simple circle (for want of a better visual representation of absence).  Laying on the value dimension using color, we get these states:

High mystery, no agency. Here the situation is unpredictable for one of two reasons. It could be that science has tried to penetrate the mystery but has failed because of poor information or poor models. This is how we now explain the "dead ends" of science such as phrenology and the Ptolemaic solar system model (though it's not how they explained it then). Another explanation might be that the mystery goes beyond science and can never be predicted. Something like what happens after death might fit here (in some worldviews). The unpredictability of chaos theory might go here (in some worldviews). The colors on the graph show evaluations of value: positive, neutral or negative. I've put the "beyond science" label as neutral, but that's only my view.

High mystery, high agency. Here we find mystery and agency mixed together. I call this area the area of mastery, because mastery of a skill or subject always contains some element of mystery. This is where people say "there is an art to it" or "you have to be born to do this" or "some people have a knack for this" and so on. Many aspects of scientific practice (not theory) fit into this area. True mastery is where the mystery and agency come together to create useful results. False mastery is where the connection misfires and the result is not helpful but harmful. Hitler would be a good example of false mastery: he was by all accounts a master of all sorts of things, but with the worst possible outcomes.

High agency, no mystery. This is the area where positive explanations will highlight true skill and ability and where people say "there is a science to it" and "anyone can do this if you follow these steps." This is the area of recipes and instructions. Negative explanations in this area will reference agency with negative purposes and/or outcomes: lies and the lying liars who tell them. By the way, by using the term "agency" I mean to refer to any agency, meaning the actions of any intelligent being, not just human beings. Some highly religious people (well, at least in some religions) would place many or most of their explanations in areas where the agency of a higher power is the dominant explanatory element. Again since my goal is to build a comparative tool, not a way to get at "truth", the point is explain explanations, not create them.

No mystery, no agency. Here positive explanations will highlight science as it should be, or science when its work is done. Causes have been revealed, experiments have been replicated, and predictable results can be relied upon. Here also are the negative explanations where people make mistakes, not because of deceptive agency or intervening mystery, but simply because they are limited and forget things.

Now remember, as with the confluence framework, these are not descriptions of broad bounded regions; they are caricatures of extreme conditions. Most real explanations will fit somewhere between these extremes.

Comparing explanations

Now let's try this out with some stories (which are essentially bundles of explanation). What I've done is to place four linked explanations here, from different perspectives.

I start with Caisson disease on the Brooklyn Bridge, a pattern I find endlessly interesting. (To put it very briefly, workers on the Brooklyn Bridge got the bends, and they didn't know what it was or how to stop it from happening. More about it here -- scroll down to where it says "Caisson disease.") From the point of view of the Brooklyn Bridge engineers in 1860, the situation was so high in mystery that it went beyond (the current state of) science. From my perspective, what happened in the caissons in 1860 was also in the area of mystery, but for another reason: the science was wrong (thus the box is red). From the perspective of anyone getting the bends today, the situation has been removed from mystery and rests in the firm bed of well-known science.

Now look at pattern number two, a traffic jam (say one that arose from rubber-necking around a broken-down car well off the road). From the perspective of an irate driver in the traffic jam, the situation is negative (red) and most likely involves a high degree of agency (some idiot screwed up somewhere). From the perspective of a traffic engineer, the same traffic jam involves a little agency (the original designers could have improved traffic flow through here) and a little mystery (hard to tell how irate drivers will react to these things).

Pattern three is about auras. A true believer in auras who believes they can see and use them would place the situation high in mystery and high in agency, and mark it as positive (green). They might see themselves as masters of their gift. I myself would place it fairly high in agency, but in a negative sense (deception and self-deception combined). I do however allow for a fair amount of mystery, in that the science might be wrong and/or that there may be more we have not discovered about the idea of auras. (Who knows?)

Pattern four is my very useful pattern about synesthesia, which is something many people think is made up and silly, but I conveniently have and so can use it as a counterpoint to the auras. I place synesthesia fairly high in mystery, even though I've read the neurological explanations, because I find it pretty amazing. Unlike the aura believer, I don't place it high in agency, because it's not so much something I do or use as something that happens to me. Now the skeptic about synesthesia might believe that I and others are making this up to gain notoriety, or perhaps we are deceiving ourselves in thinking we have "superpowers" and so they would place their (negative) explanation far into agency and with little mystery involved.

Here's one more pattern, though I didn't draw it on the diagram. When I was thinking about this I kept going back to the old Scooby Doo television show I loved as a child. In every episode of Scooby Doo, the group encountered a scary mystery that seemed to have no explanation. Through a combination of painstaking scientific inquiry and silly bumbling, the group always found out that the mystery could be explained either by a simple scientific explanation (the moaning cave is just the wind blowing) or by the agency of a person (usually it was somebody who wanted to scare people away from their nefarious-purposes lair). The first of these moved the mystery down into the comfortable lower left of my explanations framework (no mystery no agency), and the second into the open-and-shut-case area of the lower right (no mystery high agency). I always waited for the Scooby Doo episode in which they concluded that they had found a bona fide mystery, but it never happened. Pity.

Moving forward, whatever that means

I'm excited about the possible utility of such a surface-and-depth system for sensemaking support, and have been talking with various people about building and testing and refining it in theory and practice. In particular I'd like to thank Tom Graves, Carol Mase and my husband (yes he has a name, it's Paul Fernhout) for discussing these frameworks with me and offering helpful suggestions.

Now let me say something about frameworks in general. I know that lots of other people have developed and are developing other sensemaking frameworks, and sometimes I think these things I am writing about may just be irritating to people who are tired of navigating all the various theories and models out there. Why bring another framework into an overpopulated world? I used to think that way about writing: if there are so many great novels in the world, why do people keep writing them? They should all stop so we can catch up!

But then I realized that some of the novels that have most spoken to me have not spoken to other people in the same way. For me Dostoyevsky without The Idiot would be much less of a touchstone; but for others it is The Brothers Karamazov that stands out, for their own reasons. Should somebody have stopped Dostoyevsky from writing  The Brothers Karamazov because I didn't get that much out of it? Or The Idiot because others didn't? I've come to understand that for every good book there is an audience who needs it. In the same way, for every good sensemaking framework there is an audience who needs it. It has occurred to me that it might be just as arrogant to think nobody can gain benefit from your creations as it is to think everyone can.

So I press on, not knowing what will come next, and not really much minding if the end result is just me talking to myself. (There's value in that too.) My end goal is to help people resolve conflicts and solve problems together, in whatever ways I can, so I'm eager to continue working in this area. I'm also eager to work with others who are interested in the same things. As I've said elsewhere, I'm not much interested in models or frameworks if they can't provide benefit to real people dealing with real problems, so I'm the most keen on testing and improving these ideas in practice. If you are interested in discussing these ideas or improving them in practice, please do let me know.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Complexity/chaos stories: Butterflies, keystones and climbers

Don't read this post! Read the improved version, published as "Are We Ready for Complexity?" in the Journal on Policy and Complex Systems, Spring 2018 issue. Or read this PDF version.

If you want to read the original, unimproved version of the paper, you can go on and read the rest of this blog post.

Since I posted some thoughts about complexity a while back, I've been surprised both by the number of people who have been interested in what I said (and encouraged me to write more), and by the degree to which I find myself wanting to write more. I still have much to write about narrative, but I also seem to want to write more about complexity as it relates to sensemaking and decision support. Since this blog is supposed to be about narrative, I keep feeling a need to apologize whenever I write about complexity.

But really there is nothing to be sorry for. My work on the "listening side" of narrative centers on the place where stories and patterns come together. Narrative incorporates complexity because stories self-organize into emergent patterns, and complexity incorporates narrative because complex systems are historical systems. I remember when I first realized this, and what a rush it was to discover synergy between two fields I had come to love. Thus, dear reader, henceforth I resolve to stop apologizing for combining these topics!

So. After discovering both the encouragement and the motivation to write more about complexity, I began to think about what I would like to write. Immediately I thought of some curious things I've observed about the way people talk about complexity and chaos, mainly outside of science.

I first encountered these fields in graduate school studying ethology, and even participated in them a little (I presented a paper at the first Conference on Simulation of Adaptive Behavior in 1990). A decade later, I came round to complexity and chaos again through organizational narrative and sensemaking. I was amazed to discover that non-scientific exports from these fields had been transformed in ways that, to me, seemed to reduce their utility in practical application. I've always felt a need to point out these transformations and help people gain the benefits I think can be derived from moving past them, but I never got around to writing anything about it before. So I've made myself a list of ten such transformations and plan to go through them one at a time, not continuously but occasionally, hopefully giving people some food for thought along the way.

The butterfly and the underbutterfly

I begin with the butterfly effect. Many know the story of how meteorologist Edward Lorenz in 1961 reran his simple weather simulation, and for convenience copied the starting values of some variables from a previous printout. Because of rounding in the printout, he left the last few digits off one of the variables. Lorenz went to get a cup of coffee and returned to find the repeat simulation had generated a vastly different weather pattern. Those few digits altered the trajectory of the simulation dramatically. Lorenz called this phenomenon "sensitivity to initial conditions," meaning that small differences at the start of a process (one with a particular set of chaotic characteristics) could be amplified into large differences later on.

Lorenz was not the first to encounter this phenomenon. The point was over a century old when he made it. His statements are very similar to those made by mathematicians such as Maxwell, Poincaré, and Duhem in the latter part of the 19th century. W.S. Franklin wrote in 1889, in a review of a book by Duhem, that
Long range detailed weather prediction is therefore impossible, and the only detailed prediction which is possible is the inference of the ultimate trend and character of a storm from observations of its early stages; and the accuracy of this prediction is subject to the condition that the flight of a grasshopper in Montana may turn a storm aside from Philadelphia to New York!
But while Lorenz did not discover the possibility of this sensitivity, he was the first to create it in practice. Duhem would have been as surprised as Lorenz to find such unpredictable systemic behavior in a simple repetition of a handful of calculations.

Even though the story of the butterfly effect started a century before, a second parallel explanation of the results, a second story, began to form soon after Lorenz first spoke about the issue in public. It is this second story I want to draw your attention to.

Lorenz's first talk on the topic in 1972 was titled "Predictability: Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" His answer was not "yes" but an emphatic "impossible to say." Here are some excerpts from his talk (it is in an appendix in his book The Essence of Chaos).
Lest I appear frivolous in even posing the title question, let alone suggesting that it might have an affirmative answer, let me try to place it in proper perspective by offering two propositions:

1. If a single flap of a butterfly's wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, so also can all the previous and subsequent flaps of its wings, as can the flaps of the wings of millions of other butterflies, not to mention the activities of innumerable more powerful creatures, including our own species.

2. If the flap of a butterfly's wings can be instrumental in generating a tornado, it can equally well be instrumental in preventing a tornado.

... The question which really interests us is whether ... two particular weather situations differing by as little as the immediate influence of a single butterfly will generally after sufficient time evolve into two situations differing by as much as the presence of a tornado. In more technical language, is the behavior of the atmosphere stable with respect to perturbations of small amplitude?
The paradigm-shaking element of these statements is that it had always been supposed that if a person could know everything there is to know about everything, that person could predict the future with perfect accuracy. This supposition had been questioned by Duhem and others, but only in a fanciful way, as though there might be small exceptions to the general rule that omniscience guarantees prediction. Lorenz's feat (or luck) was to demonstrate that omniscience does not guarantee prediction even in a small, simple simulation.

In Chaos, James Gleick describes the butterfly effect perfectly:
[S]uppose the earth could be covered with sensors spaced one foot apart, rising at one-foot intervals all the way to the top of the atmosphere. Suppose every sensor gives perfectly accurate readings of temperature, pressure, humidity, and any other quantity a meteorologist could want.... The computer will still be unable to predict whether Princeton, New Jersey, will have sun or rain on a day one month away. At noon the spaces between the sensors will hide fluctuations that the computer will not know about, tiny deviations from the average. By 12:01, those fluctuations will already have created small errors one foot away. Soon the errors will have multiplied to the ten-foot scale, and so on up to the size of the globe.
Now let me quote a few lines from a few business books on complexity. This is from Uri Merry's Coping With Uncertainty:
The inescapable conclusion is reached that man is living in a world in which under certain conditions, tiny causes can have enormous effects. This is called the butterfly effect.... The flapping of the wings of a butterfly in Hong Kong can affect the course of a tornado in Texas.
From Jeffrey Goldstein's The Unshackled Organization:
With all of these nonlinear interactions, it is no wonder that the weather is said to include the extremely nonlinear "butterfly effect" made famous by chaos theory. The butterfly effect refers to how air currents from a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia are amplified to influence the weather in North America!
From Margaret Wheatley's Leadership and the New Science:
Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, first drew public attention to this with his now famous "butterfly effect." Does the flap of a butterfly wing in Tokyo, Lorenz queried, affect a tornado in Texas (or a thunderstorm in New York)? Though unfortunate for the future of accurate weather prediction, his answer was "yes."
From T. Irene Sanders' Strategic Thinking and the New Science:
The Butterfly Effect describes the image of a butterfly flapping its wings in Asia and causing a hurricane in the Atlantic, which is a metaphor for how small changes or events create complex results.... A small change in the initial conditions of one system multiply upward, expanding into larger and larger systems, changing conditions all along the way, eventually causing unexpected consequences at a broader level sometime in the future.
These excerpts, and almost all popular and business interpretations of the butterly effect, transform a statement about uncertainty to one about certainty. The second story changes the butterfly effect from tiny actions piling up in unpredictable ways to tiny actions having predictable and controllable impacts. I have taken to calling this second story the "underbutterfly effect," because the butterfly in these versions is a powerful underdog who changes the world, not one of millions of other butterflies (not to mention innumerable more powerful creatures) whose feeble flaps are lost in the sea of uncertainty in which we live.

Finding the exact place where the underbutterfly first flapped its wings would take more time than I have to spend on this, but my suspicion is that it arose almost immediately. In Chaos, Gleick describes an incident where Lorenz explains the butterfly effect to his colleague Robert White.
"Prediction, nothing," he said. "This is weather control." His thought was that small modifications, well within human capacity, could cause desired large-scale changes.

Lorenz saw it differently. Yes, you could change the weather. You could make it do something different from what it would otherwise have done. But if you did, then you would never know what it would otherwise have done. It would be like giving an extra shuffle to an already well-shuffled pack of cards. You know it will change your luck, but you don’t know whether for better or worse.
Another curiousity is that even though Gleick gives a wonderfully useful description of the butterfly effect in his metaphor of sensors covering the earth, he also tells the underbutterfly story, perhaps without noticing it. He says:
[S]ensitive dependence on initial conditions was not an altogether new notion. It had a place in folklore:

"For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
For want of a rider, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!"
This particular bit of folklore does not in fact communicate the impossibility of prediction. It exhorts people to action with the explanation that small actions can have large effects. Nowhere can I find this proverb used to convey the impossibility of knowing which of the millions of horseshoe nails (not to mention innumerable more powerful objects) might have been involved in the loss of the kingdom. A web site on "nursery rhymes, lyrics and origins" says the proverb is "often used to gently chastise a child whilst explaining the possible events that may follow a thoughtless act." The proverb is not used to gently explain to a child that predicting complex patterns in the long term is impossible.

Here is another curious pattern. Did you notice in those quotes from business books that the underbutterfly lives in Asia? Don't you think it's strange that four completely unrelated (but all US) authors have told the underbutterfly story as Asia impacting North America? Lorenz's original talk had it going from Brazil to Texas -- but Lorenz himself didn't write that title. The editor who did name the talk said later that he chose those names primarily for their alliterative value (butterfly-Brazil, tornado-Texas). Lorenz had it as a seagull before that talk, and didn't mention any locations. And the 1889 book review I cited above had the grasshopper effect going from Philadelphia to New York. Why the move to Asia?

Curious about this, I searched Google for the phrase "a butterfly flapping its wings in" and looked at the first 100 links given. Here is what I found.

As you can see, most of the butterflies flap their wings in South America or Asia, and most of the tornadoes spin in North America. I wrote, and then deleted, some rampant speculation on this pattern, having to do mostly with the US-centric internet and the location of mystery in foreign lands ... but you can draw your own conclusions, and this is not my central point anyway. My point is that people have taken a statement about uncertainty and transformed it into one about certainty.

The keystone and the topstone

In 1969 Robert T. Paine introduced the idea of a keystone species to ecology. Paine discovered this phenomenon in an experiment during which he removed a single species of sea star from a small area of shoreline and found that it had far-reaching effects on species diversity. Most importantly, the effect produced by its removal was out of proportion to its relative abundance in the community. This is a central element of Paine's keystone species concept. Other species which have high abundance and large impacts were termed "key" or "dominant" to distinguish them from the smaller keystone species.

Keystone species are also by definition difficult to discover without observing what happens when they are removed. As Paine said in his original 1969 paper on the phenomenon:
Within both these fairly or very complex systems the species composition and physical appearance were greatly modified by the activities of a single native species high in the food web. These individual populations are the keystones of the community's strucutre, and the integrity of the community and its unaltered persistence through time, that is, stability, are determined by their activities and abundance. They may be unimportant as energy transformers. The two keystone species discussed above have little in common. Pisaster is abundant and is somewhat of a trophic generalist; Charonia is rare and a food specialist.... Both are starfish feeding on a variety of prey .... The significance of these carnivores could not have been guessed beforehand, since other carnivores coexist with them.
As with the butterfly effect, this story is about a system in which complex relationships among small influences produce large difficulties in a priori prediction. As with the butterfly effect, a second story about keystone species arose, and again it favors certainty over uncertainty. Essentially, what I've come to call the "topstone" story discards the more unpleasant parts of the keystone concept having to do with minor players whose influences only become apparent in retrospect. What I'm calling a "topstone" species is one people call a keystone species but which is actually dominant. It is unfortunate that Paine chose the keystone analogy, because a keystone is usually smaller than the other stones in an arch, which fits the first story, but it is also above other stones in the arch, which fits the topstone story.

As with the underbutterfly story, the topstone story began to surface soon after Paine started publishing papers about his concept. What seems to have happened is that people involved in wildlife conservation started trying to identify keystone species in order to wisely use limited conservation budgets. Political, cultural and special-interest complexities joined the mix, and the keystone species concept widened and weakened as a result. For environmental study, retrospective discovery might suffice, but for environmental action, people wanted certainty.

Consider this definition of the concept in a 1993 paper:
[T]here are two hallmarks of keystone species. First, their presence is crucial in maintaining the organization and diversity of their ecological communities. Second, it is implicit that these species are exceptional, relative to the rest of the community, in their importance.
This definition discards the element of disproportional effect. In the mid-90s a group of scientists self-dubbed the "Keystone Cops" were concerned enough about this erosion of the concept to convene a special session at a UN conference. The Keystone Cops restored the original concept to intellectual rigor by redefining and stabilizing it. The new definition was as such:
[W]e define a keystone species as one whose impact on its community or ecosystem is large, and disproportionately large relative to its abundance.
Challenges in the Quest for Keystones. Mary E. Power, David Tilman, James A. Estes, Bruce A. Menge, William J. Bond, L. Scott Mills, Gretchen Daily, Juan Carlos Castilla, Jane Lubchenco and Robert T. Paine. BioScience, Vol. 46, No. 8 (Sep., 1996), pp. 609-620.
(I like to provide links where I can, but sometimes it is impossible.) By 1999, Piraino and Fanelli spoke only of the new, narrower scope of the term:
[T]hose species driving ecosystem processes or energy flows are generally referred as "key" species, but only a few of them are keystones. Putting keystones and key species in the same melting pot ... should be avoided. Therefore, trees and bisons are not keystones, just as the original keystone species identified by Paine was not the dominant mussel, but its starfish predator.
Few ecologists now use the wider, weakened term, but some still complain about its difficulty of application. This article about the ecology of the Chesapeake Bay explains:
An additional problem with these economic approaches is that they require a stable, non-changing predicate set of problems to work. For example, the bioeconomics model is premised on the idea that "the most natural state of nature was balance." ... Although the bioeconomics model has endured, its foundational principle that nature is a "perfectly manageable system of simple, linear, rational order" has not. That premise has been replaced by a much messier picture - [i]nstead of order happily emerging out of chaos, it was chaos that kept boiling up from the darkness, breaking down order" - throwing into sharp relief the shortcomings of that model.... Even with respect to the preservation of biodiversity - the only ecological imperative and management goal most ecologists can agree to - there is uncertainty. For example, scientists disagree about which are the "keystone species," the extinction of which "would bring down other species with it, possibly so extensively as to alter the physical structure of the habitat itself."

Hope M. Babcock, Administering the Clean Water Act: Do Regulators Have "Bigger Fish to Fry" When it Comes to Addressing the Practice of Chumming on the Chesapeake Bay?, 21 Tul. Envtl. L.J. 1-50 (2007).
Even though the topstone story was abandoned by ecologists, it is the one chosen for analogy by almost all non-science uses of the keystone species concept. Again a few quotes from the business literature. In The Keystone Advantage, Marco Iansiti and Roy Levien describe the keystone species concept thus:
[T]he literature on biological ecosystems ... suggests that a species that serves as a hub in food webs or other networks of ecosystem interactions, can improve overall chances of survival in the face of change by providing benefits to the ecosystem as a whole. This literature identifies "keystone species" as having specific characteristics that produce such benefits for the ecosystem and its members. Removal of biological keystones can have dramatic cascading effects through the entire ecosystem, while removal of other species, even species involved in many interactions, can have little effect beyond the loss of those connections.
In other words, Iansiti and Livien interpret "keystone" to mean simply "key", and this book was written nearly ten years after the Keystone Cops accomplished their coup. Iansiti and Livien do make this side note:
The ecological literature contains many conflicting definitions of the term 'keystone' and some debate the extent of its relevance.... Its original use was quite narrow ... but current usage sometimes ranges to the indiscriminate; here we use the term in its most neutral and least technical form: a keystone is simply a species that governs most important ecosystem health, often without being a significant portion of the ecosystem itself.
Often without being a significant portion: but not always. Iansiti and Levien go on to apply this version of the concept to business not by talking about "species" interactions, but by talking about keystone strategies that essentially involve being well connnected, as "hubs":
A keystone strategy is an operating strategy that improves the overall health of the ecosystem and, in so doing, benefits the sustained performance of the firm. The central feature of this strategy is its focus on managing external resources, shaping the structure of the external network, and maintaining and harnessing external health....
The successive waves of transformation that have spread through the software industry (starting with the rise of the PC, and followed notably by the rise of the GUI and the rise of the Internet), for example resulted in significant changes in the software ecosystem, but its overall structure, productivity, and diversity have been unhurt, and its keystones, among them Microsoft, IBM, and Sun, have persisted.
Similarly, keystone species often displace or hold in check other species that would otherwise dominate the system ... This is what the IBM-Microsoft-Intel ecosystem achieved with respect to Apple.
None of these software giants could in any way be called a keystone species by its original or current definition. Not only are they large in all possible biomass equivalents, but their importance to the system is easy to see up front.

Here is another example, from James F. Moore's The Death of Competition:
Recent work in community ecology has dwelled on topics like "keystone" species, the most critical of the species in an ecosystem.... Wal-Mart is not just another business within its environment, and it should not expect to be treated as one.... Wal-Mart hardly has a choice about taking up this mantle. It has become a keystone species -- and the center of one of the most important ecosystems on its continent.
Again one of the largest companies in the world is given as an example of a keystone species. Similarly, Stephan Gothlich and Hagen Wenzek say:
The keystone strategy derived from the business ecosystem model poses a feasible alternative to aggressive dominator behaviour with reasonable prospects of success since they nourish diversity and reduce the dangers of ecosystem-wide spread of failures and contagion.
What this seems to say is that the big guys can still be keystones, as long as they play nice. And again, from a paper by Ivan Matutinovic:
[T]he number of firms in an economy that have a large number of incoming links (suppliers) or outgoing links (buyers) will be relatively small. These firms, which Albert Barabasi (2002) termed "hubs," are in fact analogous to keystone  species in ecosystems and they play a special role in the stability of an economic network. They can be found among top Fortune 500 manufacturing firms, and a myriad of medium and small businesses depend on their operation.

I. Matutinovic, 2005. "The Microeconomic Foundations of Business Cycles: From Institutions to Autocatalytic Networks." Journal of Economic Issues, Vol 39, No.4., 867-898.
In the business literature, it appears to me that the keystone species concept has been appropriated almost as an apologia for the dominance of currently dominant firms. In the same way as the concept was widened to promote economic or cultural favorites among biological species, it has been used to promote dominators in the business world. It is not unreasonable to help metaphors travel from one world of inquiry from another; but choosing only one meaning and failing to mention others, especially when the others have a greater consensus in the original field, seems disingenuous.

A better candidate for a keystone species might be the one in this story (and thanks to my husband for thinking of it). From a 1995 industry report on semiconductor manufacturing:
A recent example illustrates the problems that can arise when diverse sources are not available for critical materials. One Japanese company, Sumitomo Chemical, provides over 50 percent of the world requirements for epoxy resin, which is used in semiconductor manufacturing. Over 90 percent of the world requirement for epoxy resin is supplied by Japanese companies. A July 1993 explosion within the Sumitomo plant curtailed production, and as a result has slowed several semiconductor manufacturing plants that rely on this source of resin. A shortage (real or imaginary) of DRAMs has resulted, and the price of these chips has escalated to as much as 150 percent of the price just prior to the explosion.
And from an interview with an official of the Atari corporation around the same time:
[T]he increases in RAM prices were pretty artificial anyway. There was a report that a major factory was destroyed in an earthquake in Japan, but that turned out to be an epoxy factory...not a chip site. And ... we have benefitted from Apple's problems. As a result of their sales slump, they have cancelled some huge orders for parts (like DRAM), which naturally made the product available to other companies!
This epoxy company was a perfect example of a true keystone species in the semiconductor ecosystem at that time, both because of its impact on the industry and because of the difficulty in identifying it as a keystone species beforehand. (Note that I say "was" because keystone status is not a fixed atttribute of a species. It is more a property of the entire ecosystem, and it can change at any moment. A keystone species is less like a constant force and more like one of those times when the astronomers tell everybody to rush outside in the middle of the night and have a look at how Mars and Venus are lining up next to the archer's knee. If that ever happens.) The uncertainty apparent in the "increases were artificial" claim is also indicative of a possible keystone species: generally speaking, if the role of such a species is easy for all to see (for example if it represents a "hub") it is not likely to be a true keystone. Note also the reference to Apple, which indicates it was acting as a dominator, with a slump in its sales (presumably not a huge one) overwhelming smaller trends.

Another potential keystone-species pattern might be that of the threatening helium crisis (yes, this is from my husband again, it's not my area). Apparently we are close to using up the helium that has built up on the earth over 4.5 billion years. According to a 2008 article on
Helium plays a role in nuclear magnetic resonance, mass spectroscopy, welding, fiber optics and computer microchip production, among other technological applications. NASA uses large amounts annually to pressurize space shuttle fuel tanks.
 The article quotes Lee Sobotka, a professor of chemistry and physics at Washington University in St. Louis:
"Helium is non-renewable and irreplaceable. Its properties are unique and unlike hydrocarbon fuels (natural gas or oil), there are no biosynthetic ways to make an alternative to helium. All should make better efforts to recycle it.... Up to now, the issue often hasn't risen to the level that it's important. It's a problem for the next generation of scientists. But it's incumbent upon us to have a vision, and tell it like it is — a resource that is more strictly non-renewable than either oil or gas."
To me at least, the business use of the keystone species concept seems remarkably similar to the underbutterfly pattern. True, the choice of the story's hero is the opposite: instead of the underdog, the top dog is championed. But the real champion in both of these second stories is certainty. The danger in repurposing the keystone story in this way is that real dangers like running out of critical non-renewable resources get swept aside.

The steadfast climber and the easy roller

Adaptive landscape
Still with me? I have one more pattern to place before you.

I first encountered Sewall Wright's adaptive landcape metaphor in college, and as a visual thinker I found it useful right away. Even though the metaphor is severely limited, many evolutionary theorists use it a visual shorthand for thinking about genetic change. The way the metaphor works is this. Populations are located in X and Y dimensions to describe their genetic makeup (in a radically simplified way). They exist on a landscape where the height of each point describes the fitness of the population with that particular XY combination of genetic variables.

Fitness may depend on many things: unalterable aspects of the environment, such as changing climate patterns; impacts of the population on its environment, such as the effect of beaver dams on the surrounding ecosystem; and epistatic relationships between variables, such that their co-occurrence either enhances or reduces their combined fitness. To put it more plainly, the landscape doesn't sit still. It reacts to changes in the population itself. So most people think of the adaptive landscape as "rubbery" and the locations of peaks as constantly changing.

Some speak of the "struggle" of a population making its way up to an "adaptive peak" on the landscape, but this is metaphorical as well. The struggle really just means that those closer to the peak have greater fitness, and we know they have greater fitness because ... they didn't die before they reproduced. Hence the struggle of all individuals to survive and reproduce is multiplied as the population as a whole endeavors to pass on its genes. Mutations provide the benefit of a "random walk" near the population's current location. Deleterious mutations are harmful and die out, but advantageous ones lead to increased fitness, which moves the population up the slope. But most mutations are small hops, so populations can easily get "stranded" on lower-fitness peaks because the valleys between peaks represent such low fitness that rarely will any population be able to cross them without dying out entirely. Generally the more rugged the landscape the more peaks will be available, and the more likely populations will be able to make the small jumps required to reach optimality. For a while.

When I used to think of the adaptive landscape, it made sense to link its peaks with the struggle of individual organisms to survive and reproduce. (That it is a struggle is not a controversial claim: just watch some nature videos. I watch a lot of these with my son. Every time I say, "Oh, the poor wildebeest," he says, "But the lioness has to feed her cubs!" We've taken to calling the most recent BBC series, Life, its opposite, as in, want to watch another episode of "Death"?) I even found support in my Catholic upbringing for the adaptive landscape: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. The adaptive landscape also conveyed a useful sense of uncertainty: a population at a peak would have an equal probability of descent in any direction.

When I returned to complexity through the organizational door, I was amazed to find people talking about "fitness landscapes" but referring to something quite different from what I was used to. They drew landscapes without peaks but with deep "wells" and "basins of attraction." For years I avoided the issue by avoiding the fitness term and calling the new things complexity landscapes, or just landscapes. But recently I finally scratched the itch to find out what caused this flip. And wouldn't you know it, it is a pattern very similar to the two patterns I mentioned above.

The explanation is that the field of physics also happens to use a landscape metaphor. It refers to energy and is called the free-energy or potential energy function, and physicists speak (variously) of potential energy surfaces and free-energy landscapes. The X and Y dimensions are similar in that they describe variables of interest, here of materials rather than populations. The height dimension in these landscapes is free energy, or energy available to do work and not lost to entropy (the light coming out of a light bulb, for example, rather than the heat -- unless you are after the heat, of course). Physicists use these landscapes to talk about optimization of processes so that the deepest wells of high entropy and low free energy can be avoided.

Stuart Kauffman may have been the first to consider the link between adaptive and free-energy landscapes in his book The Origins of Order:
The flow of an adapting population on rugged landscapes under the drives of mutation and selection is closely analagous to a physical system, such as spin-glass at a fixed finite temperature. These analogies are important because ideas from statistical physics are likely to prove generally useful in population-flow problems.... [At zero degrees] K, a spin-glass walks to a local energy minimum via fitter (lower-energy) one-mutant neighbors.... At a fixed temperature, a system with two quadratic potential wells separated by an energy barrier typically shows an exponential escape from the higher-energy to the lower-energy well.... In spin-glasses with complex potential energy landscapes, slow relaxation is manifest by a multiplicity of time scales of exploration of ever larger regions of configuration space. The parallels to population flow on rugged landscapes are clear.
The argument Kauffman seems to make is that three forces can be considered analogous: the force of natural selection; the increase in entropy specified by the second law of thermodynamics; and the force of gravity. The force of natural selection can be seen as similar to decay or gravity; thus picturing selection as the descent into a well or "basin of attraction" makes some sense. However, this is a confusing mixture of analogies. Increased fitness doesn't usually link with increased entropy, to begin with, life being considered at least partially an anti-entropic phenomenon. On the other hand, biological mechanisms such as mutation, sex, phenotypic variation, and genetically stable allele mixtures could all be seen as entropic processes. So it's not a clear mapping to begin with.

You could argue that whether selection is enough like gravity that increasing fitness can be portrayed going downward depends on your point of view. If you are looking at evolution as a whole, populations that don't move toward greater fitness don't figure in the equation, because they aren't around to complain. But if you are considering a particular population, even though natural selection does exert a constant force, so do genetic drift, gene flow and mutation. From the local point of view, populations are not so much drawn inexorably downhill by gravity alone as they are pulled in many directions at once. (Though I suppose friction might stand in for drift...) What bothers me is that translations of evolutionary theory to other spheres, such as the business world, are rarely about evolution as a whole. They are almost always about particular populations, meaning particular firms.

This is where I think the pattern I'm seeing fits with the other two patterns I've mentioned so far. Selection seen as rolling into a pit, or what I've come to call the "easy roller" story, is the second story of the adaptive landscape. When fitness rolls down into a well, selection appears not only more powerful than other evolutionary forces but more certain as well. Instead of a ball balanced precariously on a peak and facing a multiplication of possibilities heading in all directions, a ball near a well faces a collapse of possibilities to one still small point. To be fair, I don't think all the blame for this falls on Stuart Kauffman. He merely pointed out the similarity of the two systems and probably did not intend for everyone to flip the adaptive landscape as a result. Still, he did seem to set the ball rolling.

The thing I've noticed most in descriptions of the "fitness" landscape (nobody talks about the adaptive landscape anymore) is that the flipping is mentioned in a nonchalant, couldn't-possibly-matter way. I find this amazing, since height-value relationships are so strong in human communication. Didn't everybody read Metaphors We Live By? Here is an example explanation of the landscape flip from the Principia Cybernetica Web:
It is unfortunate that the convention in physics sees systems as striving to minimize a potential function, whereas the convention in biology sees systems as striving to maximize a fitness function. Although this tends to be confusing, the two types of representation are equivalent apart from an inversion of the sign of the function.
But an "inversion in the sign of the function," when people are thinking about the function, is not equivalent: it is quite different. This blog post has a useful visual explanation of the flip, but the author interprets the flip as useful, an argument with which I disagree. The post says holes seem more difficult to get out of; but if we remember what decreased fitness means -- death -- it's perfectly easy to perceive the danger in leaving a peak. I keep thinking of the sayings "it's as easy as falling off a log" and "it's lonely at the top."

At this point a few second-story examples from other fields are in order. From The Edge of Organization by Russ Marion:
According to Kauffman, the evolution of coevolution can be visualized from yet another perspective. Envision the fitness landscape turned upside down; now instead of peaks there are holes. What you get is called a potential energy landscape by physicists.... In a coevolving system of potential energy landscapes, actors perturb each other's landscapes and knock each other out of their holes. Imagine marbles on a vibrating potential surface. Typically they will pop in and out of holes, but as they work their way into ever deeper holes it gets increasingly difficult to pop them out. Eventually marbles find a hole so deep that the vibrations no longer dislodge them. Similarly, actors on coevolving landscapes are not allowed to rest on their laurels. They perturb one another; new actors enter the stage and existing ones leave it; and in the process, actors work themselves into deeper and deeper holes (or onto higher and higher peaks, if you're still imagining a fitness landscape).
Now let me rewrite the last part of that paragraph, but with peaks instead of wells:
In a coevolving system of adaptive landscapes, actors perturb each other's landscapes and knock each other off their adaptive peaks. Imagine marbles on a vibrating potential surface. Typically they will climb up to peaks and fall down again, but as they work their way into ever fitter peaks it gets increasingly difficult to leave them. Eventually marbles find a peak so high that the vibrations no longer dislodge them. Similarly, actors on coevolving landscapes are not allowed to rest on their laurels. They perturb one another; new actors enter the stage and existing ones leave it; and in the process, actors work themselves onto higher and higher adaptive peaks.
I see a few differences in these two mirrored descriptions of coevolution.
  1. Coevolving species don't just knock each other off adaptive peaks: sometimes they give each other boosts.
  2. A population that climbs to an adaptive peak is not just as likely to fall down again, because that means decreased survival. In fact, once a population attains an adaptive peak, no matter how small, it is difficult to move from it because of all that messy death around it.
  3. No population is ever on a peak so high that vibrations can no longer dislodge it. Environmental catastrophe, mass migration, parasitism, disease, the list goes on and on. No adaptive peak can ever be entirely stable, but those deep wells certainly appear to be.
  4. It is not true that the process of coevolution causes actors to work themselves onto higher and higher adaptive peaks. The best that can be said is that things change because of coevolution, and whether the change is adaptive or maladaptive depends on context and history.
Flipping the adaptive landscape upside-down opens the door to a different set of explanations about evolution, one that tends toward increased certainty and increased teleology, like when people say that a species evolved in some way "in order to" do something. But that's not how evolution works. All natural selection means is that in the story of any population, some organisms lived to reproduce and some died first, and the ones that lived were more likely to live, and we can see that because they ... lived. There is no purpose or goal or direction or gravity to it. It's all retrospective.

Here is a telling snippet from an online forum discussing the upside-down flip:
I'm not sure why Wright chose to describe 'fitness landscapes' upside-down from the physicist's convention.  Probably because the usual metaphor of evolution has species arising in the slime and progressing uphill.
Sewall Wright published his adaptive landscape metaphor in the 1930s, but the earliest mention I can find of free-energy or potential-energy landscapes is in the 1980s. (Please do correct me if I'm wrong.) When one metaphor predates another but is seen as "upside-down" from it, that is usually a strong indicator of cultural forces at work. Of course it is possible that a view of evolution as progress was behind the peaks in the adaptive landscape, but because up and down mean so many things, that doesn't mean it is the only impact.

One more and then I'm really done, I promise. This is from The Quark and the Jaguar by Murray Gell-Mann:
Biologists conventionally represent fitness as increasing with increasing height, so that maxima of fitness correspond to the tops of hills and minima to the bottom of pits; however, I shall use the reverse convention, which is customary in many other fields, and turn the whole picture upside-down.
Gell-Mann then gets into the difficulties of this flip, seemingly without realizing it:
If the effect of evolution were always to move steadily downhill -- always to improve fitness -- then the genotype would be likely to get stuck at the bottom of a shallow depression and have no opportunity to reach the deep holes nearby that correspond to much greater fitness. At the very least, the genotype must be moving in a more complicated manner than just sliding downhill.
That is precisely the problem with flipping the landscape: that when you do so, things that are in reality very complicated seem simple, and certain.

Unpopular stories

So, we have looked at three patterns in the interpretation of significant findings from the fields of complexity and chaos. The effect of each interpretation, though probably not its intent, is to increase certainty, or one might almost say provide comfort, in the face of unpredictability. And each interpretation, though at its strongest outside science, is also present in those directly confronting the face of complexity. Taken together, these interpretations present a picture to me of people holding up a screen to filter the truth to better fit what they can handle. They seem to be saying: "We are not ready to go there yet."

When I started researching this issue, I kept recalling a particular experience. It was one I had shortly after re-entering the complexity field through organizational narrative. Around the turn of the last century (I've always wanted to say that) I went to a systems thinking conference. It was exciting, as all conferences are. I watched the devotees chanting the mantras uttered by the keynote speakers; I learned the insider vocabulary; I free-associated at the dinners; I enjoyed the heady talks during our walks back to the hotel afterward. It was fun. On one particular day of the conference, I remember sitting in a room with about eight or ten other people, in a circle. We were all given a handout with a systems thinking flow diagram on it. On the diagram was a circle made out of two semicircular arrows connecting two boxes. One box was labeled "productive collaboration." (Or ... productive something. I've looked back through my papers and can't find it. I think it was collaboration.) The other box was blank. We were all asked to take a few minutes to sit quietly and write something in the other box. I wrote "unproductive collaboration."

After the few minutes, we went around the circle, and everyone showed their diagram to the group. I was amazed to discover that every other person had filled in the other square with something people could do to create productive collaboration. The boxes said things like "foster better communication skills" and "listen more" and "create productive dialogue." When we got around to me, I showed my diagram. There was dead silence. I felt a sense of  -- well, have you ever heard about what happens in an Amish community when people do things they are not supposed to? The community ostracizes them? I felt like that. There was a strong sense that the group ... sort of wanted me to go away. They didn't want to hear the story I told. They wanted to hear their story, where complex systems respond to the earnest efforts of good people. The story where the underbutterflies flap their wings in the dappled light of the fractal forest and change the world.

I was actually pretty happy with my diagram. I'm the proud owner of many and varied mistakes, and I've collected abundant evidence that unproductive -- well, anything -- can lead to more productive anything. I even have made up lots of cute aphorisms around it. Now that I'm finished, I'm ready to start. If you want to be patient, just wait a while and you will be. Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself. Happiness is a decision. Giving up has power. And so on. It seems to me to be a fundamental property of life itself: you have to go down to go up.

I've always remembered the day I encountered this strange, stony reception when I've thought about complexity and chaos. The people at this conference couldn't stop talking about fractals and bifurcations and flocks and "order for free" and all the lovely things we are supposed to get from complexity and chaos. But they didn't want the uncertainty part. (Note: I do not intend to disparage systems thinking itself by this story. What happened that day was not necessarily a reflection on the conference itself; it might have just been the mood in the room.)

If you think about it, this is not at all surprising. We have been conditioned since an early age to believe in this equation:
uncertainty + science = certainty
When we meet an equation like this:
uncertainty + science = more uncertainty
We react, and a second story arises. That can't be right. There must be another explanation. That's what Edward Lorenz said when his computer generated a new weather system based on what he thought were the same inputs. He called in the hardware engineers to find the broken vacuum tube.

This article on the underbutterfly effect says it well:
Pop culture references to the butterfly effect may be bad physics, but they're a good barometer of how the public thinks about science. They expose the growing chasm between what the public expects from scientific research - that is, a series of ever more precise answers about the world we live in - and the realms of uncertainty into which modern science is taking us.... It speaks to our larger expectation that the world should be comprehensible - that everything happens for a reason, and that we can pinpoint all those reasons, however small they may be.... "People grasp that small things can make a big difference," [a quoted scientist] says. "But they make errors about the physical world. People want to attach a specific cause to events, and can't accept the randomness of the world."
I had my own little experience with first and second stories about complexity. My master's thesis showed mixtures of "smart" and "dumb" simulated foragers to be more adaptive (in some circumstances) than a pure population of "smart" foragers. (To sum up the thesis in seven words: nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded.) When I first showed the results of the simulation to my advisor, his reaction was like Lorenz's. "Oh," he said, "must be a bug in your code. Let me see, I'll fix it." He couldn't. It was a bug in science. Seeing that bug for myself was a turning point in my life. The funny thing is that I got the idea for asking the question (what would happen if everybody knew everything?) while I was lying incapacitated by a back injury for weeks, staring at the ceiling and thinking about foraging theory and complexity. Unproductive collaboration.

A generation, or two or three, to sink in

If people tell second stories about complexity because we aren't ready for the first stories,  I think our children are ready. In many of my narrative projects I ask people to rate the predictability of events in stories -- it's useful to map perceptions of stability and instability across conceptual space. I've noticed a pattern across several projects that older people are more likely to associate instability with negative outcomes in stories. Younger people are more likely to mark stories as both unstable and positive.

I was thinking about all this the other day while playing with my son, and two things happened that gave me food for thought. The first was that we watched the movie Clifford's Really Big Movie. It's a great movie, and it's in our pantheon now and will probably be watched many more times. One of my favorite parts of the movie is this lovely song, which my six-year-old understood and liked immediately. It goes, in part:
You've gotta get lost if you wanna get found
Gotta wind up to get unwound
Things only look up from down below
And I can't come home until I go

It only gets better after it gets worse
Happy ever after needs a scary part first
You've gotta fall off to get back on
And I can't come home until I'm gone
Doesn't that sound exactly like my productive-unproductive diagram that nobody wanted to see? And doesn't it sound exactly like the uncertainty of the butterfly, the keystone species and the steadfast climber? Why is it that such a piece of wisdom (and it is) fits perfectly into a children's movie but cannot enter into the things adults write for adults about big serious adult things? Is this not a problem?

I wonder if a true appreciation of complexity and chaos needs a new generation to really sink in. One my my husband's favorite books is Voyage to Yesteryear by James P. Hogan. In it, a ship filled with children travels to a new planet, and once there they create an entirely new society, with new expectations (mainly of a gift-based economy). When people from the parent planet arrive years later, the cultures clash. The Wikipedia page about the novel explains its motivation:
The inspiration for the novel was the contention that the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland had no immediate practical solution, and could only be solved if the children of one generation were somehow separated from their parents, and hence did not learn any of their prejudices.
I don't much like that "separated from their parents" bit, but still, sometimes the really big ideas do need some time to sink in. I think we're on generation two on complexity and chaos, so maybe we need a few more.

Who are these stories for?

My second child-derived insight related to complexity revolved around the island of Sodor. For those who don't know, Sodor is where Thomas the Tank Engine lives. It is a strange world. The train engines are all alive, but they are bought, named, sold, and even killed at the whim of their human overlords, chief of which is Sir Topham Hatt. Many of the plots of the Thomas series (and there are hundreds) revolve around elaborate reward and punishment structures set up by Sir Topham Hatt and other humans. Engines who behave receive booming accolades and new coats of paint, which evidently is like loads of money would be to us. Engines who misbehave are shut up in their sheds and abandoned, or worse, labeled "unuseful" and sent to the dreaded smelter. In all of the Thomas stories I have seen and read, nobody is actually melted down, and Sir Topham Hatt hotly denies any such thing, but there are many stories of old trains narrowly avoiding forced euthanasia, and certainly the pervasive fear of the smelter must be based on something. There are many other fascinating sociological aspects of the Thomas series (such as the clear upper-class and lower-class facial characteristics and behaviors evident in the different engines -- take a look at the straight versus snub noses), but those are less relevant to the matter at hand.

So the other day we were discussing this system of institutionalized slavery, as we often do, and we had generated a story in which the engines had staged a cleverly conceived coup when Sir Topham Hatt was away on one of his many holidays. The engines set up an alternative system where each engine had perfect autonomy and could decide whether it wanted to shunt cars, pull coaches, or deliver cargo that day. All the engines conferred regularly as to how to meet the demands of the railway customers together. New coats of paint were administered by a self-painting system in which engines could simply chuff in whenever they felt the need. Shed doors were controllable solely by the occupants. The smelter was itself melted down and transformed into a recycling center, and never again would an old engine face the fear of death from unnatural causes. The engines welcomed Sir Topham Hatt back and offered him an advisory sinecure, which he gratefully and humbly assumed (bless him).

So while we were in the middle of this, I suddenly had a realization. Nobody writes books about complexity for the engines. They write them for Sir Topham Hatt. And Sir Topham Hatt does not want to hear that the science of complexity adds rather than removes uncertainty, or that things will still work if the railway director is demoted to a perfunctory advisor. The people in charge aren't going to buy a book about complexity if it doesn't give them a way to stay in charge.

According to my surely-biased reading, there are three ways the authors of business books about complexity and chaos provide reassurance to those in charge. One is to drain the power out of the major discoveries by highlighting the second stories, which do exist in science and so can be called scientific: the underbutterfly, the topstone, and the easy roller. The first stories can be waved away as "internal disputes" that don't matter.

The second method of making complexity palatable to those in charge is to make it seem magical. That is why the phrase "order for free" is so wildly attractive in these books, and why people love to throw around terms like "strange attractor" and "fitness landscape" and "coevolution" -- because they are magic words of power that seem to promise something for nothing. Even "nonlinear" effects are spoken of mainly for the idea of something small going in and something big (and beneficial to the reader) coming out. I see this rose-colored view of complexity in most (but not all) business writings about complexity. Consider for example the way people talk about coevolution: nearly every treatment of business coevolution I have read has talked about it like nothing can possibly go wrong. But in real coevolution things can and do go horribly wrong at times. It is these sorts of distortions that not only give complexity concepts a bad name (because rarely can such wild claims of magical power be justified) but also spread confusion about the true utility of complexity and chaos based approaches.

And finally, the third and most used tool in the business complexity writer's toolkit is that the sky is falling. You need this, say the business books, because the world has changed in such dramatic ways that you can't possibly survive without it. People who use this tool ramp up the fear quotient by making claims such as that "an organization is a complex adaptive system" -- the implication being, and you had better find out what that means, and quick. But organizations are not complex adaptive systems! More precisely, they are not only complex adaptive systems. An organization is a lot of people. Those people interact with each other in many ways, some of which are complex and emergent, and some of which are not. Organization and self-organization, hierarchy and meshwork are inextricably bound up together in organizations, and saying an organization "is" one without the other is sheer nonsense and is probably meant to entice rather than inform. There are no only-complex social groupings in human life. Every gathering of ten huts has a path through it. Every lunch meeting has a leader. Every subway car has a social structure, if even only for the two minutes the same people are in it. That's what we do. There may be such things as only-complex systems in the lives of social insects, but even there some hierarchy (in the form of central pheromonal control) is usually mixed in.

I don't believe that the writers of business books about complexity are deliberately tricking anyone. Well, mostly not. It's human nature to enlarge upon something that will benefit oneself. We all do it, myself included. But I think the larger force is that most writers of such books don't know how to frame complexity so that it doesn't threaten those in power. They believe that if they write about what they think complexity really means -- the devolution of power -- the only people who will buy the books will be the people on the factory floor, who can't afford books and wouldn't buy them if they could. The writers are in a trap: how do you write about the loss of power to those in power?

My advice, if anyone wanted it, would be this. First, stop saying everything is complex, and start talking about how complexity and hierarchy can work to mutual benefit. I saw a perfect example of this at IBM, which is more like a city than a company. The savvy people at IBM knew how to use the hierarchy and how to use the meshwork, and they knew which to use when and even how to combine them. I wasn't very good at it, but I watched some masters in action. The masters didn't get all excited about the organization as an adaptive monster organism. They knew emergent patterns when they saw them, and they knew the structures of hierarchy when they saw them.

When you don't fear complexity, when you see it as a part of reality but not a "whole new world" dominated by a falling sky, you don't have to muzzle it. The underbutterfly and the topstone and the easy roller can go plague other people. You can take the butterfly and the keystone and the steadfast climber as they come to you, in stride. You can learn to recognize them, deal with them, work with them, and even in time welcome them as old friends. You'll just know better than to hand over your car keys to them.

Well, there you go. I have no idea why I wrote all of this, and I have no idea if it will be of any use to anybody else either. It's just something that seems to need to emerge, after years of thinking and reading about these issues. The other nine stories are likely to be much shorter, which will be to everyone's benefit. Please do alert me to all egregious mistakes here and elsewhere: I'll be counting on them.